|The Evidence for God: Morality|
Jewish history records that Alexander Janneus had 800 of his enemies crucified at his palace while forcing them to watch the execution of their wives and children. The King and his concubines dined and cavorted together as they watched the evening’s “entertainment”. The humane response to that story is to be deeply horrified at the King’s actions, and to feel pity for the condemned men and their families. Our reaction should remind us of how central morality is to our understanding of the world. We need some account of good and evil, right and wrong; and theism offers the best explanation.
Some atheists deny that there are any moral facts, arguing that morality is an illusion. We can adequately explain reality through a scientific world-view that only appeals to (non-moral) physical facts. We have no need to appeal to objective norms to explain human behaviour; disciplines like evolutionary biology and psychology are sufficient for predicting and understanding human behaviour. We can appeal to sociological or evolutionary explanations for why we have moral feelings. Morality is explained away as a useful fiction: an illusion forced onto us by our genes to promote co-operation.
So do any of these theories explain morality away? Suppose one reason that we put our children’s well-being ahead of our own is because Natural Selection favoured those ancestors who had developed parental love. Does knowing why we feel that obligation mean that we don’t really have that obligation? Can we reasonably set aside our obligations to our children? Not at all. The social sciences could plausibly explain the rise and development of science. That would not mean that our scientific beliefs are false. Biologists explain why our perceptual systems developed. That does not mean that we should doubt our senses.
It’s difficult to see how any scientific explanation of moral feelings would allow us to live as if there were no moral demands on us. It also seems impossible to live as if morality is an illusion; Dawkins calls morality a “blessed, precious mistake”, and he believes it. But if morality is a mistake nothing can be blessed or precious. Suppose our moral feelings are nothing more than an instinct to co-operate with other humans. If something like this is the case, then a mother’s instinct to care for a threatened child is no more “blessed”, “precious” or “good” than an impulse to sneeze. That strikes us as wholly implausible.
In fact, we often have to appeal to moral facts to explain the world. It is impossible to understand the writings of Richard Dawkins without appealing to concepts like “moral outrage”. Dawkins and other New Atheists rely heavily on moral intuitions to motivate reader to challenge the injustices of organised religion. It would be practically impossible to fully understand New Atheism merely in terms of neurons and cognitive functions. We are regularly forced to use moral concepts like “malicious”, “compassionate”, “courageous” and “selfish” to deepen our understanding of other persons, to predict their behaviour and to recommend courses of action.
The simple fact of the matter is that moral concepts have great explanatory power; furthermore the experience of morality is a central feature of human existence. Any worldview which attempts to explain morality away is deeply unconvincing. Atheism must be able to account for moral realities if it is to be a convincing worldview; this is why many atheists accept that there are objective moral values, but attempt to identify these with “natural” states of affairs(as opposed to identifying morality with a “supernatural” state like the will of God.)
So the “good” might be identified with whatever benefits our species, or our society. If most people live by the rules of morality then most people will benefit. Or perhaps the good is whatever satisfies the greatest number of human preferences and desires. But these accounts do not seem to capture what is important about morality. Suppose we discovered an intelligent, alien race, very much like our own. Imagine that this species has survived through cannibalism and other cruel practices. Further suppose that the stability of their society was founded on public displays of infanticide and ritualised torture. Finally, imagine that this race argued that “the good” was whatever promoted their survival. 
Even if it could be demonstrated that these practices satisfied the majority of the desires held by members of that race, and even if it was demonstrated that their murderous and cruel activities allowed them to thrive in their environment, we would not say that their practices were “good”. This is not merely an abstract thought experiment. Humans do not merely desire compassion and love; if history teaches us anything, it is that we often prefer progress, war, sated lust and gluttony to helping our fellows. Hitler’s vision of the “good life” glorified hatred and callousness. “Moral” visions that promote greed, naked power or cruel oppression remain deeply wicked no matter what material benefits they bring.
The point here is not that we are on a “slippery slope” to moral nihilism if we embrace atheism. Far from it; the atheist knows right from wrong. The point, rather, is that atheism cannot adequately explain why certain moral truths obtain. For example, when we say that we abstain from child torture because it is cruel, we do not merely mean that it is bad for society; we certainly do not mean that we spare children from suffering out of enlightened self-interest. We mean that even if the torture of a child was beneficial for our family, our society, or even our species we should not engage in it.
Consider the statement “the sadistic torture of children is wrong”. That statement expresses a rule – “don’t torture!”- but it also appeals to a value. The underlying value, on which the rule is based, is the preciousness of innocent human life. Human life is precious; it is not a disposable good. Love and compassion are appropriate responses to such a fragile treasure. Cruelty is an irrational desire which seeks to destroy or harm a great good.
Now theism explains why each individual person is of immense, objective value; why the dignity of the person can “trump” the long term interests of society.We have immense significance because the creator of the Cosmos values us, made us to be like him, and can enter into a relationship with us. We have a great value because we are significant to God. If atheism is true we are unplanned and insignificant on a cosmic scale. If atheism is true the only value that we have is the value that we choose to give ourselves. And what the human race gives, the human race can take away.
In contrast God would be a transcendent source of moral value, the source that we need to make sense of ethics. If everything else depends on God for its existence then the value that God has for everything else cannot be surpassed. God is supremely rational, and his power cannot be limited by the irrational and chaotic effects of evil. The earth and the opinions of human beings will pass away into the void. God’s values are eternal. His judgments can be trusted, and his worth is inestimable. Therefore God is the supreme good.
Theism does not simply explain why persons have great intrinsic value, and why the moral life is a rational life. It also explains why we have obligations to other persons and to ourselves; we are to pursue the good of every individual. We must fulfil our potential as best we can by developing virtues like friendship, compassion and courage. But we often do not want to develop these virtues; after all, this takes effort. And pursuing liberty and justice for all requires sacrifice and service. Honouring the moral values might be rational, but there are other values. We can also rationally pursue art, business, honour or knowledge.
Morality is meant to “trump” all these other pursuits. If Gaugin has a choice between pursuing his art and caring for his family, his moral duty is to his family. If our business interests or political ambitions incline us to support a violent regime in a foreign land, we had better put those interests aside. We are to adhere to moral principles even when we could violate them without cost; we are also to obey the demands of morality even when there are terrible material costs. Morality is meant to “override” other considerations; it does not make suggestions, but imposes obligations.
How can we explain this key feature of morality? Theism offers a neat explanation of moral obligation. Duties and obligations are always to someone, rather than to an impersonal principle; on theism, our obligations are to God. God would be the ideal observer. He would know all the long and short term consequences to our actions. He would not only be impartial; having unlimited love, God would earnestly desire the best for us. As creator God has the power to merit our respect; and as creator God has “property rights” over his entire creation. God has the knowledge, the character and the power to be the perfect moral authority. This explains why obligations exist and are binding; God’s instructions to human beings become our duties.
Theism also explains why the moral life is a rational life; being moral is not a matter of taste. Morality often demands that we make sacrifices, but quite often these sacrifices are in vain. Morality comes at a “this-worldly” cost. We should uphold the law when everyone around us profits from corruption and cheating. How can such practices be rational? If the material world is the only world then a moral life would be needlessly self-destructive for many individuals.
Morality seems to be even less rational when we realise that many of our moral projects are little more than noble failures. We invest emotional energy trying to turn a wayward youth back on to the right track knowing that we will probably fail. We try to bring relief to the poor, but we are thwarted by the vagaries of power politics. Perhaps all that we are doing is draining valuable resources away from the (rational) goals of economic and technological progress. The extreme effort needed to cultivate moral virtues like compassion and fidelity might be useless; and our moral actions might be counterproductive.
If theism is true then we live in a moral universe. The moral life is not a long term exercise in self-harm because God is the guarantor of our trust in the value of goodness and virtue. God can meet our deepest desire for goodness, justice, forgiveness and love through eternal fellowship with him; conforming to God’s desires for us is not only good, but very much in our own interest. Furthermore, if there is a God, none of our moral projects are in vain. God created us to be good; when we are good we are fulfilling one of our purposes. We literally increase the number of valuable states in the universe when we are moral, because God values morality. If there is a God, in the long run there are no noble failures.
Can’t the atheist posit a Platonic realm of moral facts? Couldn’t these moral values just exist, independently, as abstract facts or necessary truths? But then, how did we acquire knowledge of these moral truths? Natural selection might favour cognitive systems that give us an accurate picture of the physical world around us. Accurate information about the natural world helps us to avoid dangerous falls and predators. But what possible reproductive advantage could knowledge of abstract moral truths bring? Isn’t it more likely that natural selection, and inevitably flawed cognitive systems, would lead us into moral error? If theism is true we have been designed by God to have moral knowledge. If atheism is true we should be sceptical of all our moral beliefs.
Perhaps we could say that moral truths are what a hypothetical ideal observer, who is well-motivated, and who has all the relevant facts, would desire for each of us. So we simply imagine what this observer would want, and that gets us a definition of the good. But, once more, why should we trust our moral imaginations if we were not designed? And how can the imagined desires of a hypothetical observer have any authority? If we don’t live in a moral universe, how do we know that virtues like courage and compassion, justice and mercy, won’t always be in conflict? That is, why should we assume that an ideal observer could ever reach a conclusion about the best course of action if our universe was not designed with morality in mind? And doesn’t this hypothetical observer sound a lot like, well, God?
We must re-iterate, the moral argument does not insist that the atheist is committed to moral nihilism.It is not assumed that a person needs access to a special revelation from God, or any religious community to have knowledge of the moral norms established by God. Conscience and nature are effective witnesses; a rich natural law tradition, beginning with the Apostle Paul, insists that the knowledge of God’s law is universally available. Rather, the moral argument need only reason that theism provides the best explanation for morality. The moral argument does not conclude that atheism will lead to morally chaotic or totalitarian societies; nor does it reason that atheists cannot be morally good. . Again, the argument is that morality can be given a neat theistic explanation.
David Baggett and Jerry Walls Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (Oxford:2011)
J Budzisewski The Line Through the Heart (ISI Books:2009)
J Budzisewski What We Can’t Not Know (Ignatius:2011)
John Hare Why Bother Being Good? The Place of God in the Moral Life (IVP:2002)
John Hare God and Morality (Blackwell:2006)
Mark Linville “The Moral Argument” (Craig and Moreland ed.) Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell 2009),
George Mavrodes “Religion and the Queerness of Morality” in (Louis P Pojman ed.) Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (Wadsworth: 2001)
Linda Zagzebski “Morality and Religion” in (Quinn ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion (Oxford:2007)
 Dawkins’ position on moral objectivity isn’t clear; he often writes like a moral anti-realist, but on other occasions he implies that moral values can be identified with natural properties.
 Some philosophers reason that moral values are objective, but that they “supervene” or “emerge from” certain physical states of affairs. This merely leads us to ask why and how value and obligations emerge from impersonal forces or particles. We do not explain a fact merely by labelling it emergent.
. Something like Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the Orcs in the “Lord of the Rings” films; or one of the ancient insidious creatures which ooze their way out of the twisted imaginations of modern horror novels. I have a particular loathing of this genre; but it is interesting that horror is only effective because it upsets our moral expectations. This tells us something about the meaning of morality. Lovecraft’s cruel and malevolent gods disturb us because we believe that any universe which contained such creature would be an evil place. Even if such a species thrived, even if such creatures enjoyed their existence, we would believe that the universe would be a better place without them.
4 The theistic doctrine of creation also explains why animal life and our environment have value.
 Perhaps the atheist’s best response to the moral argument would be to argue that we do not seem to live in a moral universe; or to argue that theistic religious traditions are associated with abhorrent moral commands (for example the slaughter of the Canaanites). Both these issues are discussed elsewhere on the site.