Can We Be Good Without God?William Lane Craig speaks at the Georgia Tech Veritas Forum
Time : 00:84:50
This presentation of Dr. Craig's moral argument at a Georgia Tech Veritas Forum is highlighted by a lengthy time of interaction with students during the Question and Answer period following his lecture. He models how to respond effectively to questions and objections to the argument.
Thank you very much. It is great to be with you this evening, and I appreciate very much your coming out on a cold and rainy night to think about some of life’s most important questions, including the question before us this evening: Can we be good without God?
Now at first the answer to this question might seem so obvious that even to ask it is apt to make people angry. For while those of us who are Christians undoubtedly find in God a source of moral strength that enables us to lead lives that are better than those that we would have lead without him, certainly it would be arrogant and ignorant to claim that unbelievers do not also often lead good and moral lives, in fact sometimes lives that put ours to shame. But wait, that wasn’t the question. It would indeed be arrogant and ignorant to claim that people cannot be good without belief in God. But that wasn’t the question; the question was, can we be good without God. And when we ask that question we a posing, in a provocative way, a question about the nature of moral values. Are the values that we hold dear and guide our lives by just social conventions akin to driving on the right hand vs. the left hand side of the road, or are they merely expression of personal preference, like having a taste for certain foods or not? Or are they somehow valid and binding independent of our opinion? And if they are objective in this way, what is their foundation? Moreover, if morality just is a human convention then why should we act morally, especially when it conflicts with self-interest? Or are we held accountable in some way for our moral decisions and actions?
Well, tonight I want to argue that if God exists then the objectivity of moral values, moral duties, and moral accountability is secured. But in the absence of God (that is to say, if God does not exist) then morality is just a human convention (that is to say, morality is wholly subjective and non-binding). We may act in precisely the same ways that we do in fact act, but in the absence of God such actions would not longer count as good or evil, since if God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist. Thus we cannot truly be good without God.
On the other hand if we do believe that objective moral values and duties exist then that provides objective moral grounds for believing in God.
Consider then, first, the view that God exists. First, if God exists, then objective moral values exist. Now what do I mean by that? To say that there are objective values is to say that something is good or bad independent of what anybody thinks about it. Similarly, to say that we have objective moral duties is to say that certain actions are right or wrong regardless of what we think about it. For example, to say that the Holocaust was objectively wrong is to say that it was wrong even though the Nazis who carried it out thought that it was right, and it would have still been wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in brainwashing or exterminating everyone who disagreed with them so that everybody thought that the Holocaust was right.
On the theistic view God is the basis for objective moral values. God’s own holy and perfectly good nature supplies the absolute standard against which right and wrong are measured. God’s moral nature is what Plato called the Good – he is locus and source of moral value. He is by nature loving, just, kind, faithful, generous, and so forth.
Moreover, God’s moral nature is expressed in relation to us in the form of divine commands which constitute our moral duties or obligations. Far from being arbitrary, these commands flow necessarily from his moral nature. In the Judeo-Christian tradition the whole moral duty of man can be summed up in the two great commandments: first, you should love the Lord your God with all your strength and with all your soul and with all your heart and with all your mind, and second, you should love your neighbor as yourself. On this foundation we can affirm the objective goodness and rightness of love, generosity, self-sacrifice, and equality, and condemn as objectivity evil and wrong selfishness, hatred, abuse, discrimination and oppression.
Finally, on the theistic view, God holds all persons morally accountable for their actions. Evil and wrong will be punished. Righteousness will be vindicated. Good ultimately triumphs over evil and in the end we shall see that we do live in a moral universe after all. Despite the inequities of this present life, in the end the scales of God’s justice will be balanced, and thus the moral choices that we make in this life are infused with an eternal significance. We can, with consistency, make moral choices that actually go contrary to our self-interest, and even undertake acts of extreme self-sacrifice knowing that such decisions are not ultimately empty and meaningless gestures. Rather, our moral lives have a paramount significance.
So I think that it is evident that theism provides a sound foundation for morality.
Contrast this now with the atheistic worldview. First, if atheism is true, then objective moral values do not exist. If God does not exist, then what is the foundation for objective moral values, more particularly what is the basis for the objective value of human beings? The most popular form of atheism is naturalism, which holds that the only things that exist are the things postulated by our best scientific theories. But since science is amoral, you cannot discover moral values through a test tube or through a microscope. It follows immediately then that, on naturalism, moral values don’t really exist. They are just illusions of human beings. And in any case, that point aside, if God does not exist then it is difficult to see any reason on atheism to think that human beings are special or that their morality is objectively true. Michael Ruse, who is a philosopher of science at the University of Florida, writes as follows,
The position of the modern evolutionist . . . is that humans have an awareness of morality . . . because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. . . . Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says ‘Love they neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. . . . Nevertheless, . . . such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory.
On a naturalistic view then, moral values are just the product of biological evolution and social conditioning. Just as a troupe of baboons exhibit cooperative behavior and even self-sacrificial behavior (because natural selection has determined this to be advantageous in the struggle for survival), so their primate cousins homo sapiens exhibit similar behavior for the same reason. As a result of socio-biological pressures there has emerged among homo sapiens a sort of herd morality which is useful in the perpetuation of our species in the struggle for survival. But there doesn’t seem to be anything about homo sapiens that makes this morality objectively true. To think that human beings are special is to succumb to the temptation to speciesism, that is to say an unjustified bias toward one’s own species.
Second, now consider moral duties. On the atheistic view there is no divine lawgiver. But then what source is there for moral obligation? Why think that we have any obligation to do anything? Who or what imposes such duties upon us? On the atheistic view human beings are just animals and animals have no moral obligations toward one another. When a lion kills a zebra, it kills the zebra but it does not murder the zebra. Or when a great white shark forcibly copulates with a female, it forcibly copulates with her but it does not rape her. For none of these things are forbidden; there is no moral dimension to these actions. They are neither prohibited nor obligatory. So if God does not exist what is the source of moral obligation? Where do moral duties comes from? It is hard to see why they would be anything more than just a subjective impression resulting from societal and parental conditioning. Certain actions such as incest and rape, for example, may not be biologically and socially advantageous and so in the course of human evolution they have become taboo. But that does absolutely nothing to show that rape or incest is really wrong. Such behavior goes on all the time in the animal kingdom. On the atheistic view, the rapist who goes against the herd morality is doing nothing more serious than acting unfashionably, like the man who belches loudly at the dinner table. If there is no moral law giver then there is no objective moral law which we must obey. Richard Taylor, who is an eminent American ethicist, writes as follows,
The modern age, more or less repudiating the idea of a divine lawgiver, has nevertheless tried to retain the ideas of moral right and wrong, not noticing that, in casting God aside, they have also abolished the conditions of meaningfulness for moral right and wrong as well.
Thus, even educated persons sometimes declare that such things as war, or abortion, or the violation of certain human rights, are ‘morally wrong,’ and they imagine that they have said something true and significant.
Educated people do not need to be told, however, that questions such as these have never been answered outside of religion.
Contemporary writers in ethics, who blithely discourse upon moral right and wrong and moral obligation without any reference to religion, are really just weaving intellectual webs from thin air; which amounts to saying that they discourse without meaning.
Now it is very important that we remain clear in our understanding of the issue before us. The question is not: must be believe in God in order to live moral lives? There is no reason to think that atheists and theists alike may not live what we normally characterize as good and decent lives. Similarly the question is not: can we formulate a system of ethics without reference to God? If the non-theist grants that human beings do have objective intrinsic value, then there is no reason to think that he can’t work out a system of ethics with which the theist would largely be in agreement. Or again, the question is not: can we recognize objective moral values without believing in God? The theist will typically maintain that a person doesn’t need to believe in God in order to recognize, say, that we should love our children. Rather, as the humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz puts it, “The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns this ontological foundation.” – that is to say, their foundation in reality – “If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, are they purely ephemeral?” If there is no God then any ground for regarding the herd morality evolved by homo sapiens on this planet as objectivity true seems to have been removed. After all, on the atheistic view what is so special about human beings? They are just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal spec of dust called the planet earth, lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe in which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short period of time. On the atheistic view some action like rape may have in the course of human development become taboo but there is nothing really wrong with committing rape. If, as Kurtz states, the moral principles that govern our behavior are rooted in habit and custom, feeling and fashion, then the non-conformist who chooses to flout the herd morality is doing nothing more serious than being unfashionable.
The objective worthlessness of human beings on a naturalistic view is underscored by two implications of that view: materialism and determinism. Naturalists are typically materialists or physicalists who regard man as a purely physical organism. But if man has no immaterial aspect to his being, call it soul or mind or what have you, then he is not qualitatively different from other animal species. For him to regard human morality as objective is to fall into the trap of speciesism. On a naturalistic materialistic anthropology there is no reason to think that human beings are objectively more valuable than horses or rodents. Secondly, if there is no mind distinct from the brain then everything we think and do is determined by the input of our five sense and our genetic make-up. There is no personal agent who freely decides to do something. As Richard Dawkins so powerfully puts it, “there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference. . . . We are machines for propagating DNA. . . . It is every living object’s sole reason for being.” Without freedom, none of our choices is morally significant. They are like the jerks of a puppet’s limbs, controlled by the input of sensory stimuli and physical constitution, and what moral value does a puppet or its movements have? Thus, if atheism is true, it becomes impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil. Nor can one praise brotherhood, equality, or love as good. It does not matter what values you choose, for there is no right and wrong. Good and evil do not exist. That means like an atrocity like the Holocaust is really morally indifferent. You may think that it was wrong, but your opinion has no more validity than that of the Nazi war criminal who thought that it was right. In his book Morality After Auschwitz, Peter Haas asks how an entire society could have willingly participated in a state-sponsored program of mass torture and genocide for over a decade without any serious opposition. He argues that,
far from being contemptuous of ethics, the perpetrators acted in strict conformity with an ethic which held that, however difficult and unpleasant the task might have been, mass extermination of the Jews and Gypsies was entirely justified. . . . the Holocaust as a sustained effort was possible only because a new ethic was in place that did not define the arrest and deportation of Jews as wrong and in fact defined it as ethically tolerable and even good.
Moreover, Haas points out, because of its coherence and internal consistency, the Nazi ethic could not be discredited from within. Only from a transcendent vantage point which stands above relativistic, socio-cultural mores could such a critique be launched. But in the absence of God, it is precisely such a transcendent vantage point that we lack. One rabbi who was imprisoned at Auschwitz said that it was as though there was a world in which all the Ten Commandments were reversed: thou shalt kill, thou shalt steal, thou shalt lie. Mankind has never seen such a hell. And yet, in a real sense, if there is no God, then our world is Auschwitz. There is no good and evil. There is no right and wrong. Objective moral values and duties do not exist.
Finally, if atheism is true, there is no moral accountability for one’s actions. Even if there were objective moral values and duties under atheism they are irrelevant because there is no moral accountability. If life ends at the grave it makes no difference whether one has lived as a Stalin, or as a saint. As the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky rightly said, “If there is no immortality, then all things are permitted.” The state torturers in Soviet prisons understood this all too well. Richard Wurmbrand, who was tortured in communist prisons, writes as follows,
The cruelty of atheism is hard to believe when man has no faith in the reward of good or the punishment of evil. There is no reason to be human. There is no restraint from the depths of evil which is in man. The Communist torturers often said, ‘There is no God, no hereafter, no punishment for evil. We can do what we wish.’ I have heard one torturer even say, ‘I thank God, in whom I don’t believe, that I have lived to this hour when I can express all the evil in my heart.’ He expressed it in unbelievable brutality and torture inflected on prisoners.
Given the finality of death it really does not matter how we live. So what do you say to someone who concludes that we may as well just live as we please, out of pure self-interest. This presents a pretty grim picture for an atheistic ethicist like Kai Nielsen of the University of Calgary. Nielsen writes,
We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons should not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. Reason doesn’t decide here. The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me. . . . Pure practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality.
Now somebody might say that it is in our own best self-interest to adopt a moral lifestyle. But clearly that is not always true. We all know situations in which self-interest runs smack in the face or morality. Moreover if one is sufficiently powerful, like a Ferdinand Marcos or a Papa Doc Duvalier or even a Donald Trump, then one can pretty much ignore the dictates of conscious and safely live in self-indulgence. Historian Stewart C. Easton sums it up well when he writes, “There is no objective reason why man should be moral, unless morality ‘pays off’ in his social life or makes him ‘feel good.’ There is no objective reason why man should do anything save for the pleasure it affords him.”
Acts of self-sacrifice become particularly inept on an atheistic worldview. Why should you sacrifice your self-interest, and especially your life, for the sake of someone else? There can be no good reason on atheism for adopting such a self-negating course of action. Considered from the socio-biological point of view, such altruistic behavior is merely the result of evolutionary conditioning which helps to perpetuate the species. A mother rushing into a burning house to save her child, or a solider throwing his body over a hand grenade to save his comrades, does nothing more significant or praiseworthy, morally speaking, than a fighter ant which sacrifices itself for the sake of the anthill. Common sense dictates that we should resist, if we can, the socio-biological pressures to such self-destructive activity, and choose instead to act in our own self-interest. Philosopher of religion John Hicks invites us to imagine an ant suddenly endowed with the insights of sociobiology and the freedom to make personal decisions. Hick writes,
Suppose him to be called upon to immolate himself for the sake of the ant-hill. He feels the powerful pressure of instinct pushing him towards this self-destruction. But he asks himself why he should voluntarily . . . carry out the suicidal programme to which instinct prompts him? Why should he regard the future existence of a million million other ants as more important to him than his own continued existence? . . . Since all that he is and has or ever can have is his own present existence, surely in so far as he is free from the domination of the blind force of instinct he will opt for life – his own life.
Now why, on atheism, should we act any differently? Life is too short to jeopardize it by acting out of anything by pure self-interest; sacrifice for another person is just stupid. And thus the absence of moral accountability from the philosophy of atheism makes an ethic of compassion and self-sacrifice a hollow abstraction. R. Z. Friedman, a philosopher at the University of Toronto concludes, “Without religion the coherence of an ethic of compassion cannot be established. The principle of respect for persons and the principle of the survival of the fittest are mutually exclusive.”
We thus come to radically different perspectives upon morality, depending upon whether or not God exists. If God exists, then there is a sound foundation for morality. If God does not exist then, as Fredrick Nietzsche saw, we are ultimately landed in nihilism.
But the choice between these two need not be arbitrarily made. On the contrary, the very considerations that we have been discussing this evening can constitute moral justification for belief in the existence of God. For example, if we do think that objective moral values exist then we shall be lead logically to the conclusion that God exists. And could anything be more obvious than the fact that objective moral values do exist. There is no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than the objective reality of the physical world. The reasoning of Michael Ruse that I quoted is at worst a textbook example of the genetic fallacy, which is the fallacy of trying to invalidate a point of view by showing how it originated, and at best it only proves that our subjective apprehension of moral values has evolved. But if moral values are gradually discovered rather than invented, then such a gradual and fallible apprehension of the objective moral realm no more undermines the objective reality of that realm than our gradual and fallible apprehension of the physical world undermines the objectivity of that realm. The fact is, that we do apprehend a realm of objective moral values and duties, and I think we all know it. Actions like rape, torture, child abuse, and brutality are not just socially unacceptable behaviors, they are moral abominations. As Michael Ruse himself has elsewhere stated, “The man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says, 2+2=5.” By the same token, love, generosity, equality, and self-sacrifice are really good, and people who fail to see this are just morally handicapped, like color blind people, and there is no reason to allow their impaired vision to call into question what we see clearly. Thus the existence of objective moral values serves to demonstrate the existence of God.
Or consider the nature of moral obligation. What makes certain actions right or wrong for us? Why is it that we ought to do certain things, and we ought not to do other things. Where does this “ought” come from? If we deny God’s existence then it is difficult to make sense of moral obligation, or right and wrong. As Richard Taylor explains,
The idea of political or legal obligation is clear enough . . . . Similarly, the idea of an obligation higher than this, and referred to as moral obligation, is clear enough, provided reference to some lawmaker higher . . . . than those of the state is understood. In other words, our moral obligations can . . . be understood as those that are imposed by God. This does give a clear sense to the claim that our moral obligations are more binding upon us than our political obligations . . . . But what if this higher-than-human lawgiver is no longer taken into account? Does the concept of a moral obligation . . . still make sense? . . . . the concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain, but their meaning is gone.
It follows that moral obligations and right and wrong necessitate God’s existence, and certainly we do have such moral obligations. Speaking recently on a Canadian university campus I noticed a poster put up by the Sexual Assault & Information Center. It read: "Sexual Assault: No One Has the Right to Abuse a Child, Woman, or Man." Most of us recognize that that statement is evidently true. But the atheist can make no sense of a person’s right not to be sexually abused by another. The best answer as to the question of the source of moral obligation is that moral rightness and wrongness consists in agreement or disagreement with the will or commands of a holy and loving God.
Finally, take the problem of moral accountability. Here we find a powerful practical argument for the existence of God. According to the philosopher William James, practical arguments can be used only when theoretical arguments are insufficient to decide a question of urgent and pragmatic importance. But it seems to me obvious that a practical argument could also be used to back up or to motivate the acceptance of a conclusion of a sound theoretical argument. To believe then that God does not exist, and that there is thus no moral accountability, would be quite literally demoralizing. For then we should have to believe that our moral choices are ultimately insignificant, since both our fate and that of the universe will be the same regardless of what we do. By demoralization, I mean a deterioration of moral motivation. It is hard to do the right thing when that means sacrificing your own self-interest, or to resist temptation when desire is strong. And the belief that ultimately it doesn’t matter what you choose or do is apt to sap one’s moral strength and so undermine one’s moral life. As Oxford philosopher Robert Adams observes,
Having to regard it as very likely that the history of the universe will not be good on the whole, no matter what one does, seems apt to induce a cynical sense of futility about the moral life, undermining one's moral resolve and one's interest in moral considerations.
By contrast, there is nothing so likely to strengthen the moral life as the belief that one will be held accountable for one’s actions, and that one’s choices do make a difference in bringing about the good. Theism is thus a morally advantageous belief, and this, in the absence of any theoretical argument establishing atheism to be case, provides practical grounds to believe in God and motivation to accept the conclusions of the two theoretical arguments that I just gave.
In summary then, theological foundations do seem to be necessary for morality. If God does not exist then it is plausible to think that there are no objective moral values, no objective moral duties, and no moral accountability. The horror of such a morally neutral world is obvious. On the other hand, if we hold, as it seems rational to do, that objective moral values and duties do exist then we have good grounds for believing in the existence of God. In addition, we have powerful practical reasons for believing in God in view of the morally bracing effect which belief in moral accountability produces. In conclusion, we cannot truly be good without God, but if we can in some measure be good, then it follows logically that God exists.
QUESTION: I read something online that you wrote and it seems that your speech seems to be substantially based on that. Can I take it, I didn’t quite catch whether you said it tonight, most atheists or all atheists are materialists and determinists?
DR. CRAIG: I said that most atheists are materialists about human beings, yes.
FOLLOWUP: My basic question is kind of an objection then. I happen to have studied a philosophy called Objectivism, developed by Ayn Rand. And it is, according to my understanding, neither determinist nor materialist, and proposes to ground the concept of good in the context of human beings’ struggle to live. So basically flowing from this you have an ethics which is quite different from the Christian ethics but which is taken as objective in the sense that if you want to promote your life as a rational being then you must take certain action because the world is a certain way. So basically my objection is that you have not accounted for all of the possibilities of an atheistic ethics and my question would be, why did you not include an ethics like that which I described.
DR. CRAIG: Ayn Rand’s philosophy is not one that is very influential or widespread; obviously in what I said tonight one hits high-points. But what I would say is that I think it is still subject to the same critiques that I offered, namely, if there is no God I see no reason to think that she is right. Why think that human flourishing is objectively good? Why think that the virtues of self-reliance and making your own way in life are really true? It seems to me that that is just the socio-cultural residue of human development and I see no reason at all to think that that is not just arbitrary. Secondly, I don’t see why anybody would have a duty to do that. Why would anybody have a duty to become a self-made person, or to realize his own potentialities or any of the virtues that she talks about? I, again, would say that that is just purely arbitrary, I cannot see any basis for thinking that human beings have such moral obligations. And of course there is still no moral accountability on that view because it is atheistic and so there is not any accountability for how you lived your life; there is no immortality. So I think that all three of the points that I made apply in excelsis to Ayn Rand’s philosophy.
QUESTION: Living as an atheist, is it not better to act in your life, not because you fear a hell one day, or because you look forward to the benefits of what God would give you in heaven, but because you live by a standard of good, and that is my objective moral code, is by the laws that we live by, and is it not better to do that for your own personal satisfaction than just fear.
DR. CRAIG: Well, now notice what the question was, “Is it better?” That question in itself presupposes that, on atheism, there is a way to answer that question. And my argument is that on atheism that sort of value question is meaningless. On atheism, no it is not better, because there is no right and wrong, there is no good or evil. It might be more pleasing to you, but for somebody else they might want to be Muslim instead and be motivated by fear of hell and so forth and how can you say that he is wrong and that you are right, on atheism? So you see the very question presupposes that these kinds of value judgments are meaningful. Now, if you ask me, on theism, is it better to live a life that is not out of craven fear of hell but because you want to live in accordance with the good and the right and the true, I would say, absolutely it is! I would absolutely agree, especially on Christian theism, that somebody who lives his life morally out of a sort of morbid fear of hell doesn’t understand the Christian God; he doesn’t understand God’s love, he doesn’t understand what it is to know God, and he doesn’t understand the purpose of human existence which is the knowledge of God. So don’t caricature Christianity as being this sort of life that is motivated by fear of hell. I don’t live that way and frankly I don’t think I know any other Christian who lives that way.
QUESTION: I wanted to follow up on the first question. So, we live in an objective knowable universe. And I believe this means that we can ground morality in the objective facts that are needed to advance our life. So, for example, eating and maintaining a healthy life style is good because it advances your life, drinking poison is bad because it hurts your life. And so on this, initiating force, or fraud against others, is bad for your life, because not only does it put you in physical danger but it also makes you miserable and you will not live an emotionally healthy life. So using this reasoning I believe we can say that, again, eating healthy and maintaining a lifestyle with lots of exercise or maintaining fulfilling relationships with others is good, because it helps your life, and committing rape, theft, or murder is bad because they will either put you in physical danger or because it will make you miserable and hollow, so what do you think of this reasoning?
DR. CRAIG: If I understand your point of view, and I am not entirely sure that I do, it sounds to me like you are confusing moral values with prudential values. Prudential values are conditional values, for example, if you want to live a prosperous happy life then you ought to do x, y, and z. Now that is not moral value, that is merely prudential. That is like rules for agriculture: if you want to grow a healthy corn crop with an abundant harvest then you should cultivate with this fertilizer and rotate your crops, and things of this sort, but no one is under any obligation to grow corn or to have a healthy harvest. If you don’t want to do that then you are under no obligation to do those things. You see, those are purely prudential and conditional sorts of things. So I can agree with you, probably if you want to live a happy life you would be well advised to not live a selfish sort of grasping life, it would probably be better if you helped other people, and things of that sort. But that doesn’t negate anything that I have said here this evening. It would nevertheless be true that the psychopath or pedophile who instead chooses to rape little children because that brings him fulfillment does nothing wrong on that view. On the contrary, given his goals and desires, it would be prudential for him to torture little children and to achieve the greatest orgasmic experience that he can, and so forth. That would all be prudentially valuable for the pedophile or the psychopath. Similarly there is nothing wrong with what the Nazis did in the Holocaust. If you want to have a pure Aryan society then you ought to exterminate the Jews and the gypsies and the homosexuals. You see it all becomes conditional and prudential and so none of that negates what I have said this evening; that, if God exists, then you have a basis not for conditional prudential claims, you have a basis for objective absolute claims about goodness, about moral obligation, and then finally about moral accountability, which would still be missing even on the prudential view.
QUESTION: I just want to first thank you for a phenomenal presentation, what I think was an absolutely irrefutable argument towards the objectivity of morality as it relates to God. That being said, if it is possible, I would like to press you a little bit further on this because, if you present this argument, as I am sure you and several others in this room have done to somebody, and if they are forced to walk away recognizing the logical position that, well, you’re right, my morality it not objective, it is not truly logical but I choose to live it simply because I choose to. Yes, it is morally bankrupt, but you know, that is just the way that I want to live. Beyond then simply saying to them, well, OK, then you are morally bankrupt, and that is that, the only way they then can account for morality must be through some evolutionary process, then my question then is this: is it possible or even profitable to try to pursue the issue then, and to borrow a phrase, perhaps try to show that morality as a whole is in fact irreducibly complex and that their entire system of thought is in itself not working even from the beginning?
DR. CRAIG: Well, certainly the moral argument that I have presented tonight for God is just one piece of a broader case for the existence of God that could be brought to bear on a person who does not believe in God to try to persuade him to accept that God exists. But I think what I would try to do with such a person is to try to show him, by asking a series of questions, that in fact he really does affirm moral values in the way that he lives. I am persuaded that although people give lip service to relativism, in fact nobody can live that way. It is impossible to live with other persons regarding them as pure means to an end and not thinking that there are objectively right and wrong ways that you would want to treat them and that you would want them to treat you. Very often you can find out what a person really believes, as oppose to what he says, by how he reacts when people treat him in a certain way. For example, I had a friend who was a philosophy professor at a university and a student in his philosophy class turned in a paper to him in which he argued for moral relativism – that there are no moral values, no moral duties, everything is relative, and so forth. And my friend put an F on the paper and sent it back to the student, even though it was a good piece of work. And the student came into his office angry and said, “How can you give me this F? This was a good piece of research! How can you do that?” And the professor looked at him and said, “Well, it was handed in in a blue folder and I don’t like blue folders, the grade is an F.” And the student said, “But that is not fair, you can’t do that!” And the professor said, “It’s not what? Isn’t this a paper that argues that there is no such thing as fairness and moral rightness and wrongness?” And all of a sudden the student got the point, and at that point the professor changed the grade to an A and turned it back into the student. I think the student learned more though that experience than he did through writing the paper. You see, it is how we react when others treat us in ways that we think are wrong that our real moral sensitivities come out. So I would try to talk with a person who claims that there are no objective moral values or duties, just about his life, about how he lives his life, how he reacts if, say, the church were to institute the inquisition in this country and begin to execute people, whether he thinks that would be a wrong thing to do. And I find that with 98 percent of people who are sincere and do not just want to argue, 98 percent of people can be very quickly brought to the point where they see that there really are objective moral values and duties. And then that really faces them with a crises because they have got to decide, if these really are objective, where do they come from, what is the foundation for them? And I think this really does provide powerful reasons to believe in a transcendent good that is the source of these values and duties.
QUESTION: First of all, to echo the previous questioner, thank you Dr. Craig for a very edifying presentation. I suppose I am another one of the atheists in this little train coming forward. You accused the second questioner I believe of caricaturing Christians, and I believe that you have committed the same crime towards atheists. From your presentation it seems that you are making us all out to be a bunch of nihilists, and in the end I would be forced to say that a lot of our morals are not based on this idea of humanity being insignificant in the end, and this accusation of speciesism, and I don’t think that such a concept has to necessarily exist. My question to you is, based on my beliefs that our morals are informed, are based on our feelings, our relationships with the people around us, our empathy for our fellow human beings, how is that less valid somehow than some belief in some absolute moral system imposed by God?
DR. CRAIG: All right, well, it seems to me that the view you just expressed is the view that you said that I was caricaturing atheists with. Namely that our moral values are based in our feelings, our relationships with other people, and things of that sort. I don’t think I caricatured atheists; in fact what I am arguing is that atheists should be nihilists, not that they are nihilists. As I said to the previous questioner, I don’t think that anybody can really live like a nihilist. Even Nietzsche couldn’t. But I think that the atheist should be a nihilist given his worldview. Why? Well, because if morality is just based in feelings and relationships with other people and the way that we were raised by our parents and our society then it is all relative. Someone who has different feelings or who was raised in a different society might have a vastly different set of values and moral duties and therefore it is not objective, it is purely subjective and really it is just the result of human socio-biological conditioning. So it seems to me that the view that you expressed is exactly the view that I am saying atheists ought to hold to.
FOLLOWUP: In light of that, my question is more along the lines of, why is that such an unacceptable thing? In one of your YouTube videos, you were talking about a position that I think was about the difference between something being intellectually defensible and emotionally defensible. If these values and all provide us with a complete fulfillment that maybe the acceptance of objective morals might provide for a religious person, why are these so indefensible, so unacceptable?
DR. CRAIG: Well, I think I would say two things there as to why I think that it is unacceptable. First would be because it is false. That is to say, I am convinced that there really are objective moral values and duties, that the Holocaust is not just something that is wrong relative to Western democratic standards but right for the Nazis so that if the Nazis had won World War II and everybody believed that the Holocaust was good then, on the atheistic view, it really would’ve been good. That to me is morally unconscionable. I think that is just false. I think there are objective moral values and duties. So that is the first reason why I would say this is unacceptable, because it is just false. The second reason is because it leads to a worldview which is I think unlivable; it is incapable of being lived consistently and happily. You cannot live consistently and happily as though moral values and duties are just the result of feelings and subjective impressions. You are going to want to say, for example, that apartheid was really wrong, that the killing fields of Cambodia were really wrong, and you can’t do that if it is just based in feelings. So those would be the two reasons as to why I think that it is unacceptable: is that it is false, that is fundamental, and then the second one is that it is unlivable.
QUESTION: Hi, Dr. Craig. My question is, I understand that we need a foundation in order to substantiate morality or to substantiate objective morality. My question is that, without having faith in God (or in a superior being) or having an atheist view, how can we not say that this foundation that I actually believe in . . . I believe that having this foundation will actually make life better, because we would have a set of rules to which we adjust our morality, but how do you connect this foundation with God, with a superior being? How do you say that if, I don’t believe in God, how do I know, even though I believe in this foundation and that this foundation would make life better, how do I know that it connects to God?
DR. CRAIG: That is an excellent question. Well, I think one way would be to realize that moral values are intrinsic to persons, not to things. Things like fairness, generosity, love, kindness, goodwill, loyalty, these are virtues that belong to persons and so therefore the good – what Plato called “the Good” – must be a personally embodied good. It cannot just be some abstraction, it must be embodied in a personal being, which we call God. And moreover, the idea of a moral duty requires a moral law giver which again requires a person. To have a duty, a duty is something that is owed, an obligation, and therefore the notion of duty arises I think from the notion of a command from a personal being, like a moral law giver. And so for both of those reasons it seems to me that the ground of morality must be in a transcendent, personally embodied good, rather than in some sort of impersonal or abstract principle.
FOLLOWUP: Saying that things like fairness and love – those are things that we cannot really substantiate, we cannot say that this is, in fact, true like how we can say the chair you are sitting in is true. But I see them more, in fact, as just subjective and more abstract of a concept or an idea, even though they are true . . .
DR. CRAIG: Now think of what you are saying, think of the implications of this. You think that it is morally indifferent to take up a little child in your arms and to love that child, or to break that little child’s limbs, burn him with cigarette butts and abused that little baby. Do you really think those are morally indifferent acts? That that is purely subjective? Because that is what you are saying in saying that this is just subjective.
FOLLOWUP: Well, in using the child as an example, I think that I would feel that I wouldn’t want to break this child because . . .
DR. CRAIG: Right, you would feel that way, but do you think that those feelings put you in touch with an objective moral difference between loving the child and abusing it? Or are these, in fact, on your view morally indifferent what you do? I don’t think that you really believe that these are morally on a par with each other, do you? Morally equal, that it is morally indifferent which one you choose? Because that is what you are implying when you say that these virtues that I named – generosity, love, faithfulness, kindness – are just subjective feelings and not objective values.
FOLLOWUP: I more see them as feelings, just kind of like a human nature, what we are born with. I want to try to understand this connection with having these virtues and having faith in God, because I cannot really connect these concepts here.
DR. CRAIG: Well, the connection is that only by having God as a foundation for these can these be objective values rather than mere subjective feelings and to say that there is an objective moral difference between abusing a baby and loving that baby. To say that there is an objective moral difference between those two I think is evident but I can’t make any justification for that on naturalism. I mean, in fact, in the animal kingdom, some animals eat their young. I remember when I was a boy I used to have white mice for pets and one day the mother mouse became pregnant and had little tiny baby white mice. And I came home from school one day to find that my father had drowned all the white mice in the toilet and had killed them. And I was devastated, I was just crushed because I loved these little pets, and I was so angry with my parents for doing this until later on my mother said, “The reason that I told your dad to do this was because the mother was eating the babies” and she said it was just so horrible that she couldn’t stand it anymore, and so she did that. Well, if that goes on in the animal world and it is morally indifferent – the mother mouse didn’t do a sin, there is no moral obligation there for that mother mouse not to eat the babies for nutrition – but on the human level, I would just want to say, God help us if that is the case on the human level. And you see on naturalism we are just animals, we are just relatively advanced primates, so I don’t see any way that you can have a moral discrimination between these without God. And so that is why I think that if God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist, but I do think that objective moral values and duties do exist, from which is follows logically and inescapably that therefore God exists. That is my argument. Let me take the next questioner, go ahead.
QUESTION: I just first off wanted to thank you for coming, and just say that Michael Ruse is a professor at Florida State, not the University of Florida.
DR. CRAIG: Sorry, sorry, OK! I know Michael but I am not sure of his affiliation, OK, Florida State.
FOLLOWUP: My question goes more along the lines of, OK, so if we have an objective morality then how do we go about finding it? Because you have Islam which is has an objective morality, and you have Christianity, and then you have wars where they are fighting each other and killing each other off. How do you find which one is the meta-narrative that encapsulates and says which one is right or wrong? Can we know that? Because it has been asked since it was all started, so, how do you know, is it knowable, and if it is, how do you know?
DR. CRAIG: This is a question of what is called moral epistemology. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge. So the question here is, how do you come to know what moral values exist? My concern tonight is with moral ontology, which is the study of reality, of what exists. I have offered no theory tonight whatsoever of moral epistemology. So I can appropriate any and all of the epistemological avenues that the atheist might offer for how we cone to know these objective moral values: whether through moral intuition, or through some sort of conscience, or through divine revelation, or things of that sort. I am open and ready to embrace any of those things. As a Christian, I believe that God’s moral law is written on our hearts, we have a kind of instinctive grasp of the intrinsic value of human beings. Then we can work out from that what would be right and wrong insofar as it promotes the intrinsic value of human persons. But I am open to any sort of theory of moral epistemology that you might offer. I am not claiming that in order to know the good that we would have to have this revealed to us by God; in fact, quite the contrary, I think that is probably not true.
QUESTION: So, kind of following up on the previous question, if you’re saying that we cannot know which morals are objectivity good then all those examples you gave of rape and murder – you gave them as examples of being objectively good, but how can you know that?
DR. CRAIG: OK, again, I haven’t offered any kind of a theory about how we know objective moral values, that is not on the docket tonight and so I am open to whatever you might want to suggest. I would say, yes, we can know objective moral values and duties because we have a clear apprehension of them. I think that we have a kind of moral intuition or moral sense that grasps this objective realm of moral values and duties in the same way that my five empirical senses grasp the physical world. Now that is not to say that there are not areas of gray. I thought that you were going to say that all the examples that I picked tonight were such extremes, you know, such black and white . . .
FOLLOWUP: You used the example that, raping somebody. If you are an atheist, how do you know if it is morally wrong . . .
DR. CRAIG: No, no, that wasn’t my argument, though. My argument was not that if you are an atheist, you cannot know that is wrong. On the contrary, I think that atheists do know that is wrong. Why? Because I think that God exists, I think the moral law in implanted on their hearts, it is wrong, and so of course atheists can know that it is wrong. And they can know that we should love our children. So my argument is not, if you are an atheist then you cannot know what is right and wrong. That is not the argument. Similarly, if God does not exist – imagine the atheist is right – then I cannot know what is right or wrong even though I have the Bible and everything like that because it would all be false. So this isn’t a debate about how we come to know moral values or not, it is a debate about whether moral values exist and what is their foundation. So whatever avenues you want to suggest for how we come to know moral values, I am open to it.
FOLLOWUP: So then what is the purpose of knowing whether or not our moral values that we as a society live with are objective if we can never know . . .
DR. CRAIG: Now wait, I didn’t say that we can never know. On the contrary, I think we can know! I am just saying that I am not offering a particular theory about how we know them. That is not my concern, my concern is with moral ontology. But the reason it is important, I think, is for some of the reasons that I talked about tonight. I think that we want to be able to say that what the Nazis did, or what the Afrikaners did in apartheid, or the killing fields of Cambodia, or Stalin and the rape of the Ukraine, is morally wrong, that that is wrong. And that, I think, will sometimes motivate us into action because we will want to stop moral abuses, like Darfur. We will want to intervene. I don’t see how the relativist or the naturalist could ever say that we ought to intervene to stop a situation like Darfur because, in the course of evolution, the fittest survive and whatever is in nature, is. And so it will motivate us to action. As I said, without God it seems to me there is a demoralization that takes place, a lack of interest in moral questions, and a sapping of your moral strength. So I think this has profound practical implications whether or not you think there really are objective moral values. Of course, ultimately, I guess my hope would be this: if, on the basis of morality, you do come to believe that there is a God, then this raises the huge question which is, “How in the world am I going to be rightly related to this absolutely holy and just being before whom I stand as a guilty person desperately in need of his forgiveness and moral cleansing?” C. S. Lewis once said that you never know how bad you are until you have truly tried to be good. So that the person who takes seriously the ethical life I think will realize in a poignant way how rotten he is, how filled with selfishness and darkness he is, and how far short he falls morally of the good. And this, I think, will raise the question, “What then must I do to be saved? How can I find forgiveness and moral cleansing in the face of this holy and righteous God who finds me morally guilty before him for having broken his moral law?” So religiously this has huge implications that go even beyond ethics I think.
FOLLOWUP: So let’s say, what is happening in Darfur, that is subjectively wrong to the majority of people here.
DR. CRAIG: What is subjectively wrong?
FOLLOWUP: The crisis in Darfur.
DR. CRAIG: The killing in Darfur, you think the killing in Darfur is subjectively wrong?
FOLLOWUP: If you believe it is wrong, then it is subjectivity wrong, but then how do you know whether or not it is wrong on an objective moral level, how do you know that it might be right on an objective moral level, if you can’t determine what is right or wrong objectively?
DR. CRAIG: All right, because it is incompatible with the intrinsic moral value of human beings: to slaughter, kill, and starve human beings for political purposes. That is incompatible with their intrinsic moral value; it is treating them as things rather than persons. Persons are to be related to as ends in themselves, so it is clearly morally wrong what it happening there. Now I don’t think it is just subjectively morally wrong, it is objectively morally wrong what that government is doing to these people – it is starving them and millions are dying just out of pure political power. That is inconsistent with treating those persons as intrinsically valuable ends in themselves.
QUESTION: I am just curious on your thought about something, is that OK, it is a little off topic? Well, you mentioned in your speech the Holocaust, and I am pretty sure that the Nazis were pretty religious, weren't they? Well, they had a church and they believed in God.
DR. CRAIG: Well, this gets into a very interesting debate. Hitler found it useful to use the state church to come to power, but the so-called confessing church in Germany opposed Hitler and many of these men, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer for example, one of the most notable of these theologians, died in the death camps because he opposed Hitler. So what I would say, Bible believing Christians stood against Hitler and many of them suffered and died in the camps because of it, those members of the confessing church. But you are certainly right that there was this kind of nominal state church Christianity that Hitler found useful to exploit, but what is very interesting is documents show that Hitler, once he consolidated power over the Third Rich also planned to eliminate them, and to establish a kind of Nazi ideology with its own religious system which was very anti-Christian and pagan.
FOLLPWUP: So the Nazis themselves, during World War II, did they consider themselves Christian?
DR. CRAIG: I don’t know. I mean, you would have to ask that on a case by case basis – were the SS in the camps Christians – did they consider themselves Christians? I don’t know.
QUESTION: To some extent what I wanted to ask was asked before, but I will try to say something new. I spoke of Objectivism as I understand it and I am not particularly surprised by some of your responses. I’ve seen some of these types of objections discussed. You asked why should life and flourishing be good, if that is the standard of right and wrong. Can we not ask, well, why should one choose to live? And you also thought that even if you could answer that, you still can’t understand or make sense of a duty to do so, and you also said that you couldn’t find any reason to suppose that there is any moral accountability. Now I will say the first two have been addressed in books like Dr. Terra Smith of the University of Texas who has written about Rand’s theories, but the last one astonished me. That it seems that you take moral accountability to mean responsibility for your actions after death, but it is quite clear that here on earth you reap the consequences of your own actions, and it makes a huge difference in your life, as the questioner who followed me indicated, whether you live as a productive person who respects the rights of others to be the same type of being, or you go around doing whatever the heck you feel like. So I was kind of astonished that you – to some extent there is just a disagreement about terms here.
DR. CRAIG: No, no, I hear you. I just think your view is just incredibly naïve, frankly. As I said in the talk, if you are sufficiently powerful, like a Ferdinand Marcos, or Papa Doc Duvalier, or Donald Trump, then you can pretty much live in self-indulgence without worrying about those kinds of consequences. Look at Marcos. Marcos lived off the back of the Philippine people for his whole life, drove them into grinding poverty while Imelda had thousands of shoes and elaborate gowns and they lived in palaces, and finally Marcos gets deposed and dies in Hawaii. He certainly did not get his just deserts in this life. I think one of the frustrations, I think, of the moral life is that the wicked often flourish and the good perish and die. This life is not equitable. And so I just think it is naïve to think that if you don’t live a moral life then you are going to be held accountable in this life, that is just naïve.
FOLLOWUP: But sir, I may respond that I take you, your position, to be naïve. For remember that I did not say that I am a materialist. Now there is such a thing as psychological health, and psychological health has relevance to whether I flourish or not. And now I ask you seriously: was a dictator, I don’t know this particular man very well, a psychological healthy and happy human being?
DR. CRAIG: I have no idea.