05 / 06
bird bird

Can We Be Good Without God?

National Faculty Leadership Conference, Washington, D.C.

Time : 00:34:03

William Lane Craig speaks at the National Faculty Leadership Conference.


Well thanks for coming, the handout is not directly relevant to this session so you don’t need to worry if you don’t have one. Rather the handout that is going around is, first of all, an outline of the field of apologetics to give you sort of a bird’s eye view of what we do in Christian apologetics. And it shows the various components that go to make up Christian apologetics. One the one hand, offensive or positive apologetics which attempt to give reasons for the justification of Christian truth claims, and on the other hand defensive or negative apologetics which attempts to answer objections to truth of Christian truth claims. And you will see on the handout when you get it the various subdivisions of these fields of Christian apologetics. And then there is also a bibliography that is going around that contains recommended resources for the study of Christian apologetics that you might want to purse in the future. Let me just mention that if you are interested in arguments for God’s existence such as the one we’re going to be talking about today, the current issue of Christianity Today, “God Is Not Dead Yet,” has a cover story on the renaissance of arguments for the existence of God in Anglo-American philosophy today. [1] The editors at CT invited me to write an article on this subject and they liked it enough that they made it the cover story. And this describes, not only the renaissance that is happening among Anglo-American philosophers with regard to arguments for God’s existence, but also it details what some of those augments are. And we will be discussing one of these, the moral argument, in our session today.

If you are interested in having more detail about the argument, I will commend to you my book Reasonable Faith. This is the third revised and updated edition that just came out this past week, so this is fresh off the presses and contains a detailed defense of the moral argument for God’s existence. In our very brief time together today, I will only have a chance to hit the high points of this argument but if your interest is piqued, you can pursue it further in the book Reasonable Faith[2]

Let me begin by asking a question for your consideration: “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 arouse indignation. For, of course, atheists and agnostics can lead what we would normally characterize as good and decent lives, even though they do not believe in God. Indeed, sometimes their lives often put ours, as believers, to shame by contrast. So it seems the answer to this question is obvious – of course you can lead a good life, you can be good, without belief in God. But wait a minute. The question was not, “Can we be good without belief in God.” The question was, “Can we be good without God?” And when we ask that question, we are asking a very profound question about the nature of moral values.

Are the moral values that we hold dear and guide our lives by mere social conventions akin to driving on the right hand verses the left hand side of the road? Or are they just expressions of personal taste, like having a taste for certain foods or not? Or are moral values somehow valid and binding independent of our perception of them? And if they are objective in this way, then what is their foundation?

Many philosophers have thought that the existence of objective moral values provides a good argument for the existence of God. I, myself, stumbled into this argument accidentally, through the back door so to speak. I was speaking on university campuses on the absurdity of life without God. And I would argue that, apart from God’s existence, there are no objective moral values and duties; everything becomes relative. And to my surprise, the reaction of the students was to insist that some things really are right and wrong, that objective values really do exist. Now, what the students were saying didn’t in any way refute the argument that I was giving, that without God there would be no objective moral values. Instead what they had done was unwittingly supply the missing premise in a moral argument for God’s existence. [3] For now we can argue:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist

2. Objective moral values exist

From which it follows logically that:

3. Therefore, God exists.

Premise (1) was the argument that I was offering – that if there is no God then there are no objective values. Premise (2) is what the students were insisting on. But together they imply (3), therefore, God exists.

Now this simple, little augment is easy to memorize and it is logically iron clad – if the two premises are true then the conclusion follows necessarily and inescapably. And together they imply the existence of God.

Now what makes this argument so powerful, I think, is that people generally believe both of the premises. In our pluralistic age, I find that students are absolutely terrified of imposing their moral values or beliefs on anyone else, so premise (1) seems correct to them: if there is not God, then objective moral values do not exist. But premise (2) also seems true to them. Certain values have been deeply instilled into students, such as tolerance and open-mindedness. They think that it is objectively wrong to impose your moral values on somebody else. So they are deeply committed to premise (2) as well.

This can lead to some very strange conversations. I remember talking to one unbelieving student once in which we would discuss the first premise and he would then deny the second. Then I would move to the second premise and he would affirm it and deny the first. And so back and forth we would go, jumping back and forth between the two premises, with him now knowing which one to affirm and which one to deny. It would have been funny if it had not been so pathetic to see someone floundering desperately to elude the conclusion that God exists based upon plausible beliefs that he in fact held to. So what I would like to do is to examine in a little bit more detail each of the two premises and see what defense can be offered on their behalf, and what objections the nonbeliever might raise to them.

Before we look at the first premise in more detail in terms of its defense, I think it would be helpful if we clarify a couple of important distinctions, well at least one important distinction for this morning’s purposes. And that is the distinction between something being objective and subjective. I find that students often do not understand that. By objective I mean independent of people’s opinions. OK, there is it, that is the definition; write it down: independent of people’s opinions. That is what it means to be objective. So to say that there are objective moral values is to say that some thing is good or bad independently of what people think about it. Similarly, to say that we have objective moral duties is to say that we have certain obligations even if nobody believes that we have those obligations. So, for example, to say that the Holocaust was objectively wrong is to say that the Holocaust 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 had succeeded in brainwashing or exterminating everybody who disagreed with them so that it was universally believed that the Holocaust was right. And the point is that if God does not exist then moral values are not objective in that way.

So consider the problem of moral values. Traditionally, moral values have been based in God, who is conceived to be the highest good. But if God does not exist then what foundation can be given for objective moral values. In particular, why think that human beings have moral worth? The most popular form of atheism, as J. P. Moreland explained last night, is naturalism. Naturalism holds that the only things that exist are those things which are postulated by our best scientific theories. [4] But, of course, science is morally neutral, you can’t find moral values in a test tube, so it immediately follows on naturalism that moral values do not really exist; they are just illusions of human beings. So given the most popular view of atheism it follows immediately that there are no objective moral values.

But even if the atheist is willing to go beyond the bounds of science, why think that on atheism human beings are objectively morally valuable? After all, on atheism, humans being are just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet earth, lost somewhere in a mindless and indifferent universe and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. Richard Dawkins’ assessment of human value may be depressing, but why, on atheism, is he mistaken when he says, “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.” [5] On a naturalistic view, moral values are just the by-products of biological evolution and social conditioning. Just as a troupe of baboons will exhibit altruistic behavior because natural selection has determined it to be advantageous in the struggle for survival, so their primate cousins, homo sapiens, have similarly evolved certain patterns of behavior for the same reason. As a result of socio-biological pressures, there has evolved among homo sapiens a sort of herd morality which is useful in the propagation 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, or morally valuable, is to be guilty of speciesism, an unjustified bias in favor of one’s own species. So if there is no God then any basis for regarding as objectively true the herd morality evolved by homo sapiens on this planet seems to have been removed. If you take God out of the picture then all you are left with is an advanced primate creature on this planet in a speck of space with delusions of moral grandeur.

Or consider moral duties. Moral duties were typically thought to be grounded in God’s commandments, such as the Ten Commandments. But if there isn’t any God to issue commandments to us, then why think that we have any moral duties? On the atheistic view, human being don’t seem to have any moral obligations to one another. For example, in the animal kingdom, if lion kills a zebra, it kills the zebra but it doesn't murder the zebra. If a great white shark copulates forcibly with a female, it forcibly copulates with the female, but it doesn't rape the female, for there is no moral dimension to these actions. None of these things is prohibited or commanded; they are neither forbidden nor obligatory. So if God doesn’t exist why think that we have any moral obligations? Who or what imposes such prohibitions or obligations upon us? Where do they come from? It is hard to see why moral duties would be anything more than the illusory by-products of social and parental conditioning.

So, admittedly, certain actions like incest and rape have become taboo in the course of human evolution, but on atheism that does absolutely nothing to show that such actions are really wrong. Activity that looks like rape and incest goes on all the time in the animal kingdom. So the rapist who chooses to flout the herd morality is really on atheism doing nothing more than acting unfashionably; he is like the man who violates the social conventions by belching loudly at the dinner table. If there isn’t any moral law giver then there isn’t any moral law that imposes itself upon us. [6]

Now, it is extremely important that we remain clear about this premise before us. I can almost guarantee to you that if you present this argument to an unbeliever, they will react with indignation by saying, “How dare you say that atheist are immoral and indecent people that we cannot live good and decent lives.” And we need to help them understand that this is a complete misunderstanding of the argument. The question is not, “Must we believe in God in order to live moral lives?” There is no reason to think that in order to live what we normally characterize as a good and decent life that you have to believe in God. Again, the question is not, “Can we recognize objective moral values without believing in God?” I certainly think you can. You don’t need to believe in God to be able to recognize that we ought to love our children rather than torture them. Rather the question is, “If God does not exist, do objective moral values exist?” The question in not about the necessity in belief in God for morality, it is about the necessity of the existence of God for morality.

And I have been shocked, quite honestly, at how frequently professional philosophers misunderstand this argument, people who should know better and not confuse this. For example, I had a debate several years ago and Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania with Paul Kurtz, the famous humanist philosopher, on the topic: “Goodness Without God is Good Enough.” [7] And I argued that if God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist. And Kurtz, to my astonishment, completely missed the point. This is how he responded,

If God is essential, then how is it possible for the millions and millions of people who don’t believe in God to nonetheless behave morally and ethically? On your view they could not. And so God just is not essential. Many people, indeed millions of people, have been optimistic about life, have lived a full life, and find life exciting and significant, yet they don’t wring their hands about whether or not there is an afterlife. It is living here and now that counts.

Now, Kurtz’s point only shows that belief in God is not necessary for living a moral life and an optimistic life. It does absolutely nothing to refute the first premise, that if God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist.

Now the other response that you can count on getting to this argument is the so-called Euthyphro Dilemma, named after a character in one of Plato’s dialogues. And this dilemma basically goes like this: is something good because God wills it, or does God will it because it is good? If you say that something is good because God wills it, then that makes moral values arbitrary, God could have willed that we should be hateful and cruel to one another, and then we would be obligated to hate each other, and that seems crazy. Some moral values at least seem to be necessary. But if you say, on the other hand, that God wills something because it is good then you’ve made the good independent of God, and in that case moral values do not depend upon God as premise (1) claims. Well, in fact, the Euthyphro Dilemma is a false dilemma; that is to say, it presents us with a false choice. There is a third alternative, namely, God wills something because he is good. What do I mean by that? I mean that God’s own nature is the standard of goodness. And his commandments to us are expressions of his own nature so that our moral duties are determined by the commandments of a just and loving God. So moral values are not independent of God because God’s own character determines what is objectively right and wrong. Moral values are rooted in the character of God. God is essentially compassionate, fair, impartial, just, and so forth, so his moral nature defines good and evil. Moreover his moral commandments to us necessarily reflect his character; they are necessary expressions of his being and so therefore are not arbitrary. So if the atheist says to you, if God were to command child abuse, would we be morally obligated to abuse our children? The answer is to say that this is an incoherent question – it is like asking if there were a square circle, would its area be the square of one of it’s sides? [8]  It is a meaningless question because the conditional premise is incoherent; it is logically impossible. So the Euthyphro Dilemma is a false dilemma and we shouldn’t be tricked by it. The morally good or bad is determined by God’s nature, and the morally right or wrong (our duties) are determined by God’s commandments which are rooted in God’s nature.

Now I am going to skip ahead to jump to premise (2), that objective moral values and duties do exist. I initially thought that this would be the most controversial premise of the argument and this would be what people attacked. But I have been shocked that in my debates with atheist philosophers, this premise is almost never denied. It may surprise you to learn, in fact, that surveys taken on university campuses show that professors are less relativistic than the students are and that of the faculty, the philosophy professors are the one’s most apt to believe in objective values, and are the least relativistic of the faculty. So the more you know about ethics and morality the more apt you are to be an absolutist or an objectivist or a moral realist. So philosophers who reflect upon our moral experience see no more reason to distrust that experience than to distrust the evidence of our five senses. Just as my five senses indicate to me that there is an objective world of physical objects out there, so in my moral experience I grasp a realm of objective moral values. And in the absence of some defeater of my moral experience, I have no more reason to deny the objectivity of the realm of moral values than I have to deny the objectivity of the physical world. And I find that most people do believe in objective moral values. If you just talk with them a little while, most people think that, for example, sexual abuse of children is wrong, or actions like rape, torture and child abuse are morally wrong. Similarly they think that some things are really good, like tolerance, open-mindedness, love, generosity, and self-sacrifice. And people who fail to see this are just morally handicapped, and there is no reason to allow their impairment to call into question what we see clearly. So I have found that although people give lip service to relativism, 95% of people can be very quickly convinced of premise (2) if you just share some examples with them. Ask what they think, for example, about the Crusades, or the Inquisition, or Catholic priests abusing little boys sexually and then trying to cover it up. Use religious examples of atrocities committed in the name of religion or by the church and I think you will find very quickly that people do come to agree with premise (2). But then it follows from those two premises that God exists.

Now much, much more could be said in defense of these but I want to allow time for questions so I am going to quit now and throw it open to your questions referring you to the discussion of the moral argument in Reasonable Faith if you want to learn more.



QUESTION: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: The problem with these attempts, I think, is that they become arbitrary and implausible. For example, on the atheistic view rationality is simply the byproduct of having a more complex nervous system. And why think that having a greater complexity in your nervous system somehow makes you morally valuable. That just doesn’t seem to make sense. Where does moral value come from having a complex nervous system? Moreover, as one of my atheistic philosopher friends pointed out, who has a mentally retarded child, it would follow on this view that his boy has no moral value, because he is not rational. And that is very sobering to say to someone that their child is morally valueless and that therefore anything could be done to him, really, when you think about. So I find all such attempts, which I think need to be treated on a case by case basis, to be ultimately implausible and arbitrary.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: Yes, the definition of God that is used here would be the classical definition that Anselm gave – God is the greatest conceivable being – and so the greatest conceivable being would be a God which is morally perfect and therefore good. So you are quite right that this is assuming a classical concept of God. Obviously, if God is something like Vishnu or Molech or something then this would not apply to him. [9]This is talking about the concept of God as the greatest conceivable being.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: Well, what I would say, and this is why I like their work, I would say that if there is no God then you are absolutely correct. But, the questions is, is there a God? If there is a God then the fact that moral values have developed and evolved through an evolutionary processes says nothing about their objectivity. To think so would be to commit the genetic fallacy; that is to say, trying to invalidate a position by showing how it came to be held. At best their views would only show that our apprehension of the realm of objective moral values is the product of evolution and social conditioning. But that gradual and fallible apprehension of the moral realm no more undermines the objectivity of that realm then our gradual and fallible apprehension of the physical world undermines the objectivity of the physical world. If God exists then there is a realm of objective moral values independent of us regardless of what evolutionary story you want to tell about how we came to know those moral values. So it seems to me they are quite right that if atheism is true then they are correct. But, the question is, is atheism true? And they can’t just presuppose that without begging the question. If you presuppose that you are begging the question. If you do not presuppose that well then there could well be a God and God could have designed our faculties in such a way that we would come to apprehend the moral values that are represented by his nature. So the argument I think is ultimately question begging in favor of naturalism.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: That would be a real problem if that is what they believed, that somehow human flourishing is a good, or survivability. I think the people Richard’s talking about are more radical than that and they wouldn’t say that human flourishing or survivability is good any more than guinea pig survival is good. I mean these folks are really radical nihilists, I take it; or at least the espouse it. But I would again look for inconsistencies. For example, Dawkins would be one such person who says there is no good, there is no evil, nothing but pointless indifference, but he is an undying moralist. His book is filled with moral judgments condemning homophobia, religious indoctrination of children, the Amish, he even gives his own list of Ten Commandments that we should replace the traditional ones. So it is very difficult, frankly, to live consistently with this viewpoint. Michael Ruse, whom I often quite, who is a philosopher of science and agnostic and one of these evolutionary ethicists who believes that ethics is just illusory, has no objectivity, but nevertheless, when pressed, Ruse says in print that the man who says that it is morally permissible to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says that 2+2=5. [10] Now when you think that 2+2=4 is a necessary truth, he is saying that some of these moral truths are necessary truths and therefore objective truths that are not dependent upon human opinion. And that is complete inconsistent with his espousal of evolutionary theory and moral antirealism. So I do think that we should look for these inconsistencies and just say to them, given that all you believe about evolutionary theory and so forth, do you nevertheless believe that it is morally permissible to rape little children? And most people will say, “No, after considering it all, I guess I don’t think that is really right.”

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, I think that what he would say, when he says that it is indifferent, I think he means that reality and nature is indifferent to our survival and success and so forth, but he doesn’t mean that human beings are indifferent about things. But he should say, to be consistent, that these petty projects and concerns that we fill our lives with are ultimately of no significance and illusory in the grand scheme of things.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: Well, I would say that this argument at least gives us a necessarily existing, personal, locus of absolute moral goodness. Now that is not unknowability, that is huge. If you got a necessarily existing, personal source and standard of absolute moral goodness, that gives us a lot. [11] Now it doesn’t tell you that he is the creator – for that you will need to turn to the argument I discussed last hour. And it doesn’t tell you that he is, say, omnipresent. It doesn’t give you all the attributes of God, but it is a far cry from unknowability. As I said in the last hour, this is not some ill-defined flying spaghetti monster. This is a being that has specific attributes, namely a personal mind which is the locus of absolute goodness and exists necessarily. That is pretty significant, I’d say.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: Well, that is true and we can admit that, but only in the sense that, for example, human beings are not chairs. We have a different nature than a chair, and a chair doesn’t have the sort of intrinsic moral value that human beings do. So that is certainly true, but then the question is, why is it that a being endowed with this particular nature, that we call a human nature, why is that thing valuable? And there it seems to me that you have got to go beyond that nature to some sort of a transcendent grounding that will allow you to say that this is objectively good, otherwise I don’t see any reason on atheism to think that that nature that is exemplified by these living creatures on this planet is objectively valuable.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: I think that is true although I don’t think that adding those additional elements adds anything essential to the illustration. The illustration just makes the point that when we say that something is objective it means that even if there were universal dissent against it it would still be the case. I am just giving a definition of what it is to be objective or an illustration of what it means to be objective.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

DR. CRAIG: Well, there are certainly ethicists like Peter Singer who think that whales and porpoises and great apes have moral values and even greater moral value than, say, human infants. So the questions might look a little bit different but I don’t think that it would effect my argument. He does think that these whales and porpoises and great apes have objective moral value. As I understand him, he is not a relativist by any means, he is a moral realist who thinks it is really morally wrong to say kill porpoises in trying to drag nets to catch tuna. And therefore he would agree with premise (2), that objective moral values exist. But my question for him would be even more pressing on (1), why think that things like porpoises and chimpanzees and human beings have objective moral value on atheism? These are just natural spin offs of evolution and it seems arbitrary to think that these strange moral properties like goodness or badness impinge on these creatures.


Well, we are out of time. Let me just say in conclusion that I have found, to my chagrin actually because I like the cosmological argument the best, that this argument is the most effective argument I have ever found in dealing with students on university campuses because, whereas other arguments for the existence of God can be dismissed as intellectual curiosities, this one really hits you where you live. Every day you get up you answer whether or not you think that objective moral values exist by how you live and treat other people and therefore this argument has tremendous existential force that cannot be escaped. So I would encourage you to memorize the two premises, share them with unbelievers, and have open discussions of this sort with them and I think you’ll  find it a great springboard to talking about your faith [12]


  • [1]

    William Lane Craig, “God is Not Dead Yet”, Christianity Today, July 3, 2008, (accessed August 15, 2013; the full article is accessible via subscription only).

  • [2]

    William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), pp. 172-183.

  • [3]


  • [4]


  • [5]

    Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow (London: Allen Lane, 1998), cited in Lewis Wolpert, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), p. 215. Unfortunately, Wolpert’s reference is mistaken. The quotation seems to be a pastiche from Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden: a Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1996), p. 133 and Richard Dawkins, "The Ultraviolet Garden," Lecture 4 of 7 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (1992).

  • [6]


  • [7]

    A full transcript of this October 2001 debate, along with essays from several people on both sides of the issue, can be found in Is Goodness without God Good Enough?: A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).

  • [8]


  • [9]


  • [10]

    Michael Ruse, Darwinism Defended (London: Addison-Wesley, 1982), p. 275.

  • [11]


  • [12]

    Total Running Time: 34:03 (Copyright © William Lane Craig 2008)