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#76 Pastors Need Apologetics, Too

September 29, 2008

Dear Dr Craig,

I asked my pastor if one could present your argument from the existence of objective moral values to the atheist as evidence of God's existence. The argument was:

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

2. Objective moral values do exist.

3. Therefore, God exists.

My pastor flat out denied that this logically followed, or that we could use it at all. He disagreed with premise 2, that objective moral values exist. He said that although we believe they exist, we cannot say they exist until we know that God exists. He also said that whilst we are tempted (probably by our social values) to say that objective moral values do exist, but we cannot know that they do, until there is a transcendent God to ground them in. I suspect his argument would go like this:

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

2′ God exists

3′ Therefore, objective moral values do exist.

However this immediately raises the same question, namely, how do we know that the second premise (in each argument) is true?

How could I show him that objective moral values do exist? Is there any way apart from affirming them because we apprehend a realm of objective morality? Couldn't premises 2 and 3 just be circular?

Keep up the great work!


In Christ,


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Dr. craig’s response


I was disheartened to read your email, Rohit, because it illustrates so well the sloppy thinking that all too often characterizes pronouncements from evangelical ministers. (I'm assuming, of course, that you have accurately represented your pastor's views and that it is not you who are confused!) His muddled response to your argument underlines the importance of some philosophical training in the seminary studies of our future ministers.

His fundamental confusion concerns the difference between the truth of a premise and our warrant for it. I take it as obvious that a statement can be true even if we have no evidence at all for its truth; by the same token we can have pretty strong evidence for a statement that is, in fact, false. I'll leave it up to you to think of some examples.

Now I don't think your pastor really denies with the truth of premise (2) (if he did, you'd better look for another church!). Rather what he thinks is that we have no warrant for believing (2) independent of our belief in God. For he thinks that once we do know that a transcendent God exists, then we know that there is a ground for objective moral values. So he really does believe that objective moral values exist, and therefore he should agree that (2) is true.

Moreover, (3) follows logically from (1) and (2) by the rule of inference called modus tollens. So your pastor shouldn't complain about the logic of the argument. (Your attempt to reconstruct his thinking presumably doesn't accurately represent his reasoning because it is just logically invalid: no rule of logic will permit you to infer (3′) from (1′) and (2′).)

Rather your pastor's complaint is best understood as the allegation that we can't use the moral argument, not because it is formally invalid or has a false premise, but because it is question-begging, that is to say, the only reason we have for believing (2) is that we already believe (3). So anyone who uses this argument is reasoning in a circle.

So understood, I think that he is clearly mistaken. People don't believe in (2) because they believe in God. They believe in (2) because of their moral experience, in which they apprehend certain values that impose themselves upon us and certain duties that lay claim upon us. That goes for atheists and agnostics as well as theists. Non-theists who accept (2) obviously do not do so in a question-begging way, and neither do theists, I should say.

Of course, your pastor may be sceptical of our moral experience, thinking that it is as plausibly attributed to social conditioning as to a genuine experience of moral values. But why agree with him about that? I am far more confident that I apprehend objective moral values and duties than I am of the premises in any argument for moral scepticism. And so are most non-theists, whom we are seeking to persuade.

Your pastor seems to be confusing the order of knowing (ordo cognoscendi) with the order of being (ordo essendi). In the order of knowing, we first apprehend a realm of objective moral values and then infer to God as their ground. But in the order of being, God is primary as the ground of objective moral values, and moral values depend for their objective reality upon Him. Just because God comes first in the order of being doesn't imply that He comes first in the order of knowing.

So in answer to your question, the best way to convince anyone of the objective reality of moral values is to appeal to his moral experience. Give some illustrations of moral outrages and ask people if they think such things are really evil or wrong. I think you'll find 98% of people will agree on the basis of their experience that we do apprehend at least some objective moral values and duties. With such persons your argument does not beg the question.

- William Lane Craig