Discussing the Moral Argument for God

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When you open Twitter these days…it doesn’t take long till you notice someone who is full of moral outrage about something or other. They are often indignant at words someone has spoken, actions taken/not taken,  or simply the state of the world. But – hang on. Isn’t it interesting that we can do this? Express moral outrage to each other in this way? If you think about it, we can do it because there is a moral standard that people all share. We might disagree what the right or wrong thing is in some situations…but we DO agree that a moral standard exists which imposes a big “ought” on all of us all the time. Things ought not to be like they are…that person ought not to have done what they did.

C S Lewis said it this way. The natural law of gravity tells you what stones do when you drop them. The moral law tells you what humans ought to do…but they don’t because they often do the wrong thing. In nature, you just have facts. In human nature, you have facts, and you also have how we OUGHT to have behaved but didn’t. And if you’ve ever shouted at someone and wished you hadn’t, cut someone up in the car or been dishonest in some way…you know exactly what I mean.[1]

If you think about it…that’s weird. Particularly if there is no God, and humanity is simply an accident of nature, biologically evolved from the primordial soup that swilled around when planet Earth was new.

I’ve pointed out the strangeness of this moral “ought” to people and commented on how unusual it is. And I tend to get two basic responses from people:

 

1 – Society has evolved moral standards. But, they change from time to time. It’s just what an evolving society does.

Usually the person will point to an example. Perhaps, how society is changing in its attitudes to homosexuality. This is true. They are right that cultural mores do grow and change. But cultural mores and the moral law are not the same thing. Cultural mores describe how humans behave…but they are not moral standards that we often will struggle to live up to.

What are moral standards? Certain things have always been right and wrong at every time and every culture. For example:

  • It’s always morally wrong to torture little children for fun. Ancient societies that practiced child sacrifice have always been abhorrent and people who abuse little children always criminals. Child abuse is OBJECTIVELY wrong. We absolutely OUGHT not to do it.
  • It’s always morally right to respect your elders. Now, some societies have very different ideas about what “respecting elders” looks like. But – we always OUGHT to do it in a way our culture accepts as correct.

But are these standards just how society has evolved?

I’m sure society does evolve in its understanding. But that says nothing about where our moral standards COME FROM. It just concedes that over time, our understanding of moral standards is evolving and improving.

 

 

Other people responded differently when I pointed to the moral “ought” that presses in on each of us.

2 – Yes. There are objective moral standards. But – these standards come from human beings.

Now – if you think about it, this idea is strange.

They are saying some behaviours are objectively wrong. But – humanity has set those objective moral standards itself. Because we are moral beings, we decide what is right and wrong. But – hang on – the question is – “why are we moral?” We can’t answer this question by saying, “Because we are moral.” This is a logical fallacy called, “begging the question,” or circular reasoning.

Here’s are some problems with this idea.

First – if moral obligations and duties come from society, then why is it that every society agrees on THE SAME objective moral standards (two examples above)? What are the chances of that?

Second – If people give me a set of standards to live up to, why should I care about your moral standards if I have my own? Just because you have an opinion about what I ought to do…why should your opinion influence me? You cannot describe a behaviour as objectively wrong – unless we can both point to an EXTERNAL moral standard which comes from an external source outside of ourselves. If people set this moral standard themselves, then these are subjective “ought’s”…what someone or some group of people think I should do. Why should I care? This is just someone’s personal taste … like which side of the road should we drive on, for example.

Third – behaving immorally has real weight attached to it. The point is that the moral law is different. These laws are objective, they press in on all people in every time and place. And – when we behave immorally – this has real weight attached to it. It’s not just breaking the speeding limit…immoral behaviours are sometimes referred to as “being evil.”

Fourth – If the moral law comes from humanity, why didn’t we make this standard easier to follow? If we recognise a personal struggle in behaving morally, then we have also experienced the other-worldly source to moral obligations.

Someone might respond, if I claim an external source for this moral standard, does this lessen humanity? Does it make people out to be less? Well – why would it? I’m just pointing to a difference between SUBJECTIVE and OBJECTIVE standards of human behaviour. Subjective rules do not morally bind on all people everywhere. Objective moral standards do. Also – this is a moral standard that people aren’t very good at living up to! So that suggests it comes from somewhere or someone else.

 

 

So where does this moral standard come from?

I think I’ve observed that deep down…people just know that some things are always wrong…evil…objectively so. Child abuse is a good example of this. So the question remains – why is that?

 

The only way I think we can make sense of this state of affairs is for there to be a greater being who is of consistently good character, who embeds morality in the people he makes. He defines what is objectively right and wrong, and he imposes this standard on each person. The greatness of this being…results in the weight that lands on us when we behave in an immoral way.

This greater being must be:

  • external to humanity, and so can set a good, objective standard on us.
  • not subject to changing human cultural tastes and mores because we are different from him.
  • powerful enough to create the universe and the people within it.
  • someone we are personally accountable to for our moral behaviour.

 

This greater being sounds a lot like Christianity’s idea of a good and loving God.

[1] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, (London: William Collins, 1952), 17.

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

RESPONDblogs: A Morality I Don’t Understand

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Human morality makes no sense to me if atheism is true – and there is no God.

 

Some of my best and longest friends are atheists. And sometimes they will tell me what morality is all about. But my problem is…I just don’t think it holds together.

 

  1. Often I hear that we are genetically programmed to care for those most likely to be genetically similar to us. Morality is genetic programming.
  2. Then there is the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” theory. Society is really just all about supporting each other to achieve a good end.
  3. And thirdly – reputation. We want to be seen to be doing the right and good thing.

 

But who defines what the right and good thing is? Is it you? Is it me? Is it the one with the most control in society – might makes right?

 

There are so many problems with this Godless understanding of morality. Here are a few big ones.

 

PROBLEM ONE  – it’s not much of a moral framework because it’s focussed squarely on ME. It is a theory that is happy to encourage selfishness. Yet I would suggest that human selfishness is at the root of our problem, it’s not supposed to be the best foundation of society at all.

Moral reformers from the past stood out amongst their peers for the precise reason that – they thought more of others than about themselves. A moral framework can’t be built on selfishness.

 

PROBLEM TWO – it’s a deterministic view of humanity. In other words – it completely denies human free will. We are nothing but genetic machines dancing to the tune written out in our cells. But this is a dangerous theory because it legitimises all sorts of behaviour that we know to be wrong.

We cannot prosecute the rapist anymore, because he is simply doing what he’s programmed to do.

The alcoholic or drug user has no hope because their addiction is predetermined.

To that, we should all say no. There is hope! A crucial part of being human is that we all intuitively know – that we have the ability to choose. Genetic factors do affect us – but at the core we are creatures that can and do make free will choices.

 

PROBLEM THREE – there is no absolute morality. No overall moral code. I know people who would cheer and say – that’s right, Stuart! Welcome to the party at last. But I don’t want to come to this party – it doesn’t sound much fun at all. Because if there’s no absolute morality, there are no standards to judge anything by. And so we are left with – anything goes. Whatever you want to do – have fun with that. As I said before – this leads to “might is right”. And we live at the whim of the most powerful people who, as we have already established, are self-centred and do not respect our free will. Sound familiar? Horrific regimes were run that way by powerful dictators in the 20th century and millions of people died as a result. Welcome to the party? No thanks!

 

PROBLEM FOUR – there is no good or evil. It doesn’t exist, according to a Godless materialistic view of morality. You know that notion inside of you about what the right and good thing to do? You know your conscience? You know all the stories that have been written down thru human history to help people grasp a transcendent moral code? It’s all nonsense. Just stick to personal preference. There is no absolute good or absolute evil. Just choose what you like and go with that.

As Richard Dawkins describes it –

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”[1]

 

 

 

And my atheist friends cheer. Now you are getting it, Stuart! And I reply – no I’m not. I am not getting it. Not because I don’t want to get it – but because from what I can see – no one lives this way! No-one is able to live as if these 4 tenants of atheistic morality were true! This is all simply a grim fantasy.

 

For example, take atheist Sam Harris. He like to take the opportunity to point of God’s abject failure to protect humanity. Why doesn’t God intervene and stop the rape, torture and murder of children? Where was God in 2005 when the city of New Orleans was destroyed by a hurricane? Didn’t God hear the prayers of its victims, hiding in their attics, trying to escape the rising water level? Many of these people died talking to an imaginary friend, according to Harris.[2]

 

So as Sam Harris rails at God – what is he saying? Is he saying that such suffering is evil and should not be allowed by God? But I thought we had established that there is no good and evil?

 

Now I would understand it if Sam Harris is just expressing his feelings on the matter. I agree with him – the suffering he points to is truly horrible. But he doesn’t just tell us how he feels. He goes beyond that. And according to his atheistic worldview, he is making assumptions that he simply cannot make.

  • He cannot assume the intrinsic value of every human life. From the perspective of matter…of chemistry and biology, he has no reason to do so.
  • He cannot move on from expressing his feelings and climb upon a moral high ground. Because there isn’t any!

YET – and this is my point – this is EXACTLY what he and many like him do. Why? Because atheistic morality is a grim fantasy that no one can honestly live with. And so we naturally go with the moral framework we’ve been given….by the God that so many deny.

I agree with Ravi Zacharias who sums up what Sam Harris is doing like this:

“he is selectively borrowing from the biblical revelation of justice and retribution while ignoring the big story into which it fits and by which it gains its purpose. His moral argument distorts the Bible’s finer points while denying its big picture.”[3]

 

 

I don’t understand the explanation for morality that my atheist friends give me. It just doesn’t hold together for me. What does make sense…is the possibility that God himself has written the moral law on each and every one of our hearts. After all…

 

  • When I say there’s such a thing as evil, I assume there’s such a thing as good.
  • When I say there’s such a thing as good, I assume there’s a moral law that helps me distinguish between good and evil.
  • When I say there’s a moral law, I must posit a moral lawgiver who give us the moral law in the first place.
  • And that moral lawgiver…sounds a lot like God. [4]

 

 

 

…who does not exist. According to my friends.

[1] David Robertson, The Dawkins Letters, quoting Dawkins The Blind Watchmaker.

[2] Ravi Zacharias, Why I am Not an Atheist, quoting Sam Harris Letter to a Christian Nation.

[3] Zacharias, Why I Am Not An Atheist.

[4] Ibid.

RESPONDblog: But is God Moral?

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I believe that human morals reflect the God who made us.

(You can find my claim here http://tinyurl.com/ohepkmw)

My claim assumes that God is moral. Yet ironically many people would point to the Bible itself for evidence to the contrary!

“The Bible tells us to be like God, and then on page after page it describes God as a mass murderer.” – Robert A. Wilson

 

I don’t completely agree with Robert A. Wilson. On the contrary. The Bible I read shows God’s kindness and patience and generosity on page after page. Yet Wilson does make an important point.

 

The Old Testament records that, as the nation of Israel is entering the Promised Land, God instructs them to destroy the Amalekites completely. This does not sound like a particularly moral thing to do, does it! Where is the call to “love your enemies”? There’s no love here – it sounds like there is a command to commit genocide. Innocent Amalekite men…women…and children all wiped out. Where is the moral goodness in all of that?

 

“Therefore, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies in the land he is giving you as a special possession, you must destroy the Amalekites and erase their memory from under heaven. Never forget this!” Deuteronomy 25:19

 

When it comes to issues of death and judgement – I hardly seem qualified to comment. How am I to understand these very difficult and troubling passages from the Biblical record? My compassion naturally goes out to people. So the thought of a whole nation being wiped out is sobering and hard to take.

 

And yet, Scholar Norman L. Geisler, PH.D. puts God’s command into its proper historical context. And I think this context shows God to be absolutely just – he will punish rebellion when he needs to. But it also shows him to be full of mercy – we are not really talking about a whole nation wiped out, here. If people want to escape, God will let them escape.

 

 

First – history records that the Amalekite people were willfully aggressive and immoral. They were not innocent. Their mission was the destruction of Israel. Genocide. The Bible records that the Amalekites took every opportunity to pick off the weak members of the Israelite people whenever they had the chance. There were other nations like this at the time too. Ancient Near Eastern cultures then were often barbaric and brutal and there were no rules for a humane war amongst these nations.

 

Second – the Amalekite people had been given hundreds of years to change their ways. Yet they persisted in their goal – the destruction of Israel. This was a big problem because God’s plan was to bring salvation for the whole world thru this nation of Israel, his chosen people. If the Amalekites would not change their ways – then God’s just punishment would have to be the result.

 

Third – God’s purpose in commanding the destruction of the Amalekites was to destroy an inherently evil national structure. His intention was not to destroy individual people who were willing to repent.

We can see this expressed in the rules of conduct that God gave to Israel. Israel was the only Ancient Near Eastern nation that had compassion and mercy and fairness at the core of their society. Whenever they arrived at an enemy city, they were to first make the people an offer of peace. We have clear evidence that women and children and non-fighting men had the opportunity to leave the city. Only hardened fighting men remained. The remaining people had a choice. Either accept the offer of peace – and live. Or reject the offer and die.

 

Four – there is evidence that people who repented and changed their ways and chose peace, received peace from God. He was good for his word. For example, the Old Testament book of Jonah records a situation where the corrupt residents of the city of Nineveh were to receive judgement. Yet these people repented and their lives were saved.

 

 

So – God is not commanding genocide on the Amalekites at all. He is not arbitrarily wiping out innocent children. Rather – the sobering truth for us is – he is destroying a corrupt national structure that has had time to change its ways and has chosen not to.

 

 

But the fact remains – even though the non-fighting Amalekites were given the opportunity to leave the combat zone, many fighters would have stayed and died. However you try to understand this – God is still commanding the death of people in these passages. How can this be a moral thing for God to do?

 

Again, Norman Geisler helps us to understand God’s command in the light of two important truths.

First – People assume that what is wrong for us is also wrong for God. But that’s not true at all. Why? Well it is certainly wrong for you to take my life. You didn’t make me…you don’t own me. But if God created my life then surely he has the right to do whatever he likes with it? If we cannot create life from nothing – then we don’t have that right to wipe that life out. God has created – and therefore he can.

This is a hard truth to swallow – but I think we intuitively get the principle behind it in other settings. For example – would you agree that an Artist has the right to do whatever he wants with his painting? If he chooses to finish it, sign it and put it in an exhibition then that is fine. However if he decides that he needs to scrap it and start again – he also has that right. Yes?

Here’s another way to look at it. It would be wrong for me to go into your garden, pull up bushes, cut down trees, kill flowers, etc. I could not do that to your garden. But – I am completely justified in doing so in MY garden because I own the bushes, the trees, etc.

The same principle applies with our loving, just God. He has the right to do what he likes – because he made the Universe and he owns it. Thank goodness he is just, caring and compassionate. Much more so than me.

 

Second – technically, God takes everyone’s life eventually. That’s what death is all about. We don’t know when it will happen – but one day we will die. God’s eventual judgement on the corrupt Amalekite people may just have clarified the timeline for them!

 

 

 

In summary – these are difficult issues not to be taken too lightly. They hold sobering truths for us today. Yet when properly understood in their historical context, I think it becomes easier to get a helpful and thoughtful perspective on them.