This question is often hurled at apologists from atheist-types when the theist brings up the Moral Argument for the existence of God. Before I get into responding to this particular objection, let's go through the argument as it is most often laid out.
The Moral Argument has been popularized by people like Dr. William Lane Craig, though it has also been used by Greg Koukl, Frank Beckwith and others who refute Relativism. So, let's lay out the Moral Argument:
- Without God, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
- Objective moral values and duties do exist
- Therefore, God exists
The first premise seems to be the one most commonly misunderstood. Typically, the response that I have heard to this premise is that it is not the case that non-theists cannot be good, moral people. They would argue that many atheists are, in fact, more moral than many theists. To this, I would have to whole-heartedly agree. There are many atheists I know, even within my own family, who I believe are far better people, living a more moral life than may professed Christians.
At this point, it would seem that the moral argument doesn't even get off the ground. The very first premise is refuted and therefore the argument is unsound. Except that the argument does not address whether or not people must believe in God in order to be moral. It merely states that God must exist, regardless of whether or not one believes He exists, in order for objective moral values and duties to exist, not that someone must believe that God exists.
This is often referred to as "the grounding problem." That is, in order to have moral values and duties, one must identify some sort of source or foundation or "ground" from where those values and duties originate. What is the source of any given person's morality? Is the "good" determined by what an individual's community or society does and accepts? Or, perhaps it is grounded in the "law of the land" so to speak. Or, maybe each individual person is responsible for determining their own set of moral "rights" and "wrongs." Perhaps they are a product of some sort of "social Darwinism" and have simply been developed over time through a process similar to biological evolution.
Each of these sources of morality seem to have inherent flaws in them. The first states that morality is grounded in how a group of people behave. For example, the practice of female circumcision is practised in some areas of the world. If we ground our morality in what societies do, then anyone outside of one of these societies who circumcise females has no right to campaign against this practice. It is accepted among a particular society and anyone not part of that society should leave them alone. That is the end result of this method of moral grounding.
What about the "law of the land?" Most governments make laws dealing with moral issues. It seems that most countries have laws against murder, theft, rape, etc. These are moral issues. So, let's go with that as our source of morality. The problem here is that it flies in the face of what we already know to be true and accepted. That is, that people like Dr. Martin Luther King, under this moral guideline, would not be seen as a hero, but as a rebel. If the law is what determines morality, then anyone attempting to alter the law would have to go against what has been decided as being moral. Dr. King would have been considered a criminal, on this view. Yet, we recognize him as a great man who brought positive changes to our society through social reform.
The latest craze seems to be the idea that an individual determines their own morality. Now this seems to be the least rational and most inconsistent of them all. The very same people who vociferously protest other people "cramming their morality" down their throats are actually doing precisely the same thing they are protesting against. They're personal morality is that others should not force their morality on them. Yet they get perturbed and start lawsuits funded by the ACLU to force other people to accept their own personal moral value of not forcing other people to another moral system.
These are the same people who cry in outrage against moral atrocities such as what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Yet they fail to realize that if every person gets to determine their own morality, than nobody has a right to judge anything as morally right or wrong. End result...goodbye to our judicial system. If my moral values tell me that it's perfectly moral to kill people who wear hats that I find unappealing, then I cannot be convicted of some sort of crime for following my own, self-determined moral system.
"Oh," they say, "You can have your own morality as long as you don't hurt other people or interfere with their own lives." Hmmm...Does anyone else see what's wrong with that claim? Like the fact that it is a moral claim? The claim is, essentially, that it is morally wrong to harm or interfere with others. But if morality is autonomous, then I can respond by claiming that that may be your moral value, but not mine. Why should I adhere to your morality if I get to make up my own? Sorry, relativists. You simply can't escape that one.
Finally, what about the "social Darwinism" idea? That moral values and duties have evolved over time in some sort of Darwinian process? This seems to have some gruesome implications to it. But in order to combat this idea, let's first take a look at the second premise of our argument.
Premise #2 states that objective moral values and duties do exist. The downside of this sort of claim is that it seems to be self-evident. That ends up having the liability that it cannot really be "shown" to be true by any sort of evidence. However, if one takes a few moments to reflect on the matter, one can probably come up with some things that seem to be objectively true with regards to moral behavior.
If you are unable to come up with any ideas, here is some help with that. It seems self-evident that it is wrong to murder other human beings. That statement requires some clarification, however. The term "murder" should not simply be understood as "to kill." There is more to it than that. The idea of murder is that of killing another person without proper justification. That last bit is rather important. If someone is attempting to kill you and you kill them in self-defence, most people would consider that "proper justification."
However, it never would be acceptable to kill another human being just for the mere fun of it. That is not an adequate justification. Therefore it is morally wrong. I would argue that there is no possible world in which killing another human being for the fun of it would ever be considered morally acceptable.
Another example would be raping little girls. A gruesome example, to be sure. But it serves to illustrate the fact that we all have a sense that such things are morally abhorrent no matter what. There are no circumstances in which such things could be acceptable or considered "good" from a moral point of view.
This takes us back to the "social Darwinism" concept. On this theory, morality simply "evolved" over time and the moral values and duties that we recognize today turned out to be the type which provided the best overall situation for the survival of the human species. Yet, the unstated implication is that our moral values could have been otherwise. In other words, it could have turned out, on this view, that raping little girls would have been the morally right thing to do.
To take this a step further, many of the moral values and duties that we recognize today are actually counter to what one would expect to develop via a Darwinian-type process. For example, Darwinism is concerned with nothing other the the propagation of whatever DNA has the best rate of survival and reproduction. If that is the case, one wonders why killing people with physical handicaps would be morally wrong. One wonders, even, why raping little girls would have turned out to be morally repugnant. After all, what better way to continue the species than forced reproduction rather than the idea of monogamous relationships we have today. (As an aside, this last fact is quickly diminishing to obscurity the way our society is currently going.)
Most people today would recognize self-sacrifice as a virtue of the highest moral regard. Yet, on a social Darwinist view, self-sacrifice would be just about the stupidest thing imaginable. It would make no sense to regard selflessness as morally good if this is truly the source of our moral understanding.
The fact is, we recognize certain objective moral truths. One could refer to them as moral "laws" in a similar sense to the idea of natural laws. That is, certain things are morally right or wrong no matter what. And, as has been said by many fine people, "Moral laws would require a moral law-giver." They have to come from somewhere.
They can't come from what societies do.
They can't come from laws passed by societies.
They can't come from individuals.
They can't come from a process of moral evolution.
Pretty much the only thing left is a person. On the Christian world-view, we refer to this person as "God." I will have to go further into that in a future post as this has become long enough. But I invite ideas as to other options for the source of morality. Or even any objections to what I have raised here.
In the meantime, for more resources on these ideas: