Proof of an External Source for Human Morality
May 8, 2012 § 2 Comments
After some debates with atheists using the Transcendental Argument for the existence of God, specifically over objective morality, I’ve come up with a line of reasoning to which I’ve yet to see a coherent refutation. By observing our common experience with morality and putting it to a couple of tests, we can see that its nature and origin cannot possibly be human invention.
According to the worldview of atheism, our perception of right and wrong most likely developed through human evolution; altruistic traits were naturally selected for ultimately because morally good actions were often reciprocated, thereby improving chances of survival and acceptance by a mate (because who wouldn’t like a nicer mate?) and society in general. Without God as a moral law giver, our sense of moral values—the obligations and duties that compel us toward good and away from evil—must be a product of our own conception. For the atheist, there is no external code to follow, no “natural law”, because really we are following our own generally agreed-upon social and ethical norms. If that’s true then morality is relative and subjective. It can change with the socially accepted ideas of what is moral. Most people agree on certain moral convictions such as the popular abhorrence to murder, rape and torturing children, but there are many who think very different morally and may be more accepting of certain losses of freedom, modes of dishonesty, etc. Anyway, let’s test the theory.
FIRST PRINCIPAL TEST
The first test you can apply to the idea of moral evolution is a thought experiment on how morality might have first evolved. Try to imagine the very first act or thought that we would consider to be morally good. The problem for moral evolution is, whatever that first moral good was and whenever it occurred, it would have required a pre-existing moral standard for good to already be in place. Otherwise we would have no way to look back on it and define it as morally good.
If you say that the first moral act began as, say, sharing food or protecting another species in order to gain a favor in return which would increase your survival chances, you still have a problem. Because today, when we are morally compelled to help a stranded motorist, we generally do not consider that the same motorist will likely one day return the favor if our car breaks down. Nor do we turn in a lost wallet in good will thinking it will increase our chances of securing a mate. We do those things because we think it’s the right thing to do (and likewise when we don’t do them we know that it’s wrong). If moral good began as reciprocity, at some point it stopped being about reciprocity and started being about good will. At that moment, we still need a moral standard by which to register and measure it.
And actually, if we’re considering that the idea that sharing became morally good because survival or reproduction was a good and right thing, we’re begging the question and again need a precluding standard for the moral good in survival and reproduction.
Such is the dilemma in attempting a naturalistic explanation for morality, or really any type of fundamental first principal that Christians understand as rooted in the nature of God. It makes sense that if we are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and the God described in the Bible is a moral Being, we are moral agents, knowing innately of His law written on our hearts of which our conscience bears witness (Romans 2:15). Atheism has to find another way, so it shores up morality with a relatively shallow definition that simply doesn’t square with the morality we observe and interact with.
The second test you can use to show an obvious external source to human moral obligations is what I would call the Jurisdiction Test. If moral ideas evolved within humans, then they should only govern human behavior. We can show that even the most ardent atheist doesn’t relegate morality exclusively to human beings by asking three types of questions regarding the jurisdiction of our moral code.
The first jurisdiction: Ancient cultures. Do we apply our contemporary moral obligations to ancient humans regardless of when or where they lived on earth? I think it’s obvious that we do. By evolution, moral ideas would of course change over time, and there would be no basis for applying our current moral expectations onto our ancestors. Evolution demands that at some point moral ideas change, and we can’t expect our modern rules to have any jurisdiction over people of the distant past. Would we morally judge Grog if he clubbed Og for fun? Would we not agree with God in his condemnation of Cain for the killing of Abel? (Genesis 4:10). On atheism, we should have no opinion of past moral atrocities. The fact that we do shows that moral law is immutable and transcendent throughout time and cultural boundaries.
The second jurisdiction: Aliens! Do we project human morality on the lore of intelligent extraterrestrial life elsewhere in the universe? Of course we do. I’ve never known any book, movie or story about alien encounters with humans that don’t respect the human idea of morality. We fully expect that if aliens, who would have evolved separately from humans, invaded earth, killed or enslaved its inhabitants and stole our resources, this would be morally wrong regardless of what the aliens thought about it. Would it be okay for us to conquer another planet, as in Avatar, since our morals don’t apply in their world? Didn’t Obi-Wan cringe when the Empire blew up the planet Alderaan (not his home planet)? Didn’t Dennis Quaid and the alien on Fryine IV negotiate through hatred for each other before arriving at compassion and mutual respect? Granted, these are stories, but they’re written by real people who understand that morality is objective and universal. We don’t write stories any other way because we can’t live any other way or even imagine the local type of morality naturalism requires.
The third jurisdiction: God. Do we expect God to follow the same system of morals that we do? Of course we do. Common atheist criticisms of the God described in the Bible label Him as a “moral monster”, as Paul Copan writes. Richard Dawkins describes the Old Testament God as “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser”. These judgments typically reference God’s judgment in the global flood and in the destruction of the Canaanites. Defending these Biblical accounts is another matter, but the point is that atheists make moral judgments on the hypothetical Creator of the universe, something their own worldview should disallow. Moral code that should only have authority over humans somehow is over-arching enough to encompass the idea of God. How is this possible? We can’t even imagine a local-type of morality because there is no such thing. Moral law is obviously objective and universal, as we can’t help but project it onto all forms of morally aware beings regardless of place, time and moral preeminence.
One way atheists can argue around the above tests is by redefining what morality is in the first place. Because many people have different ideas of what is morally good, atheists think that morals are just that: Our own ideas of what is morally good. However, when we examine them, our moral obligations are laws that we follow, not laws that we write. They are what they absolutely are regardless of what we think of them or how we interpret them. On atheism, morality is the interpretation of the law, not the law itself (in fact atheists would shy away from calling them laws since that term implies a writer of the law outside of ourselves).
In the course of argument, a Christian can point out that if what is morally right is subjective, the atheist should not feel compelled to argue for what is “right”. Debate shouldn’t matter as all our views are equally true and right. Although they claim the opposite, atheists argue as if truth is objective and supposed to apply to absolutely everyone. Everyone treats morality as if it is objective, absolute, and applies to everyone, everywhere, for all time. How can one who doesn’t believe in God still value morals, the atheist asks? It’s because morality isn’t opinion, but hardwired by the Creator.
The atheist’s logic leads to another counter I’ve heard, and that is that the argument involves a fallacious appeal to popularity. Even if most people think morality is objective and universal, that doesn’t make it true. Above I say that “everyone treats morality” a certain way. Since I can’t possibly know or interview all humans who ever lived, I can’t really be certain what “everyone” does. We already know that “opinions” differ because atheists think morality is subjective and evolving. But the reason I think argumentum ad populum doesn’t actually apply to the arguments I’ve made is because I’m describing what we can observe about morality, not popular opinions about it, which is about as certain as we can be by trusting our senses.
What we observe about morality relies on what we sense about it the same way that, for example, the scientific fact of water freezing at 32 degrees fahrenheit relies on what we sense about it. The freezing point of water is something we can repeatedly test and observe with the same results every time. It seems that everyone who observes it sees that freezing occurs at 32 degrees. This is considered reliable data. We observe it with the senses, and we have to presuppose that our senses are generally reliable; that we know that what we see reflects reality. In the same way, our sense of morality is testable and experiments are repeatable, and everyone who observes it sees that it is objective and universal. The atheist often comes to a different conclusion, however, because without the recognition that morality is something objective to observe, it has no presence other than a projection of the mind. On atheism, moral values are an opinion to be had, not a thing to observe.
Holding to some relativistic, consensus-based morality, the atheist stubbornly clings to the logical absurdity of moral evolution. One atheist I debated had to admit to some objective source of our moral values, but, he argued, “The problem…is that by objective source, you mean a Divine source. I agree and explained why morality is objective (it has evolved in a particular way), but it is not divine and not absolute.” He was never clear on how he thinks morality evolved objectively or by what reason his source of morality can’t be divine.
In a separate debate on the cause of nature, another atheist said, “atheism does not require one assume a natural cause for the universe. Atheism is the rejection of a God, not of all supernatural causes.” It seems that at least some atheists would be willing to come as far as what might be considered the doorstep of God and dare not enter. A sufficient Cause for the universe, including human morality, would necessarily be supernatural, transcendent, powerful, intelligent, complex, and moral—and if moral, personal.
When challenged, at least a few highly intelligent atheists have conceded that the source of moral law is allowed to be something that closely fits the Biblical description God, but cannot be that God. The reason? I believe it isn’t the logic that is so repulsive, but the idea of moral accountability that causes us to “suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). In a universe where God is the ultimate standard for moral good, anywhere that we fail morally is bad news. But just beyond that is the good news of God stepping into humanity to pay for the sins we brought into the world. It’s always been a moral issue, and Jesus was and still is a stumbling block for many.