As one considers the values of Hollywood and American pop culture, it would be easy to conclude that no one is concerned all that much about morality. The dominant message is that people should live whatever life-style suits their personal preferences. What is right for one person is not necessarily what is right for another.
Or so it would seem.
Just about the time you are convinced that Hollywood thinks morality is relative, a major entertainment figure steps forward and speaks out vigorously about a moral cause. Maybe it’s the environment. Or perhaps its racism. Or maybe the moral cause is caring for the poor. Regardless, it turns out that, in certain instances, morality is absolute after all. In regard to these moral issues, apparently everyone should be on board.
Such was the case with the latest statements by the actress Julianne Moore. The headline I read about her most recent interview said it all:
“Oscar Actress Frontrunner: I Don’t Believe in God; Gun Control a Must.”
Now right off the bat, it is clear that there are some serious problems with Moore’s worldview. First, she stumbles into the very problem mentioned above. How can we take her moral position seriously, when the message of her industry is that there are no moral absolutes? You can’t say, on the one hand, “Live whatever life-style you want,” and then, on the other hand, say, “You must follow this particular moral position” (in this case, gun control). It’s one or the other.
But, the second problem is even bigger than the first. In addition to making moral claims, Moore makes it clear that she doesn’t believe in God. Apparently, then, she has an atheistic worldview. Of course, she is free to have such a worldview, but the problem is that it doesn’t square with her moral crusade for gun control.
Presumably, she is concerned about gun control because she values human life. She believes it is “wrong” to take a human life, and wants to prevent as many human deaths as possible. But, on an atheistic worldview, why is human life more important than any other life? It is just the product of billions of years of mindless evolution. On an atheistic worldview, taking a human life is no different than taking the life of a cockroach. On an atheistic worldview, there is no right and wrong at all.
Later in the interview, Moore admits as much. She says:
“I learned when my mother died five years ago that there is no ‘there’ there,” she reflects. “Structure, it’s all imposed. We impose order and narrative on everything in order to understand it. Otherwise, there’s nothing but chaos.”
Basically, according to Moore, there is no inherent meaning in the universe–meaning is just something we “impose” on a world filled with “chaos.” All good and well, but what then is the ground for her moral claims about gun control and the value of human life? In a world without meaning, why would it matter what one human does to another? It is just one bag of molecules doing something to another bag of molecules.
Of course, Moore might respond and say, “You can still have morality on an atheistic worldview. Morality is determined by what is good for the most people. And gun control is good for the most people.”
But, this just creates a new moral code out of thin air, namely that “Morality is determined by what is good for the most people.” Where does this moral standard come from? Did she just make it up? And why should people follow it? Moreover, how does Moore determine what is good for the most people? What counts as “good”?
In the end, Moore’s worldview faces some serious philosophical challenges. She wants to have absolute morality so that she can declare murder wrong (and thus advocate gun control), but at the same time she provides no coherent basis for what makes something right or wrong. Indeed, she has a worldview that actually destroys the possibility of their actually being any real right or wrong.
When someone has such an obviously incoherent worldview, it makes one wonder how that happens. What leads someone to embrace two obviously contradictory premises? The Bible actually provides an answer for this. The Scriptures teach that men and women are made in the image of God and the law of God is written on their heart (Rom 2:14-15). This explains why Moore insists that murder is wrong (which leads her to advocate gun control).
The Scriptures also teach that unbelievers suppress this truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18-23). Even though Moore knows there is a God, she refuses to admit such a thing and tries to live her life without him. Thus, her contradictory worldview is inevitable. She is trying to get away from God, but cannot escape him because the Law of God is written on her own heart.
Of course, it should be noted that Christians agree with Moore’s concern for human life. We agree that it is wrong to murder (regardless of what one thinks about the merits of gun control laws). The difference is that Christians actually have a coherent reason for why murder is wrong, namely because humans are made in the image of God (and thus are different from the cockroach), and because God has commanded us not to murder.
While non-Christians might act moral, and might advocate moral acts, only Christians have grounds for why an act is moral or immoral in the first place.
This article repeats the common assertion that atheists have no basis for morality, but ignores the many atheist responses to this Frequently Asked Question. A quick search for “atheist basis for morality” returns hundreds of responses. This would have been a more interesting article if it had fairly presented and addressed some of these arguments instead of simply echoing a cliché.
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Greg. I am aware of the atheist responses to this issue. And I even included one in the article itself. But it is no cliche to suggest that moral norms are a real problem for the atheistic worldview. Even atheists are saying this. E.g., see Alex Rosenberg at Duke University and his recent book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. He just blatantly states that any honest atheist needs to admit there is no right and wrong in the universe, nor could there be on an atheistic worldview. And Rosenberg is an atheist.
Michael, I fear that articles like this one send our Christian soldiers into battle armed with a broken stick and a cardboard shield against an enemy who has been carefully polishing his armor and sharpening his sword. We rightly criticize the sloppy thinking of, for example, Eichenwald’s Newsweek piece on the Bible (and I thought your response to that was excellent). Yet our own arguments sometimes seem just as lame as Eichenwald’s. The argument that atheists have no basis for morality has been described as “one of the most popular talking points of theists” and every thoughtful atheist has ready answers for this. Most atheists are not as concessive as Rosenberg. Stephen Maitzen, for example, even argues that morality depends on atheism. As a Christian, I want to learn robust and satisfying answers to the strongest atheist arguments – not just the familiar repetition of pious truisms.
Michael Kruger says
Greg, you claim that “every thoughtful atheist has ready answers to this.” Actually, that is not the case. Yes, answers have been given, but whether those answers are intellectually compelling is another thing entirely. The typical atheist response simply makes a pragmatic case for why we should behave morally, not why something is actually morally right or wrong. Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion does precisely this. After offering a litany of evolutionary reasons for why behaving a certain way makes sense, he never actually answers the question of why certain acts are morally wrong ontologically.
You actually cite from a web article defending atheistic foundations for morality when you say, “The argument that atheists have no basis for morality has been described as ‘one of the most popular talking points of theists.’” That article is here: http://www.atheismandthecity.com/2013/02/a-case-for-secular-morality-objective.html. But, that web article is chocked full of massive philosophical problems. For instance, the author defines a wrong action this way: “wrong actions being those that intend to negatively affect conscious beings.” So, in essence, his argument is “It’s wrong to hurt other people.” But, he never answers the question of where this maxim itself came from? How does he know that we should be guided by the maxim “It’s wrong to hurt other people”? Moreover, he never answers WHY it is wrong to hurt other people. He simply pulls this arbitrary principle out of thin air.
You claim that this is an example of the atheist who has “been carefully polishing his armor and sharpening his sword,” while the Christian argument is a “broken stick and cardboard shield”? You need to seriously rethink your position here. Christian philosophers have argued extensively that atheism provides no coherent basis for morality, and even many atheists agree. And it is because of the kind of faulty reasoning of the web article you cited form.
Thank you, Michael. This reply is a step closer to what I was hoping for. Dealing with arguments like those of Dawkins may be like shooting fish in a barrel for you. But a layman like me who lacks your philosophical sophistication can find such arguments daunting. I may know that something smells a bit fishy, but it all sounds so reasonable and I don’t quite know how to put my finger on the problem. It would be a great help if we could better understand the foundations of these arguments and where exactly they fail.
I’m a lifelong Christian but I don’t see the logic in your post today. When one compares the homicide by gun rate of the US to countries like the UK with strict gun control laws I would hope that even an atheist could see that loose gun control laws are undesirable. That’s not about morality. That’s about wanting to survive. What is suspect is the religious-like devotion that so many Christians have to their “right” to bear arms. Does anyone really see Jesus or the Apostles packing firearms if they lived in the US today? Yes, I’m aware of the one ambiguous passage about a sword but it hardly is a foundation for the gun worshiping idolatry of conservative American Christianity today.
But regarding your broader argument, there are other considerations than morality for people to make decisions on. Functional and pragmatic considerations suffice in many areas of life. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for morality and wider instruction on Christian ethics. But you go too far to suggest that atheists have no grounds whatsoever on which to make decisions about any matters affecting society.
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Gary. But you are confused about my argument. My argument is not about whether gun control is a good idea (that is another debate for another time). My argument concerns the grounds for Moore’s claims that gun control is a moral cause worth backing. I have a hard time believing her sole reason is self-protection. She just wants gun control so that she doesn’t personally get shot? I doubt Julianne Moore is any real danger. Likely, she is for gun control because she thinks human life matters. My question is simple: on an atheistic worldview, why exactly does human life matter?
As for whether people have other grounds for their moral decisions, such as pragmatic grounds, you are missing the point. The issue isn’t why someone chooses to be moral (it may be solely for self-interest), the issue is what makes something moral (regardless of whether someone chooses it). Pragmatic considerations don’t make an action right or wrong. They are simply sociological explanations for why people behave they way they do.
Michael, I’m not confused! I understand your argument. There really are sufficient considerations other than morality for even atheists to make decisions about many social issues. My aunt was murdered in Memphis in 1989. That is still painful for me today. Even an atheist does not want to go through the pain of losing friends or family to unnecessary violence that could be reduced through proper laws. Even amoral animals prefer for them and their offspring to live.
The terms right and wrong are too ambiguous to be helpful in our wider society today. Those words carry a number of different meanings for different people. (Someone might comment on an odd scene, “That’s just wrong!, without intending any reference to morality.) I prefer to address social issues from the perspective of justice. Is a practice just or unjust? Even unbelievers can usually understand immediately whether a given practise is just or unjust. Our God is a God of justice as well as mercy and we as Christians have a special obligation to fight for justice and mercy as we try to be the salt of our society that our Lord intends us to be.
But we do ourselves and the cause of Christ no favor by overstating the situation of unbelievers. Even unbelievers may choose in a given matter to side with right or justice because they see that a just society is a much better way for all to live. I’m a big believer in the old adage, “Give the devil his due” or, as my late grandmother put it, “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.” People may become just after turning to God or by pursuing justice they may find their way to the God of justice.
Joey Henry says
Gary, the point is whether you use the term “justice” versus “good”, the unbeliever ultimately makes judgment about what is right and wrong for the society. When that happens, he or she is actually borrowing from the Christian Worldview. The unbeliever simply denies his worldview and practically stands on the worldview he/she denounces. That’s what makes athiesm an in inconsistent, self-refuting worldview.
Joey, I certainly have no desire to defend atheism. But I believe that what is good and right and just is innately attractive potentially to all people even before they come to know Christ. Even pagans can come to love what is right and just. Cornelius in Acts 10 is a good example. Before he became a Christian his alms and good works ascended as a memorial for him before God. I am not a syncretist but I don’t mind admitting that there is good in religions other than Christianity. That does not at all make them equal to Christianity or sufficient for salvation but it is a simple recognition of reality. The late Reuell Lemmons once said that truth is truth no matter who says it. I believe the same is true for good works. Good is good no matter who does it. Whether one is motivated by Islam or Buddhism or the philosophy of the Kiwanis Club to do good we do no harm to Christianity to commend goodness and justice wherever we find it.
There is a disconnect between what you are both saying to each other. Joel and Michael (and Grant) are basically asking the question, “Why is something good or bad?” You seem to be advocating a semantic change but without recognizing what the real question is.
So answer this question, “Why is it wrong to murder someone?”
If you were to ask, “why is murder unjust?” you would be denying the possibility that under certain circumstances, murder may actually be just. But justice according to whom? Is “Just” always “Right”?
Gary, I think you hit the nail on the head here and it is just what Dr. Kruger is saying in the article. You mention that “even pagans can come to love what is right and just.” Notice that this is exactly what Dr. Kruger said when he mentions Romans 1 and the fact that God has written his laws in everyone’s heart. What I believe Dr. Kruger is getting at is not that unbelievers cannot recognize good and evil, or if you wish, justice and injustice, but that their basis for recognizing such is meaningless since they do not appeal to a higher law than themselves. If the basis of your concept of just and unjust is simply what you believe is just or unjust, then what is just or unjust will change as your, or society’s, mores change. What is just today may not be so tomorrow. We humans like to think that we’re moving in a linear fashion going from less just to more just as time goes by. But history very convincingly teaches us that is not the case. Without God’s absolute standard or morality, justice will be an ever amorphous and changing matter.
I think you and the other folks on the posts here are very thoughtful and knowledgeable. It takes sensitive people in Christ to wrestle with these issues and it is to your credit that you want to get it right. God bless you in your walk with Him.
Mike, I appreciate your spirit. But to be frank, the constant drumbeat of conservatives emphasizing the absoluteness of God and God’s morality is not only wearisome but largely meaningless. God does change his mind at times. To give one specific from Scripture, God allowed and perhaps even providentially encouraged Jacob to marry sisters. Yet, in the Law of Moses, the marriage of a man to sisters is forbidden. Further, God allowed polygamy clearly in OT times but, if conservative Christians today are to be believed, such marriages now would be morally wrong. So what exactly does it mean, practically speaking, to solemnly declare the absoluteness of God’s will while indicting the rest of the world for refusing to see this supposedly clear truth.
Far too often, the repetitive refrain of conservatives about the absoluteness of God’s morality seems to implicitly mean that what I teach and believe is absolutely true and how dare anyone not agree. The Christian moral imperative of one generation is often forgotten by other generations. Slaveholders could be Christian leaders in parts of our nation before 1866. But many of us would not extend Christian fellowship today to a slaveholder today even if it were legal. Adam Clarke’s writings had a large following among Christians well into the mid-20th century. He was adamant that masturbation (or onanism as he referred to it) was more disastrous to humanity than plague, smallpox or war. I can’t remember now the last time I’ve read or heard any negative reference from any Christian source about masturbation. Many such examples could be given.
I don’t deny that there is an absolute sense of God and his will. But that has little practical meaning for life today. We have no inspired interpreters of Scripture today among us. Conservatives frequently seek to shut off legitimate inquiry and debate about the meaning of Scripture and exactly what God’s will is for us by appealing to the absoluteness of God and his will. But how does that equate to the conservative position being the correct one? It often comes across as “God’s will doesn’t change so be quiet and agree with me.” It is a non sequitur.
I just checked the use of the English word “wrong” in the NT. I found eleven passages. They all have the sense of being wronged or doing wrong to another. This sense of wrong is closely synonymous with justice. The phrase “right and wrong” has clear meaning for most Christians but is too broad and abstract to communicate well with the wider society. Perhaps if we use wrong more often as a verb then it would communicate better to the world.
Gary, “right” and “wrong” are only ambiguous to those who want them to be ambiguous: the one who suppresses the truth in unrighteousness. Pilate asked Jesus: “what is truth?” And yet, since Pilate later washed his hands of the situation, he knew very well.
How is it ambiguous that murder is wrong? Its only ambiguous if the value of human life is ambiguous. What gives value to a human life? For Christians, it is the Image of God in which He made man. For atheists it is…well, that would depend on who you ask.
We can stop using the word “morality,” and prefer “justice,” but the two concepts are not much different at all. They both assume a standard of “right” and “wrong.” What is that standard? Again, for Christians, it is the Character of God. For atheists, there is no basis for a standard. They might credit a “morality” with authority, but that will only last as long as they like it.
Grant, you and I are on exactly the same page regarding right and wrong. But why use words that do not communicate well to the world? That was my point. Just and unjust communicate much better today than right and wrong.
Agree with the overarching narrative of your article. But I wonder if it lacks the necessary nuance to portray atheists fairly.
Philosophers like Stephen Law – secular humanist – have a very sophisticated view of the value of human life. I disagree with him. But nevertheless, he/they do believe they have valid and rational reasons for valuing human life.
I think it is more helpful to deal with their reasoning and not just their conclusions. That makes the conversation more interesting and assures that we aren’t dealing with caricatures.
Michael Kruger says
Yes, atheists claim to have valid and rational reasons. But, in the end, I don’t think those reasons are compelling. My post was not designed to offer a lengthy survey of atheistic rationale for morality. See my comments above in my reply to Greg for more about the problems with atheistic answers to this problem.
In essence atheism becomes a man/woman made religion that contradicts its meaningless & purposeless existance if it seeks to preach morals.
It imposes “structure” one moment & then says do as you please or who are you to tell me what to do the next.
Either life is in essence a chemical accident or chaos, or it is filled with purpose & meaning.
The Bible has the answer to why we see both in its coherant world view. Its solution is greater than a human being or human mind that is allegedly evolving to some higher attainment.
The Bible has inside knowledge & information & reveals the power to save us from our human predicament with all its agony & ecstasy in a way hollywood never can.
I look to the hills, where does my help come from. Psalm 121:1
Imagine how irrelevent Hollywood would be rendered if Christians would stop feeding this beast…
There is just so much wrong with this article. For example:
“How can we take her moral position seriously, when the message of her industry…” what does this industry have anything to do with that
“On an atheistic worldview, taking a human life is no different than taking the life of a cockroach…” such a strawman
“On an atheistic worldview, there is no right and wrong at all…” another strawman
“She wants to have absolute morality…” where does she talk about “absolute”?
“Even though Moore knows there is a God, she refuses to admit such a thing and tries to live her life without him.” yet another strawman Christians often use
“only Christians have grounds for why an act is moral or immoral in the first place” what is the bases of this claim? Looks like baseless declaration.
I wish apologist would try to understand atheist position before they attack it.
Could not the desire to survive be the basis of morality for atheists? Their thought process could be this: “I want to live. Living in a society with other people has risks. Their decisions affect my chance of survival. My decisions affect their survival as well. Let’s only discuss what risks we aren’t willing to keep, since any act may have unforeseen risks. Once we agree on some rules we are comfortable with, I’ll feel a bit safer. Therefore let’s not murder, since living in a society where that is permissible increases the risk of me falling victim. But let’s keep cars since most people find great utility in them despite their risks. If someone likes murdering people, or finds great utility in it, they can find another society that shares these values. If they stay in our society, their actions will be deemed wrong because the majority hasn’t agreed to permit murder.”
I’m a believer. I also believe God didn’t simply decree what is right and wrong on a whim, but had very strong reasons for his laws, many of them reasonably tailored to ensure our survival so that we fulfill his purposes on this planet. I think it’s fair to acknowledge that atheists can trace or discover God’s rationale and see why certain actions are wrong without having to believe in him. Sometimes they’ll get it right and other time wrong, just like we do.
Even if the atheist’s rationale against murder is based on valuing human life, I can’t see what’s incoherent about that. People can value whatever they want and living in societies increases the chance that values spread. Only if, as you said, the atheists poses a moral mandate as an absolute moral mandate that everyone must ascribe to, might there be an incoherence.
A final note is that atheists could point out that the same incoherence exists in our moral code in that we follow a God who in one breath command us not to murder, indicating the inherent value of human life, and then in another breath commanding the mass execution of entire peoples. Of course, the situation is more nuanced, though we often hear this trope thrown at us. Most of the time, for most Christians, we don’t even bother reconciling this incoherence. Thankfully, our apologists do and have reconciled it. The same might be said of most atheists and their apologists.
There’s no rule that Christian apologists must take on atheist apologists and vice versa. I just find that not as much truth and reality is discovered when an apologist of either side critiques non-thinking lay people of the opposite side.
Either way, to God be the glory! Thanks for this thought provoking post!
Flagrant Regard says
You’re clearly the wisest of the lot here, including (and most unfortunately, with repect to this issue) the blog’s author. Thanks for providing clarity and Christlike reasoning here to all concerned. Well thought through … well said.
Michael, thanks for such a thoughtful article. I teach high schoolers and they are drowning in moral relativism. I also appreciate your willingness to respond to the posts on your blog.
I guess my comment will never get published. Christians are so eager to attack atheist views, but they can’t even publish rebuttals.
If my comments are not published, probably other are not either. This makes reading a blog discussion one sided and boring.
Your blog, your rules. I’ll move on. RSS feed unsubscribed. All the best.
Mike Stephan (@StephanStrategy) says
I am looking at your reply from 31 Jan right now.
If you unsubscribed I guess you missed it.
Montel (@waffleater) says
“While non-Christians might act moral, and might advocate moral acts, only Christians have grounds for why an act is moral or immoral in the first place.”
uh yeah sure totally not-questioon begging
” She wants to have absolute morality so that she can declare murder wrong (and thus advocate gun control)”
Dr.Kruger you do realize that the statement “absolute morality” acutally suggests morality is above god and he is just a middle man right? I mean you should be careful when you play around with the word “absolute”
Michael Kruger says
Montel, I think you misunderstand the term question-begging. I have given grounds for why morality is grounded in God (thus I am not including the conclusion of the argument in my premise, which is the definition of question-begging). What is your basis for morality?
Second, the term “absolute morality” does not, in fact, make God the middle man. You are referring to what is know as the “Euthyphro dilemma” (made famous in Plato’s dialogue) which is often used as a foil to divine command theory. The dilemma suggests that either is something is right because God wills it (making it arbitrary), or God wills something because it is right (making right/wrong stand over God). But, this idea has been widely refuted by philosophers and theologians by simply pointing out that neither option is the case. Morality is determined not by arbitrary fiat, but by God’s own nature. Something is moral because it conforms with the character of God. Thus, morality is not over God, nor is it arbitrary.
Montel (@waffleater) says
but the problem is you are claiming that christians are the ONLY ones who have grounds for why an act is moral or immoral in the first place. And to prove that you just assumed it was correct in the first place
“Second, the term “absolute morality” does not, in fact, make God the middle man”
dont worry i know what a euthyphro dilemma is, and i am not refering to it, i am refering to the fact that you believe morality cannot exist without a moral being and the term absolute morality is contradictory to this claim
“But, this idea has been widely refuted by philosophers and theologians by simply pointing out that neither option is the case”
no it hasnt, all people have done is show that they just push the problem back one step,