Atheists are often asked, or answer without being asked, what they wished Christians and other theists knew about them. People have a lot of misconceptions about atheists for a number of reasons, most having to do with failing to understand what atheism is and is not. And it’s not just theists who have this misconception. Self-described agnostics are known to make the same mistakes, and even many atheists fail to distinguish between atheism itself and the accouterments that often (but not always) accompany it. But usually, it’s believers making these presumptions.
This post is the first in an occasional series addressing these popular misconceptions. You can access it and future articles by clicking on the “Atheists wish Christians knew” tag above this post’s headline.
I wish believers knew that atheists have a moral compass, and it’s not that different from theirs.
Believers tend to think that moral values are “objective,” and that they cannot be objective unless there is a God to declare them. For example, William Lane Craig says, “… if God exists, then the objectivity of moral values, moral duties, and moral accountability is secured, but … in the absence of God, that is, if God does not exist, then morality is just a human convention, that is to say, morality is wholly subjective and non-binding.”
He goes on: “… if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. Thus, we cannot truly be good without God.”
Timid atheists are too quick to concede the existence of objective moral values because it allows dishonest analysts to argue that we do not believe in right and wrong. In reality, moral values are not objective. They are values. Values are judgments by definition, and therefore are not objective. But that doesn’t mean they are baseless!
Craig is a masterful debater, primarily because he infuses his arguments with pithy sayings that take longer to rebut than they take to express. I could spend a year dissecting Craig’s article, because it is so deceptive. I will attempt to rebut his statements as simply as possible.
First, his premise is flawed, as already stated. “If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.” Moral values DO exist. But they are not objective. Craig’s deception here (and he has to know he’s being deceptive) is equating moral values, a subjective judgment, with a basis for moral values, which may or may not be subjective.
Obscuring this fact allows Craig to falsely assert that atheists have no foundation for saying actions are right or wrong, “independently of whether anybody believes it to be so.” But we do have such a foundation. It’s just not scripture.
I am not a moral philosopher, so I’m not necessarily able to articulate this succinctly, but I am a writer with some ability to make a complicated point succinctly. So here’s my attempt, with no pretense of covering all the bases:
Our morality is based largely on empathy and the desire to benefit ourselves and those we love without an avoidable corresponding harm to ourselves, those we love and anyone else.
That’s it. It covers a lot of ground. Admittedly, it does not cover such immoral acts as having sex with someone of the same gender or picking up sticks on the wrong day of the week, both of which are punishable by death in the Old Testament. It doesn’t cover eating lobster or cheeseburgers, both “sins” according to the source of objective morality invoked by Craig. But it covers just about every commandment that actually matters and makes us better neighbors.
Benefits are objective. Harm is objective. Murdering someone is objectively harmful. It is therefore “wrong” (a subjective judgment). Rape is objectively harmful. It is therefore “wrong” (a subjective judgment). You can even argue that cigarettes are harmful and therefore morally wrong. What about killing someone about to commit a murder or rape? Well, there we have a conflict and we need to exercise subjective moral judgment. The benefit you want is for the victim not to be harmed, but in order to prevent that harm, you have no choice but to kill the would-be perpetrator. That is a corresponding harm, but in this circumstance, it’s not avoidable. So it’s judged, subjectively, to be “good.”
Could Craig show us why picking up sticks on a Friday night is so immoral that it required the execution of someone who committed the offense (Numbers 15:32-36)?
He can’t, because in his view, God is the author of objective morality, and anything he orders is by definition moral. So it was moral to kill that man for picking up sticks on the Sabbath.
Unless you have, you know, a heart.
Forgive me for going into this at such length, but it’s important.
Some time ago, Craig addressed a difficult passage of scripture in which Jews were commanded to commit genocide on the people of Canaan. Craig wrote:
“On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory [emphasis mine] in virtue of that command… Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation… So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.”
Read that as many times as you’d like. Click on the link and read it all in context. It is the most morally reprehensible thing you’ll ever read. God was doing these children a favor by ordering their execution by Israeli soldiers, and if anyone was wronged, it was those poor soldiers!
From this man, atheists are getting lectures about the foundation of morality.
One can only come to this disgusting conclusion by assuming the existence of a God who can do no wrong. You have to surrender your moral judgment to justify such atrocity.
Hilariously, Craig goes to great length in the article to try to justify God’s atrocity by having it fit into the framework I proposed for a god-free basis for morality. Even he knows that “God said so” is not enough to validate a moral claim, and he tries to rationalize what God did. That rationalization uses empathy and a harm/benefit analysis as its objective foundation. In other words, even in defending God against an accusation of barbarity, Craig relies on the same objective basis of morality as an atheist, then tries (and utterly fails) to show that God meets it.
In a related article, Craig writes:
“I find it ironic that atheists should often express such indignation at God’s commands, since on naturalism there’s no basis for thinking that objective moral values and duties exist at all and so no basis for regarding the Canaanite slaughter as wrong.“
That’s a lie, and Craig is smart enough to know it. We know it’s wrong to murder helpless children, and today we do not hesitate to prosecute people who murder children, even when those people claim God told them to do it! We just assume they’re wrong because their actions are immoral.
On naturalism, there is most certainly an objective basis for moral value judgments. We have a better basis for judging the Canaanite slaughter as wrong than Craig does, because Craig has none. He has to torture his sense of decency to justify the atrocity instead of calling it what it so obviously is — evil.
If your basis for morality is God, then anything God says or does is by definition moral, no matter how much it offends your own sense of justice, and no matter how much objective harm it causes with no corresponding good!
If the slaughter of the Canaanites offends you, you are more moral than William Lane Craig. In fact, you are more moral than Yahweh.
We could go through numerous other biblical issues. We discussed slavery in a previous article. In another verse, God commands rapists be punished by forcing them to marry the women they rape. The list goes on.
Atheists definitely use objective standards in determining what is and is not moral. We just don’t use scriptures, and in many ways, neither do believers.