Can a person be moral without God?
Atheists are often attacked by Christians as being inherently immoral. The Bible certainly does not speak very highly of atheism (Ps. 14:1), and polytheism and idolatry are condemned as ignorant and immoral positions (Isa. 44:6-20). Indeed, the first of the Ten Commandments is a declaration that one must worship only the One, True, Living God (Ex. 20:2-6). But does this mean that atheists cannot be moral?
There are actually three answers to this, depending on how the question is interpreted.
First, if “being moral” is interpreted in the popular way of “being good” or “doing the right thing,” the obvious answer is that, yes, an atheist is perfectly capable of being moral. In fact, as Christians, we must insist that biblically they can be as moral as anyone else. The Scriptural proofs for this are easy enough. Rom. 2:14-15 says:
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them (NIV).
Gentiles were those who did not believe in Yahweh. It doesn’t matter whether they were atheists or polytheists. Denying the True God is one way is the same as denying Him in another. And yet in this passage, Paul asserts that they have the moral law “written on their hearts.” In other words, they know right from wrong. But they do not merely know it, they “do by nature the things required by the law.” Thus, Paul says explicitly that unbelievers actually do behave morally! To argue, then, that an atheist cannot be moral is to deny Scripture. Further, the Bible consistently speaks of God’s judgment on sin, even against the heathen nations. If they were not capable of doing good and did not know right from wrong, on what basis would God judge them? Finally, our own experience confirms Scripture. Who does not know an atheist or a member of any other religion who is not a kind, loving person, who takes care of their families and looks after the needs of their neighbors? It is obvious, then, from any perspective, people can be moral without God.
A second interpretation of the question is to take “be moral” as referring to one’s essential moral character. Is it possible for a person who does not believe in God to be considered a “good” person. It must be stressed that this is a theological interpretation. Under this view, the answer is no for three reasons. First, unbelief is a sin, and no person who sins can be considered good or moral. Second, everything not done from faith is sin (Rom. 14:23). Thus, in this view, even the good the atheist does is worthless, theologically speaking, because, like all sin, it is rooted in the desire to serve the self rather than God. However, before Christians even consider pointing the finger and declaring atheists immoral, we should note that we are in the same boat! Rom. 3:23 says that everyone has sinned, which means that none of us are good or moral. Further, Jesus Himself declares that in the theological view, there is only One who is good, which is God (Matt. 19:17). Christians, then, are no more good than atheists are, a fact that Paul recognizes in Rom. 7:18, saying, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not” (NASB). So again, in this view, no one can be moral without God, but by the same taken, no one can even be moral with Him in this life.
Finally, the question may be interpreted philosophically to mean “Can a person behave in a fashion that can truly be called moral if God does not exist?” Here, the answer is certainly no. We should note, however, that this view of the question has nothing to do with atheists or theists. It has to do with atheism or theism. That is, if God does not exist, there is simply no such thing as morality, and if there is no such thing as morality, then it makes no sense to call anyone moral!
But why should we believe that without God, morality doesn’t exist? The reason is simply that in His absence, all moral statements are merely matters of preference. You would never say the statement “Chocolate is better than vanilla” is moral or represents anything real in chocolate itself. It only expresses your own view. In fact, it is just shorthand for, “I prefer the taste of chocolate over vanilla.” Thus, perhaps surprisingly, whenever two people are arguing over which book, movie, food, song, etc. is “better,” neither can truly claim to be right and the other wrong. If I say, “This is a good song,” I am actually saying, “I enjoy this song.” It makes no sense to respond with, “No it isn’t! It’s a terrible song.” All you are really saying is, “I do not enjoy this song.” Both people are exactly right because they are only speaking about their own taste preferences. Shy of an objective definition of what makes a song “good,” such statements are nothing more than opinion.
When we take this line of thinking to morality, we discover that statements like “slavery is wrong” really only mean “I don’t like slavery” if God does not exist. Some may try to avoid this conclusion by saying that slavery is wrong because it harms others, but then all they done is move the problem back one step. Now they are simply saying, “I don’t like hurting others,” rather than “Hurting others is wrong” as they think they are saying. Still others will argue from an evolutionary perspective that people treat one another in a certain way because it is good for the species and helps us survive. There are two problems with this answer. First, the statement “It is wrong to do what hurts the species” is still just a personal value statement that actually just means, “I don’t like doing what hurts the species.” Morality still has not been grounded in any objective reality. Second, even if we grant somehow that this morality is objective, there is no objective reason for holding up this value rather than another. If evolutionists are right and morality is just a tool we developed over time to help us survive, then there is no real reason to maintain the ethic. Perhaps rather than valuing what is good for humanity, I value doing what is good for me, regardless of the pain it brings others. If I can be guaranteed to avoid the consequences of my behavior, in this view, why restrain it? To say my behavior is “wrong” is only to say that I have rejected your personal opinion.
Against all this, if God exists, it is obvious that moral statements can have real meaning. If God created the world to operate according to certain laws and intended mankind to treat one another in a specific way, then for us to reject that order and behave as we see fit is truly is wrong. We truly ought to do one thing and instead we do another. We can say such things are wrong because they truly violate reality as it actually is. Such statements have objective meaning. Thus, it only makes sense to talk about a person being moral if God exists. If He does not, the best we can say is that we approve or don’t approve of people’s behavior.
As Christians, we must be very careful to handle Truth with care. When we tell atheists that they cannot be moral in the first sense of the question, we are simply being unbiblical. When we tell them that they can’t be moral in the second sense, we are just being hypocritical. And we can’t tell them that they can’t be moral in the third sense, because God really does exist, which means we really can credit them with moral behavior, despite the fact that they ignore the foundations of such statements.
Questions, comments, cries of outrage?