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Good without God?

If you want a challenge, try getting a class of fourteen year-olds to care about philosophical arguments for the existence of God.

Despite its heritage, England is a fairly secular country. A minority of the population attends any form of religious gathering, and if you were to ask a random passer-by whether they believed in God, you’re likely to get a negative response – although probably a polite one. Traditional western religiosity is evidently on the decline, and its apathetic effects are on full display in the youngest generation. As a non-believer, this doesn’t raise any personal concerns, but it proved a great frustration when I was tasked with delivering a series of lessons exploring the arguments for theism.

When I was a Christian, philosophical arguments for God were never central to my faith; their abstract nature allowed them to be sidelined by biblical studies and the experience of a vibrant Christian community that attempted to live out its convictions. Despite this, I recognized – and still do – that some arguments merit serious consideration rather than a hasty dismissal. In particular, the cosmological and fine-tuning arguments combine to make a forceful case for a creative cause that lies beyond the known universe, and a number of contemporary miracle claims should give pause to anyone who believes we have the natural world figured out.

There is, however, one popular apologetic argument that I was not aware of until after I had departed from the faith, and which I find less compelling: the moral argument.

What is the Moral Argument?

Simply put, the moral argument claims that if there are objective moral facts, they can only be explained by God’s existence. Since there are objective moral facts, God exists. Airtight.

Perhaps not.

Before I get into the reason why I find this line of thought to be less convincing, it may be helpful to unpack in a little more detail what the argument is getting at. Or perhaps first, what it is not getting at.

The moral argument does not claim that a non-believer is not or cannot be a good person. Rather, it claims that they cannot justify why what they do is good beyond appealing to their personal preference, i.e. ‘I think it is wrong to slap a puppy.’ The moral argument claims that in order to truly justify why it is wrong to slap a puppy, one’s judgment would have to be measured against an objective standard. After all, what if someone else believes slapping puppies is okay? How do you then decide between the two opinions? An objective standard is therefore required to establish an objective moral fact and arbitrate between conflicting views.

By objective moral fact is meant a proposition regarding moral values that is universally true, regardless of someone’s opinion. For example, a proponent of this argument may claim that ‘it is wrong to kill an innocent person’ is an objective moral fact. It is inconsequential if someone holds an opinion counter to that claim; the murder of an innocent person is still objectively wrong.

What does this have to do with belief in God? A proponent of the moral argument would claim that most people – with the exception of sociopaths – know intuitively that it is wrong to kill an innocent person, and this intuitive knowledge reflects an external reality from which the knowledge is derived. The problem for a non-theist is twofold: firstly, from where is this intuitive knowledge of a moral law derived if not from a divine lawgiver; and secondly, where can one find an objective standard by which to justify their morality if not in the commands – and very nature – of God?

Returning to the base claims of the moral argument, some have attempted to defend moral realism (the belief in objective morality) from a non-theistic perspective, and argue that one can lay claim to moral facts outside of a belief in God. Personally, I don’t see the need to defend this view, as my disagreement is closer to the root: with the idea that there are objective moral facts at all.

The Limits of Language

A major barrier with discussion surrounding the moral argument is the heavy and undue emphasis on one’s use of language. A Christian apologist may hear a non-theist describe an action as ‘wrong’, and – in a gotcha moment – declare such a person to have unwittingly disclosed their belief in objective morality. After all, if they say something is ‘wrong’, it must mean they believe in a universal ‘wrongness’ which transcends individual opinion.

It is necessary at this point to acknowledge the limits of language and its variant use by different parties; a Christian may indeed use the word ‘wrong’ to mean that something has transgressed a divine moral law. This does not mean, however, that every use of this word conforms to such a view.

In a similar vein to ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are umbrella terms that cover a number of meanings. If a maths teacher declared a student’s answer to be wrong, they would indeed be making a claim that the given solution to a set problem was incorrect, and does not correspond to the known laws of mathematics. Yet when someone declares an action to be wrong, it is not in the same context of determining the solution to a set formula, as though every person’s conduct could be neatly placed into one of two categories. Rather, it is a phrase used to convey one or several of a potential plethora of descriptive terms: harmful; coercive; damaging; dangerous; selfish; destructive; insulting; cruel, and so on.

For someone to describe the torture of innocents as ‘wrong’ with the meaning of ‘harmful’ or ‘cruel’ does not require them to sign up to its inherent universal ‘wrongness’, but rather to make a judgment about the effects that such an act has and the character of the person performing them.

While we’re discussing the meaning of language, the word ‘objective’ has proven to be a slippery little thing; it too can be used in different ways, although there are two distinct meanings that tend to get conflated. One may use ‘objective’ to mean free from bias, or at least minimizing bias as far as possible. In this sense, if someone views an action from a disinterested, third-party perspective, their judgment could be labeled objective. However, the way ‘objective’ is usually employed by a Christian apologist is in the platonic sense of having independent existence; something that a person discovers rather than creates. A fact rather than a judgment.

So, those are a few thoughts on the limits of language, and why throwing around words like ‘right’, ‘wrong’, and ‘objective’ is more likely to lead to people talking past each other in confusion than landing at a place of mutual understanding, even if disagreement remains. For the remainder, I’ll address the two problems a non-theist may face: where does moral intuition come from if not God? And how can a non-believer justify their moral beliefs?

Issue One: Where does our moral intuition come from?

Where does our moral intuition come from? The old joke is that for a Christian, the answer to any given question is ‘Jesus’, and perhaps the alternative for the non-believer is ‘evolution’. Perhaps that’s actually true in this case.

As often, I should pre-empt this by explaining that I’m not a biologist - nor am I a philosopher, but it seems that hasn’t stopped me pretending I am so far. The explanations I give are tentative and reliant on the thoughts of those who actually know what they’re talking about. With that out of the way, I think that the evolutionary framework as I have heard it presented provides a good explanation for our moral intuitions.

The natural selection of organisms that are best able to adapt to their environment does not concern only the more obvious physical attributes such as the development of wings, camouflage, or thick fur; it also concerns behaviour.

This is really quite straight-forward if you think about it. Creatures that are not genetically wired to care about their survival are less likely to survive than those who do. Therefore as time passes, the creatures most likely to dominate are those whose brains have developed the best survival instincts. You don’t even have to step outside your head to see this in action: aversion to heights; fight-or-flight impulses; the desire to resolve hunger or thirst; and of course, the drive for sex, which will pass all of these genes onto the next generation.

You may be wondering how this explains our moral intuitions. After all, are these not primarily selfish desires which we would consider either morally neutral or perhaps negative in excess? Well, yes.

But that’s only half the story.

Survival isn’t very easy to do on your own. It’s not long before you find yourself out of resources and vulnerable to predators, not to mention without a partner with whom to form your lineage. Survival requires society, and if that society itself is to survive it must develop behaviours such as sharing resources, refraining from harming one another, and protecting the vulnerable young.

The strongest evolutionary feelings of altruism are on display in a parent’s self-sacrificial care for its child, and similar selfless impulses can be evidenced within societies; it’s difficult to deny that we have an in-built bias for the wellbeing of those we know, beginning most strongly with our ‘tribe’ of family and friends, and becoming more tenuous as it widens to associates and outsiders. It would add up that what we consider to be our common moral intuitions can be explained by our shared evolutionary development.

Issue Two: How does a non-theist justify their morality?

That may explain the source of our intuitions, but how can one justify whether it is right to act upon them without God as an objective standard? The tension between self-interested survival and community cooperation serves more as a cause of moral conflicts rather than a solution to ethical dilemmas.

If we are not simply to respond to our evolutionary instincts, how then do we choose and justify our actions? On a fundamental level, we have a natural aversion to pain and a desire for pleasure, whether ‘base’ pleasures such as food and warmth or those of a ‘higher-order’ such as entertainment and good conversation. Beyond this foundation, a great deal of common ground is also held regarding what allows a person to flourish, despite some disagreement in more nuanced areas. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs provides a strong framework for this by establishing the basic physical requirements for survival and progressing through the more advanced needs for security, social belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. On this basis, I believe a good benchmark for morality is to determine whether or not any given action promotes human wellbeing and flourishing.

Establishing human wellbeing and flourishing as the standard for actions doesn’t solve all of our problems, however. The Utilitarian principle is that one should aim to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people, but when people have conflicting needs in order to flourish, whose do you prioritise?

Morality is messy, and there are rarely clear-cut answers for how we should live our lives. In the few philosophy classes I taught in secondary school, a great deal of fun came from presenting ethical dilemmas and watching students attempt to find the ‘correct’ solution before realizing that such a solution may not exist. But even if the path before you is unclear, holding to the ideal of human wellbeing will nonetheless offer a machete to the intellectual thicket.

At this point, the Christian apologist may ask: how do you decide that human wellbeing should be the standard anyway? Why not dog wellbeing or fish wellbeing? The implied criticism is that the choice to prioritise the welfare of humans is an arbitrary one without justification; after all, non-theists are unable to rest on the biblical notion that humans are made in the divine image and therefore are to be bestowed with unique dignity and protection.

On one level, I agree with the critique. I personally believe there is good reason to broaden the scope from human wellbeing to sentient wellbeing, as many others have concluded before. My recent decision to reduce the amount of meat in my diet is based on the recognition that we are not the only creatures on this planet, and aversion to pain is not unique to humanity. This being said, when moral dilemmas arise which force a choice between the wellbeing of a human or a non-human animal, the human is likely to receive priority every time. Is this an arbitrary decision? It’s complicated.

When making moral choices, our natural biases play up and we will favour those closer and more similar to ourselves; as discussed earlier, this will mean prioritising family over strangers, or humans over animals. Does that mean it’s ‘wrong’ to give money to a friend if the same amount could bring a greater benefit to someone overseas? And should you not donate to a food bank if the donation would sustain a far greater number of animals than it would humans? It depends who you ask, and the would-be recipients of our actions rarely get a say.

Moral decisions result from a complex interplay between reason and intuition; the most rationally-justified solution to an ethical dilemma can be upturned by subjective bias and desire. But even if we fight against it, that does not render our reasoning unsound. It may not be as neat as a divine law book, and it cannot serve as a final arbiter between persons, but the recognition and application of foundational, sentient experience nonetheless provides a solid foundation for guiding our conduct.

The Problem of ‘Ought’

Even if I had been successful in persuading the Christian apologist that God is not required to explain moral intuition and justification, I sense one further objection they may raise: why should anyone follow that moral code anyway? What if instead of acting in a way that promotes sentient wellbeing, they decide instead to live purely out of self-interest at the expense of others? This isn’t an abstract question, for many evidently make such a choice, and the Nazis infamously lived out a moral understanding whereby only certain classes of people were viewed as worthy of wellbeing and others considered sub-human.

This boils down to the question of ought. Without an imperative to follow the commands of God – particularly with the possibilities of punishment and reward in the next life – why ought a person live in any such a way?

It seems to me that there are in fact no intrinsic obligations. Our evolutionary intuition may compel us to act in certain ways, and we can reason as to whether an action is largely beneficial, but there is nothing written into the fabric of reality that provides an ultimate imperative to carry it out.

An ‘ought’ doesn’t exist in isolation, but is always partnered with an ‘if’. It’s conditional. Someone who says, ‘You ought to eat a balanced diet…’ is implicitly following up with, ‘…if you want to lead a healthy lifestyle.’ If someone’s goal was instead to become a record-breaking body builder, perhaps they ought to just load up on protein instead.

The same is true of morality. To claim that ‘You ought not kill an innocent person…’ is coupled with the condition, ‘…if you are to respect their personhood and live in a civilized society.’ For a malevolent dictator whose chief aim is political power, killing innocents may not be off the table. Fortunately, a minority of people subscribe to this goal, and on a societal level, the prison system exists to keep dangerous individuals in a place where they cannot inflict harm on others, and may hopefully be reformed in the future. Nonetheless, one only has to glance at the news to see that such people can end up making it into power and it’s not a simple matter of locking them away.

This again is where it gets messy.

While most people would agree on the ideal of sentient – or at least human – flourishing, without a universally imposed ‘ought’, such a goal is frequently opposed and left under-realised. The grim reality of continual wars and conflict suggests that even the best-laid-out moral arguments cannot defeat physical and political force.

It is not the case, however, that ‘might makes right’, as though the moral validity of an action could be determined by power or a straw poll. While I have argued that I do not believe such a ‘rightness’ exists in an independent objective sense, I have also suggested that there are various factors that could help to decide the preferably (or moral) course of action. Being in a minority or oppressed position does invalidate one’s position, it merely makes it more difficult to live out; as the Doctor one said: ‘They can shoot me dead, but the moral high ground is mine.’

I empathise here with the theist; it would be simpler for sentient flourishing to exist as a divinely-imposed moral goal, but the desire for something does not make it true. Besides, if the Christian’s view is correct, God’s deferral of his moral enforcement to a future reality nonetheless leaves his followers in the same mess as the non-believer. In practice, just as a secular humanist would struggle to convince Hitler of human equality by appealing to experience and reason, a Christian is unlikely to make any greater impact by pointing to the Bible.

You cannot force another person to share your moral values, but reasoning sentient wellbeing as a desired goal nonetheless provides your own 'ought'.

The Euthyphro Dilemma

In the above I’ve explained why I believe that a non-theist can provide both an explanation for moral intuition and a justification for their actions, even if universally imposing their values is not a practical reality.

Further to this, I believe that the Christian’s positive claim to objective morality is itself problematic. One major issue is that the two primary sources for Christian morality – intuition and biblical interpretation – are themselves heavily subjective, and therefore even if an objective morality existed, the Christian should be tentative in claiming knowledge of it. However, there is a deeper issue which pertains to the very question of whether God could even be set forth as the source of objective morality.

In his Euthyphro, Plato lays out a dilemma which can be summarized – and translated from a polytheistic to a monotheistic context – in the following way: does God command an action because it is good, or is an action good because God commands it?

The difficulty for the theist is that in the first instance, morality is established independently of God – an act is virtuous on its own merit, that’s why God commands it – and therefore God is superfluous in determining its moral value. However, in the second scenario the virtue of an action is dependent on God’s command and therefore arbitrary; God could theoretically command anything, even rape or murder – and a flick through the Bible suggests this is not merely hypothetical – and declare it good, making the whole concept of goodness collapse in on itself.

So which will it be, is morality autonomous or arbitrary?

I should be clear, this is not itself an argument against God. Some Christians may be happy to lean towards one side or the other, whether by providing rational justification for the goodness of an action independently of God, or taking the goodness of God’s commands on faith. But this nonetheless presents a difficulty for the apologist who wishes to claim that one requires God in order to justify their morality.

The most common response has been to label the above a false dichotomy: God’s commands stem from his nature, and it’s his nature that is good. It could be said that such a response simply pushes the problem back a step: do we consider God’s nature to be good because we can justify the goodness of his characteristics (e.g. justice, love and mercy) by independent means, or are we forced to accept that whatever is in God’s nature is good and therefore ‘good’ becomes simply a synonym for the divine character?

Perhaps this lands us at the root of the issue: worldview. For the Christian, God is not merely the highest lawgiver in existence, he is the ground of existence itself. Therefore of course his commands must be considered objectively right, because they stem from pure objectivity and the fact of how the universe is. If God reveals himself to be a Trinitarian God who is love and goodness, then it is from him that Christians must derive their understanding of love and goodness. For the non-theist however, there is nothing beyond human judgment which can determine the objective ‘goodness’ of actions; we are all there is. In this sense, the moral argument is not an argument for theism, but from theism, for it requires such a worldview to already be in place.

Where Does This Leave Us?

Through what I’ve written, I hope to have provided an explanation for the two major difficulties that a Christian apologist would present to a non-theist with regards to their morality. I have suggested first of all that humanity’s common moral intuition can be explained through our shared evolutionary heritage which required the development of impulses linked to both individual survival and successful societal living. I have also suggested that one can then justify their morality based on the measure of sentient wellbeing, a standard derived from recognizing and applying the core human experiences of pain and pleasure.

Further, I have also argued that the Christian apologist is not without a problem themselves, for it is difficult to hold both that God is the only means of determining goodness, and that goodness is anything more than a tautologous description of God’s nature and commands. In the end, one’s understand of morality is determined in large part by their worldview and pre-existing assumptions.

Morality is incredibly complex both in theory and practice, and I am an expert in neither. There are a great host of areas that I’ve not considered and others that I’ve almost certainly approached erroneously. I continue to have a great number of questions about the divine and must accept that there are matters which force my skepticism out of its comfort zone. However, if I wanted to convince a secondary school class of God’s existence, I’d probably leave the moral argument off the lesson plan.


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