A Moral Argument for God’s existence
A moral argument in support of the existence of God may be structured as follows:
Premise 1: If objective moral values exist, then God exists;
Premise 2: Objective moral values do exist; therefore
Conclusion: God exists
If the premises are true, the conclusion follows unavoidably and necessarily as a matter of logic. The argument stands or falls on the strength or weakness of both premises. If you want to avoid the conclusion you have to do so by refuting at least one of the premises. Therefore because the argument rests on the strength of the premises, it is not intended to offer irrefutable proof of God’s existence. Argument needs to be made in defence of both premises and each person should evaluate for him/herself the weight to be accorded arguments in favour of the premises before accepting or rejecting the conclusion.
However, criticism of the arguments and evidence offered in support of each premise should be compatible with the critics own worldview i.e. the critic should be sensitive to the internal consistency of his own worldview when responding to the arguments and evidence given in favour of both of the above premises. This is not a scientific argument but a moral argument. Therefore the type of evidence appealed to is not scientific but the evidence we derive from our everyday moral experience in the form of our moral intuition and considered moral judgments. Everyday each one of us is faced with the phenomenon of morality; it’s woven into the fabric of our everyday lives whether in the form of commenting on the behaviour of others or having to decide for ourselves between right and wrong actions. To a lesser or greater degree every one of us senses a moral conscience within, which we undeniably testify to in our moral voice. The evidence to be looked at is what we can draw from our daily moral experience.
It is also necessary at the outset to make the point that the moral argument as presented above is not saying that belief in God is a prerequisite for being able to live a good moral life or being able to appreciate the difference between right and wrong moral behaviour. Interestingly not even the Bible makes the claim that atheists are unable to live good moral lives. That is not the argument at all. The argument ties the existence of objective moral values to the existence of God as the best explanation for such objective moral values. That is all the argument is trying to show. If objective moral values exist, so arguably, must God also exist. Hence it is not a defence of Christian Theism per se. “Which God?” is not the topic under consideration.
A brief explanation of what we mean by objective moral values is also important. By objective what we mean is independent of human belief or opinion; what exists independently of what anyone may think to be the case; a moral truth higher and beyond ourselves; outside of space, time and matter; transcending personal taste and independent of personal preference or opinion or culture; what is the case independently of and transcendent to, human thought and reason, regardless of whether or not the objective moral state of affairs can be apprehended by human thought and reason.
Let’s turn now to a consideration and assessment of each of the premises. Premise 1 states that “If objective moral values exist, then God exists.” This premise ties the existence of objective moral values to the existence of God and is based upon the reasonable, common sense notion that moral values such as mercy, kindness, forgiveness, compassion and justice must have a personal locus. That is, if such values exist objectively, how could they do so without being grounded in an independently existing personal being? If mercy, justice, kindness and other moral values exist independently of what we think and believe i.e. whether we believe that they exist or not, then the question is how would they exist in such an independent state in their own right, apart from a personal being to ground them? How could a moral value such as justice or kindness just exist in and of itself in the universe as a mere abstraction? It makes sense to speak of just and kind human actions or people but to say that justice and kindness are able to have an existence of their own does seem to be non-sensical. How would something like kindness just “be” without having any personal being to anchor or ground it? We may know kind and just people but kindness and justice surely cannot have any existence that is objective unless they have their source, anchor and locus in some independent and objective personality. We don’t even speak of animals as being kind or just or merciful. Moral values only make sense in the context of and in relation to persons as moral agents and if objective moral values and duties exist then an objective moral being must exist to make sense of them. A personal God makes the best sense for grounding objective moral values and duties. (The atheist wanting to postulate moral realism needs to makes sense of moral values (and duties for that matter) in the absence of personality i.e. he or she needs to provide support for an argument that fidelity or trust or justice, for instance, can simply exist in their own right.) Thus, if objective moral values and duties exist, then it sounds reasonable to say that God exists (as the best explanation for such moral values and duties).
Premise 2 contends that objective moral values and duties do exist.
So where can we look to find support for this contention that objective moral values and duties do indeed exist? What evidence do we have for claiming it to be true? Everyday each one of us is confronted by the inherent moral thread woven into life. Everyday we have to choose between right and wrong courses of action. We make careful and considered moral judgments on a wide range of issues and choose between right and wrong courses of action on a daily basis. Or maybe we feel guilt for choosing one course of action over another and then try to make ourselves feel better about it by justifying it to ourselves through various ways such as rationalization or making up for it in some other way in the form of compensatory behaviour. We experience moral guilt (and guilt itself only makes sense in the context of a personal audience). Moral questions and issues affect us daily. Even atheists condemning the actions of God in the Old Testament do so based upon a standard of morality which they obviously must believe exists for them to be able to do so. Even if their accusation is only to make the point that the bible is internally inconsistent, their assumption in judging the God of the Old Testament is still that hypocrisy is an objective moral value that holds universally and independently. Therefore, atheists in condemning the actions of God uphold the second premise by establishing at the very least that hypocrisy is wrong i.e. a moral vice that obtains independently of human opinion. The opposite, integrity, would correspondingly also be established as a good, objective moral virtue by implication.
At this point it is important to make clear that the existence of only one objective moral value is necessary in order to make the entire argument go through.
To make moral judgments about the character or actions of other people (incl. God), in the assumption that such moral judgments are not just a matter of your personal opinion (in the same way as you may think vanilla is better than chocolate), but that such judgments have objective validity and weight, is to tacitly affirm the truth of the second premise. Yet it seems to be a regular occurrence for both atheist and theist alike to judge the behaviour of others. Without stating it, the assumption in all such judgments is that what is morally right and wrong is not just a matter of opinion. We have courts of law because we don’t put issues such as murder, rape and robbery on the same level as chocolate vs. vanilla or Country and Western music vs. Rock. We all in fact seem to affirm the truth of the second premise in our moral judgments, especially when we are the victims of crime and injustice. In these moments no-one would take seriously the idea that what they feel is simply the result of human evolutionary history (the actions of the perpetrator were only wrong in so far as they were detrimental to survival value) or simply a matter of their personal opinion. Indeed if questions of right and wrong simply boiled down to individual personal opinion, in the face of suffering under injustice or some other moral evil, we would have no real basis for our moral outrage and demands for justice. If issues of morality (which underlie legal norms) are simply a matter of personal opinion, why should our personal opinion carry any more weight than the opinion of the perpetrator?
The only way out for atheists in such a situation is to posit some form of atheistic moral realism in which objective moral values do exist in the absence of God. However, as already pointed out, it is extremely difficult (at best) to make any sense of moral values such as integrity, justice, kindness and mercy as just existing by themselves. Moral values only make sense in relation to moral agents. Furthermore, even if we allow for atheistic moral realism, the question then becomes why should anyone align themselves with objective compassion rather than objective hatred and revenge? How does atheistic moral realism make sense of objective moral duties in the absence of God? Where would the sense of moral obligation originate in relation to these objective moral values in an atheistic worldview? Why align with the “good” values rather than the “bad” ones in the absence of any objectively grounded obligation or ultimate accountability? Atheistic moral realism fails in that it has no way of explaining an objective “ought” as an essential component of morality, other than by saying that it goes against the herd mentality, which is there because it promotes reproduction and survivability. However, there is nothing immutable about survival value and whatever behaviour promotes survivability in one place or time may not be the same in another. Hence moral values are not objective in the sense described above in terms of the Neo-Darwinian worldview.
Our common daily moral experience and moral intuition appears to reveal certain standards of right and wrong that we don’t truly seem to believe can be reduced to simply a matter of opinion. Who would honestly say that torturing innocent people for fun is not morally reprehensible and could never be right? Let’s take another example, such as rape. The atheist philosopher of science, Michael Ruse, asks the question: “Is rape permissible on Andromeda?” As someone who accepts Neo-Darwinism, Ruse is asking if rape, due to its possible effect of promoting survivability in a different environment where evolutionary history has progressed along different lines, may not in fact be seen as morally right. As highlighted by Ruse’s question, in the absence of God, ethics becomes illusory. What is said of rape could possibly be said of any moral value given the absence of God and a different evolutionary outworking where ‘survival value’ is the supreme determinant of what we come to believe about moral questions.
Given the neo-Darwinian synthesis, morality is simply equivalent to what is good for the survival of the species and hence, given different circumstances, what we once regarded as morally ‘right’ could change to something quite different. Does this sit well with your moral experience and intuition? Does is not seem more accurate to say that we can identify many moral issues such as robbery, torturing children for fun, convicting the innocent etc to be wrong no matter what? To repeat, recognising just a single such moral value as objectively valid and binding would establish the second premise.
So it would seem that based upon our moral experience, which includes our moral intuition and moral judgements made on a daily basis, that there is strong support for saying that objective moral values and duties do exist.
The best explanation for objective moral values and duties would be God because moral values cannot exist objectively in their own right. How could, for example, forgiveness, just exist by itself? For objective moral values to exist, they would have to be grounded in an objective, personal source, which would best be ascribed to a personal God who alone could satisfactorily anchor both objective moral values and objective moral duties.
To repeat, the moral argument as presented above was not intended to furnish proof of God’s existence in any kind of absolute sense. Everything hinges on the strength of the premises and each person ought to consider for themselves the warrant given in favour of the premises while remaining true to their own worldview. For instance if you are atheist-materialist you cannot ague for the plausibility of atheistic moral realism. The materialist holds to the view that matter is all that exists. I think the Neo-Darwinists must concede that if morality is a function of natural selection then what we define as morally right or wrong behaviour does not necessarily have any objective validity but is simply what has been selected for survival value. As the existentialist philosopher Dostoevsky stated “If God does not exist, then everything is permissible” (paraphrase). Even if the Neo-Darwinist wants to subscribe to some form of atheistic moral realism there is no way that he or she could ever know that certain behaviour is morally right or wrong because all moral values were selected for their survival value rather than their truth value. Even if survival value depends upon truth value, there is no way the Neo-Darwinist could ever show this to be the case because even this idea was simply chosen for its survival value.
If we accept the truth of the premises then we are left with no alternative but to accept the conclusion: God exists.
If we reject the premises then we need to account for the fact that we do have a moral experience and conscience and we need to provide some alternative explanation for this moral experience. If we believe that moral issues are more than just expressions of personal taste and opinion then we need an adequate explanation of how to account for morality in terms of its absolute nature and ontological grounding. In terms of the Neo-Darwinian approach, all ethics is ultimately illusory and nothing but a herd mentality grounded in survival value. Survival value is itself highly fluid and dependent on environmental factors. But does this satisfy us as a correct interpretation of what we feel about at least some of our moral viewpoints? Do we honestly feel comfortable with the thought that given a different socio-cultural evolutionary pathway, the rape of children could be justified and morally permissible because it promoted the survival of the species? How about convicting the innocent? On an atheistic evolutionary worldview all morality is relative and depends upon survival value. However, if we accept that some moral values hold absolutely and independently of personal opinion, then as the best explanation for the existence and anchoring of such moral values, it follows persuasively that God exists. We need to consider the way we feel about certain moral issues such as corruption, greed, theft etc. Do we really believe that these traits could be ok in a different context or setting?
Before closing, a final comment needs to be made in order to pre-empt a possible response fashioned after the so-called Euthyphro dilemma. In terms of this supposed dilemma, the question is posed whether, as Socrates put it
“god’s love the pious, because it is the pious, or the pious is the pious, because it is loved by the gods?”
Or rather, in a more modern formulation, ‘Is the good, good because God approves it, or does God approve it because it’s good?
It is important to be clear on the fact that this question does not pose a true dilemma because, according to (Christian) Theism, the locus of morality is the nature of God so that morality for the (Christian) theist is neither arbitrary (ie. right and wrong is not simply what God decides), nor does it depend on some external standard outside of God Himself (because God’s nature is not a contingent property of God Himself but is essentially God – there is no possible world in which God could have been otherwise). God’s moral character and nature is essential to Him and is the very paradigm of goodness i.e. what is good or bad is determined by how it lines up with God’s nature. Thus, it can be said that God approves whatever conforms to His nature and there is no real dilemma at all.
Note of acknowledgement: In compiling this article I was heavily reliant upon the work of Christian philosopher, author and public speaker, Dr William Lane-Craig.