5 Common Objections to the Moral Argument

By Paul Rezkalla   The Moral Argument for the existence of God has enjoyed a long tradition of defense from theistic philosophers and thinkers throughout the history of Western thought…and a long tradition of misunderstandings and objections from even some of the most brilliant minds. In its abductive form, the moral argument seeks to infer God as the best explanation for the moral facts about the universe. One popular formulation is as follows:

  1. Moral facts are best explained by God’s existence.

  2. Moral facts exist.

  3. Therefore, God exists.

Here are five of the most common objections to the argument and why, in my view, they are not insuperable.

 1. “But I’m a moral person and I don’t believe in God. Are you saying that atheists can’t be moral?”

The moral argument is not about belief in God. Rather, the argument usually deals with grounding and substantiating objective morality. If God does not exist, then objective morality becomes much more difficult to explain. Sure, atheists can be moral. In fact, I know several atheists who are more moral than some theists! Religious leaders in the New Testament were among the biggest detractors and critics of Jesus. The issue of belief is not pertinent. The argument instead highlights the fact that there must be a sufficient basis for there to be objective morality. God, in light of the distinctive features of morality, can be argued to be their best explanation.

2. “But what if you needed to lie in order to save someone’s life? It seems that morality is not absolute as you say it is.”

We need not talk about absolute morality here. There is an important difference between absolute and objective. Absolutism requires that something will or must always be the case. For the record, such moral facts exist—like the inherent badness of torturing children for fun. But nothing so strong is called for here. Objectivity simply means (human) ‘mind-independent’ or ‘judgment-independent’. When I argue for objective morality, I need not argue that it is always the case that lying and killing are wrong; the moral argument I’m sketching does not defend absolute morality. Rather, it contends that there is a standard of morality that transcends human opinions, judgments, biases, and proclivities.

Suppose that some nation today decreed that every one of its brunette citizens would be tortured to death simply for being brunette; it would still be the case that it is wrong to torture brunettes to death simply for being brunette.

The statement, “It is wrong to torture brunettes to death simply for being brunette” is true, regardless of whether or not anyone believes it to be true. This is what is meant by objective.

3. "Where’s your evidence for objective morality? I won’t believe in anything unless I have evidence for it." Well, many would suggest that the evidence for objective morality is ubiquitous. If by ‘evidence’ you mean incontrovertible proof beyond any shadow of doubt, such an evidential standard is simply unrealistic and beyond our ken for nearly everything except a few beliefs internal to our own heads. After all, how do you know with absolute certainty that you are not a brain in a vat being electrically stimulated by a crazy scientist who wants you to think that all of this is real? You could be in the matrix, for all you know (take the blue pill)! How do you know with complete assurance that you weren’t created a couple minutes ago and implanted with memories of your entire past life? How could you possibly prove otherwise?

See where this is going? Denying the existence of something on the basis of, “I will not believe unless I have completely sure evidence for it” leaves you with solipsism, at best. We believe in the reality of the external world on the basis of our sense experience of the external world. And we are justified in believing that the external world is real unless we have good evidence to think otherwise. There is no way to prove with utter certainty that the external world is real, or that the past wasn’t created 2 minutes ago and given the appearance of age. Similarly we have no good noncircular evidence for the reliability of testimony or the reliability of induction, and these are just a few examples we could adduce. And yet we all believe that the external world and the past are real. In the absence of defeating evidence, we are justified in trusting our experience of the external world. In the same way, I think it’s plausible to suggest by parity in reasoning that we can know that objective morality exists on the basis of our moral experience. We have access to moral facts about the universe through our moral experience. Unless we have good reason to distrust such experience, we are justified in accepting the reality of the objective moral framework that it presents us with.

Despite how resistant we might be to accepting the truth of moral objectivity, no one really denies that there are some moral facts (except psychopaths and some sociopaths). Take the following scenario: In 1978 a fifteen year old girl was walking to her grandfather’s house when a man offered to give her a ride. She got in the car with him. He then kidnapped her, raped her repeatedly, hacked off her arms at the elbows with an axe, and left her to die. Although she survived, she was terrorized by this traumatic event. Her attacker served only eight years in prison and told her during the trial that one day he would be back to finish the job.

Now answer the following question: Was this act wrong?

If yes, you believe that there is at least one moral fact in the world.

If no, you face a fairly formidable burden of proof. There’s theoretical space for skepticism, but it’s hardly the obvious position to take.

4. "If morality is objective, then why do some cultures practice female genital mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide, and other atrocities which we deem unacceptable?’

There can be two responses given here:

The first response is that even though not all cultures share the exact same moral facts, most embrace the same, underlying moral values. For example, there are certain tribes that practice senicide (authorized killing of the elderly) due to their belief that everyone in the afterlife will continue living on in the same body that they died with. Thus, in order to ensure that those in the afterlife are capable of hunting, swimming, building houses, etc., the elderly are killed before they become too old to take care of themselves. This act is done with the well-being of the elderly in mind. The moral value that most of us hold would suggest that “the elderly are valuable and must be taken care of,” is also accepted by these tribes, even though their construal of the nonmoral facts diverges from our own.

The second response is that some cultures do, in fact, practice certain things that are straight up morally abominable. Cultures that practice infanticide, female circumcision, widow burning, child prostitution, and the like are practicing acts that are repulsive and morally abhorrent. The fact that we realize the difference in how certain cultures treat their women, children, and elderly and are outraged at immoral practices is evidence that we believe in objective morality. A man’s decision to have his 6-year old daughter circumcised or sold into prostitution is no mere cultural or traditional difference that we should respect, uphold, or praise, or even cultivate an attitude of impartiality toward; rather these are atrocities that need to be advocated against and ended. The existence of multiple moral codes does not negate the existence of objective morality. Are we to condone slavery and segregation simply because they were once allowed under our country’s moral code? Of course not. We condemn those actions, and rightly so.

Take the example of Nazi Germany: the Nazi ideology consented to the slaughter of millions, but their actions were wrong despite their convictions to the contrary. Tim Keller summarizes this point succinctly:

The Nazis who exterminated Jews may have claimed that they didn’t feel it was immoral at all. We don’t care. We don’t care if they sincerely felt they were doing a service to humanity. They ought not to have done it. We do not only have moral feelings, but we also have an ineradicable belief that moral standards exist, outside of us, by which our internal moral feelings are evaluated.

Simply because a society practices acts that are contrary to what is moral does not mean that all moral codes are equal. Moral disagreements do not nullify moral truths, any more than people disagreeing on a mathematical calculation negates an objectively right answer.

5. "But God carried out many atrocities in the Old Testament. He ordered the genocide of the Canaanites." For starters, this isn’t really an objection to the moral argument since it does not attack either premise of the argument. It’s of course an interesting issue regarding the moral character of the God of the Bible, and for those interested, this site recently posted a new book by Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan; we encourage you to take a look. Beyond that, we can say this: by making a judgment on God’s actions and deeming them immoral, the objector is appealing to a standard of morality that holds true outside of herself and transcends barriers of culture, context, time period, and social norms. By doing this, she affirms the existence of objective morality! But if the skeptic wants to affirm objective morality after throwing God out the window, then there needs to be an alternate explanation for its basis. If not God, then what is it? The burden is now on the skeptic to provide a naturalistic explanation for the objective moral framework—an explanation that explains all that needs to be explained without changing the topic, watering down the categories, or reducing the significance of morality.

New Book by Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan: Did God Really Command Genocide?

Over at Baker Publishing's website, you can pick up a copy of  Paul Copan and Matt Flannagan's new book, Did God Really Command Genocide?.  Copan and Flannagan are leading the way in providing substantive responses to objections raised against the goodness of God in light of the Old Testament conquest narratives. While you wait for the book to arrive, you can listen to lectures by Flannagan!

Matthew Flannagan,  "Can God Command Evil? The Problem of Apparently Immoral Commands" 



Link: Dr. Matthew Flannagan on God, Ethics, and Divine Commands

Over at the Tentative Apologist, you can listen to a discussion with Dr. Matthew Flannagan on  what skeptics would call the "abhorrent" commands of God. Flannagan explains how to make sense of a good God and  the testing of Abraham, Joshua's conquest, as well as how to respond to cases of people claiming to justify crimes by an appeal to a divine command.  Click here to listen.   

Are All Atheists Unbelievers?

In a recent online debate with an atheist, I was arguing that folks involved in such debates need to work hard to maintain a respectful attitude with their dialogue partners. It is easy and tempting to fall into contention and animus, and so all the more important to guard against it. My atheist friend challenged me with Psalm 14:1, which declares that the fool says in his heart there is no God. His suggestion was that my commitment to be respectful in dialogue was at odds with this biblical revelation, which, as applied to him, an atheist, was rather less than respectful.

Faced with this challenge, I responded along such lines as these: Although it's true that the Bible features some verses to suggest that there's a serious issue going on with atheists, I don't think this means that in a discussion today with an atheist, a Christian is obliged to think his interlocutor a fool. The Bible features quite a number of teachings, after all, including to love one's neighbor as oneself. This seems to imply, among other things, giving them the benefit of the doubt, being patient, hoping for the best for them, building friendships with them, paying heed to their perspectives, interpreting them charitably, listening to understand and not just critique. This is where I think it makes great sense prima facie from a biblical perspective to treat atheists as intellectually honest and authentic, sincere searchers for truth. They may not all be, but surely many of them are, at least in my experience.

Beyond that, isolated verses need to be understood contextually, which can take some serious investment of time—and I’m far from an exegete. Nonetheless I might identify a few mitigating factors as we interpret and apply such verses. On a biblical perspective, God is thought of as the source of reality, the locus of value, life and light and more besides. The true "unbeliever" would be, I might suggest, in light of this, not one who simply entertains intellectual doubts about the existence of a personal God, but one who rejects all that the biblical writers thought God represented—and to do so at the level of the heart. To reject God would include rejecting light—deep convictions about rightness and wrongness, for example, issuing in corrupt actions. On the classical picture of God, aspects of which came into clarity later but were built on solidly biblical ideas, as opposed to the idea of a mere contingently existing demi-god or Demiurge, God is the Ground of Being; his being and goodness are interchangeable. To deny God's being is to deny goodness itself, both metaphysical and moral.

This is all obviously relevant to the question about how God and morality are related, and relevant in numerous senses—ontological, epistemic, performative. If one takes God as the foundation of moral truth, the locus of value, the Ground of Being, to deny God is naturally to be interpreted as rejecting foundational truths, axiomatic moral ones among them. As one commentator discussed Psalm 14:1: “This is hardly to be understood of a speculative denial of the existence of God; but rather of a practical belief in His moral government.” So to someone shaped by such an understanding, a worldview according to which God functioned thus foundationally, what would be the natural way to characterize, say, someone vicious and altogether corrupt who rejected moral strictures or constraints altogether? It might be natural, frankly, to dub such a person an "unbeliever." More than natural, it might be the most accurate way to put it, as part of what true atheism entails is just such moral corruption. This is, again, not to say all professing atheists are this way, or even will inevitably be this way; rather, quite to the contrary, it is to suggest that exactly because plenty of atheists are not this way, it may take more than intellectual metaphysical speculations of atheism to qualify as true unbelief.

The point is that this language about unbelief can't simply leap the huge hermeneutical gap and be applied today with complete casualness. I am not inclined to see such verses as applying to someone like my internet interlocutor: a self-professed humanist with a deep concern for others, a love for humanity, a passion for reducing suffering in the world. I could be wrong, but I see such values as rooted in God, and his embrace of such values as a disqualification for being a full-fledged unbeliever. That he wouldn’t agree isn’t relevant; if he’s right, I’m wrong, of course; but if I’m right, he’s wrong—and not the skeptic he thinks he is. Maybe being an unbeliever is less a binary question than a continuum; or maybe it is a binary issue, but the point of no return requires more than voicing intellectual doubts about God’s existence.

As another commentator put it, “We ought . . . carefully to mark the evidence on which the Psalmist comes to the conclusion that they have cast off all sense of religion, and it is this: that they have overthrown all order, so that they no longer make any distinction between right and wrong, and have no regard for honesty, nor love of humanity. David, therefore, does not speak of the hidden affection of the heart of the wicked, except in so far as they discover themselves by their external actions.”

So, from my perspective—and this is the argument I’m trying out—I don't see my friend as having fully "rejected God," as I see (rightly or wrongly) many of those values to which he remains adamantly committed as rooted in God. Likewise with the biblical writers, for whom God represented ultimate reality and, as such, true unbelief would include such a thing as rejection of moral light. The Bible needs to be read and interpreted and applied carefully and sensitively and with profound discernment, according to sound principles of exegesis and hermeneutics. Folks have misinterpreted it before, and if someone were to interpret it today to suggest that dismissing all professing atheists as evil and foolish (more so than the lot common to men), I would respectfully suggest that he is not being sufficiently attentive to sound principles of interpretation. Intellectual speculative denial of God’s existence may not be enough to make one a true unbeliever in the sense of Psalm 14:1.


Photo: "Cross section of a trees' roots" by A Escobar. CC License.