The Emptiness of the Argument From Morality

Whenever an atheist makes any moral statement, a Christian will inevitably offer up some version of the argument from morality. Sometimes the argument will be that you can’t make any moral statement at all without believing in God. Sometimes the argument is that we only think those things are immoral because God has planted in us a moral conscience that intuitively knows what is right and wrong. Either version fails if you’ve read the Bible at all.

Here’s the next question I like to ask people making either argument: Give me a list of things that are morally wrong, things that we simply know intuitively are wrong because God has given us a moral conscience that says is wrong or because God explicitly commands that those things are morally wrong in the Bible. A few obvious answers: rape, genocide, slavery. Nearly everyone will intuitively agree that these are moral wrongs, whether they are Christians or atheists. But that leads to one rather obvious problem:

God ordered every one of those things in the Bible. The argument from commanded evil, I think, is a much stronger argument than the argument from natural evil. God commands genocide over and over again in the Old Testament, and of course the very idea of hell is inherently genocidal. God commands slavery over and over again in the Old Testament and tells slaves to obey their masters in the New Testament. God commands the rape of the virgin women of Midian (he commands that they take all the virgin women hostage and distribute them among the soldiers of war; if killing their husbands and families and giving them to the soldiers who killed them to “marry” them is not rape, nothing is).

The Bible makes much more sense as the record of a culture that worships a god that doesn’t exist. That explains the inconsistencies and incoherencies and contradictions far better than all the post hoc rationalizations of Christians.

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  • The standard reply I get when I give that answer (and I’ve got it at least twice already this month) is: “Ah, but how can you SAY that those things are evil if God doesn’t exist?”. I then point out that if my answer is not a rebuttal to the Argument from Morality, it’s certainly a rebuttal to the Christian/Jewish God being the creator of morality.

  • You don’t need to read any part of the Bible to see that this argument about the origin of morality is crap. It’s just another case of pretentious Christians smugly insisting that their God gets all credit for everything good done by anyone.

  • iplon

    I’m a really big fan of the Euthyphro Dilemma for things like this.

    Does your god command things because they are moral? Then your god acts merely as an intermediary for morality, and even moral absolutism is possible without your god.

    Are things moral because your god commands them? Then you are a moral relativist, with morality merely referring to the whims of whatever your god wants at the moment.

    Do you consider bypassing the dilemma by stating that your god is inherently good, and therefore everything he does is good? Then you have merely attempted to define into existence an authoritarian morality through a tautology, taking in the worst of both situations and adding in an air of unfalsifiability (“Anything my god commands is good because my god is good. You can’t disprove my god is good, because I have defined my god as good!”).

  • badgersdaughter

    My brother answers that it is OK for God to command evil things because he is the only one with the authority to do so when necessary. I can point out that if God created evil, then he is the one who invented the necessity, in which case my brother invokes “free will” and his pet theory of parental discipline (I think, but don’t say, would he be fine with killing the innocent one of his two boys if he thought it would teach the guilty one a lesson?). I can point out that if God didn’t create evil, then my brother is essentially arguing that evil and the necessity of combating it with more evil are beyond the ability of God to avoid, in which case my brother lamely argues that God is the God who created logic (in other words, “What you say makes perfect sense and I would agree except I have this mind virus that says that God doesn’t need to make sense”).

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The argument from commanded evil, I think, is a much stronger argument than the argument from natural evil

    Yes, but usually the argument is about the philosophical omni- God, not the God of the Bible; with the bait and switch being thrown in afterwards.

  • Chiroptera

    Sometimes the argument will be that you can’t make any moral statement at all without believing in God.

    My usual response (tongue in cheek, of course) is to say, “Sure I can. I just did!”

    As others point out, Christians usually have responses to most of the objections; I usually refuse to debate according to the terms and premises of the Christian and instead try to reduce her or him into incoherence by dancing along the edges of the parameters that they want to set up.

    It’s pretty fun. But I’m not a very nice person. Probably because I don’t believe in god.

  • Nathair

    This rather smacks of the argument from I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I. When they say “How can you be moral without Gawd?” what is wrong with just explaining how? A teaching moment rather than a “Oh yeah? Well your book sucks too!” moment.


  • Nathair:

    When they say “How can you be moral without Gawd?” what is wrong with just explaining how?

    Nathair, they don’t tend to argue that atheists can’t do good things, but rather that the concept of ‘good’ has no meaning without God – that atheists cannot ground their goodness.

  • caseloweraz

    Chiroptera: “As others point out, Christians usually have responses to most of the objections…”

    “Have answers for the prospect’s objections ready” may not be the first law of salesmanship, but it’s certainly in the top three.

  • Sastra

    The argument from commanded evil, I think, is a much stronger argument than the argument from natural evil.

    Against Christianity — or, at least, against those unenlightened forms of Christianity which haven’t defined cherry-picking and inconsistency as High Virtues (“The Bible was written by primitive people so of course the morality reflects the morality of the time and place but somehow God inspired the general idea that love matters and that’s what we need to focus on here and now…”)

    andrewryan #1 wrote:

    The standard reply I get when I give that answer (and I’ve got it at least twice already this month) is: “Ah, but how can you SAY that those things are evil if God doesn’t exist?”

    Theists flip-flop between several assumptions:

    1.) God is the origin of morality.

    This can translate several ways: God is the thing which is made out of “Goodness” and is thus equivalent to its very existence; God gave human beings our shared moral sense; God inspires the inner knowledge to come forth. In other words, God is the explanation for where our internal sense of right and wrong (our conscience) comes from. Believing in morality without believing in God is like believing in sunlight without believing in the sun.

    2.) God is the measurement for morality.

    I call this the Daddy-Says approach. How can we know what is right or wrong unless there is an ultimate authority who arbitrates disputes? Things can only be good or bad according to an ends. Since we all have different goals there must be Someone whose goals matter the most, a highest objective standard of rightness that every lower thing ought to align with — or they are wrong. Believing that you are morally right without believing in God is like being a toddler acting at random without guidance.

    From what I can tell those two assumptions conflict. The first one requires that there be a common and mostly reliable human morality to explain: where did we all get our universal sense of right and wrong? A universal source which grants a nature equally to all, that’s where.

    The second one though emphasizes the disparity among people. There is no universal sense of right and wrong because cultures and laws vary dramatically: therefore, we require someone in Charge to use to compare different rules and see how they measure up. We need to be told. In which case, there must be someone to tell us.

    So it’s hard to say what the “how can you say those things are evil if God doesn’t exist?” question means without further questioning. There are two sides, origins vs. measurement. But in my experience theists will pull first one, then the other — apparently thinking that they’ve got us either way.

  • Alverant


    That’s a slippery slope claim. First you have “God has the authority to do evil things” next you have “I can do evil things because God commands it.”

    I’d ask who gave him that authority and point out that he’s abused it too much to be considered credible. It’s like the cop who thinks having a badge is permission to arrest, beat, and shoot anyone who he doesn’t like for any reason. Power does corrupt.

  • Yes, Sastra, they flip between the two. A common bait and switch is to hold up “Why do we FEEL things are wrong” as a phenomena that needs to be addressed. Then when one provides a naturalistic explanation they’ll complain “But that doesn’t actually MAKE child abuse (or whatever) wrong”. But that’s not the question they originally asked. The naturalistic explanation for why have a strong reaction to child abuse isn’t supposed to ground the moral statement “Child abuse is wrong”, it purely addresses the phenomenon that the apologist is demanding an explanation for.

    It’s similar to the bait and switch over gays. First apologists will say that homosexuality is unnatural. Then, when you point out that a) it’s very common in the animal kingdom and b) being gay certainly comes naturally to gays, they’ll reply: “Ah, so you’re saying that because animals do it, it’s fine for us to do it. Does that mean it’s fine for us to eat our young?”.

    Er, no. YOU were the one who made the ‘natural’ argument, not me. I merely rebutted the statement that it wasn’t natural.

  • abb3w

    @0, Ed Brayton:

    Sometimes the argument will be that you can’t make any moral statement at all without believing in God.

    I find axiomatic set theory (leading to construction of posets) allows for some degree of rebuttal of this. The catch being, the construction doesn’t yield a unique morality. However, taking an axiom arbitrarily (EG: which of the constructively possible options to use) does not require God — though as a premise taken without reliance on philosophical priors, it could be argued an act of Faith.

    Of course, some levels of presuppositionalist say that the axioms of set theory implicitly require God; however, I find that unpersuasive, and tending to convince any additional attentive audience that the presuppositionalist is insane. Even if they don’t find the mathematics I’m using understandable, many tend to consider the incomprehensible more trustworthy than the delusional.

    @0, Ed Brayton:

    Sometimes the argument is that we only think those things are immoral because God has planted in us a moral conscience that intuitively knows what is right and wrong.

    For this, I prefer discussing how each of the moral dimensions of Haidt can be presented as an evolutionary strategy, with evolution resulting from the second law of thermodynamics.

    Granted, I’m more than a little peculiar in my approaches.

    @3, iplon:

    I’m a really big fan of the Euthyphro Dilemma for things like this.

    I admit, that’s probably more effective against for many people. However, it seems to tend ineffective against Christians who have been innoculated by exposure to it — though it might be interesting to catalog the variety of responses, and try to look for patterns of how they resist its persuasion.

  • I compare morality to engineering – it’s the engineering of better ways for us to live together. There isn’t ever going to be a ‘perfect engineering’ that can build or accomplish all things – but we can defnitely discern progress in engineering, find better solutions to problems or even just neat tricks that work in particular circumstances. Similarly, we may never have an ‘ultimate morality’ but we can certainly discern progress in morality.

    Slavery was actually an improvement over ‘slaughter all the opposition’. But slave societies are stagnant – they have to be, because of all the effort they must devote to policing the slaves – so they fall behind societies that are more open.

    Add in some game theory and such, and you have a decent framework to compare moralities. Doesn’t look much like the theistic model, but so what?

  • What get’s to me is that “Christian Morality”, when you get down to brass tacks, comes down to the threat of Hell and the reward of Heaven. In other words to be religious and moral means you can be extorted and/or bribed.

    Doesn’t wound like strength of character to me.

  • What makes it stupid is that it’s essentially a consequentialist argument. “Without believing in God, people will believe and do bad things!” But if we already agree about what is good and bad, then we didn’t need the God part, did we? And if we don’t agree, why would anyone be convinced by this line of argument?

  • Chiroptera

    Heh. I remember on another internet venue, another atheist was asked, “Well, what would you say if a gunman came to kill you?” The response was something like, “I wouldn’t say anything. I’d hit him hard and I’d hit him fast. Why, what would you do?”

  • kosk11348

    I thought Stephen Fry had the best response to this issue: “Although they [the Catholic Church] try to accuse people like me, who believe in empiricism and the enlightenment, of what they call ‘moral relativism’ as if it’s some appalling sin. What it actually means is ‘thought.'”

  • wscott

    @ 14 Ray: Well, saying free societies are more efficient than slave societies isn’t a moral argument; slavery is wrong even if it made for economics. But your point is valid, and I like the comparison with engineering. The very notion that there is some perfect absolute morality as an abstract Thing is the root problem. Morality is like any other field of knowledge – we learn as we go, we’re better than our slave-holding, bear-baiting ancestors (at least in many ways), but we can & should do better.

    Which leads us back to Ed’s original post that much of the progress we’ve made towards a better morality has been in direct opposition to God’s supposed commandments. Christian’s like to point out how many/most leaders of the Civil Rights movement, abolitionist movement, etc were religiously motivated. True enough. But so was much of the opposition to those movements. When your supposedly infallible moral guide book is so vague and self-contradictory that devout believers can cite it in support of both sides of every significant moral question in recent history, then what the hell good is it?

    The concept that there is some abstract moral force in the universe amy be unfalsifiable. (Which isa far cry from saying it’s true, or even useful.) But the notion that the Christian Bible has anything to do with it is easily falsifiable by simply reading the damn thing.

  • wscott

    Also: the “Goodness comes from God because God is good, QED” argument is just a variant on the Creationist argument that “creation must have a creator, therefore God, QED.” It doesn’t answer the question, it just begs the question by pushing the answer outside of the physical universe to some place where such laws don’t exist.

  • johnhodges

    From a letter to the Editor I wrote, replying to a Christian Op-Ed:

    All of Yearout’s questions are about ethics, and all reduce to “If there is no God, how could there be any foundation for ethics?” For example, Yearout says “If evolution is true, then there are no moral absolutes.” But religion does not provide any moral absolutes either; there is nothing more culturally relative than religious belief. You get differences from one street corner to the next. Religious morality sums to “Obey the alleged will of God, as reported by your chosen authority.” With thousands of self-proclaimed authorities, taking every possible position on every moral issue, and no way to check whether any of them are reporting accurately.

    An evolutionary perspective does suggest one value that is likely to be practically universal. “Promote the health of your family”, where “health” is the ability to survive, and “family” is “all who share your genes, to the degree that they share your genes”. The value of Kinship. This is called “inclusive fitness” by biologists. Essentially all living things are going to seek this, because they follow their internal urges uncritically. Their internal urges are shaped by natural selection, and inclusive fitness is what natural selection selects for.

    Some animals are social animals, who survive by cooperating in groups. This implies additional values, like “Promote peaceful cooperation within the group” and “Avoid unnecessary conflict with other groups.” The value of Reciprocity, “Cooperate with me and I’ll cooperate with you.” The value of Compassion; all social animals are going to have compassion, it is essential to living in groups. Humans are the most social of any, cooperating in groups that number in the millions, or even billions.

    Yearout asks “… why would human beings feel an obligation to protect the weak?” By kinship and reciprocity and compassion. We are all at risk, of illness, accident, poverty, and aging; by protecting the weak, by law and custom, we protect ourselves and our kin.

    An evolutionary perspective suggests a “natural” standard of ethics, likely to be intuitively appealing across all societies and cultures. The Good is that which leads to health, the Right is that which leads to peace. A “good person” is a desirable neighbor, desirable from the point of view of those who seek to live in peace and raise families.