Jerry Coyne on Goodness without God

Jerry Coyne recently wrote an op-ed in USA Today entitled, “As Atheists Know, You Can Be Good Without God.” Christian philosopher Matt Flanagan wrote an excellent critique, not of Coyne’s claim that nonbelievers can be good without God (which Flanagan grants), but of pretty much everything else Coyne wrote related to metaethics. I wanted to highlight a couple of areas where I especially agree with Flanagan, since Flanagan points out some errors that a scientist wihout philosophical training can make. I also want to state where I disagree with Flanagan.

First, what is the focus of Coyne’s critique? According to Flanagan:

The argument that our instinctive sense of right and wrong “is strong evidence for [God’s] existence” found its most important formulation in a 1979 article by Yale Philosopher Robert Adams.

Let me begin by saying that I am familiar with Adams’ work and have great respect for it, especially his magisterial, Fine and Infinite Goods. Also, I agree with Flanagan that Adams’ work has been influential among theists. Finally, I agree with Flanagan that nothing Coyne writes in any way undermines Adams’ moral argument(s) for theism.

It doesn’t follow, however, that Coyne is to be faulted, in the way Flanagan criticizes him, for not criticizing or refuting Adams’ argument. Coyne is writing in USA Today, not a professional philosophical journal, so I think it’s reasonable to expect Coyne to tailor his message to his audience. While I have no empirical data to back this up, if you want to name philosophers, I suspect that C.S. Lewis’ moral argument for God’s existence is probably much more influential among the average reader of USA Today than the work of Robert Adams. And Lewis does appeal to a variety of moral phenomena in in Mere Christianity as part of his moral argument for God’s existence. That phenomena includes not only what Lewis calls the “Moral Law,” but also moral emotions (e.g., guilt, obligation). Thus, I think it is legitimate for Coyne to offer a naturalistic explanation for moral emotions. In this sense, I think Flanagan is being unfair to criticize Coyne for not interacting with Adams.

On the other hand, Flanagan is absolutely correct when he says there is a difference between moral obligation and the feeling of obligation. So even if, for the sake of argument, Coyne is successful in offering a naturalistic explanation for the feeling of obligation, it doesn’t follow that Coyne has explained moral obligation in general.

Second, Coyne is simply wrong when he claims that moral emotions “couldn’t” come from the will or commands of God is wrong, even if we assume that Euthyphro dilemma is a fatal objection to divine command theories (DCT) of moral obligation. That is much too strong of a claim. Again, using the obligation vs. feeling of obligation distinction, at most the Euthyphro dilemma refutes the claim that moral obligation in general comes from God; it does not in any way prevent a theistic explanation for moral emotions, including feelings of obligation.

But is the Euthyphro dilemma a fatal objection to DCT of moral obligation? That’s not obvious to me at all.  I’ve read a lot of recent work by theists refining, clarifying, and defending sophisticated versions of DCT. While I am not prepared to take a definitive stance on the matter yet, here my sympathies lie with Flanagan. Why? That would be the topic for another post, some other time. :)

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About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.


    As much as there are several things I can reference, I do wonder one thing in particular. its something that happens a lot with Atheists when we deal with these arguments.

    I’ll use the Moral Argument as an example but please note that it’s not the Moral Argument itself, but the underlying assumption I am questioning in this. I am also grossly simplifying the Arguments, thus not doing them justice at all, precisely because they are secondary.

    The usual argument goes that the Theist will say that our moral Sense of Obligation and Right and Wrong is evidence for God designing us as he installs in us that basic Divine Ideal. The Atheist then offers a Naturalistic Explanation for such based on Biological Findings.

    My problem is with the Atheistic Counter. It is assumed that if Moral Obligation can be shown to be Naturalistic, then there is no need for God. The same actually exists in other areas, EG, on the net and in many general quarters Evolution is a Natural process, and because it is not Supernatural it must not be of God.

    Well, why not?

    Let also set aside the usual “But that contradicts Christianity” but as, not only would I disagree with it, it is moot as we are discussing God’s existence, not whether or not Christians get God right.

    My Quandary is thus this: Why do we act as if finding a Natural Cause for something somehow invalidates God designing it?

    Would it really matter if Morality has a Biological basis? If you accept that God created the Biological Form to begin with, then the fact that Moral Obligation is inherent in our Biological Structure would not preclude God putting it there. A Naturalistic explanation for Morals is no more a disproof of God’s existence than Naturalistic explanations for Hair Colour or Digestion is.
    Once you accept that God created the Biological Form then anything in it is also Divinely mandated.

    I had the same problem with Richard Dawkins in his attempts. He assumes that if ( and it’s a big if as we currently have no way to really test this) the Multiple Worlds theory is True we don’t need God to explain the fine tuning of the Universe as all possible Histories have played out. But, that still doesn’t really say God didn’t create the Universe as a Multiple Worlds model, does it?

    Finding a Natural Cause doesn’t mean God did not arrange said Cause or design it, and I always had problems with assuming it does.

    By the way to counter the usual objections, I know I have not really presented an argument for God’s existence. I don’t intend to right now as that’s not the point. God may very well not exist, that doesn’t make this argument valid.

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Zarove — Good question.

    First, let's be clear that one does not have to be an atheist in order to agree that, on a particular topic, there is no need to invoke God as an explanatory hypothesis.

    Second, we need to be clear on what facts stands in need of explanation. Suppose someone says fact F cries out for explanation; God is the best explanation. Someone else says, "Not so, X is the best explanation for F." Then the first person says, "Ah ha! But God is needed to explain X." In this example, we have two different facts to be explained: X and F. As you point out, it could be the case that X does explain F (without God), but X itself requires explanation (which may be God). This would need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

    To use our feeling of obligation as an example, C.S. Lewis claimed that moral emotions like guilt and obligation are best explained by God. This can be explained naturalistically by appeal to facts about evolution. You suggest that maybe those facts about evolution in turn require an explanation, and that explanation is God.

    What to say? I agree that one could certainly make that argument; the question is what reasons are there to suppose there is a need to invoke God as a sort of second-order explanation for the first-order explanation? Again, this would need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.


    I don’t find it compelling to argue that such-and-such needs a god or creating such a digression. Like everything else, God’s existence, or non-existence, relies on Material fact, not fanciful argumentation. Being able to Imagine how the Universe we see around us could have emerged without God is not really evidence that God does not exist, just like Imagining God created the Universe doesn’t prove he actually did, and thus does exist. In the end we only end up constructing Narratives about the way in which our world works based on our personal experiences and what we have learned form others, and this in turn rests as much on our observations of the Real World as it does our filling in the gaps in our Knowledge with what seem to us as reasonable explanations. We also have a tendency to interpret Data in such a way as it supports our own conclusions, and this is in fact the basis of Hume’s criticism of Rationalism.

    Whether or not we can imagine something is immaterial to whether or not that something is True.

    Indeed, even with things that may be true in our own world, our imagined scenario’s are not always the only ones, or even most probable ones around.

    For instance, I can imagine that if I see a Car headed down the Street where I live that he must have come off the Highway. Mist do, but there are side and back roads he could have just as readily come off of. My imagining it doesn’t make it a reality, and I have no way to demonstrate either way which actually happened.

    I can also Imagine that the First caveman to sharpen a stick to make a Primitive spear was from the Eastern point in Europe. Its possible, as Humans lived there at about the Time we see Spears emerge, but it could have also been that Spears were created in Eastern Europe, or Arabia, or even Africa. Imagining it doesn’t make it so.

    Or look at the Dinosaurs. Everyone now knows that they went extinct when an Asteroid hit 65 Million Years ago.

    It’s part of the overall Story of them.

    The problem is, some Scientists Disagree, and we really don’t know what actually caused the K-T Extinction Event. ( And Birds are also Dinosaurs but this is another Topic.)

    Just because can imagine the scenario doesn’t mean its true.

    The arguments about Natural Causes and God also suffer one other major setback. To address this we’d have to look at a much deeper Theology, for to prove God exists also depends on what is said of God. Paul Tillich’s God is very different from God in the Theology of John McArthur, and neither of them seem to agree with the Father of rationalism, Rene Des Carte. Thus prompts the Problem of God.

    If I said I believe in God, then defined God as simply the name of the overall essence of Existence, the name we give both to our Highest Ideals and the collective Force of nature itself, and thus do not see God as personal but as simply the context by which everything else exists, or as Paul Tillich said, “The Ground of Being”, then looking for an external Supernatural Deity would be absurd. On the other hand, if I said all that, then God’s existence could readily be demonstrated by the mere fact of our own existence, as God would simply be the name we give that sense of Existence. Such a God would outright require naturalistic explanations, as such a god is himself naturalistic in scope.

    In fact, even with god imagined as a personal Being with an independent Will, some Theologians speculate that God is a natural being as well, not a Supernatural one.

  • Steven Carr

    But you can't be good WITH a God.

    I quote William Lane Craig ''On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.'

    It can be 'morally obligatory' for Christians to do wrong, according to leading defenders of Christianity.

    How can you be good with a god?

    The fact that something is abhorrent will not stop a Christian doing it. In fact, he can call such acts 'morally obligatory'

  • JJ Anderson

    Jeffery, please help me understand this part of your post:

    On the other hand, Flanagan is absolutely correct when he says there is a difference between moral obligation and the feeling of obligation. So even if, for the sake of argument, Coyne is successful in offering a naturalistic explanation for the feeling of obligation, it doesn't follow that Coyne has explained moral obligation in general.

    I'm not sure what you're asking Coyne to do. What does it mean to "explain moral obligation in general"?


    I don't listen to William lane Craig. I do not know his arguments. However, Mr. Carr, I feel you may be exaggerating his Position. I also feel that this is a foolish move for a Secularist as a leading proponent of Secularism, Dan barker, makes pretty much the same Argument you say Craig makes. Barker even has ( or had, its been a while and he may have taken it down) that argues that Rape may be permissible in some limited circumstances if it somehow serves the Greater Good. How can Mr. Barker then say he is “Good without God”? it’s the same question you ask of Mr. Craig.

    Of course you may weasel out of it by saying Mr. Barker does not speak for all Atheists, but does William lane Craig speak for all Christians? Of course not!

    Whether or not you agree with Divine Command theory has no baring on whether or not you agree that Jesus was the Son of God and Messiah. There are plenty of Theologians, like Rowan Williams for example, who do not adhere to Divine Command Theory. To posit one theologian as the Voice of all Christians and say “But you can’t be good with God!” is simply ludicrous.

    That also ignores the fact that “good” is a subjective term anyway. If you define “Good’ as following the will of God then Craig is Right, presuming your presentation of his ideas is correct. If being Good is the same as Obeying God’s Will, and God orders you to murder someone in Cold Blood, then that Murder is good by definition. Its only if you have an external standard to determining Good or Evil apart from God that you can argue otherwise.

    Even then you can find Atheists who justify Murder. EG, Stalin, or Ted Bundy. Both Atheists, and both used their Atheism as justification for their Actions towards others.

    Heck, a rabid reader of Sam Harris may think that killing “delusional Religious people” is OK, whether or not Mr. Harris agrees.

    it’d be the same as how Neitche influenced the NAZI’s. Neitche was not really to blame for their misapplication, but you can’t deny how his ideas animated part of the National Socialist movement.

    It goes back to Socrates: Is something Good because the gods command it? Or do the gods command it because it is Good?

    Your statements also beg the question of if God would, or could, ask you to commit Atrocities. If God is all loving and cannot Sin himself by definition, he then cannot ask others to Sin either by definition. So one can reasonably argue that God cannot contradict himself and will thus never ask someone to commit an atrocity.

    Its just not a good argument to begin with, saying “you can’t be good without God”. Especially since people are good with God all the Time.

  • Steven Carr

    'God is all loving and cannot Sin himself by definition, he then cannot ask others to Sin either by definition.'

    So by definition, if your alleged god asks you to rape a child – it is not a sin!

  • Steven Carr

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Steven Carr

    'That also ignores the fact that “good” is a subjective term anyway.'

    Good to see defenders of Craig smasing up Craig's claim that objective morality exists and that something are so objectively wrong that they can only be done if God orders them to be done.


    Mr. Carr, how can I be a defender of Craig when I admitted to not really reading much by him? You also completely misconstrue what I’ve said. My points were not really even addressed by you.

    In particular, you quote me as saying this.

    'God is all loving and cannot Sin himself by definition, he then cannot ask others to Sin either by definition.'

    You then interpret this to mean that I said that if God can order you to rape a child ( a particularly heinous Crime used for mere shock value) that it’s OK. But that’s not what I said at all in the above. In fact you took the quotation out of context, The full quote reads…

    “Your statements also beg the question of if God would, or could, ask you to commit Atrocities. If God is all loving and cannot Sin himself by definition, he then cannot ask others to Sin either by definition. So one can reasonably argue that God cannot contradict himself and will thus never ask someone to commit an atrocity.”

    My actual statement hear means that many Theologians would argue that God has established Absolute Morality, and based on this is bound by his own Will to not Violate certain principals and can never order someone else to Violate them as this would be a contradiction in terms.

    Thus if god said Rape is always wrong God can never order someone to Rape anyone else, and this includes the Rape of a Child.

    I did not say “Its Good because God said to do it”, I said God would never order someone to commit specific acts he has deemed Immoral.

    Your statements thus do not connect to my actual statements. You are really not discussing the topic at this point as a result.

  • Robert Oerter

    "So even if, for the sake of argument, Coyne is successful in offering a naturalistic explanation for the feeling of obligation, it doesn't follow that Coyne has explained moral obligation in general."

    I don't think you're being quite fair to Coyne here. If you believe, as Coyne does, that moral obligations are nothing more than a particular aspect of human social interaction, then these can arise via evolution (possibly a combination of genomic and cultural evolution).

    Coyne specifically mentions "the evolution of moral codes", which sounds to me like he's talking about patterns of behavior, not just individual feelings and impulses.