Victor Reppert on Atheist Responses to Moral Arguments

Commenting on how atheists have responded to William Lane Craig’s moral argument, Victor Reppert writes this.

Yet, when I hear atheists talking about moral arguments, they always assume that the advocate of the moral argument is saying that we have to believe in God to lead moral lives, (and indignantly argue that we don’t have to believe in God to lead moral lives) in spite of the fact that Christian advocates of moral arguments, at least the ones I am familiar with NEVER say that. 

I agree with Reppert that many atheist debaters have misunderstood William Lane Craig’s moral argument. On the other hand, surely Reppert as a professional philosopher can recognize the over-generalization in his post. He makes it sound like all atheists “always assume that the advocate of the moral argument is saying that we have to believe in God to lead moral lives.” This is, of course, false.

It’s useful to distinguish between atheist philosophers and atheist non-philosophers. Among non-philosophers, it does seem like scientists have done particularly bad in offering a relevant rebuttal.  As for philosophers, I don’t claim that atheist philosophers have a perfect track record on this topic; see here for my summary of Craig’s debate with Paul Kurtz, where Kurtz poorly responded to Craig. But that is beside the point. Did Reppert really mean to imply that every atheist philosopher who has responded to Craig’s moral argument has misunderstood Craig? I could cite many counter-examples, but I’ll mention just one: Erik Wielenberg, author of Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe.

In his book, Wielenberg clearly demonstrates he understands Craig’s argument and offers a refutation. Why hasn’t Craig responded to Wielenberg? For that matter, if we consider theistic critics of his moral argument, why hasn’t Craig responded to Wes Morriston’s criticisms (see here and here)?

ETA: For a critique of Craig’s moral argument by an agnostic, see Paul Draper’s essay in Does God Exist? The Craig-Flew Debate. I quote a snippet of Draper’s essay on The Secular Outpost before.

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.

  • Rayndeon

    I find any attempts to ontologically ground morality in either God's commands (divine command theory) or in God's nature (divine nature theory) and still cohere with moral realism to be a non-starter. So, Craig's arguments are pretty unconvincing to me and the objections made by Morriston and Wielenberg, among others, are pretty strong. In fact, I'm fairly sympathetic to Steve Maitzen's arguments that theism precludes ordinary morality, as well as moral realism.

    All that said though, I find it interesting that Craig is brought up. Hasn't Craig likened all disbelief as being fundamentally culpable and due to moral failure, and on the same moral level of vileness being a murderer or rapist?* In what sense is that not satisfying "one must be a theist in order to lead moral lives", unless there is some fundamental cognitive disconnect I'm missing here.

    *See and To be honest, that anyone could consider the deity Craig worships as being "God" (who is fundamentally Good) is beyond me.

  • Victor Reppert

    "Always" should not be taken literally. But it happens a great deal. I hear it a lot.

  • Victor Reppert

    When I used to go to Society of Christian Philosophers' meetings, I would say that Craig's soteriological exclusivism was definitely a minority position.

  • Rayndeon


    I'm glad to hear that.

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Rayndeon: Don't be too happy. I think the reason the Evangelical Philosophical Society (EPS) exists is because the fundamentalists in the SCP weren't happy with who the SCP allowed to become members. I'm willing to bet >90% (probably >99%) of EPS members share Craig's soteriological views, but Victor can correct me if I'm mistaken.

  • Angra Mainyu


    Good points about Craig.

    I just would like to add that Craig's position is that rejecting God (plausibly) merits infinite punishment, whereas theft, adultery or murder (his examples, in the first link you posted), or for that matter rape (same "reason") do not.

    Granted, Craig might say that rapists, murderers and the like also deserve infinite punishment because, by engaging in said actions, they are also rejecting God or something like that.

    However, that would not cut it, since he would still be saying or implying that the 'action' (as if it were a choice) of failing to believe (for instance) that Jesus is God after having access to the Gospel, or simply to fail to believe that God (i.e., an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect creator) merits infinite punishment.

    So, even if Craig said that rapists, etc., also deserve infinite punishment not for the rape itself but for rejecting God, going by the beliefs Craig likes to spread across the world, an atheist wouldn't "merely" be like a rapist, but more like a rapist who is a repeated offender, does not even acknowledge that his actions of rape are immoral when told than they are, even claims that his actions are not immoral if prompted, does not apologize for them at all, and on top of all of that, if the atheist argues for atheism, on Craig's morality she would be like a rapist who is a repeated offender, etc. (as before), and in addition also argues publicly that rape is not immoral, advocates that others engage in rape, and sometimes persuades others to become rapists as well.

    Even if Craig does not explicitly says that atheists can't lead moral lives, he unequivocally implies it, and publicly promotes the beliefs that obviously imply that atheists can't lead moral lives.

  • Angra Mainyu


    I see the last sentence in my previous post may be unclear: I do get that you're saying that Craig is (at the very least) implying that atheists can't lead moral lives.

    I'm just saying that what he says implies that atheists are even worse than at the very least most rapists, murderers, etc., and perhaps worse than all of them.

  • Angra Mainyu

    By the way, as I said in Victor Reppert's thread, Craig actually comes close to saying that atheists can't lead moral lives in the context of his metaethical argument, or more precisely, when he adds to the metaethical argument his 'practical arguments' for the existence of God ( ), and claims that lack of belief in God reduces moral motivation.

    Moreover, in the last paragraph, right after he talks about the practical arguments, he says we can't be good without God. That's at least confusing, and it's an understandable mistake to interpret that as if he were saying that atheists can't lead moral lives, whereas in reality he "only" says or implies in that particular context that atheists are less moral then theists, without reaching the degree of condemnation of atheists that he reaches elsewhere, where he says or unequivocally implies that atheists are really bad people (as Rayndeon pointed out, and as I also pointed out above).

  • Rayndeon

    Thanks for the helpful comments Angra. To be honest, I don't really get stuck on the whole "infinite punishment for finite sin" thing, but the fact that God tortures at all. I could go into a whole rant about Hell or what not, but that probably wouldn't be productive.

  • Angra Mainyu

    I would agree with your rant, actually. ;)

    Sorry if I gave the wrong impression; I was trying to explain Craig's position, but I do agree with you.

    Personally, I might go even further and rant about the problem of suffering or the issue that there are imperfect moral agents in the first place, though I might alternatively (depending on context) assume that God might create such beings, allow suffering, etc., and even under those assumptions argue that the biblical creator is not God.

    But I'll stop because I'm beginning to rant myself…;)

  • Blue Devil Knight

    One problem with the internet commentariat is that we see the worst subset of our opponents and end up thinking they are a lot more dumb than they are. So Christians can write long posts about how they aren't actually saying you can't behave morally, and cite some hacks to show that they aren't attacking straw men. Or atheists can write long posts about Christians who do say that atheists cannot be moral.