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What Best Accounts for Our Sense of Morality?

In a recent RTB scholars’ discussion, we talked about the grounding provided in the Judeo-Christian worldview for our shared sense of morality. Many of you have probably heard that a moral argument for the existence of God can be very persuasive, and even helps skeptical people consider the possibility of God more easily than other arguments like the Kalam argument or the anthropic principle.

I have heard several apologists I deeply respect say that they believe an apologetic from morality or an apologetic of goodness and beauty are some of the best ones available. Why is this true? I believe it’s true because we are all relational beings and seem to have an innate sense of right and wrong, whereas we may not all be attracted to logical arguments about the beginning and fine-tuning of the universe. Many of us care deeply about things we call ethics and morals.

In a recent conversation with an atheist friend, it became apparent to me that these apologists may be right. My friend had a deep sense of moral obligation (his word, not mine) to care for the environment and make good ecological choices. For example, he admitted that he spent extra on organic products—not because he believes they are a healthier alternative, but because he is convinced they are better for the environment. Yet, based on some things he said earlier—that he has no intention of producing any offspring of his own and that he thought people were inescapably selfish—I couldn’t help but ask him if it was really an obligation or duty. He confirmed that it was, and one he felt most strongly committed to.

I asked him where he thought his sense of obligation came from. He thought about it for a moment and said that he had no idea; there was no good answer to that question. His deep commitment to do what is good for an ecological future that will not personally benefit him or his offspring and his simultaneous belief that humans are a wholly selfish byproduct of an unguided and purposeless evolutionary process was puzzling—to both of us.

Moral Arguments for God’s Existence

My friend is not alone in his sense of moral obligation. This is one way the moral argument in support of God’s existence can be postulated:1

  1. There are objective moral obligations.
  2. God provides the best explanation of the existence of moral obligations.
  3. Probably, God exists.

Interestingly, my friend had just recently read C. S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man (AOM), which I had recommended in our previous discussion. In AOM, Lewis makes a case that is well-suited for the scientifically minded on the existence of objective moral facts (or values), which permeate human history and are experienced cross-culturally. Lewis does not carry his argument to favor the existence of God, but to postulate the abolition of man if such objective moral values do not exist.2

Lewis provides an argument for the first premise in a second version of the moral argument for God’s existence:3

  1. There are objective moral facts.
  2. God provides the best explanation of the existence of objective moral facts.
  3. Therefore, (probably) God exists.

Atheist Friedrich Nietzsche espoused similar thoughts by arguing that God is necessary for objective morality. While explicitly stating his belief that God does not exist, Nietzsche also claimed that God’s nonexistence undermines the reality of traditional western morality. Nietzsche’s assessment seems right to me, and congruent with a well-thought-out materialistic or atheistic view of reality.

Nietzsche’s observations and a third version of the moral argument intersect with the recent RTB scholars’ discussion I took part in. A third version of the moral argument looks like this:4

  1. Humans possess objective moral knowledge.
  2. Probably, if God does not exist, humans would not possess objective moral knowledge.
  3. Probably, God exists.

The RTB Scholars’ Discussion

During the conversation with my atheist friend, he stated that he viewed morals as social constructs, agreed upon for the survival of society. He thought that morals, not just species, have progressed through evolutionary changes. This is a fairly common position for evolutionists. C. S. Lewis makes a parallel observation in his comparisons of Christian morals, based on the life and teachings of Christ, with those of other cultures and faiths. Lewis believes a progression of moral values is possible and ranks Jesus’s moral teachings as among the highest.5 So in some way, my friend and Lewis both acknowledge a progression or gradation of moral values.

I posed this evolutionary view of moral progression to my colleagues for discussion. Kenneth Samples commented that Confucius and Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) both confessed that they were unable to live up to their own moral standards. And many Christians, while acknowledging the value and desire to live out the Sermon on the Mount, have also confessed an inability to attain the standards set by Jesus.

A New Apologetic from Morals?

That is when two things occurred to me: 1) not only can one argue that the existence of morals is more likely if God exists, but also 2) if we grant the atheist position, that there is no God—and therefore no moral lawgiver—one could argue that it seems wholly incongruent for any unobtainable moral code to arise from a strict materialistic view through an evolution of morality. Why would anything unachievable ever evolve as a widespread standard from a materialistic, nonteleological reality?

If the nature of reality is fundamentally materialistic and if evolution is nonteleological and driven primarily by fitness advantages selected by concurrent natural constraints, then explaining the evolutionary processes leading to sentient conglomerates of elements is extremely problematic. Furthermore, the appearance of self-aware, conscious, thinking conglomerates (humans) is even more problematic. And even more problematic is the evolution of a moral code that no one can live up to. These progressions are strained in the materialistic worldview. But the reality of conscious, self-aware, moral beings fits perfectly in a Judeo-Christian worldview.

An Experiential and Cumulative Case

In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) I read, “It is worth noting then that there could be such a thing as knowledge of God that is rooted in moral experience without that knowledge being the result of a moral argument.”6 I think this is right and possibly another example of what Paul may be talking about in Romans 1:18–23. Although we typically think about this in terms of the visible creation, perhaps it is equally true of the law of God written upon the hearts of people as we interact with creation relationally.

SEP also raises the point that a cumulative case for the moral argument to God’s existence could be presented by taking several different tacks on the type of moral argument we make. So, like a cumulative case for the resurrection of Jesus, we can develop a cumulative moral apologetic as well. I’ve mentioned several here for your consideration.

A New Apologetic from the Supernatural?

Jeff Zweerink added an equally insightful and intriguing thought. Following a similar atheistic, materialistic perspective, isn’t it strange to have materialistic processes giving rise to conscious, self-aware, moral beings that postulate nonmaterial or supernatural explanations? Why would beings evolved from strictly material processes in a strictly material world ever postulate anything beyond a materialistic cause and effect? Isn’t it a leap to imagine or postulate a nonmaterialistic reality if the nature of reality is only materialistic?

I think these are great questions! What are your thoughts? I’m looking forward to my next opportunity to dialogue with my atheist friend or another unbeliever, and see what they think of these things. Isn’t it fascinating that so many things we experience broadly as human beings seem to fit best in the Christian worldview?


  1. Moral arguments are quoted from C. Stephen Evans, “Moral Arguments for the Existence of God,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
  2. Although Lewis does not make this argument in AOM, he certainly makes it in Mere Christianity. I frequently use the Abolition of Man to help open the door for my more analytically or scientifically oriented friends to consider two really important things. One I’ve touched on here is the importance and existence of objective moral values. The other is equally important and often extremely valuable in apologetics. AOM helps us see that we all have philosophical commitments and presuppositions even if we are unaware of our own. It helps the philosophically unaware to become aware (at least cursorily) of this reality, and this is necessary and priceless for conversing between world views. I recommend The Abolition of Man to you if you have not already read it.
  3. Evans, “Moral Arguments.”
  4. Evans, “Moral Arguments.”
  5. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan Publishers, 1948), 57–61.
  6. Evans, “Moral Arguments.”