That’s the claim anyway. Michael Shermer is fond of using this kind of argument in debates. He reasons that God’s existence is irrelevant to morality because even if God didn’t exist, people would still think killing, stealing, and lying were wrong. Want proof? If it could be proven to you today that God doesn’t exist, would you go out and kill/steal tomorrow (particularly if you knew you could do so without getting caught and punished by the authorities)? No. There are still good reasons to act morally even in the absence of God. Therefore, it follows, claims Shermer, that God is not necessary for morality.
While this has great rhetorical force in a debate, Shermer misses the point completely. The question isn’t whether one needs to believe in God to know and do good, but whether God’s existence is necessary for the good that we know to actually be “good.”
Greg Koukl has pointed out that Shermer’s question—Would you still do good even if God didn’t exist?—makes as much sense as asking whether you would still be faithful to your wife even if you were not married. If there is no transcendent source to ground moral values as objective features of the world, then there is no such thing as the good to know or do. Morality becomes completely relative. Whether morality is the result of social norms of conduct or impulses caused by our evolutionary past, the good is not objectively good. So while humans may behave the same way whether God exists or not, if God does not exist none of those behaviors could be characterized as “good” in an objective sense. They are just accepted socio-biological behaviors that we choose to label as “good” and “evil.”
Shermer is right when he insists that people are fully capable of recognizing what is right and wrong wholly apart from a belief in God, and that—from a practical perspective—most people would not change their moral behaviors even if they stopped believing in God (though only the most naïve could believe that people’s moral decisions would not be impacted at all). Unfortunately for Shermer, this isn’t the issue being debated. The Bible teaches that all men have moral knowledge in virtue of being made in the image of God (Romans 2), so Christians heartily agree that people know what is good and are able to do good apart from belief in God. The debate is about what makes morality moral, or what makes the good truly good. Where does the good come from? Theists contend that while all people can know moral truths without knowing God, God must exist for moral truths to actually be truths rather than fictions. God’s being and nature is the grounding and essence of the good.
No headway will ever be made in this debate if we fail to make the basic philosophical distinction between what makes something true (ontology) and how we come to know that truth (epistemology). Shermer et al focus only on matters of moral epistemology (how we know what is right and wrong), while we theists address both the matter of moral epistemology and the deeper issue of moral ontology (what makes something right or wrong). The mere fact that we have moral knowledge tells us nothing about why there are moral truths to know in the first place. Shermer doesn’t want to address questions of moral ontology, however, because on his evolutionary account of moral values there is no moral reality to ground. The good is just a result of socio-biological evolution. Not only does this negate the objectivity of moral values, but it makes questions of moral ontology irrelevant. The problem for Shermer is that he wants to affirm both the objectivity of moral values and their evolutionary origin. But I digress.
Shermer confuses our ontological claim that God is necessary for moral truths to exist for an epistemological claim that God is necessary for us to know the content of those moral truths. I will not speculate as to whether this confusion is intentional or not, but no speculation is required to conclude that Shermer is addressing a straw man argument. Christians are not arguing that we cannot know the good and do good apart from belief in God, but rather that there would be no good to know apart from the existence of God.
Shermer also confuses the order of being with the order of knowing. While our knowledge of the good may precede our knowledge of God (order of knowing), the existence of God must precede our knowledge of the good because without God there can be no such thing as objective good to know (order of being).
No headway will be made between atheists and theists until atheists take seriously the question of moral ontology. If an atheist wants to deny the objectivity of morality, fine. We can debate that issue. But atheists like Michael Shermer who want to affirm the objectivity of moral values and yet ignore the question of moral ontology need to address this glaring omission in their worldview. If our moral intuitions reveal the objectivity of moral values, and the objectivity of those moral values are best explained by a God whose very nature is good, then that is a good reason to believe God exists.
Greg Koukl, “Prepping for Engagement,” Solid Ground, March/April 2010.