It is all rather common – almost to the point of being monotonous – for atheists to throw out the old chestnut, “Can we be good without God?” They argue, “Of course we can. We are just as moral as any religious person. We don’t need God to live an ethical life.”
I have dealt with this issue often in the past. See for example:
But I want to take this a bit further. Another common objection thrown out by the atheists and secularists concerns how ethics can be any different for believers and non-believers. As one secularist challenged me just hours ago: “Name me an ethical statement or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non believer.”
This too is a common objection, but let me address here in more detail. There are various ways a theist can respond. One is to say that we are all made in God’s image. Even though we are now all fallen, we still live in a moral world, and have moral awareness because we live in God’s moral universe.
So yes, we all have moral motions, and make moral statement and claims. This is all fully explainable under the theistic worldview, but not at all explicable under the atheistic and evolutionary worldview. Selfish genes are not moral, they just are. Genetic determinism says nothing about genuine morality.
But as to the specific challenge of what a non-believer can or cannot do, the answer is quite clear on theistic terms. Consider the First Commandment for starters. Most atheists may not know of this one. Sure, most secularists and atheists know about some of the Commandments, such as ‘Do not kill’ or ‘Do not steal’.
But there are a few problems here. First, Jesus made it quite clear that simply not doing certain outward actions does not make one morally upstanding, or right with God. He said it is our inward attitudes and dispositions that really count in terms of our moral makeup.
Thus he said that if a person lusts after another person in his heart, he has already committed adultery. He said that if a person hates another, he has already committed murder. That not only makes every single atheist guilty of falling short of a holy God’s ethical standards, but every single one of us.
We are all guilty. We all fail to meet his just and perfect standards. So in that sense none of us measure up. But there is another important element to all this. I noted that most secularists would not even know what the First Commandment is. Well, let me share it with you:
“You shall have no other gods before me.” This is the first and foremost commandment, and it is obviously one which the atheist breaks every single day – indeed, every single moment. The atheist, who claims there is no God, in fact sets himself up as God, as the centre of the universe.
He seeks to usurp God’s place. He is guilty of gross idolatry (thus breaking the Second Commandment) and is breaking continuously the First Commandment. This is clearly one ethical action which a non-believer cannot perform. Of course, none of us can, until we come to Christ in repentance and faith.
Thus the believer is a former rebel who once regularly violated the First Commandment, but now is finally able to start keeping it – with God’s help of course. The non-believer not only does not want to keep this Commandment, but is unable to as well.
And things do not get any better for the atheist or secularist in the New Testament. Consider what Jesus said when he was asked about what is the greatest commandment. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength. It is obvious that an atheist would have a bit of difficulty keeping that particular ethical injunction.
But a somewhat more observant atheist might object and say that Jesus went on to discuss the second great commandment: to love one’s neighbour as one’s self. “See,” he will chortle, “we atheists can do that!” But can they? Really?
Notice that just as in the Ten Commandments, there is a clear order delineated here: God first, then man. The first four Commandments are all God-ward, while the remaining six are man-ward. This is the same with the reply Jesus gave. God must come first, then mankind.
Indeed, this is not just some rhetorical device, but a fundamental ethical reality. The point of both lists is this: without loving God and being in right relationship with him, we cannot really love others. Being a moral person in this life, in other words, is predicated upon, and impossible without, being in right relationship with our maker.
We cannot be in right relationship with each other until we are first in right relationship with God. This is the major sticking point of Christian thinking about morality – a point which always trips up secularists and atheists. They think they can be good without God.
But they really can’t. Sure, we can all do certain moral acts, since as I said, we are all moral agents living in God’s moral universe. But genuine goodness, as exemplified in the great commandments announced by Jesus, is impossible while we try to paddle under our own steam.
Indeed, that is part of the reason why Jesus talked about the lust/adultery connection in the Sermon on the Mount. It was to show us clearly and decisively that all of us fail to measure up to the absolutely pure and holy standards of God, based as they are on his perfectly pure character.
We all fall short, and only with God’s help as we repent of our sin and accept what Christ has done for us, and receive the gift of his Holy Spirit, can we finally begin to live real ethical lives, lives which really are pleasing to a holy and just God.
So the short answer to my atheist buddies is that on the one hand, yes you can be moral and do moral things – to an extent. But there is plenty an atheist simply cannot do, including the most important thing of all: giving God his just and due devotion and allegiance.