Can Atheists Be as Good as Theists?

Norm R. Allen Jr.

Is Goodness without God Good Enough? Edited by Robert K. Garcia & Nathan L. King (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009, ISBN-13: 978-0-7425-5171-8) 220 pp. Paper $24.95.


For years, theists have maintained that it is impossible to be good without a belief in God. However, when faced with examples of nonbelievers such as Robert Green Ingersoll, A. Philip Randolph, W.E.B. Du Bois, and numerous others, many theists have come to see the obvious folly in maintaining such an intellectual position.

Not to worry. Clever philosophers such as William Lane Craig have quietly retreated away from this absurd position and taken another, somewhat less absurd, tack. For example, Craig argues that though atheists can be moral, they have no objective moral values or ontological foundation for their morality and that there is no ultimate accountability deriving from secular ethics. He argues that theism, on the other hand, has objective moral values (grounded in God’s perfect nature), provides a solid ontological basis for morality, and assures that everyone will have their just reward or punishment in the afterlife.

The idea for this book came about as a result of a formal debate between Craig and Paul Kurtz at Franklin and Marshall College in October 2001. The debate is presented in Part 1 of the book. In Part 2, the reader finds new essays by other writers in response to the debate. In Part 3, Craig and Kurtz give their concluding responses.

In the introduction, the editors provide a good discussion of the widely reported death of God in 1966 and the confirmed death of logical positivism the following year. With the death of logical positivism, talk of God was no longer deemed meaningless by many philosophers.

Kurtz persuasively argues that there is no need for an ontological basis for morality. Indeed, Craig never makes it clear why such a need exists, what an ontological foundation is, or how such a foundation could help people determine how they ought to live. Kurtz points out that trying to solve a dispute among Muslims, Jews, and Christians by looking for “the ontological grounds” would exacerbate conflict because of the differing interpretations of God’s word. He therefore concludes that the demand for an ontological basis for morality is “an illegitimate demand.” Kurtz more sensibly defends a secular humanist ethics concerned, not with a supposed ontological foundation, but with behavior and its consequences.

Contributor C. Stephen Layman, a professor of philosophy at Seattle Pacific University, makes an odd moral argument for the existence of God. He supports the Overriding Reasons Thesis (ORT), in which the strongest reasons for performing an action always support doing that which is morally obligatory. Though many theists and atheists embrace the ORT, Layman argues that the ORT could only be true if God exists and/or an afterlife exists. There is no reason why this should be the case, however. Whether the ORT is true or false, why should the supposed existence of God or an afterlife have anything to do with it? The best reasons for performing a moral action could simply come down to what is best for individuals and society, whether God exists or not.

Contributor Louise Anthony, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, thoughtfully demonstrates that it is possible to be moral without a belief in God. Moreover, she goes so far as to say that people cannot fully comprehend the severity of their moral failings if they do believe in God. She draws upon the well-known Euthyphro dilemma of Plato. Does God command us to perform an action because it is morally right, or is it morally right only because God commands us to perform it?

Much to Craig’s displeasure, Anthony points to excellent biblical examples in which God condones genocide (1 Samuel 15:13) and other heinous crimes. Anthony demonstrates that such passages show that many of God’s commands are “morally troubling” to say the least. Therefore, objective moral values can hardly be said to be grounded in the biblical God’s supposedly perfect nature.

Contributor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, professor of philosophy and Hardy Professor of Legal Studies at Dartmouth College, shows that theism does not necessarily guarantee ultimate justice and accountability. Indeed, many theists no longer believe in hell. Others believe that hell is nothing more than a permanent separation from God (death, or eternal peace). More important, wretched sinners can be forgiven by God after having committed horrible sins, and people who are basically good could commit a grave sin and die before they are saved. (Conceivably, because serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was “saved” before he died, he could make it into heaven despite his crimes. Moreover, his victims, who might not have been saved, could be destined for eternal torment. Would that be ultimate justice and accountability?)

C. Stephen Layman makes the excellent point that mathematical truths still hold even if God does not exist. He therefore logically concedes that “objective moral truth” exists even if God does not. Why his fellow theist Craig cannot follow this simple line of reasoning remains a puzzle.

Layman also parts company with many theists when he objects to “moral rigorism,” or the idea that moral rules allow for no exceptions. These moralists often charge secular humanists with moral relativism and promoting situation ethics when the latter deal with moral dilemmas and difficult moral choices.

Craig argues that we must follow all of God’s commands. He says that rape is wrong because God says so. Moreover, he contends that God would never command men to rape because it is not in his nature to do so. However, in the Old Testament, God did command his male followers to rape (and murder): “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man, spare for yourselves” (Numbers 31:17–18).

Though Sinnott-Armstrong does not challenge Craig on this point, he understands that the divine command theory of morality dictates that men must rape if God commands them to do so. He writes:

There is a much more plausible foundation for morality. It seems obvious to me, and to everyone who does not start with peculiarly religious assumptions, that what makes rape morally wrong is the extreme harm that rape causes rape victims. This secular foundation makes morality objective. If what makes rape morally wrong is harmful to rape victims, then whether rape is wrong does not depend on whether I or others believe that rape is wrong. It also does not depend on whether anyone wants to rape. Regardless of anyone’s desires and moral beliefs, rape causes harm to the victim, and that harm makes rape wrong. [p. 106]

Sinnott-Armstrong seems to be one of the few commentators to note how ridiculous it is for Craig to maintain that God serves as the foundation for objective moral values. Sinnott-Armstrong correctly notes that, on Craig’s view, whether he realizes it or not, morality depends upon what God thinks. For this reason, according to Craig’s first definition of objective morality, theism cannot provide an objective basis for morality (because it depends upon the subjective mind of God).

Sinnott-Armstrong also points out more problems with the divine command theory. For example, the Bible commands slavery, the killing of homosexuals, and other crimes against humanity. If the biblical God exists, those responsible for killing, enslaving, etc. in the name of God will actually be rewarded in the afterlife for having inflicted so much damage upon their fellow human beings.
The divine command theory has no doubt encouraged many theists to abuse and kill their fellow human beings in the name of God (the faith-based initiative of September 11, 2001, just being one example). Sinnott-Armstrong forcefully argues that the kind of “harm-based morality” that he advocates is superior to the divine command theory, because under the former theory, it is not necessary to know the will of God.

Craig argues that moral actions are wasted if there is no God. But why should that be the case? Would a formerly homeless orphan feel that the kindness of an adoptive family is wasted on him if he suddenly discovered there is no God? Is it a waste of time to build houses for the homeless or to feed starving children if God does not exist? Is it a waste of time to heal the sick and save lives if there is no God or afterlife? Are love, friendship, and family bonds worthless and meaningless if God is a myth? No. Moral actions that improve lives in the here and now are never wasted. Life is not a dress rehearsal for the afterlife. A life well-lived, deeply appreciated, and well-loved could never be considered to be meaningless, God or no God.

Richard Swinburne, a major Christian debater like Craig, defends Jesus’s condemnation of divorce except in cases of adultery. He acknowledges that God makes divorce difficult or impossible, even “for a Christian wife to divorce a cruel husband.” Certainly in this case, harm-based morality is superior to the divine command theory. Under the latter approach, a spouse could be emotionally scarred for life or physically injured or killed. Under a harm-based moral position, however, the welfare of the abused spouse would take precedence over the will of a supposedly perfect God.

Swinburne also seems to suggest that it is good that divorced persons are not allowed to remarry according to the Bible. What is of importance, he maintains, is God’s supposed plan. Marriage, regardless of whether it brings happiness, is a means to an end—pleasing God—and not necessarily a route to human happiness.

However, it could be argued that it is immoral—or at least irresponsible—for a person to stay in an abusive marriage. A husband could inflict physical abuse upon his wife and his children. Indeed, it is not unusual to see news stories in which abusive husbands kill members of their families and themselves. Obviously, in such cases divorce would have been the better route to have taken, and remarriage should always be a viable option for divorced couples, regardless of their reasons for divorcing.

Craig uses the standard Christian rationalizations for Bible-sanctioned slavery and mass murder. For example, he contends that the Canaanites deserved to be slaughtered by the Hebrews because they were immoral. Moreover, he contends that the Hebrews owned slaves because other cultures did so.

However, what was particularly moral about the Hebrews? They seemed to be no less barbaric than other civilizations. The men treated women as chattel. They stoned people to death for relatively minor crimes and no doubt had their fair share of liars, adulterers, thugs, etc. Furthermore, Europeans used the same kinds of rationalizations as the Hebrews for conquering and enslaving Africans and Native Americans. Indeed, European conquerors considered Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Samuel, Gideon, and other biblical warriors to be their role models. Later, Hitler sought to eliminate Jews because he considered them to be ungodly and immoral. If Hitler and other European conquerors were wrong, how could the biblical warriors have been right when the Europeans essentially followed the ancient example?

As for slavery, why did a perfect God feel morally obligated to command his people to follow the bad cultural practices of other groups? After all, he supposedly set aside special laws for his Chosen People. Shouldn’t he have outlawed slavery? Or does it make more sense to conclude that the Hebrews and their god were just as fallible as the people and gods of every other culture, from many of whom they “borrowed”?

Neither Craig nor the other Christian apologists in this book make it clear why they believe that the biblical god was better than any other god of ancient times. Why, for example, should he be considered morally superior to the sun god or the fish god, neither of whom condoned crimes against humanity?

Craig continues to accuse humanists of speciesism or harboring the belief that human beings are superior to and more deserving of life than other species. While some humanists plead guilty to this charge, the Bible says nothing about animal welfare, let alone animal rights. On the contrary, animals are routinely slaughtered for food and sacrifices, and “man” is considered to be the crown jewel among God’s creations. Indeed, “man” is given dominion over the Earth. It is hard to imagine a more speciesist scenario than that presented in the Bible.

In the final analysis, Kurtz shows that it is not enough to be moral with God. Human beings must also be skeptical. He writes:

Some degree of skepticism is a necessary antidote to all forms of moral dogmatism. We are continually surrounded by self-righteous moralists who claim they have the Absolute Truth or Moral Virtue or Piety, and they wish to impose their convictions on all others. The best antidote for this is some skepticism and a willingness to engage in ethical inquiry, not only about the moral zeal of others, but about our own, especially if we are tempted to translate the results of our own ethical inquiries into commandments. [p. 211, emphasis in original]

Norm R. Allen Jr.

Norm Allen is a lecturer and freelance writer. In 1984, he and his brother, Jay Allen, formed the Eagle Publishing Company, which disseminates art and literature by and for black people.


Is Goodness without God Good Enough? Edited by Robert K. Garcia & Nathan L. King (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009, ISBN-13: 978-0-7425-5171-8) 220 pp. Paper $24.95. For years, theists have maintained that it is impossible to be good without a belief in God. However, when faced with examples of nonbelievers such as Robert Green …

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