Friday, October 4, 2013

Atheists and the Need for God to Exist for Moral Epistemology

          Typically, an atheist will ask, “Why can’t an atheist know and do good without God?” The usual (and quite helpful) response is that, yes, atheists can know and do good without acknowledging God in their lives. However, the main point is the foundation or grounding of the good—and that is plausibly not anything other than God. While this response is adequate, and frames the debate in terms of ontology rather than epistemology, I want to focus a bit on the epistemological claim. I want to say, as a word of warning, that I mean no offense to any atheists, skeptics, agnostics, or non-Christians. If you can read this in a spirit of charity, you may be able even to agree with what I am saying!

            I happen to think the atheist often does not, in fact, know his moral obligations and duties. Further than this, there are some moral obligations that bear upon him that he cannot know, even in principle, if God is excluded from the moral epistemology. Now, in a certain sense, no atheist can escape God from his moral epistemology. This is because, as a part of our design, moral knowledge is built in a priori, as a function of how we are to operate. With God as the designer and giver of the moral law, humans everywhere will, if operating correctly, apprehend the moral law.[1]

            I hold to a divine command theory of ethics. This means that our moral obligations are constituted by God’s commands. These commands are given in part through the deliverances of a properly functioning conscience. Many of them, however, are deduced from God’s Word. It should strike the reader as obvious that atheists do not accept the Bible as the Word of God. In that case, it just follows that there are some commands that are incumbent upon humanity that the atheist will not even recognize.

            Take the example of doing all to the glory of God (cf. 1 Cor. 10:31). For more than one reason, this is not something that immediately shows itself in the consciences of people a priori. It strikes even “veteran” Christians as an insight of morality that each and every aspect of their lives, even down to what they eat or drink, is to be consecrated to God. It then becomes obvious that atheists do not know this moral command, and thus a crucial point of moral obligation is not a part of the atheist’s moral epistemology.[2]

            Moreover, as odd as the claim that atheists cannot, even in principle, know certain moral obligations upon them is, we actually see myriad examples in everyday life. Consider the fact that atheists and Christians are at odds on a great many moral issues. Abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage and homosexual behavior, raising children, etc. All of these issues exhibit a great controversy between atheists and Christians. Yet Christians derive these moral commands (both obligations and prohibitions) either directly or indirectly from Scripture, coupled with moral intuition. In some cases, it is either not possible or very weak to make a case for certain of these positions on an atheistic epistemology. So I think it follows as obvious there are some positions that, given atheist commitments, are impossible for atheists to know. In that case, it follows they do need God for their moral epistemology.

            One final application to make: this applies not only to atheists, but even (in certain cases) to all non-Christians. This is not meant to show that God exists. It is just an interesting avenue to explore, as entailments of my personal positions.

[1] I do understand, of course, that there are psychopaths, who do not perceive moral right and wrong. This is obviously not the norm.

[2] I am using “know” here in the sense of “justified true belief.” Presumably, the atheist does not believe God exists, and so does not believe he has the moral obligation to fulfill this command, even if he is aware the Bible teaches it.


  1. "With God as the designer and giver of the moral law, humans everywhere will, if operating correctly, apprehend the moral law." You set a rule and an out for exceptions with this sentence, making it both impossible to refute and meaningless. Find a psychopath? He's just not operating correctly, which implies God occasionally screws up.

    1. Grundy, thanks for commenting! I do think your criticism is multiply misguided, however. First, things that are irrefutable are not in fact meaningless. As far as I can tell, 2+2=4, modus ponens, and a host of other claims are all irrefutable, even in principle, and yet I doubt they lack any meaning. Second, even if it were true that irrefutable claims lack meaning, a presupposition foundational to this claim is not in fact irrefutable (even the actual claim is technically not irrefutable, though it would be bizarre to claim that God is the designer and giver of the moral law but that humans would not apprehend it). All you have to do is show God is not the designer in the case of the presupposition (show God is impossible, perhaps? Or highly improbable?), or show that humans do not, as a general rule, apprehend the moral law.

      Next, it does not follow that if something does not operate correctly, it was not designed correctly. This is seen especially with respect to free will. So long as free will on the part of non-divine creatures exists, sin follows, which is, by definition, not operating correctly. Because of sin, disease, death, and disorder are a part of the world in which we live. Only God can rectify that, and he did so by the death of his Son, Jesus Christ.

    2. I wasn't saying that because it is irrefutable it is meaningless, I was saying that the structure of that particular sentence makes it both irrefutable and meaningless. You are basically saying everyone is a certain way or they aren't. If I said all all people are happy or they aren't--that's irrefutable, but it's also meaningless.

      ...and God rectified sin, disease, death and disorder? Then why do we still have them? If we have freewill, meaning God isn't omniscient, that only can explain sin.

    3. Thanks for the response! :) Well that is also confused, for it does convey meaning: namely that for every X, every X is either A or not-A. This is both an application of propositional logic and of the law of non-contradiction. You may not agree, but that won't make it meaningless.

      Next, the rectification of sin, in Christian theology, is contingent upon the payment for sin, which was accomplished in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Christians also believe in an "end-game" eternal state, where there will be a new heavens and a new earth, and that is just such the state of affairs to which you look. It is only the goodness of God (patiently waiting for the free choice of sinners, like me, you, and everyone, to choose God and trust him for salvation).

      Finally, whether or not God is omniscient is irrelevant to the discussion. But, supposing one makes it relevant to whether or not atheists have moral knowledge and whether they are culpable for moral obligations if God exists, your assertion was unargued for. :)

    4. I may not agree? How couldn't I agree,? It's meaningless in the same way that a football announcer might say either team A will win or team B will win. It's so obvious that it isn't worth saying.

      So your claim is only that God will rectify it at some point in the future and only for those who worship him?

    5. So, it's meaningless in the sense that it conveys truth, and that truth holds propositional content, which is to say, it's not meaningless at all. In fact, you demonstrate that it's "not worth saying;" but propositions don't have intrinsic worth, presumably. If it's extrinsic worth, then it depends on who is conferring the worth. And there are, as it turns out, purposes to constructing dilemmas in logically valid arguments.

      Christian theology claims that God *fully* rectifies sin and its consequences at some point in the future, and only those who place their trust in God for salvation will experience those positive consequences.

      So, do you grant that if God exists and gives our moral obligations, atheists do not believe some of them? Getting back on topic, after all.

    6. "So, do you grant that if God exists and gives our moral obligations, atheists do not believe some of them?"

      Yes, but I see/feel no evidence of moral obligations from a deity.

    7. So we're in complete agreement insofar as the article is concerned!

    8. I disagree with almost every point of the article, but then you can always say I'm not "operating correctly." ;-)

    9. You just agreed with the major point of the article in your previous comment! So that whatever peripheral issues you may have with other comments, you nonetheless agree that, on theism, atheists do not believe and hence do not know their moral obligations. One can be a staunch atheist and agree with this completely! :)


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