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Why atheists are good

April 2008 | by David Anderson

Why atheists are good

 

Can anyone be good without God? This question often comes up in debates between Christians and atheists. How should we answer it? Here, the politician’s answer is true – it all depends upon what you mean by ‘good’, ‘without’ and ‘God’.

 

The Bible tells us that we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:28) and that our make-up as human beings reflects realities about God’s eternal and glorious being. One important result is that we are moral beings.

     A belief in the existence of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – and that right is better – is stamped upon our nature. We can’t get away from it. Because we are fallen image-
bearers, our ideas about right and wrong often need correcting. But despite this, we do not doubt that morality is a real and essential part of human life.

     Strangely, this means that atheists not only can be moral but must be moral. Whatever they believe or teach, they cannot escape their identity as divine image-bearers. Though they resist their Creator (Romans 1:18ff) they cannot leave his universe.

 

Not without God

 

Most atheists feel this pressure so strongly that they feel compelled to find reasons to explain why morality matters. Other atheists are more consistent. They profess to believe that they really are nothing more than a cosmic accident, and exist only to pass on their genes in a universe with no ultimate meaning or purpose.

     Nevertheless, if you burgle an atheist’s house or punch him on the nose, he’ll soon revert to talking about morality. Telling him that your genes have hard-wired into your brain a different moral code from his won’t wash!

     So, yes, like anyone else, an atheist will try to be good. But whatever he says, this isn’t being good without God. Without God to help him, he couldn’t even be a person, let alone a good one.

 

Defining good and bad

 

The real question to ask is, ‘What would it actually mean to be good without God?’ Morality is ultimately about ‘ought’ – you ‘ought’ to do this, you ‘ought’ not to do that. It is about reasons, larger than humanity, that demonstrate our moral accountability.

     If there were no God, then where could this authoritative ‘ought’ come from? We don’t recognise any ‘ought’ preventing us from wiping out bacteria with disinfectant, or eating lettuce. Why, if we share a common ancestor with them both, should there be an ‘ought’ that discourages humans from wiping out one another?

     Professor Richard Dawkins has written that ‘atheists and humanists tend to define good and bad deeds in terms of the welfare and suffering of others’.1 This sounds nice – it’s similar to what Christians believe; we ought to love our neighbour. The key bit of Dawkins’ statement to examine, though, is not the second half but the first – ‘Atheists define good and bad…’

     Opening the sentence like that gives the game away and there is no point in considering what comes next. If morality is merely what we – whether atheists or Christians – define it to be, then morality can carry no authority.

     What atheists define is all fine and dandy, but why should we care? Atheists generally define morality in terms of their neighbour’s welfare, but a cannibal’s definition of morality lets him eat his neighbour with a good conscience. Why should one definition be more binding than the other?

     If we insist that morality has no existence beyond the chemistry of our brain, we are in fact saying that morality (‘ought to’) is nothing more than an arbitrary personal opinion.

 

God is the law-giver

 

Some atheists have faced up to this dilemma. Frederich Nietzsche was one, writing that ‘our moral judgments and evaluations are only images and fantasies based on a physiological process unknown to us’.2 Fortunately for humanity, Nietzsche’s consistency is too harsh for most divine image-bearers to swallow.

     Morality is real precisely because God is real. As our Creator, he is the transcendent authority – the law-giver who gets to tell us what we ‘ought’ or ‘ought not’ to do. It is because we are made by him and like him that we know we cannot treat morality as an arbitrary invention. It is because of God the Creator that morality really is bigger than we are.

     At this point, the atheist is in dire straits. The first of God’s laws is to love him with our whole being (Mark 12:30). Can we be good without God? No, because by refusing to honour our Maker we break the first and greatest of all the commandments. Atheists need to face up to logic – either atheism is immoral or nothing is.

David Anderson, Trinity Baptist Church, Nairobi, Kenya.

David blogs at http://mothwo.blogspot.com

Footnotes

 

1. http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/richard_dawkins/2007/10/for_good_people_to_go_evil_thi.html

2. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche-moral-political/