Atheists Really Do Borrow Christian Morality

by guest blogger Randy Everist

Problem: It is a common claim by apologists and Christians that “atheists don’t have a foundation from which to criticize moral wrong.” Atheists often assert that some action God does is immoral, or at least inconsistent with moral values. Objective morality is necessary by definition. We cannot really imagine conceive [EDIT: Thanks to Mike Gage for the correction.] a possible world where it is fundamentally OK to rape and kill and torture babies or old women. If it is true, it is necessarily true. If it is false, it is necessarily false. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.

Proposed solution: Atheists therefore are committed to the necessary falsehood of objective moral values. So when they say, “if objective moral values were to exist, then some God-action X would be immoral.” But if objective moral values are necessarily false, then there is no possible world in which the antecedent is true, and hence the antecedent is technically logically impossible. Yet in that case, the following would-counterfactual in the consequent is trivially true (or technically unjustified). It holds the same force as saying, “If married bachelors were to exist, then I would win tomorrow’s lottery,” or “If triangles have seven sides, then all goldfish are purple.”

Counterargument: 1. Don’t theists commit themselves to the truth of at least some statements that have impossible antecedents but yet are non-trivially true? 2. One is merely evaluating the consistency of the moral action at hand: even if morality is necessarily false, can we not reconstruct the argument to say something like, “All instances of lying are wrong. This is an instance of God lying. Therefore, this is wrong.” Since this argument is true by definitional (and non-contradictory) means, the atheist may critically evaluate the actions of God.

Response: 1. Yes this is true, but it is not entirely clear exactly which examples should be considered non-trivially true. It seems it needs to be some necessary dependence of the consequent on the antecedent, where such a relationship is known to exist in actuality. So for instance, even though mathematics is necessary, so that a proposed mathematical answer is either necessarily true or necessarily false, we may relate: “If two and two are added together to equal five, then we would not have four;” so that even if someone felt the antecedent was necessarily impossible, we can consider the statement non-trivially true. But since we do have four when we add two and two together—in fact, precisely because they are added together—we have a dependent relationship that allows us to consider the statement true in a non-trivial sense. If the atheist admits this, then he admits the negation of the consequent, which undermines his entire argument.

2. Changing the statement to a categorical proposition seems to help the cause somewhat. However, the same problem persists: the atheist thinks this proposition is necessarily false. Since if one of the two premises are false, the conclusion does not follow, the atheist cannot derive his conclusion. Hence, he is stuck in the same boat.

Counterargument: But in the case of the first premise (or some modified version of it), Christians do in fact accept it. So in any case, the option of appealing to the first premise’s falsehood or impossibility is not open to the theist. Thus, the argument still stands.

Response: What is interesting, however, is this: the Christian may simply say that God, as the grounds of objective moral values, cannot, by logical definition, do what is a moral wrong. Thus, the Christian is well-justified in asserting either some have misunderstood the situation, the situation was not reported correctly, or that the particular entity being identified as the “doer” of the action is not the maximally-excellent God. The Christian theist is well within his comfort to maintain that that maximally-excellent being known as God cannot sin. Hence, the second premise is false for him.

Interestingly, the atheist can only hope to show a maximally-excellent being either is not the ground of objective moral values or it is impossible for such a being to exist. The former is unlikely and the latter requires an entirely different argument, making the current one superfluous, as Tim McGrew would say. Why are these the only options open to the atheist? Because, as we noted, the atheist considers the first premise in his argument to be impossible.[1] But in this case, both the theist and the atheist have no reason to think the argument is true! Therefore, it really is true that atheists typically borrow from the Christian worldview when they accuse God of moral wrongdoing.


[1] He may not think it is logically impossible, but in that case he thinks it is the case there can be objective moral values without a necessarily-existing ground, something that should be justified on its own before the theist is to allow this.

About Randy Everist: “I earned my Master of Arts in Religion from Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA in the summer of 2011. I would love to earn my PhD in either philosophy of religion or theology. My heart’s desire is to help brothers and sisters who have genuine questions about the faith that they either have not been able to ask or to which they have not received adequate answers.”  Randy Everist  blogs at his website, Possible Worlds (Randy Everist) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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