Bible Outpost

A Response to "Atheists and religious alike seek to identify foundation of morality"

 By admin,  Oct 21, 2011 - 7:44 am,  6 Comments

Atheist Michael Nugent has written a short article for the Irish Times titled “Atheists and religious alike seek to identify foundation of morality.”  In this work, he attempts to show that morality is determined by personal and/or group choice instead of by God.

His belief isn’t surprising.  How could someone who does not believe in God come to any other conclusion?  If there is no God, there’s no opportunity for him to be the source of morality.  There must be some other criteria people and societies can use establish the laws of morality.

Let us first be clear about the Christian position.  Mr. Nugent rightly understands that most religious people believe god is the originator of morality. In Christianity, there is nothing above God (“‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord” God Revelations 1:8.).  Morality isn’t some arbitrary force or set of constraints that God must follow.  Moral laws exist because God makes them exist.

A perfect example of this is incest.  Since the laws prohibiting incest aren’t specified until the book of Leviticus, we can only assume incest was permissible at some point prior to when the laws were created.  Incest didn’t become immoral until God made it immoral.

Having established the Christian position, let’s take a closer look at Mr Nugent’s thoughts.  Right off the bat he makes a curious statement:

“Most atheists believe that we have to work it [morality] out ourselves.”

To be honest, I don’t think Mr. Nugent really believes this statement.  If he really believes morality is a matter of personal opinion, then why does he criticize the Christian approach to morality?  Shouldn’t he be completely fine with Christians using their Bibles to guide their morality if that’s the way they choose to “work it out?”  Ultimately, he wants the same thing we all want and that is to see his own system of morality adopted as universally as possible.

He goes on to state some problems that seem to rule out the possibility of a God created morality:

  1. Different religions have different gods with different moral rules.  Even worse, their followers differ on the interpretation of the rules.
  2. What is the criteria by which a god uses to establish his moral laws?  If there is a higher set of constraints a god must follow, then morality is independent of gods.  If a god chooses what the laws are, then he could have easily chosen any of the options, so morality is arbitrary.

Having successfully shown that God cannot be the source of morality, he gives an alternative method (adopted by “many atheists”) for determining whether or not an action is moral.  One simply needs to ask the question, “what effect does this action have on the well-being or suffering of sentient beings?”  Any action that increases suffering or decreases well-being is immoral.

If only it were so simple.  Is every action discreetly immoral or moral?  Pick any war that’s ever been fought.  For one side, well-being was likely decreased, for the other, well-being likely increased.  Was America acting immorally when it defeated the Germans in WWII?  What about justice?  When criminals are punished, their suffering is likely increased while their well-being is decreased.  Is it immoral to punish criminals who have clearly committed a crime?

Under inspection, his criteria for establishing morality is useless.  Many decisions help someone, while hurting someone else.  Many actions hurt people in the short term while helping them in the long run (thinking of some constructive discipline I received as a child) and many actions hurt an individual while helping a group.  Morality exists independent of someone’s well-being or suffering.    Do we really consider someone who lies, cheats and steals in the name of easing their suffering or increasing their well-being to be acting morally? Of course not.

It is God who is the source of morality.  The two issues Mr. Nugent had with this fact are easily dismissed:

  1. First, truth is truth.  The fact that multiple beliefs have multiple interpreters does not detract from the truth that God is sovereign.  Imperfect people make imperfect interpretations, but the right answer still remains right. (6+1 = 7 no matter how many Kindergarteners give the wrong answer.)  Also, we are all created with unique perspectives and Christianity (on some subjects) gives us the freedom to choose our own way without drawing condemnation from God.
  2. Second, morality is not independent or arbitrary.  Mr Nugent would like us to believe that God just woke up one morning and decided to outlaw murder because he was in a good mood that particular day.  This of course is nonsense.  The Bible is quiet clear that God does what is best for us (Romans 8:28 “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them”).  The moral laws we have been given were chosen for a purpose.

In closing, Mr. Nugent’s position on morality isn’t completely clear (apart from the fact that he doesn’t think it comes from God).  On one hand, he would have us believe there is some natural foundation for the laws of morality that we all internally understand – namely, humans inherently know it’s immoral to harm other people.  On the other hand, he has stated the rules of morality are something Atheists believe need to be worked out by people.  Neither one of those ideas appear to stand up against scrutiny.  For the first argument,  it’s already been shown that causing or not causing harm to people is a poor way to determine the morality of an action.  It just doesn’t fit with the way societies work as just about anyone would agree liberating Kuwait in the first Gulf War was moral and justifiable despite the harm done to the Iraqi army. Mr. Nugent would need to identify a better morality test in order for us to take this theory seriously.  Second, if moral laws need to be worked out then the implication is morality is defined by each person.  Moral laws for a society are worked out by negotiation or imposed by people with power.  Unfortunately, this too is a losing position since Atheists would not longer be able to pass judgements on acts of rape, pedophilia, murder etc…  It’s a tough intellectual spot to be in for an Atheist and most will likely continue to endorse a flawed natural foundation argument instead of assessing the facts and making a correct interpretation.


  1. LocalGirl - Posted October 22, 2011 at 9:38 pm Permalink | |

    C.S. Lewis, Mere Christiantiy: (first chapter, last paragraph) “These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it.” If we do all “work it out” isn’t it suspect that we all start with some similar opinions on what is right and/or wrong. Wouldn’t that suggest a common maker or an outside force guiding our impression of right and wrong?

    I also find C.S. Lewis’ journey to faith interesting. He first decides that there is in fact a God, based on scientific and global commonalities observed. Then he decided that, knowing nothing about this God, he wanted to obey God and in effect be on His team. Then he found out that God was good. He did not choose to obey God because God fell into his personal idea of good. He chose to follow God and as he got to know God he further defined what good is.

  2. strayone - Posted October 22, 2011 at 10:55 pm Permalink | |

    Morality is fluid and mutable. It only becomes “law” when it serves the individual or the society in which he lives. If what god says in the bible is moral law then god changes his moral compass from time to time.
    Child labor used to be moral and necessary, today it wouldn’t be tolerated in this society. Children were married at early ages mainly because people didn’t live very long. And today these two examples are still considered moral in several cultures.
    Once you decide that a christian definition for morality is correct and absolute then you pit yourself against all other cultural, religious and individual moral codes.
    If you choose to follow a christian “moral code” then you have the luxury of picking and choosing which “laws” you like and discarding those that make you squeamish. I see no moral guidance here.

    • ender - Posted October 23, 2011 at 11:38 pm Permalink | |

      First – If morality is fluid and mutable, are rape and pedophilia permissible to you? Is it ok for others to steal your property? If this is ok then I’m sure you’ll be fine with posting your address here for everyone to see. 🙂 What’s your favorite cookie? Maybe someone will leave some behind when they come by for a visit…

      Second – When a society (or person) chooses ANY moral code do they not pit themselves against other moral codes? It has nothing to do specifically with Christianity.

      Third – If someone chooses to follow the Christian moral code, they absolutely DO NOT have the luxury of choosing. They have the luxury of making their interpretations & choices – but the standards are set.

  3. LocalGirl - Posted October 22, 2011 at 11:27 pm Permalink | |

    Whether you choose a christian moral code, or another you are still able “picking and choosing” which moral codes/laws you like and those you don’t.

    What I like about the point C.S. Lewis makes is that you don’t pick and choose what laws you like or don’t, but that we all break the laws that are good, even if we know they are laws. Because we are weak and we do get squeamish so in the moment we try to rationalize our way out of it. That doesn’t change that there are laws that we should be following.

  4. Michael Nugent - Posted October 24, 2011 at 2:34 am Permalink | |

    Thanks for the feedback and the link to this post. You have misunderstood some of my points (or else I have communicated them poorly) so here is some clarification.

    I agree that basing morality on the impact of one’s actions on sentient beings is a complex task, with many interacting variables and unknowable knock-on effects. But the principle remains a valid one to aim for, while doing one’s best to calculate the knowable variables and knock-on effects.

    The criteria that I am proposing is the effect of one’s actions on sentient beings (plural) not on oneself alone. Clearly lying, cheating and stealing negatively impact on other sentient beings and so they weigh in on the immoral side of the scale of any action.

    Saying ‘truth is truth’ does not address any of the issues being discussed. It could be that what I am proposing is true and that you are mistaken, or it could be that what you are proposing is true and that I am mistaken, or it could be that what neither of us are proposing is true and that we are both mistaken.

    Saying that you believe your god chose moral laws for a purpose does not address the basis upon which you believe he chose them. In principle, do you you believe he could have chosen that random torture was morally good? If not, why not?

    • ender - Posted November 4, 2011 at 2:19 am Permalink | |

      Thanks for taking the time to respond Michael! Welcome.

      In response to your last question, I usually don’t ask myself if a choice or action is moral or immoral. As a Christian, what matters is whether or not a particular choice is in line with God’s will – for humans, that is what makes a choice good. I think it’s a very interesting question to debate and answer – could God ever allow random torture? I am undecided at this point, but I’m strongly leaning towards “no”. The other alternative I’m considering is “Yes, but he would cease being God.” If God allowed random torture then that would make him inconsistent with other characteristics of his nature (1 John 4:8 comes to mind “…God is love…”). This in turn would make him imperfect and God cannot be imperfect.

      This really gets into the question of whether or not God’s will can override his nature. I think there’s still widespread debate on this topic. Either way, morality comes from His will or His nature so it comes from Him in the Christian worldview.


      I’m willing to test your criteria and give it a shot, but I run into mental paradoxes quickly. Let’s consider stealing. What if my family is starving and yours has food. Is it moral for me to steal the food from your family to feed mine? In this case I’ve both been immoral (to your family) and moral (to my family). There’s been no net sway on the morality scale in either direction so we have to conclude that my actions were neutral on the whole. Are you really proposing a society where it’s acceptable to steal?

      Contrast this to the clarity of God’s law on the topic – do not steal…EVER. What is wrong with the idea of NEVER allowing theft?


      Given your position that morality is something that needs to be “decide[d] together” why are you opposed to religious people turning to their faiths for guidance? Your position would be more consistent if you allowed for different groups to define their own morality (it’s going to happen anyway).

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