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Can atheism possibly explain morality and reason?

Published: 17 June 2017 (GMT+10)

C.O. from the US wrote:

pexels.com chimp
Hello CMI team,

Thank you so much for your ministry. I have a quick question- is it *possible* in an atheistic worldview for morality, reliability of our mind, etc to exist, thus making our argument (as a Christian) on which makes the more sense? Because as I've researched, I often hear them saying that evolution could account for morality, reliability of our minds, etc. And though I think that Christianity provides a more plausible answer, I'm confused as to whether or not the naturalistic worldview can offer any explanation.
Can you help me understand this? Thank you!

In Christ,


CMI’s responds:

Hi C.O.,

I do not think it is possible to account for true (objective) morality or reliable minds apart from God, but that doesn’t stop atheists from trying. In other words, atheists do sometimes offer explanations; it’s just that those ‘explanations’ aren’t any good.

Atheists can know what is moral, but only because atheism is wrong.

Regarding morality, some atheists have argued that natural selection has hard wired us to act in certain ways that are conducive to human flourishing. Okay, but even if we grant that claim, it would only explain what is, not what ought to be. Indeed, evolutionists admit that some of the predispositions natural selection has supposedly ingrained in us would be immoral to act upon, and we are free to resist those impulses. See Rape and evolution. This shows that evolution would not provide a transcendent standard by which to judge our behavior; at best it would only give us subjective morality—which is really no morality at all. What real morality requires, by contrast, is a proper eternal and immutable authority. See What is ‘good’?

Now, sometimes atheists beg the question by taking human flourishing to be the highest good and then working out a moral system based on that premise. But then the question remains—on atheism, what makes human flourishing good? There’s no reason to single out humans as special, and no reason to treat flourishing as an objective good, unless you’ve already smuggled in a moral standard. But that is the very thing we asked the atheist to explain.

Often, atheists misunderstand the challenge, so they respond by saying that they clearly can recognize what is moral without belief in God. This is irrelevant. Yes, atheists can correctly identify many things that are right and wrong. But our argument is not that you need belief in God to acknowledge morality, or even to act morally. It is that God must exist in order for morality to exist. This is a question of ontology (being), not epistemology (knowing). Atheists can know what is moral, but only because atheism is wrong. See Can we be good without God?

Reason is not just unexpected given naturalism, it is impossible.

Other atheists claim that objective morality is a brute fact, or something that exists necessarily but does not need to be grounded in God—a Platonic ideal. But this seems incoherent, since such things as love and mercy are properties of persons, not things that can exist independently as abstract objects. Also, even if goodness were a Platonic ideal, it’s still hard to see why human beings would have any obligation toward it. On this view, evil would also exist as a Platonic ideal, so why would we have a duty to be good, but no corresponding duty to be evil? It seems arbitrary without the personal authority of the biblical Creator, whose nature is the standard for goodness, and who deserves our allegiance in virtue of who He is.

Furthermore, since atheists deny that there is genuine teleology (goals or purposes) in the world, this should logically lead them to deny free will. But without free will, how could humans even make the choice to be moral or immoral? If we are just ‘moist robots’, as some evolutionists claim, and free will is an illusion, then real morality is impossible.

As for reliable minds, in Monkey minds I explained why we would not expect reason to emerge in a naturalistic, evolutionary world. I offered two arguments. The first says that if we had to rely on blind, unreasoning forces to produce reason, the chances are too slim that our cognitive faculties would be put together in just the right way so as to allow us to reason properly. Natural selection wouldn’t help, since it does not favor truth per se, but behavior. My second argument goes further and says that reason is not just unexpected given naturalism, it is impossible. This is because naturalism insists that human beings are just machines without immaterial souls. As explained, reason cannot be grounded in material objects alone, but requires an immaterial substance. Thus, reason is explicitly contrary to naturalism. This is further defended against misunderstandings in: Can evolution produce rational minds?

To summarize, while evolutionists might make attempts to overcome these problems, their attempts are inadequate. It’s not possible to get morality or reason from their worldview, but since they attempt to offer explanations, we do still have to consider which explanation makes the most sense.

I hope that helps to clarify.

Best wishes,
Keaton Halley

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Danny D.
"As explained, reason cannot be grounded in material objects alone, but requires an immaterial substance."

I would be very interested to hear your opinion on Artificial Intelligence. I've heard people say that our current level of Artificial Intelligence is somewhere between the level of insects and small mammals. It's not inconceivable that in the next 100 years, we might be able to construct an intelligence near that of a human's. Could such a thing be capable of morality? Or would you just expect it to be able to mimick the morality of it's creators? I'd say it would certainly be capable of reason - at least in the way I understand the meaning of that word.

One of the fascinating subjects of science fiction is if advanced artificial intelligence could be said to be alive, and if they would as such need to be awarded "human" rights.
Keaton Halley
Machines already surpass humans in terms of computational ability, but they don't truly reason in the sense we do, because they have no consciousness or free will. If you read Monkey Minds, I explained why reason cannot be grounded in material things alone. See also Robots will not take over the world, and a book you might find helpful is J.P. Moreland's The Soul.
Danny D.
" On this view, evil would also exist as a Platonic ideal, so why would we have a duty to be good, but no corresponding duty to be evil? It seems arbitrary without the personal authority of the biblical Creator"

Could this not simply be attributed to how doing evil tends to make enemies? We do good because it ellicits a positive response from our peers. If we steal and murder our way through life, no matter the time period, we would likely not survive for very long.

This might be a cynical way of looking at it, but is doing good not just simply in our own self-interest? Crime rates are lower in developed countries not because the people are better, but because the people have less reasons to do evil. No need to steal when you have food stamps, for example.
Keaton Halley
What you are describing is moral relativism, not the moral realism I was discussing at that point. If we let pragmatism govern our behavior, that's not operating out of duty. Real (objective) morality presents us with an obligation, but what you're proposing is that we have no actual obligation—we will just tend to behave in certain ways that we subjectively prefer.

But pragmatism can't save the moral relativist either. If 'self-interest' cannot be judged by an external standard, then 'surviving long' need not be considered a noble pursuit. Think about those who want to commit suicide. If morality is subjective, then the pursuit of death is no less virtuous than the pursuit of life, and it's arbitrary to say somebody is 'better off' continuing to live. By what standard?

There are other problems as well. See Cultural relativism and morality.
Ian B.
There is a huge area of concern with your conclusions, and that is in the area "God told me (commanded me)to do it!" is an excuse that we all whether believing or not reject, proclaiming that common morality alone dictates whether the behaviour is right or not. Yet using the aforesaid morality it is evil to pick up sticks on a Friday afternoon, it is evil to sacrifice a less than perfect animal it is moral to sell your children into slavery, it is moral to ask the elders of a city to stone a wild child to death, it is moral to ethnically cleanse , it is immoral to live with a partner without having married , it is moral to marry a girl of 12 in Spain but its child abuse in many other countries. To us now, these are immoral , yet God commanded Israel to follow them , and we cant actually force Spain and many African countries to change their ways , so are we wrong to consider them wrong or do we have to accept everyone else's morality even if we feel its immoral.
Keaton Halley
I argued that morality is rooted in God Himself (His unchanging nature), not His commands. Yet whatever He commands is right since He does not go against His nature. The problems arise when people erroneously believe God tells them to do something He never did (e.g. Muslim terrorists), not if they obey His actual commands.

But to say that morality is objective is not to say that circumstances have no bearing. We've elsewhere explained why God added or removed certain boundaries when circumstances changed. Before the Flood, people were supposed to be vegetarian, but this changed after the Flood, for example. The moral principles are the same, but they apply in different ways. So, not all of the laws in Mosaic Covenant must be kept by those under the New Covenant, since Christ fulfilled the Law on our behalf. To sacrifice animals today would indicate a lack of faith in the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice, whereas, for OT believers, it was just the opposite, because those sacrifices pointed forward to Christ's coming.

Thus, we have no problem with God's commands in the Old Testament when they are understood in context, but many of your assertions do not represent the OT fairly. For example, God did command certain groups to be put to death by warfare, but it is a misrepresentation to call this 'ethnic cleansing'. For details on this and your other misunderstandings, see Is the Bible an immoral book?, Is the Bible evil?, Does the Bible promote injustice?, 'Awful' rules in the Bible, Is eating shellfish still an abomination?, and Is God a 'moral monster'?.
Bruce B.
Would it be fair then to sum up as follows;
'1. Atheistic morality can only ever be subjective and therefore of no value for the common good of mankind.
2. Altruism cannot exist in atheistic morality.'?
Keaton Halley
I wouldn't put it that way. Rather, I'd say atheists cannot properly ground moral facts, but neither can they live as if there are none.
D. H.
Having heard an atheist win a debate against a Christian on morality I think we need to take what they say more seriously. Their simple proposition was: the basis of morality is human well being. Therefore what is moral is what fits into this.
This is a simple, practical view of morality which everyone can readily understand and agree to.
To try to bring in philosophy, or logic, will be to most people a waste of time. As was proved in this debate. It seems to me that it might be best to agree, and then go on to show what Christianity teaches us on this very point. Love your neighbour as yourself etc. And how God wants this very thing because God is love. Proved by sending His Son for our salvation. Etc.
Keaton Halley
I addressed this very thing in the article. To put "human well being" at the foundation is to already smuggle in morality from the Christian worldview. But why, if there is no God, should humans be favored over bacteria? And why should we care about well-being? If someone else decides the basis for their (subjective) morality is the destruction of human beings, what can atheism offer to overcome this? If there's no higher authority than us, it's a moral standoff.
Gerald D.
I think the crux of the argument lies in the fact that people are rarely willing to admit that there is something they 'know', but possibly 'know' it wrong. Many of these conversations are two resolved people holding opposing positions, a futile proposition. You don't have to win the argument, you want to introduce Christ. If you can open up the possibility that something you or they know with certainty could be wrong, then I feel you have a crack in the resolve to work with.

Please note that starting this line of discussion opens you up to a personal commitment to them.
Dan M.
To me it is really a no brainer.
I look at the creation and see all kinds of life that is as different from us as it is similar. All the more sophisticated air breathing living things have hair, flesh, red blood, muscles and a general similar physical make up. We living things even have some similar segments of DNA because we all metabolize, digest and have other bodily functions in common, (common designer) but that is where the similarity ends. Geneticists don’t even understand how body plans are established in living things, so how can evolutionists be so confident, (there is so much we don’t understand)? Most animals instinctively do one or two things well to survive but we humans can conceptualize and create many structures, works of art and hypothesize how the creation works, (do science). Animals can do none of this! Did you ever see a monkey build a skyscraper or copy bird flight to make a hang glider? Not a chance because they don’t have the faculties to do so. Sure my puppy dog has personality and is very smart, for a dog, but she could never interact with me on a human level! Only we humans are created in GOD's image and can have true fellowship with one another. It is obvious we humans are far removed from the rest of the creation and are special!
Even before I gave my life to Christ, I recognized these differences and concluded we must be created by a supreme being even though I didn’t know him then! Rom 1:20
We have to warn the world even if they won’t listen!
Willem D.
I think it's important to keep in mind that the logic for evolutionists is quite simple:
1. They "know" there's no Creator
2. They observe an abundance of life on Earth
3. They observe life doesn't change that much over short timeperiods
Conclusion: life must have evolved over a very long period of time and in small steps and only by natural processes

1. They "know" life evolved over a very long period of time, in small steps by only natural processes.
2. They observe there is morality and that our minds seem to be reliable.
Conclusion: they "know" evolution is somehow capable of producing those things by purely natural processes.

So, evolutionists don't have any plausible explanations, they just BELIEVE those explanations MUST exist somehow. That's where their confidence comes from: from their blind faith in evolution.

But consider this: in the evolutionairy fairytale, all people that are alive now are the product of winners. Our ancestors NEVER lost, in all those billions of years. Our ancestors were succesful every single generation. None of our ancestors has ever sacrificed himself for the wellbeing of others. Every time there was a limited supply of food, it was OUR ancestors that took it. Every time there was a fight to the death, it was OUR ancestor that killed the other. This is an unbroken chain all the way back to the very first lifeform. It seems to me that immoral, selfish behaviour has always been rewarded by natural selection. We are basically the result of selfish thieves and murderers. By now, it should have been hardwired in our brains to consider these behaviours good and normal. But somehow, this is not what we observe at all. We all know theft and murder are wrong. And that simply doesn't make sense in an evolutionairy worldview.
Robert F.
The advent of morality relies on Lamarckian theory. So here’s a helpful tactic. Ask, “do you believe in Lamarckian theory that says acquired characteristics can be passed along through the sex genes to offspring?” E.g. the bodybuilder marries the violinist so their kids are born music virtuosos with six-pack abs. Most moderns repudiate Lamarckian evolution (excepting epigenetic caveats they stretch). So write down on a note pad something like: “Agreed: parent’s acquired behaviors can’t pass through sex genes into their children”. Next ask, “Is being ‘good’ is an acquired / learned behavior?” Of course it is. Thus, one must believe the roundly discredited Lamarckian theory to believe ‘morality’ is passed along by genetic means via natural selection.
Keaton Halley
I am not aware of any evolutionist who says morality is an acquired characteristic which is then passed on through our genes. Rather, they often think it's a combination of sociological and biological factors, and they're thinking in terms of ordinary neo-Darwinism. But no evolutionary theory can give us true morality, as my article explained.
oun K.
Atheists - they are their own God. Whatever they feel is right. They have nothing to do with morality.
Keaton Halley
They are made in God's image and have a conscience, so I wouldn't put it as you did in your last sentence. But if they ground morality in themselves as you say, rather than God, then all they have is subjective preferences, not real morality at all.
Graeme M.
It is an absolute that evolution cannot reasonably
include moral ethics, as part of its process, it is contrary to the foundation on which it is pinned.
'Survival of the fittest' is proven time and time again, when we view our flora and fauna in action and remains static unless interupted by inbalances caused by climatic changes or human interferences.
Today we have in general infrastructures which cater for supporting our weaknesses, eg hospitals, housing, agriculture, aged care, all manner of comforts, suffocating the very planet we occupy, and why are we?
Futhermore who determined what is 'good' and what is 'bad', as it can then only be considered as an ideal 'thought' up and not challenged through the millenias, which by all intents and purposes then, has no entitlement to remain as the 'status quo' and should be abolished forthwith.
Regards, Graeme.

Richard C.
One might even argue that morality exists in the animal kingdom, because there is a hierarchy which determines what behaviour is acceptable and reactive activity against certain unacceptable behaviours. However, the differentiating factor between animals and humans is actually love. Love causes humans to think differently and discern good from evil in a different manner from animals and to consider consequences of evil behaviour. Except for the existence of God, who is love, there exists no reason why any man should care a hoot about anyone else. In fact, for the continuation of the species (and the planet) by natural selection and survival of the fittest, love should not exist and the disabled and weak would then fall by the wayside. Only God's existence, (remembering that God is love) then is what makes us different from all the rest of creation and drives us to live differently from the rest of creation.
Terry D P.
When God created Adam and Eve he created them with a conscience. But Eve reasoned that…
«/ When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good to eat, and that it was pleasing to the eye and tempting to contemplate, she took some and ate it. She also gave her husband some and he ate it. — Gn§3:6 /»
Soon after eating the forbidden fruit, conscience kicked in and they both knew they were guilty as sin. If only Adam and Eve had listened to their conscience telling them that it was best to reject the snake’s temptation.
«/ When Gentiles [atheists] who do not possess the law carry out its precepts by the light of nature, then, although they have no law, they are their own law, for they display the effect of the law inscribed on their hearts. Their conscience is called as witness, and their own thoughts argue the case on either side, against them or even for them, on the day when God judges the secrets of human hearts through Christ Jesus. So my gospel declares. — Ro§2:14-16 /»
So God has created everyone with a conscience, regardless of their religion. Whether a person claims to be a godless atheist, Mohammedan, Buddhist, Hindu, et cetera, or a believer in God aka Father aka Son aka Holy Spirit, he will possess a God given conscience, unless he has spurned it by choosing disbelief…
«/ …and all the deception that sinfulness can impose on those doomed to destruction. Therefore God puts them under a delusion, which works upon them to believe the lie, so that they may all be brought to judgement, all who do not believe the truth but make sinfulness their deliberate choice. — 2Th§2:10-12 /»
So, for an atheist to claim that his sense of right and wrong (aka his conscience) is not God given, he must argue delusions which deny the existence of the Creator of his conscience.
Keaton Halley
I agree that atheists have a God-given conscience. Let me recommend you tighten up one thing, though. Regarding the God's triune nature, we should not say that the Father is "aka" (= also known as) the Son and Holy Spirit. All are God, but the persons are distinct, not different names for the same person. We have various articles on this site that address the doctrine of the Trinity which might be helpful to you. Blessings!
William M.
I agree with the author; however, atheists I've attempted to reason with seem to be evidence to the contrary.

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