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Can atheism possibly explain morality and reason?

C.O. from the US wrote:


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.

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.

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

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?

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.

Reason is not just unexpected given naturalism, it 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

Published: 17 June 2017

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