Why is it necessary to appeal to God for objective morals?

The reason it is necessary to appeal to God for objective morals is that without Him, we can't justify universal moral obligation. But, before we go further we need to answer two questions. Morals are abstractions, not found under rocks, or a laboratory. They are "of the mind." If morals are objective, then it means that they are not subject to human beliefs and intentions. The only way to justify objective morals is with a universal moral lawgiver.

  1. What are objective morals?
  2. What is an example of an objective moral?

Objective Morals

In the context of our discussion, an "objective moral" would be a moral truth that is not based on a person's subjective experience, that applies to all people and does not change with circumstances. By contrast, a subjective moral would be a moral that is based on opinion and does not apply universally. For example, one person might think that drinking alcoholic beverages is wrong, where another person has no problem with it. This would be an example of a subjective moral based upon personal preference. 

Example of an Objective Moral

"It is always wrong for anyone to torture babies to death merely for their personal pleasure."

Important points about this moral proposition. 

  1. This statement is universally applied to everyone all the time, "It is always wrong for anyone..."
  2. "...merely for their personal pleasure" designates the reason the action is performed. There are no other conditions.

Now, if someone were to say that the statement is not universally true, then he or she would be arguing that there are cases in which it is morally good to torture a baby to death merely for a person's personal pleasure -- and nothing more. In that case, we would be justified in asking for an example of when and where it would be morally proper to torture babies to death merely for a person's personal pleasure. Otherwise, the statement cannot be falsified. But, who would want to argue in favor of the moral goodness of torturing babies to death merely for a person's personal pleasure? 

Why is the issue of torturing babies a moral issue that is also wrong? In a Christian worldview we would say that it is a moral issue because it's against the revealed will of God where he declares such things to be morally wrong, i.e., the 10 Commandments which includes not murdering (Exodus 20:13). This way, we can account for objective morals because they are rooted in God himself who is absolute and invariant. Therefore, morals based on his absolute nature would be objectively true, and we could then justify the truth that "It is always wrong for anyone to torture babies to death merely for their personal pleasure."

Even Atheists know...

Even atheists know that "It is always wrong for anyone to torture babies to death merely for their personal pleasure." But how do they know it? Do they use intuition? If so, how do they know that their intuition is correct? Do they intuit that their intuition is correct? If so, then they would have to intuit that their intuition about their intuition is correct, and so on. Do they use the consensus of society? If that is the case, then they cannot complain against the consensus of Nazi Germany which sought to oppress the Jews. Or is it a product of evolution because if we kill babies, then our race can't continue. But, that would mean that it isn't wrong. It is just practical.

What are the atheists, in their subjective experiences of morality, left to do? Some atheists have tried to provide a logical basis for morality since they realize that their personal, subjective preferences are not the basis of moral actions to be imposed on everyone else (sorry Stalin). Immanuel Kant tried to establish objective morals by saying that rationality is universal, immorality is irrational, therefore proper morals can be deduced rationally. But, there are problems with this approach. First, how can it be established that immorality is irrational without begging the question? Second, how do you know when a person is being rational morally? Third, how do you rationally connect morality and logic?

Still, the default go-to-position generally held by the atheists is that unnecessary suffering is morally wrong.

Inflicting Unnecessary Suffering is Wrong

There's a problem. To say that unnecessary suffering is wrong does not establish that it's wrong. Such suffering might be inconvenient and painful, but why is the action of unnecessary suffering morally wrong? Again, to say that it is because it is unnecessary is to place a moral value upon the undesired experience of an individual. But this is subjective. To define it is wrong because people don't like it doesn't make it actually wrong. It is just not preferred. And, if enough people agree that an action or condition is wrong, then it is held to be normatively wrong. But this is the Argumentum ad Populum which is a logical fallacy that says something is true because a number of people believe it's true. See the problem?

So, how then can any objective moral standard be justified from an atheistic worldview? It cannot.

Therefore, without God, it's not possible to establish objective morals. Without God, a collection of subjective preferences based on the personal opinions and desires of the collective whole of society and the declared moral truth that unnecessary suffering is wrong is the best that can be offered without God. But, ultimately, it fails because it is subjective, not universal. If you think it is universal because all people don't like unnecessary suffering, then think again. There are people who prefer unnecessary suffering. The mentally ill, for example. Are they wrong for preferring it? If you say it's okay for them, then the moral is not universal since it doesn't apply to them. If you say it's not okay for them, then you are imposing of value on others and what gives you the right to do that in a subjective world?

Without God, objective moral standards cannot be established, and universal moral truths cannot be defended. All that is left is the atheist's subjective experience. But, what makes one atheist's subjective opinion better than another? In fact, how would the atheist know that his subjective opinion is right in the first place? He could not know. Therefore, his position leads to skepticism and can't be trusted.

In Christianity, God is the necessary precondition for moral objectivity. He would be the Revelator. He would be the one who reveals his moral character, and since he is the greatest of beings and the creator of all the universe, he has the right to do with his creation as he desires (Romans 9:20-23) and declare the moral standard that he, its creator, demands.


See Can Atheists Be Ethical?


About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.