Can an atheist believe in right and wrong?

Good Without God?

(From a talk given in summer 2008. Added to the Internet 16/01/2009).

Our title this morning is "Good without God: Can an atheist believe in right and wrong?" If we ask the question "The first thing to say in answer to that question is "yes, they certainly do". Atheists believe in right and wrong. Atheists have families, parents and children just like everyone else. They have special places, special memories and much-loved hobbies just as I do. And if you take an atheist’s little girl and twist her arm until she cries, the atheist will become angry with you as quickly as anyone else. If you smash his windows and steal his beloved photos of special times in his life, he’ll become annoyed as quickly as anyone else. The atheist can read the newspapers and get annoyed about the injustices of life in this world as rapidly as the most devout believer. So, atheists definitely believe strongly in right and wrong, if you take their actions and reactions in everyday life as a guide. In the real world, there’s no question about it.

The real question, though, is not about whether atheists live with right and wrong in their everyday lives. The real question is whether they should or not. The question is, "if atheism really is true, then should we be living this way?" Does atheism actually give us an explanation for the way we’re living that makes sense? If atheists were consistent with their own beliefs, would their lives have to change? Can an atheist actually explain the way he’s living?

I’m one of those old-fashioned people who believes that an idea can either be true or false. Either there is an all-powerful, morally perfect God who is our maker and our judge, or there isn’t. Either the universe we live in is the handiwork of our Creator to whom we owe everything, or it is just a cosmic accident which has no ultimate significance or purpose behind it. There is no room to say "well, that’s your belief, and if it works for you then you’re welcome to it." It won’t do to say that every view on the subject is valid, and that it doesn’t really make a difference. One day each one of us will die. According to atheism, our death is the end – after it, we will never experience anything ever again. According to the Bible, our death is the beginning of eternity. Immediately after our souls leave our bodies, we will enter the presence of God, be judged and be sent to our eternal destiny. There is no common ground between these two views, and they make all the difference in the world to everything. Either we live in the presence of God and are accountable to him, or we are only accountable to ourselves. Whatever the answer is, it can’t be "both answers are as good as each other."

The Christian Position

Before I discuss what an atheist can or cannot reasonably think, I am going to explain the Christian point of view. This is important, because it gives us something to compare atheism to. Can Christianity explain what it means to be good, and why we should chose goodness over evil? Can it justify why we treat good and evil as such important matters? It can, and so let me explain.

As a Christian who believes the Bible it is very easy for me to explain why people live the way they do. The Bible begins, in its very first line, with a simple but profound idea. It says that the reason that everything is here in the physical universe is because God made it. God spoke, and created. Everything that exists is here because of his decision followed by his powerful creating, and nothing exists independently of him. He is the only self-existent being who depends upon nothing else. Then, as we continue in the Bible’s first chapter there is idea that is one of the most profound that I know of anywhere. It tells us that God made man, and it uses these words, "in his image". He made man to be something very different to all of the animals – he made us to be like him. We are not improved monkeys – we were made from the very beginning to be different.

One of the ways in which we are different, and like God, is that we live in the world of right and wrong. That is, we are moral beings. We make choices that have moral implications. We expect criminals to be held to account for what they do, and we judge them by the standards of right and wrong. We know that right and wrong are real, we know that they are important, and we know which one of them we should choose. We feel guilty about things we shouldn’t have done, even if no other human being has seen us. We are moral beings. God made us to be like that, and it is stamped upon our beings. Snakes can’t help slithering, dogs can’t help barking, and human beings cannot help treating right and wrong as very important matters, because it is how we are made.

How do we know what right and wrong are? The Christian answer is that right and wrong are defined by God. He is the God of all that is good. He cannot do evil, but must hate it and judge it. He must always do right, because his very being is righteous. He makes known the standards of his righteousness to us in two important ways. First of all, his laws are in a basic way stamped upon us as human beings. The Bible says that they are written upon our hearts. I know, without having to think about it, that it would be wrong for me to steal your car or assault your daughter. I know that I should not lie or cheat on my wife. Everybody "just knows" this. They may have never come across a Bible, they may live at the North Pole or the middle of a jungle, they may be black, white, young, old, rich, poor, clever or stupid – but they know it. They know it because God has stamped it upon their nature. They cannot avoid knowing it any more than they can grow an extra three heads or run the 100 metres as fast as a leopard – they’re just not made that way.

Secondly, God has revealed his laws in a much fuller and clearer way in the Bible. The Bible claims about itself that it is God’s communication to us. Whereas we know that murder is always wrong, other issues are more difficult. We live in a world that has been spoilt by human wrongdoing, and as a result we’ve become very confused. The knowledge about right and wrong that is just stamped upon us in our creation is not complete or enough for us to live with. So God has given to us a communication which is much clearer. Ultimately I can tell you and be certain that adultery is always wrong, even if you think your wife is an old bat, and that even though it "feels so right" it’s still wrong.

What I’m saying, then, is that the Bible gives us an explanation that makes sense of the way that we live. We live as if right and wrong exist and are very important. We live as if some things are always wrong for everybody throughout the whole world. We assume that when somebody does wrong, they should be called to account for it. We live as if everyone ought to know this. When somebody starts acting as if they didn’t know it, we call them a psychopath and put them in a padded cell.


That’s what Christianity tells us. What, though, about atheism? I have already explained that atheists are just the same as everyone else in important ways. They generally behave as if good and evil exist and if being good were important. The real question, though, is this one: do good and evil actually exist? If atheism is true, then what is good and what is evil? For a Christian, good and evil and defined by the character and the will of God. Something is good if it is in keeping with who God is and what he wants, and evil if it contradicts it. This is God’s world and he made us, and so he gets to decide what we should do whilst we’re here.

Atheists, though, profess not to believe any of that. They say that we’re only here by chance, and nothing exists beyond the universe. There is nobody who we are accountable to for our lives. There is no-one beyond the physical world who can tell us what to do. Good and evil can’t be anything to do with God, so just what are they?

Many atheists answer and say that we should define good and evil in terms of whether something helps or harms other humans. That sounds good – surely we’re all in favouring of helping rather than harming people. The real issue though is not with how we should define good and evil. The problem is that if we are the ones defining good and evil, then good and evil do not really exist. If good and evil are just ideas that we get to come up with and tweak the meaning of, then they cannot really have any authority over us. If it’s wrong to punch you just because you say so, why should I care? You say it’s wrong, but I might say it’s right. Who is going to decide which one of us is correct?

Well, many atheists have tried to answer this question. They have said that right and wrong are not a matter of personal choice, because they are decided by society at large. It’s wrong for me to head butt you because society does not approve of it.

What’s wrong with this? Quite a lot. Firstly, it means that we can no longer say that a lot of things were wrong. For example, the leaders of German society in the Nazi era decided that it would be right to try to wipe out the Jews, the disabled and other classes of supposedly inferior people. Basically, we’re saying that the majority is always right; whatever society accepts is moral and whatever it doesn’t like is immoral. On these grounds, nobody should ever campaign to change what happens in our country because what happens is, by definition, right and the minority are always wrong. Martin Luther King should have never campaigned for equality for black people in America because racial discrimination, being supported by a majority, was right.

This means too that right and wrong must change over time and from place to place. It’s wrong for us here in England to pay a woman less to do the same job, but in Saudi Arabia it wouldn’t be wrong. Today it’s right for homosexuality to be treated as normal because the majority of our leaders approve of it, but a few years ago it was not right because they didn’t.

Really, if right and wrong are just decided by society at large then ultimately there is no right or wrong, only personal preferences. Morality then isn’t any different to any other matter of taste. I prefer classical music to heavy metal, you might have a different opinion. I like cricket but not golf, you might differ. I prefer to make friends with my fellow man and to eat roast chicken for dinner, whereas you might prefer to make friends with your fellow chicken and eat roast man. How can you say that one choice is wrong and the other is right?

There are much bigger problems for atheists here than this. When I was explaining what Christians believe about morality, I explained it in terms of our creation. Where we’ve come from matters. It’s because we come from the hand of God that God’s rules are binding upon us. Where, though, do we come from according to atheists? They tell us that we are nothing more than one part of the tree of life. We evolved from lower kinds of animals, and ultimately from bacteria. Before that, the first living creatures, something like bacteria, developed from non-living chemicals. The non-living chemicals were the result of a "big bang" when the universe sprang into being.

Think about each of these stages in our supposed development, according to the atheist. He says that all living beings really belong in a single family tree. The only difference between us is that over the years we have evolved in different directions. This happened because of mistakes made when our genetic code was copied from one generation to the next. There is nothing essentially separating us from them. A few thousand copying mistakes here and there, and we could be them or they could be us.

Do you see the devastating effect that idea has on the idea of morality? It destroys the idea of the uniqueness of man. If I go home and get out the anti-bacterial spray to clean my kitchen, I could wipe out millions of bacteria in minutes. The ruthless Russian dictator Joseph Stalin wiped out many millions of his own people. What is the difference between those two things? According to evolution, there is no ultimate difference. This is why some Western governments are now discussing the idea that maybe we should start giving human rights to other animals. That’s not all though. In May of this year an ethics panel answering to the Swiss government advised it that plants also have moral rights and dignity, and should be treated accordingly.

What if we go back beyond life, though? Ultimately, according to the atheist, we are just one more -re-arrangement of matter. Life sprang by itself from non-life. It is just a change that happened with no ultimate meaning or purpose behind it. The molecules just did what the laws of physics said they should do, and that’s all that they’re doing now.

What this means is that your ideas about right and wrong are nothing more than the fizzing of atoms in your head. They do not reflect any ultimate reality, any more than the fizzing of a can of coke does. We are just beings who do what our brain chemistry forces us to do. This means that morality doesn’t really exist. It’s just an idea that we’ve come up with and use to describe what’s going on. If our brains had evolved differently, we could have used a different idea. In the future, our brains might evolve differently. If morality is just the result of evolution, it can’t be fixed or have authority over us. It’s just a change that will continue happening.

Atheism Doesn’t Work

We all know though that morality does not really work this way. If I punch you on the nose, you won’t be impressed if I just tell you that my genes told me to do it. If I tell you that it was a good thing for me to do, because my DNA has mutated differently from yours, you won’t accept it as a believable answer. What this means is that atheism doesn’t work in the real world. If I act, behave or speak in a way that is consistent with the ideas of atheism, it will soon be me that is being locked up in a padded cell. Atheism is a set of ideas which people can believe, but they can’t really put them into practice. Frederich Nietzsche was the famous German atheist who said "God is dead", and he saw where his logic led. He wrote that "our moral judgments and evaluations are only images and fantasies based on a physiological process unknown to us." Nietzsche was also one of the people whose writings had a significant influence upon Adolf Hitler.

What, though, if we go back beyond even molecules? According to the majority of atheists, the universe is the result of a "big bang" out of nothing. Some claim that the universe is eternal and was never caused at all, but most say that it came originally from nothing. Now, that’s a claim that has some pretty huge problems. The main one is to explain how, contrary to anything we have ever seen or observed, something can come from nothing, all by itself. But we’re not looking at that now. What we’re looking at is what it means for right and wrong if ultimately we came from nothing. Oxford Professor Peter Atkins is an outspoken atheist. He isn’t afraid to say that this is what we are. He says that the universe is, to quote, “an elaborate and engaging rearrangement of nothing". Atheists also generally accept that our end destination is nothingness too. It certainly is for you personally – you will die, your body will decompose and you will never be conscious of anything in the world again. An unimpressive end is the destination for our world too. At some point the sun will use up all of its resources and life will no longer be possible on earth. Ultimately the destiny of the whole universe is nothingness – it will collapse back into itself, reversing the "big bang" that started us at the beginning.

If we came from and are going to nothing, then our lives are ultimately meaningless. Many atheists say that we should try to make our lives as meaningful as possible, because it’s the only way we’ll get any meaning. This misses the point completely. If our lives have no meaning, then they have no meaning. The attempt to give them meaning is just being irrational. We cannot give them any meaning, however much we try to live under the delusion that we can. What this all means is that when we treat right and wrong and our lives as if they were worth something, we are simply kidding ourselves. I might fertilise my lawn with compost. My neighbour might fertilise his lawn using small children. Ultimately both compost and small children came from nothing and are going to nothing, so what does it matter?

Atheism Put Into Practice

Some atheist philosophers have been brave enough to face up to these facts. Frederich Nietzsche, who I mentioned before, was the modern father of the philosophy of nihilism. The word "nihilism" means "nothingness". One website describes the beliefs of a nihilist as follows. Ultimate morality does not exist; therefore no action is logically preferable to any other in regards to the moral value of one action over another. In the absence of morality, existence has no intrinsic higher meaning or goal. This isn’t me saying that a consistent atheist ought to believe. This is what atheists who are being consistent have themselves said.

What I want you to concentrate on is the fact that most atheists find it impossible to live out their beliefs in real life. Some, of course, have been tried to put their beliefs into practice. Communist dictators in the 20th century sought to build societies upon the principles of atheism, and treated their enemies as they pleased. The Nazi regime in Germany put the idea of "survival of the fittest" into practice. Many ordinary people have become totally disillusioned with life, believing it and all of its suffering to be completely pointless, and have ultimately turned to suicide as the only way to escape this crushing burden. In general, though, most atheists find that they have to live as if they were really Christians. They live as if good and evil were real, apply to everyone, are important and must be treated as an essential part of daily life. They do this automatically, without thinking about it.

I want to suggest to you that they do this because they have to. They are made by God and made in the image of God. They cannot behave any other way. Even thought they reject God and refuse to worship him, they cannot stop behaving like human beings. We cannot stop behaving like people made by God and turn ourselves into something else. A dog will always be a dog, and a man will always be a man. Even if he rejects the purpose he was made for and ignores his maker, he must still behave like a moral being. Atheists cannot explain morality, and the beliefs of atheists undermine and ultimately destroy morality. Their ideas cannot be consistently lived out in the real world. In the real world, we have to behave as if something like the Bible is true, whatever we claim to believe about the Bible itself.

Making A Choice

Finally, I want to remind you of something I said at the beginning. I said that we have to treat atheism as being either true or false. The truth about it cannot be something that changes from person to person. Either we have a creator or we do not. Either there is an authority over us who we must hear and obey, or we can do whatever seems best to us in the knowledge that nothing truly matters anyway. I want to emphasise this, because many many people chose to try and live half way in between. They try to live as if Christianity were true, but they make no serious efforts to seek and find their maker. Maybe that is you. You know that you really are accountable to God, but you don’t really want to know him. You have a conscience, and it sometimes speaks to you about guilt and you have anxious thoughts about what might happen to you when you die, but you don’t really listen to that voice. Your existence depends upon God, but in practice you live like someone who can exist by themselves. I want to challenge you to live consistently with your beliefs. If good and evil are just illusions, then stop living as if they were real. If atheism is real, then embrace it. Do whatever you please, and don’t get angry when other people do the same. Live as if you are in a "survival of the fittest" contest where the big must crush the small, and don’t get upset if you get crushed in it.

On the other hand, if atheist is false, then we must seek the living God with all seriousness. We are accountable to him, and cannot live our lives as if we were the ones who got to decide what the rules are. If God is God, then he is God, and we must seek him, find him, love him and worship him with everything that he has given us.

The good news of Christianity is that though God could punish us all for our rebellion against him, he’s chosen a different way. He came down here himself, in the person of his Son. He did not come to destroy the world and all the human wickedness that has ruined it. He came to rescue it. Our consciences are speaking the truth to us, and we do deserve God’s punishment. But in a wonderful act of mercy, God took the punishment that wrong-doers deserve upon himself, when his Son Jesus died upon the cross. That same Jesus rose from the dead and has been appointed by God to rule for ever and ever. He offers us free forgiveness if we will turn to God through him. We must come to him with true sorrow that we have lived without giving him the honour and praise that he deserves, whilst he has been giving us everything we have. We must come to him with the conviction that he is God, and that we will obey him, whatever it costs us. If we come to God through Jesus Christ, we will never be turned away. Christians can live in this world knowing why they do what they do. But Christianity is more than just something for our heads. It’s something for all of us. Our wrong deeds can be forgiven, we can receive a new life from God and the promise that he will be with us forever and ever.

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