After last week, I got curious about apologetics arguments for Christianity. It didn’t take me long to run across one that ex-Christians might well consider an old houseguest: the Moral Argument. Quite a few Christians are terribly impressed with it. However, it doesn’t hold any water at all—at least not with anyone who isn’t already inclined to buy into its ideas. Today, I’ll show you why the Moral Argument might be one of the very worst attempts by dishonest Christians to sell their ideas.
(The Ray Comfort book I mention in the introduction.)
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Everyone, meet the Moral Argument
I’m going to outline the basic contours of the Moral Argument. They’re very simple:
- Without the Christian god, objective morals cannot exist.
- But they totally do, though.
- Therefore, the Christian god is totes for realsies.
(We’ll get to its many, many shortcomings briefly. I can already sense the steam coming out of the top of your head, dear friends. Don’t worry, we’re getting there! For now, I just want to outline what it is.)
In essence, an example of the Moral Argument will first assert a link between Yahweh/Jesus and objective morality. Then, they will assert the existence of objective morality. And then, they will assert that the existence of objective morality PROVES YES PROVES that Yahweh/Jesus is real.
Sometimes, you see the argument worded slightly differently. For instance, Greg Koukl with the comically-misnamed Stand to Reason (STR) words it like this:
- “If there is no God, then there is no objective morality (no lawmaker, then no laws).
- But there is objective morality (evidenced by the problem of evil).
- Therefore, there is a God.”
Same diff, even if he suddenly yanks in the Problem of Evil like a (misunderstood) lifeline. Of interest: by “a God,” Koukl concedes that it doesn’t quite mean the same as “the specific god that Greg Koukl thinks is real.” What a refreshing admission! That said, he still insists that “it gets us pretty close.” He also thinks that the Moral Argument offers “a great springboard to other arguments and other evidences for Christianity.”
(We’ll also get to those assertions shortly. Hang onto this thread for me, okay?)
The history of the Moral Argument
Most sources discussing the Moral Argument are quite modern. But David Baggett, who published an official history of the beast in 2019, says it’s centuries and even millennia old (dating back to Plato at least). However, it wasn’t always phrased as such. Baggett makes the case that the building blocks of the Moral Argument arose very early on, but it wasn’t until this past century that someone used them to build the first example of it. That sounds plausible.
Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century priest, thought that his god was the most incredibly perfectly good thing out there. Since humans naturally find joy in that which is good, by worshiping and obeying this god humans could make themselves happiest. Christians also reckon that Aquinas is the father of natural law, which many know from Catholicism as the basic reason for their grabs for temporal power over everyone and their continual opposition to every bit of human rights progress humanity manages to make despite their attempts to hijack it all.
(In natural law, the idea is that Yahweh/Jesus’ laws are best for humanity, and so he wrote those laws upon humans’ hearts. When human laws align completely with these divinely-written laws, everything will be groovy.)
Then, in the 18th century, Immanuel Kant blew onto the scene with his ideas and first developed the overall Moral Argument that we know today. Apparently he had quite the impact on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who published a book including it.
Baggett ties the argument’s modern renaissance to C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity (1952), and to other popular apologetics books published since then. (I mean popular in the publishing sense, meaning aimed at the general populace, not that they sold oodles of copies—though some certainly did.) This, too, sounds plausible.
To be sure, the argument has exploded in popularity since then. Christians tend to believe it is both a slam-dunk refutation of atheism and one-shot-kill evidence that their god is totes for realsies.
Because otherwise, objective morality wouldn’t exist, innit?
Christians of all stripes love love love the Moral Argument
By now, it doesn’t matter if a Christian is Catholic or Pentecostal, liberal or hyper-conservative. They all seem to store the Moral Argument in their back pockets. But it’s primarily trotted out by Protestants, and by evangelicals at that. I found a lot of Catholics parroting its ideas, but they tended to be ex-evangelical converts like Jimmy Akin, who has a whole apologetics podcast and an episode devoted to this one argument. He outlines why he thinks objective morality is ethereal, thus created by a magic wizard:
You cannot detect moral goodness with a technical instrument or torture someone in a lab and use an evil-ometer to determine how bad the act is. We thus have good reason, based on the universal human belief in moral realism, to hold that moral values are objectively real, but they transcend the empirical. This shows that there is a transcendental realm that goes beyond the purely material and the abilities of science.
(Akin’s tip at the end is something we’ll also cover: “To help skeptics see the point, you may wish to propose examples of concrete things they will regard as morally evil.”)
Similarly, Cross Examined (the fundagelical version) asserts that the Moral Argument constitutes “a robust argument for the existence of God.” Its writer expresses complete mystification regarding how atheists can possibly “maintain an objective standard of ethics” without god-belief.
Apologetics Press even invokes Nazis in their embrace of the Moral Argument, then ties it to Creationism:
Atheists cannot logically condemn the Nazis for objective moral evil, while simultaneously saying that we arose from rocks and rodents. They cannot reasonably rebuke a child molester for being immoral, while at the same time believing that we evolved from slime.
In addition to egregiously mischaracterizing atheism, their writer also insists that there’s absolutely no way that human morality could have evolved. Nope! Therefore, Jesus.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) subgroup, North American Mission Board (NAMB), even gets into the fray by offering their own essay on the topic. They mix in a surprising streak of utilitarianism by claiming that “non-theistic ethical theories will be incomplete and inadequate,” which of course makes their particular explanation far more compelling (in their own minds). It’s just another little game of Last Ideology Standing. Evangelicals love it so much.
But the Moral Argument has some significant flaws
On a Calvinist site, we find a “Beginner’s Guide to the Moral Argument.” Written in 2018, it’s as good a place as any to begin our critique.
Its writer claims she grew up non-Christian and is totally “a former atheist.” Wow, that was really trendy five years ago! But for a real live atheist, she certainly latched completely onto Christians’ shit-tastic explanations for the way things are:
Watching the news at night, I’d respond with disgust when a criminal would rob a person or threaten that person’s life, especially when the victim wasn’t able to defend themselves, such as an elderly lady. I would think: That just isn’t right. People shouldn’t do those kinds of things. Conversely, I’d affix a value judgement of goodness to a situation when someone returned a wallet full of money to its owner or when people gave time to work at a homeless shelter. Yet, from where did I derive this sense of right and wrong? [. . .]
At the end of the day, I cannot get around God as the objective standard for my value judgments and for what I think I “should” or “ought” to do. To strip my existence of this standard would be to leave a massive void in my human experience.
To her, belief in the Moral Argument well be the central pin in her faith. It’d super suck if she found out objective morality doesn’t exist.
The first problem: We don’t need any gods to have morality
And indeed, that’s the first major flaw with the Moral Argument. Its proponents can’t imagine humans’ sense of morality being a product of evolution. It most certainly is. Over the eons, our sociability and compassion pushed further and further at our emotional boundaries: from the family/tribal unit, to the city-state, to the country and race, and by now to all of humanity and quite a few animals. Some even extend their feelings to all animals, which isn’t surprising given that a few psychologists perceive ritualistic overtones in several species. As well, any cat owner knows how finely tuned their sense of fairness is!
I know it offends Christians to hear that morality isn’t really objective or uniquely human, but it isn’t. It’s very obviously evolved over time. It may well be that in the next century or two, humans will completely reject the eating of animal meats as a monstrous injustice to thinking, feeling animals. And that sentiment will be incorporated into our collective conscience as an objective fact, one that Christians will no doubt assume has always been there.
As of now, however, it is not that way for most people. We shrink back from the idea of consuming some animals, but overall we’re fine with consuming others. Some folks put minor limits on that consumption. Others put major limits on it. Only a small percentage of us reject the idea entirely. And all of these groups can make their choices on the basis of either morality or health, or even a combination of them.
This is why Jesus didn’t condemn slavery, incidentally. Our feelings hadn’t extended out that far yet by then. In the late 1st century, when anonymous dudes first began using him as a character in their writing, slavery was perfectly acceptable to them—as long as it happened to their enemies. It’s also why Jesus didn’t condemn treating women like property. In that time, everyone thought that’s what women were. Nowadays, we think that both slavery and treating women like property are monstrous injustices. But they weren’t until shockingly recently. When Christians get all hot and bothered over Thomas Aquinas, they need to remember that he was part of that slavery-advocating, women-as-property cultural mindset himself, whether he agreed or not with it.
Similarly, America’s Founding Fathers didn’t extend rights to slaves or women, even though the language of our founding documents thoroughly supports rights for both.
By the mid-1800s, humans began condemning slavery in vast numbers. By the end of the 1800s, they began condemning injustices against women. But the legacy of those outmoded moral ideas remains. America still struggles with the aftermath of slavery. Every so often, we discover slavers working under the cover of the biggest cities and most disadvantaged communities. As for women and Black people alike, we know well that our rights have never been fully safe and secure in this country. But they were far less secure in areas controlled by Christians.
If morality is, indeed, objective, then Christians have a big problem on their hands in explaining how it’s very clearly evolved with humans—and how it is that they, as possessors of this ultimate objective morality, have failed to display it for so long. Out of every group I can think of, Christians as a group are the least moral people I’ve ever met. The more fervent they seem to be, the less moral they tend to be. I can think of only a few exceptions to that rule.
If a real live god possesses Christians and tells them what the ultimate morality is, then they’re showing it in the weirdest way imaginable. Maybe they think it’s Opposite Day every day. What I do know is that contrary to what Cross Examined asserts, I’d trust atheists long before I’d ever trust fervent Christians who buy into the Moral Argument. It feels like another of their cheap substitutes for actually doing the thing.
The second problem: A sneak attack on the Problem of Evil
Christians like to imagine that the Moral Argument is an answer to the Problem of Evil. Greg Koukl explains it:
What is the most frequently raised objection against theism of any sort? If you answered “the problem of evil,” you’d be right. There’s a reason for this. There is one thing every person knows, no matter where he lived or when he lived. Everyone knows the world is broken. Things are not the way they’re supposed to be. That’s the complaint. And they don’t simply mean that things happen they don’t like. That’s relativism. They mean there really are evil, wicked things that take place (objectivism).
Since this awareness is universal—it’s an obvious and undeniable feature of reality—we can use it as an ally to make our case for God. Contrary to popular belief, the problem of evil is not a good argument against God. It’s actually one of the best arguments for God. The problem with the problem of evil is that if God does not exist, there can be no real evil to object to.
Excuse me, but that is not the Problem of Evil. This is the Problem of Evil:
We cannot reconcile the existence of evildoing and suffering with a god who is omnimax and loves us. Any such god would not allow evil to exist. Either the Christian god is not omnimax, or he doesn’t love us—or he doesn’t exist at all.
That’s it. (If apologists had to be honest, they’d never be able to speak at all.)
Christians have painted themselves into a corner by insisting that their god is ultimately good, omnipotent, omniscient, and completely loving (when he’s not condemning billions of people to hell and earthly suffering, I guess). And yet we find ourselves in a world that tells us repeatedly that this god can’t possibly exist in that form.
The Problem of Evil is not “everyone knows the world is broken” or “things are not the way they’re supposed to be.” That’s not even the “complaint” from non-Christians. We don’t tend to think the world is broken or that it should be a certain way. It’s just got a lot of pain and suffering in it, and we’d like to help make it better.
The Christian god sure isn’t doing fuckall to fix anything, and neither are most of his followers.
The third problem: Arguments aren’t evidence, and this is a really bad argument in the first place
Even if the Moral Argument wasn’t a logical fallacy in and of itself, it would not rise to the level of evidence for Christians’ claims. Arguments aren’t evidence. They never were. They’re just what Christians offer us because they lack evidence. It’s what they use in the place of evidence. They’d sure like us to count it as PROOF YES PROOF, because they certainly have! But we’re under no obligation to make their lives easier at our own expense.
An airtight argument that involved no logical fallacies would only make the Christian belief system seem a little less outlandish and false. It’d provide a framework for understanding why they make the claims they do. But it would not in any way be credible evidence to support their claims.
And the Moral Argument is nowhere near being an airtight argument without logical fallacies. It is a logical fallacy: the Argument from Morality. In laymen’s terms, it runs like this:
- For morality to exist, our god would have to have created it and then injected it into us.
- Oh look, it’s objective morality! Where oh where could that have come from? (Stop bringing up slavery.)
- Therefore, our god totally exists.
Notice that neither the first assertion nor the second ever get supported, but they just restate the first premise in the third. That’s what makes this a logical fallacy. The argument assumes the conclusion.
The last problem: Gods do not exactly sign their work
Even if the Moral Argument weren’t a complete washout, even if it were actually airtight and did provide evidence to support Christians’ claims, it does not actually PROVE YES PROVE that Yahweh/Jesus in particular exists. It would only support the existence of some kind of morality-loving god.
I know Christians like to imagine their god has the monopoly on morality, but that is far from the case. No objective reading of the Bible can support such a view. Their god is an out-and-out monster. Even Jesus was hardly a paragon of morality; he comes across as a scheming grifter most of the time, and a few verses in the gospels even make clear that a lot of people thought he was just a drunken weirdo. Beyond a few incidents, he encouraged a system to condemn thoughtcrime and didn’t say a word to discourage the mistreatment of women or the keeping of slaves. And not to put too fine a point on it, in his younger days Yahweh did genocide the entire planet—and promised his followers he’d do it again one day.
When our guy Koukl asserts that it gets Christians “pretty close” to PROOF YES PROOF that Yahweh/Jesus exists, he’s so off base that it’s hilarious. It doesn’t get him “pretty close.” It flames out on impact with its target. Me personally, I’d vote for Dagon, one of the earliest gods of all. He took care of Ebla and a few other towns for thousands of years. His wife’s name, Belatu, translates to “The Lady,” and the couple lived in “The House of the Star” in town. In terms of divinity, so to speak, that sounds rockin’. Even though nobody worships him anymore, he keeps showing up in our fiction and our fantasies.
We can’t quit Dagon, no matter how much Jesus pouts to Christians about us texting him.
Why all these coy games?
The subtitle here might be a question, but it’s one that we know has an answer. Why all these coy games with apologetics? Why all this dishonest-looking wordplay and sleight-of-hand with arguments that are just words, words, words?
We know why.
It’s because that’s all Christians have.
They can’t tell us their god answers prayer in any meaningful way, because it’s beyond obvious that he does not.
Nor can they tell us he protects them from misadventure, disease, or victimization, because we know very well he doesn’t.
They can’t even point to gin-you-wine MIRACLES, because not one has ever been verified by any objective means. That especially includes magic healing.
Of all the so-called prophecies that Christians claim their god has shared with them, none have been actual prophecies about specific stuff that is really about to happen. (I still keep meaning to get to their 2022 prophecies. Can’t wait to see how they did. I mean, 2016 was a real bust.)
Heckies, they can’t even tell us that following their rules, even in absence of a god proven real, results in better lives, happier and longer-lasting relationships, and parenting hacks galore, because we can see exactly how their lives, relationships, and kids turn out. If they try to make the case that following those rules results in people of better character and stronger moral fibre, we can laugh them off the stage right there.
Despite trying very hard to invent apologetics around the idea of a soul, which is to say anything ethereal about humans that persists beyond the body’s death, religious believers of any sort have yet to demonstrate the existence of it, much less of an afterlife.
Think about all the stuff that would absolutely demonstrate the validity and veracity of Christian beliefs. And then marvel, with me, that Christians have exactly none of it to offer.
All they have is what we’ve always gotten from them:
Words, words, words.
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