"Can People Be Good Without God?"
This is a question usually posed by secularists to religious believers. Of course, secularists don't really think they need to ask the question of themselves because their answer to it is already obvious by the fact that they are the ones asking the question. However, it is an interesting question, if not for the sole fact that it exposes secularist ethics as totally arbitrary, as we'll see below.
This question was suggested as the topic for a debate that I was originally going to participate in with representatives of a local atheist group. I reneged on that opportunity because I wanted to spend some time with my family and focus on pastoral ministry for a while. However, it doesn't take a two hour formal debate to answer this question because the answer to it can be given in two ways, depending upon what the assumed starting point for all of your thinking is. Thus, I want to briefly address both answers below.
In the Secularist Corner
Assuming secularist ethics as the ultimate criterion for what constitutes determining right from wrong, the answer is yes. Secularist ethics assume that mankind is autonomous, i.e., he is a law to himself and that there is no higher authority that people can appeal to to determine right from wrong. Thus, the highest legislative authority for people are their own self-imposed rules created through what is known as a "social contract". This community-agreed upon contract provides the basis for citizenship in that society since all those who want to experience peace, harmony, citizenship, and protection in that society have to submit to the rules that that society has created. These self-imposed rules are both formally and informally legislated via the laws of the land and by what is deemed by the majority as "socially acceptable behavior". Thus, people who abide by those mutually agreed upon rules are viewed as "law-abiding citizens" and "morally upstanding people", i.e., what most people would call "good".
According to the social contract theory, if some men violate the rules that the society has created, then they will eventually suffer consequences from those who uphold the laws of the land (i.e., parking tickets or prison sentences) or from those who don't like socially unacceptable standards of behavior (i.e., girlfriend breaks up with you because she caught you cheating on her).
In the Christian Corner
Assuming the law of Christ as contained in the New Testament, the answer is clearly no. Paul says it best,
as it is written, "THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE; 11 THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD; 12 ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS; THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE." (Rom 3:10-12 NAU)The moral standard for determining who or what is good and evil isn't our fellow man and his laws, but Jesus Christ and His laws. Since Christ is the perfect standard of what is good, and no mere man can meet Christ's perfect standard of goodness, then it follows that there are no good people. People cannot be good when measured by the standard of Christ because of both the inherent depravity they are born with (Psalm 58:3) and the sins that they willingly commit. Because people apart from Christ are not good and have committed crimes against their Creator, people will get what they deserve, which is perfect justice from the Creator. Those who are reconciled to God on the basis of repentance and faith in Christ not only have their sins forgiven by virtue of Jesus' substitutionary sacrifice, but they also are given new dispositions of will (i.e., the "new heart" - Ezek. 36:26) whereby they no longer desire to live in sin but instead, they read and heed Christ's law. Because they love Jesus more than anything else, He is their new Master, and they no longer live according to the desires of their old master, which was their sinful disposition. They not only love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength but they also love their neighbors as themselves because they have had their "hearts" changed by the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 22:37-40). The way that they relate to their fellow man is directly proportional to their relationship to God. The more that they grow in their love for Him the more they will grow in their love for their neighbor. That's why Christians historically have led the way in ministries of mercy such as orphanages, care of widows, care of the sick and wounded via founding of hospitals, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, etc. This also affects the way that they vote and if working in the political sphere, how they make legislative decisions.
When true, born-again Christians become a large aggregate in society they begin to legislate in accordance with their new hearts. They will seek justice, righteousness, peace, and societal tranquility according to basic New Testament Christian standards rather than their own autonomous reasoning. If the New Testament doesn't directly address an issue that consistent Christian voters and legislators are faced with in their time (i.e., whether or not to increase county taxes to build a new park), they will vote in accordance with their understanding of what is best for the community at large. Sometimes, a vote like this may be the same as a non-believer's vote since non-believers are made in the image of God and they too usually seek to vote in accord with what's best for the community. Such moral principles for determining what is "best" for a community (or anything else) in the heart of the unbeliever are the result of the principle of law that is written on the heart of the unbeliever (Rom. 2:14-15). Obviously, born-again Christians will not vote for or support legislation that runs directly at cross-purposes to the morality of the New Testament (i.e., abortion, homosexuality, genocide, etc.). Thus, while the New Testament does not mandate a theocracy like the Old Testament Mosaic Law did; it stands to reason that any society that consists primarily of believers will have a positive effect on the culture at large and such will be evident not only in the private sphere, but also in the public spheres.
Secularist Morality Is Arbitrary
Two key intellectual "sins" are arbitrariness and inconsistency. When someone does or believes something in an arbitrary way, it means that they have no good reason or grounds for doing what they do or believing what they believe. Because their decision to behave or believe in a particular way is arbitrary, they could just as easily have chosen the exact opposite and it wouldn't have been inconsistent or morally objectionable for them to do so. This is the problem with the commonly held version of secular ethics described earlier known as the social contract theory. Let me explain.
If society gets to determine moral standards apart from reference to an objective, transcendent moral standard that holds all human societies accountable for their actions, then morality is relative and changeable depending upon the preferences of the majority of any given society. A society could just as easily adopt the principle that it is morally permissible to eat their neighbor rather than love them. Morality would be reduced to mere preferences, like choosing flavors of ice cream. Either way would be totally acceptable given the starting assumption of this ethic, which is that autonomous man gets to make up his own moral standards. My friend Sye TenBruggencate over at his site sums up the problem quite well,
Thus, when the unbeliever appeals to secular group-think to determine what moral standards should be, they are reduced to absurdity since their arbitrariness leads them to admit (if they are consistent) that such atrocities as rape, torturing children for fun, and other evil actions would be morally acceptable as long as the particular society in question approves of it. Here's an example from a recent YouTube exchange that I had with a person who advocated the social contract theory,
If you truly believed that there was no such thing as absolute morality then there would be no 'right' or 'wrong,' just things that you or your society happen not to like. Rape and child molestation would not be wrong, they would just become manmade objections. The question then becomes: 'If man is the measure of all things - which man? - which society? If someone with enough power happened to like rape and molestation, what right would we have to impose our morality on him? What would be wrong with the person, or society, with the power imposing their morality on you? Why do we condemn the Nazi society for following their self-imposed morals? Why did the Nazi society not have the right to break from the tradition of morality in western civilizations?
There is no question that societies have different interpretations of morality but if you examine the following sentence you will see the illogic of thinking that societies determine morality. "The majority of the people in our society participated in that evil deed." If morality was up to society, that sentence would never make sense, but we know that morality is beyond societies and such a proposition is possible.
You have denied that absolute moral laws exist but you appeal to them all the time. You say that rape IS wrong because you know that it IS wrong and not just against your personal preference. Unless you reconsider your stand on this matter, your road to this site's proof that God exists ends here. It is my prayer that you come to understand how inconsistent and irrational this line of thinking is and return to seek the truth.
Unbeliever: "I conclude value is subjective. What's inconsistent about that? Second, just because I agree that humanity creates morality, does not mean that every morale code that mankind makes will match up with my morale code. My standard is the basis for my criticism of others standards. Next, you bring up the social contract. You ask what compels you to commit to this contract. Force? Well, what if there is an absence of force? What then, is there that makes killing wrong? My subjective morality is what allows me to conclude it as wrong. I know what it is like to suffer. As such, I do not force suffering upon another or wish it upon them. That stems from my darwinian survival instincts, as the less people around me suffering, the less likely I am to suffer. Same goes with killing! The more people who commit to the contract means the less likely I am to get killed.Notice in the exchange above that our unbelieving friend argued for morality based upon a societal consensus that is designed to promote the survival of individual members of the group. I pointed out that what promotes survival value doesn't tell me whether an action is right or not by using examples of obviously evil behavior that can promote survival value. He tried to answer by saying that I'll be punished by the society and my response was three-fold:
Me: You said, "That stems from my darwinian survival instincts, as the less people around me suffering, the less likely I am to suffer. Same goes with killing! The more people who commit to the contract means the less likely I am to get killed."Me: Again, statistical averages don't tell us what is *wrong*, they only tell us what is. All you are giving me is your subjective *preference* based upon statistics. But statistics are irrelevant in determining how people *ought* to behave. Assuming your arbitrary standard in a different context, I could just as easily *subjectively* argue that all people in a society that have the words "Anonymous" in their nick are to be immediately exterminated in a gas chamber by order of der Furher.
Unbeliever: "Of course I am giving you my subjective preference. Again, morality is nothing more than that; subjective preference. You could easily rig your morale standard up to believe everyone with the words 'Anonymous' in their nick should be exterminated. Is it objectively right or wrong? Neither. But, it conflicts with the basis of my morale standard, which fortunately, most people happen to follow as well. So, that won't be happening any time soon. (p.s. Godwin's Law)"
Me: "If morality is nothing more than subjective preference then I can eat my neighbors instead of loving them and torture and rape little girls for fun as long as I don't get caught and/or my society makes it legal. Those things would certainly promote 'survival value'"
Unbeliever: "That standard would definitely benefit your survival, but it would be short-lived and irrational, as your chances of being retaliated against would greatly scale in proportionate to how destructive you are, as more people deem you an increasing threat to their own survival. The social contract is the most sustainable standard there is. We all live in moderation in the contract to ensure our selfish well-being. We only wish to see a peaceful world for our own individual survival."
Me: "But I don't plan to get caught."
Unbeliever: "You don't suffer retaliation only from external sources after the fact. You suffer the increased retaliation from those you exploit too. You increase the likelihood of being harmed or killed by those you initiate force against, increasingly and increasingly. You can argue all you want from a hypothetical about not getting caught, but it's highly unlikely in actual practice. Your best bet is still the social contract; appealing to the cooperative standard to ensure sustainability."
Me: [repeating the same statement I made last time.] "But I don't plan to get caught."
Unbeliever: "What's your point? Are pests not a detriment to my garden even if I am ignorant of their effects? People who are overly destructive have an effect on the human experience whether we realize it or not. I can conclude that all people that are potentially coercing against others breaks the balance of the social contract, regardless of whether or not I observe their effects, because I do not create the standard as a response to them. I create the standard out of the potential for them."
Me: [repeating the same statement I made last time to drive the point home and because the guy is obviously too blind to see the problem with his ethical theory or doesn't care.] "But I don't plan to get caught."
Unbeliever: "Good luck with that.
Me: "Jack the Ripper had pretty good luck with it." [Jack the Ripper was a 19th century serial killer that brutally raped and murdered many women. He was never apprehended.]
- Society can legislate obviously evil behavior [i.e., Nazi Germany and "The Holocaust"].
- How people are behaving doesn't tell us how they should behave. To ground ethics in what the majority of people are doing is to commit a logical fallacy known as the naturalistic fallacy. Stated in layman's terms, this fallacy says that what is the case doesn't necessarily tell us what ought to be the case.
- As long as I don't get caught I'm still considered "good". After all, if there is no God to answer to on Judgment Day and if nobody in the society knows that I did it, then I'm still "good" according to their standards. On secular ethics, I get to have my cake and eat it too!
Most Christians would say, "No duh dude!" However, how many of us work hard expose unbelief for what it is yet leave unbelievers without the hope of the gospel? The biggest problem the secularist has isn't his arbitrary and inconsistent beliefs, but the fact that he is headed for eternal Hellfire (Rev. 14:9-11). God judgment bears down on him like a train raging full speed at an unwary, drunken vagabond standing on the tracks. The vagabond's drunken eyes and ears are deaf and dumb to his impending doom. So it is with the secularist. He has drunk his fill of the world's philosophy and empty deception, but he is a stranger to Christ's teachings because He is unable to hear them (Col. 2:8). He can't see that "truth is in Jesus" (Eph. 4:21) and that its in Christ him whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:4). He needs his ears unstopped and his eyes treated with spiritual "eye-salve" (Rev. 3:18). This only happens through regeneration, i.e., being "born-again" (John 3:3-8). When a man is regenerated, he repents and believes on Christ and this internal renovation of being causes him to swear allegiance to Christ's way rather than the world's way. He ditches the world's grand opportunities and the poisoned chalices filled to the brim with lies, and rather stands upon Christ's word. He does so because he has been changed forever by the power of the Holy Spirit and as he grows in his faith, he gives more and more glory to God alone for this great truth.
IN CONCLUSION, given the social contract theory's assumed starting point of man's autonomous reasoning, one cannot dogmatically tell me that torturing little girls for fun is inherently evil since any given society might legislate that it's okay to do so in the future, or that being a serial killer is morally wrong in and of itself. All you can do is tell me that it doesn't line up with societal preferences and that I might get punished for it, but you can't tell me that those actions are inherently wrong in and of themselves in any cosmic sense. So, by making man's law the standard instead of Christ's law, you are not only left with a secular ethic that is arbitrary, inconsistent, and self-refuting; but you prove that you are a man headed straight to eternal hellfire lest you embrace Christ's gospel.