Do Secularists Have a Foundation for Morality?

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Secularists and atheists frequently accuse Christians of behaving “immorally” and religion of being “evil.” But such objections to religion bring up an interesting question: how do secular humanists or atheists define evil and morality and by what authority do they make such statements?

Nothing but Subjective Opinion

For the atheist or secular humanist, there is no foundation for morality besides his or her own subjective opinion.1 These individuals often throw around words such as evil, immoral, moral, or ethical, often in the context of Christian religion or Christian individuals. They will say things such as “religion is evil”2 or that teaching creation to children is “child abuse,” but what do they mean by these phrases?

In their worldview, what makes anything immoral or wrong? Really it boils down to nothing more than their opinion.3 They believe that something is wrong, and therefore it must be. But who is to say that their opinion is the right one? After all, there are many different opinions on what is right and wrong. Who decides which one is right and which one is wrong?

That atheism and secular humanism cannot provide a foundation for morality is a strong argument. Here are a few responses that you may hear if you bring up this objection.

Society Decides Morality

Some atheists will argue that morality is simply decided by the society. For example, here in America our society has decided that murdering an innocent human being is wrong and therefore that action is morally wrong. But this kind of thinking simply does not hold up to scrutiny.

Society often changes its opinion. One clear example of this is in regards to gay “marriage.” What was considered morally wrong by most of society is now legal, applauded, and celebrated by some groups. In this view, homosexual behavior went from being morally wrong to being morally acceptable. What if our society decides that murder is acceptable, as it did in the case of Roe v. Wade when America legalized the killing of unborn children? Does murder suddenly become morally acceptable too? What about adultery, stealing, lying, or any other manner of morally reprehensible actions? Would the atheist or humanist accept a society that decides that society can kill all atheists and humanists? If society is the moral compass, then the compass never points north but rather jumps all over the place and changes with every generation.

If society is the moral compass, then the compass never points north but rather jumps all over the place and changes with every generation.

Also if society determines morality, how can one society tell another society what is right or wrong? Most people would agree that the abhorrent actions of the Nazi death camps were morally wrong. But why? Nazi Germany decided as a society that these actions were morally acceptable. What right does our society have to judge their society if morality is simply a societal preference?

Or what about certain radical Muslim groups? Few would agree that blowing up innocent civilians, slaughtering hundreds of people from other religious groups, kidnapping and enslaving young women, or using children as suicide bombers is morally acceptable. Yet if morality is simply a societal preference, what right does our society have to tell their society that their actions are wrong and must be stopped?

The consistent atheist or humanist can say nothing if that is the ethic a society has decided is right. In this view, the atheist, based on his arbitrary opinion, might not agree with their ethic, but he has no rationale to say anything or try to put a stop to it. If morality is simply decided by societal preference, it fails to make any sense and becomes arbitrary, subject to change by time and culture.

Human Reason

The problem only gets worse when you break it down to a personal level. Some secularists will argue that morality is an individual decision and no one has the right to tell another person what to do (this is called “autonomous human reason”). Of course, the irony of such a statement should be evident. By saying that no one should tell someone else what to do, they have just told someone else what to do!

If secularists really believed this, then they couldn’t say “religion is evil” in the first place since it is not their place to say.

If this view of morality is true, then our justice system cannot exist. After all, why should one judge, legislative assembly, or government body impose their view of morality on another individual? If stealing, killing, raping, or abusing is right for one individual, what gives another individual the right to say that view of morality is wrong?

Now this personal morality or human reasoning view stems from the idea that people are basically good and that, left on our own, humans tend to do right and not wrong (again, who defines right and wrong?). But humans aren’t basically good! Human experience shows that throughout history humans have committed atrocities, even in our supposedly enlightened Western world. The Bible describes the fallen human heart this way:

  • “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
  • And the Lord smelled a soothing aroma. Then the Lord said in His heart, "I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done. (Genesis 8:21)
  • To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled. (Titus 1:15)

Autonomous human reason simply does not provide a sufficient foundation for morality.

Did Morality Evolve?

From human experience, we seem to naturally and intuitively know that actions such as murder, stealing, and child abandonment are wrong for all people everywhere. But where does this intuitive sense come from?

Evolutionists, by necessity, believe that morality (along with everything else) is simply the result of evolution. Somehow after billions of years of death, struggle, atrocities, disease, and suffering, man realized that we should strive to do the opposite! Man should oppose survival of the fittest and try to be moral. In their worldview, we are nothing more than highly evolved animals, and our brains are nothing more than chemical reactions.4 We are simply the product of our DNA.

This view raises the question of how the strictly naturalistic process of evolution leads to the development of an immaterial, absolute moral conscience that somehow applies to all people everywhere? And what happens if this conscience evolves? Does morality change again?

And furthermore, if we are simply animals, why are we held morally accountable? After all, we certainly don’t hold animals accountable for their actions. No lion court exists to punish lions that maul gazelles to death and then eat them. No one jails a female cuckoo for abandoning her babies or forces male rabbits to pay child support. These are simply the things animals in this cursed world do, and no one faults them for doing it. If we are just animals, what makes humans so different?

If we are just animals, what makes humans so different?

The problem gets even worse if you argue that our brains are nothing more than random chemical reactions and that we are at the mercy of our DNA. If we are just programmed DNA, then how can we be held accountable for any of our decisions? Because there is no free will in a view such as this, there is no accountability for decisions or actions.

Morality simply cannot be the result of naturalistic processes over millions of years. This view does not hold up to close examination, and really it is the opposite of what we know to be true from human experience and the Bible’s teachings.

Moral Atheists?

When faced with their worldview’s inability to provide a foundation for morality, many atheists respond by claiming that you don’t have to be religious to be moral. It’s true that plenty of atheists are moral citizens. But those who argue this way have missed the point.

Atheists certainly can be moral. Actually, starting with a biblical worldview, this is to be expected. God has put His law in all our hearts (Romans 2:15) so even atheists, who claim that they don’t believe in the Creator God, can adhere to this law and be moral. But the point is that they have no foundation for this morality in their own worldview. They have no basis for saying something is right or wrong, moral or immoral.

The Bible Provides a Foundation for Morality

Secular humanism and atheism cannot account for the existence of morality in their worldview. But what about the biblical view?

According to God’s Word, humans were specially created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). We are not animals, nor are our brains simply chemical reactions. As He has from the very beginning, our Creator holds us accountable for our actions (Genesis 2:17) and expects us to choose and distinguish between right and wrong.

As Creator, only God has the authority to tell us what is right and what is wrong. And this standard is not arbitrary. It is based on the unchanging character of the righteous, holy, and perfect Judge of the universe. For example, all murder is wrong because God has created us in His own image and forbids the taking of a human life (e.g., Genesis 9:6, Exodus 20:13; Romans 13:9).

God, the Creator, has given us the Bible, His revealed Word,5 which clearly lays out what is morally acceptable and what is not. The Creator provides a firm foundation on which we can base our morality.

What is more, God has placed His law in all of our hearts (Romans 2:15). We know right from wrong because of the conscience that God has given all of humanity. And we are held accountable to Him for our actions and decisions (Romans 2:1–16), based on this knowledge of Him that we have.

It should be obvious to anyone who has lived in this world that no one fully obeys God’s law. We all fall short of God’s perfect standard, as Scripture makes abundantly clear (Romans 3:23). We even fall far short of imperfect human standards! Why is this? Genesis gives us the answer.

The first two people, Adam and Eve, were created morally perfect, but they chose to rebel against their Creator (Genesis 3). No longer were they morally perfect; now they had a sin nature, which they passed on to each of their children (Romans 5:12–21). All of their descendants—every person on earth—is now a slave to sin (John 8:34) and in rebellion against God.

The Bible provides a firm foundation for morality and provides the answer for why all people have a moral conscience and why we cannot live up to this knowledge of morality. But there’s more.

The Answer Is the Gospel

Not only does the Bible explain why there is a universal moral code, why everyone knows it, and why no one can consistently live up to it, but the Bible also provides the solution to our shortcoming. When Adam and Eve sinned, they received the penalty that their rebellion deserved—death (Genesis 2:17). We all sinned and continue to sin in Adam, so we all deserve the penalty of death (Romans 5:12). No matter how hard we try, we can never live up to God’s perfect moral standard (Romans 3:23). We certainly are in a dire position, deserving nothing but condemnation and death.

But because of His great love for us and according to His mercy (Ephesians 2:4), the Creator came to earth as the God-man, a descendant of Adam just like us (1 Corinthians 15:45). But unlike us, He perfectly kept God’s law (Romans 10:4). He then chose to become sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), taking the sins of the whole world upon Himself when He died on the Cross (1 John 2:2).

Only the Bible provides a consistent foundation for morality that applies to all people everywhere.

He took death—the penalty that we all deserve—for us (Romans 4:25, 5:8). But He didn’t stay dead. He rose victoriously from the grave, defeating death (2 Timothy 1:10; Hebrews 2:14). He now offers forgiveness and eternal life to all who will repent (Acts 3:19), believe (John 3:18), and trust in Him (Romans 10:9).

Only the Bible provides a consistent foundation for morality that applies to all people everywhere. And only the Bible provides the hope that we need through the person of Jesus Christ, our Creator, Savior, and Lord.

Footnotes

  1. Opinions are arbitrary and thus fallacious.
  2. Clearly they mean Christianity. They do not argue that their religion of atheism or humanism is evil.
  3. Opinions are not a measure of truth in the least. Consider if someone was of the opinion that 2+2=-9. Such an opinion is worthless.
  4. Recall that in the atheistic or humanistic worldview, all things are natural and material. Nothing immaterial really exists. So the mind cannot exist. But neither can logic, truth, knowledge, morality, and so on.
  5. God’s Word is absolute and not arbitrary like the opinions of man.

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