Good Without God?

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on September 29, 2012
Featured in News to Know

Can’t we be good without God?

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Can evolutionary science explain the origin of moral standards? An article in the fall 2012 Assemblies of God Enrichment Journal, written by William Lane Craig, examines this question as he reviews a book by atheist Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.

Addressing the pros and cons of Harris’s position, Craig admires the fact that Harris declares that genuine morality must be objective: “valid and binding independent of human opinion.” Nazi genocide, for instance, was inherently evil, even if some people thought they were doing a good thing. And it would still have been evil even if the Nazis had won. Given that genuine morality is not a relative, culture-specific construct, where did it come from?

From an evolutionary point of view, humans are merely insignificant products of random natural processes.

From an evolutionary point of view, humans are merely insignificant products of random natural processes. As such, they should have no intrinsic value, merit no moral consideration, and exact no moral obligations from each other. From a naturalistic viewpoint, morality is purely derived from the selfishness of evolution: cooperative and even sacrificial behavior enhances group survival so that the more altruistic individuals are more likely to pass on their genes. As such, we humans are suffering from an exaggerated opinion of our own goodness and “delusions of moral grandeur.” Atheist Sam Harris attempts to fill the void for us, show us we really are significant, justify our moral sense, and supply a naturalistic foundation for morality without God.

Harris re-defines good in order to re-define moral. Good and moral according to Sam Harris describe whatever maximizes “the well-being of conscious creatures.” Craig points out that Harris has not succeeded in explaining morality, only in re-defining it as doing whatever is “conducive to the flourishing of sentient life.” Harris admits, if thieves and murderers were as happy as others, then his moral landscape wouldn’t be very moral, since evil people would be quite happy. Since 3 million psychopathic Americans (an extremely exaggerated statistic cited by Harris)1 derive great pleasure from hurting others, when they are very “good,” they are really very horrid, and the rest of us better get out of the way!

Though Harris attempts to provide a naturalistic basis for what we “ought” to do, Craig says, science only describes what “is,” not what “ought” to be. (Of course, here I would interject that evolutionary science also attempts to proclaim what “was” but has no objective testable way of doing so, the long-gone past being accessible only to history—such as that provided in the Bible.) As we often point out, without a divine source of morality, there can be no objective morality, only popular opinions. Cultural taboos, perhaps, but not absolute standards of right and wrong. Harris makes what Craig terms “a half-hearted stab” at this problem by pointing out that the inherent human tendency to value logical consistency and evidence proves humans have evolved to know right from wrong. (This is analogous to the fallacious evolutionary idea that the fact we are here proves we must have evolved.)

Harris winds up by saying everything we do is actually determined by naturalistic processes anyway, so the idea of “choice” and “free will” is an illusion. Harris therefore considers us to be morally responsible even for accidents. Therefore, according to Harris, we can imagine what we “ought” and “ought not” do, but we’re only fooling ourselves.

Craig rightly points out that, while Harris claims to show that morality exists without a source, he instead makes a case that no morality exists at all.

Craig rightly points out that, while Harris claims to show that morality exists without a source, he instead makes a case that no morality exists at all. The only problem here is the questionable foundation from which Craig derives his own opinions. Craig is a “theist”—he does believe in God, and he defends the resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, examination of Craig’s writings and videos demonstrate that Craig himself has a foundation built on the shifting sand of biblical compromise. While rightly pointing out Harris’s semantic sleight of hand, Craig is willing to pick and choose how much of the Bible’s literal history to accept. He sees no inconsistency between molecules-to-man evolution and Scripture. He considers Genesis to be a “theologically rich, stylized narrative.”2 Thus while Craig is correct in pointing out the need for an objective, divine source for genuine morality, he dictates to that “Divine Source” which parts of His Word he will accept.

“Good Without God,” a presentation recently delivered by Answers in Genesis speaker Dr. Tommy Mitchell in Branson, Missouri, explored the positions of those who declare they can be truly good without God. Jesus Christ, who affirmed the truth of the events recorded in Genesis, declared that holy God is the only one perfectly good (Mark 10:18). And the Bible records that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace through the shed blood of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:23 and 6:23).

Having thoroughly researched Sam Harris’s works, Dr. Mitchell agrees, “There are things that are right or wrong. Harris is attempting to give a materialistic explanation for these things. In his view, since right and wrong exist, there must be a materialistic explanation. In his writings, he tries—unsuccessfully—to make a case for morality without an ultimate moral authority.” However, Dr. Mitchell’s basis for his analysis is trust in the Word of God, which he recognizes as authoritative from the very first verse. If we accept the opinions of Craig, we must grant him the honor of telling us which parts of God’s Word are actually worthy of our attention. No, thanks.

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  1. From Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010), page 97–99. A 2008 survey of personality traits found 1.2% of a sample of Americans scored in a range suggesting a potential for psychopathy, and that study is the source of Harris’s statistic. However, the vast majority of those scored in the very lowest part of the scale, other studies have suggested a far lower incidence, and questions have been raised about how representative the sample was. (Those surveyed lived in the same neighborhoods as the psychiatric patients from a previous study of violent behavior. C. Neumann and R. Hare (2008) “Psychopathic traits in a large community sample: Links to violence, alcohol use, and intelligence,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 76, no. 5: 893–899.) We therefore don’t need to be nearly as terrified of our fellow citizens as Harris’s numbers would suggest!
  2. W. L. Craig, “Does Evolution Disprove Christianity?,” YouTube, August 1, 2010, Craig is a theistic evolutionist in many senses of the description (e.g, he accepts cosmological evolution, a belief in billions of years, etc.) as he confirms in an interview. (

    When asked about his stand on biological evolution, Craig said, “I have a somewhat agnostic view of this, somewhere between progressive creationism and theistic evolution . . . . Any of those would be acceptable in my understanding of the evidence, but I have no hard and fast position.” The interviewer then praised Craig for having confirmed that he was not a young earth creationist. (W. L. Craig, “William Lane Craig’s View on Creation and Evolution,” YouTube, June 29, 2009,


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