Tina and I were sitting in the lecture hall one evening when our atheist psychology professor traipsed into the room and began his lecture with these words: “Right and Wrong do not exist. They are merely societal conventions, words we use to describe what we approve and disapprove. There are Eskimo tribes where the elderly, when determined no longer useful to society, are set on a block of ice and kicked out into the ocean to starve to death. This is their way, and who are we to say they are 'wrong'?"
I remember looking around the room and wondering at the fact that no one really seemed all that surprised by what they had just been told. No raised eyebrows. No looks of consternation. Most seemed to be studiously taking notes as though what he'd said was entirely unremarkable.
I thought to myself: How extraordinary. This man has simply walked into the room and announced the non-existence of God. (Because obviously if God exists objective moral law might exist as well.)
I raised my hand and when called on said, "Professor, if what you say is true---that 'Right and Wrong don't exist', that they are 'merely societal conventions'---doesn't this mean that we cannot really say that what Hitler did was 'Wrong'? Doesn't it mean the best we can do is say we don’t agree with Hitler’s view of things, that most people and societies don't like what he did?
I remember it as though it were yesterday. The professor began to step—almost stumble—backward toward the corner of the lecture hall. His face turned a little red. He looked for a moment as though he were deep in thought and finally he replied...
We've talked about meaning and purpose. We've talked about whether human beings have inherent value. We've talked about equality and the existence of unalienable human rights.
In this lesson we're going to talk about morality.
We human beings seem to believe in all of these. And the worldview of Scripture---the existence of God and our creation in His image and likeness---makes sense of this. On each account, it provides the fulfillment of what we believe in and also explains why we believe it.
If something like the worldview of Scripture is true, there is meaning. We do have inherent value. We do possess unalienable rights. A Moral Law does exist.
On the other hand, on each of these accounts, the naturalistic worldview of atheism leaves us in the kind of tension expressed in our good professor's response to my question.
Not to mention the little face above.
Relative from Person to Person
Oh, we can say we believe morality is relative from person to person, but we don't.
And we evidence this continually. A lady steps in front of me in the line at the check-out counter. I say, "Excuse me, but I was already in line." She may say a number of things in response. "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't see you." "So sorry, but my father is ill and I'm in a big hurry this morning." "Please. Your shopping cart is full and I only have a couple of items."
One thing she never say in response is this: "OK, you were already in line. So what? Morality is relative from individual to individual. My standard is different than yours. Better luck next time."
No. Even when it comes to something as minor as taking someone's place in line at the grocery store check-out counter, we know that what she has done is wrong. We know it as clearly as we know that what Jihad John did to those two journalists, and now a poor British citizen, was "wrong". Two actions displaying very different levels of moral evil and with very different effects, obviously. But we know they're both wrong as surely as we know that a world external from ourselves exists.
Relative from Culture to Culture, Society to Society
We can abandon the complete subjectivism of saying that Right and Wrong are relative from person to person and say (again, with the good professor) that we believe they are cultural and societal "conventions" and that morality is relative from culture to culture and society to society.
But it turns out we don't really believe that either.
Because if we did, we wouldn't go around talking about one society being morally superior to another. Think about it: Why would one argue that modern American society is "better" or "more moral" than Taliban society, or that the morals of the Peace Corp are "better than" those of the Mafia---if one really believed that morality is "relative" from society to society?
You see, the moment we say that the morality taught in the Jewish synagogue down the street is "superior" to the morality taught by Boko Haram, we're appealing to a standard of morality we see as existing independent of those societies, and above them. We're appealing to a standard of morality by which we believe we can measure them both. We're assuming the existence of a kind of absolute moral measuring stick—a Law of Morality.
But if there is no "Law of Morality", isn’t it nonsense for us to argue that one is superior to the other? Perhaps the members of Boko Haram simply live by a different set of societal and cultural "conventions". And as the professor said so long ago, who are we to judge?
Again, no. We seem to believe in the existence of an objective Moral Law. It appears that everyone believes in "Right and Wrong"---and not merely as words we as individuals or societies use to describe what we approve and disapprove, what we like or dislike. We seem to believe in them as some kind of real standard that somehow exists in the real world. This applies, as C.S. Lewis said in his classic Mere Christianity, “to educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups”. I would add that it applies to Christian as well as atheist, Buddhist as well Muslim, Hindu as well as Jew. Each of us continually and inescapably demonstrates that we believe in a “higher” law of morality—in something higher than our own opinions and preferences.
Moral Relativists and Absolutists at the Same Time
Ironically, because atheists are the image and likeness of God, they know to their very bones that Right and Wrong are real. And so, even though they may say that morality is relative, they cannot live as though it were true. In order for their lives to not descend into utter chaos, they actually live (and must live) as though an objective Moral Law existed.
They must live as though something very close to the Christian theistic worldview were true---even as they deny God’s existence and assert the truth of naturalism.
For example, the atheist ethics professor may teach moral relativism and write books on the subject and routinely mock those ignorant and arrogant enough to believe “moral absolutes”. But try stealing the wallet from his back pocket and when he complains saying, "Hey, morals differ from person to person and culture to culture. Who's to judge?” Try cheating on his test on moral relativism and see how he responds. Better still, try failing the test, walking into his office, putting a gun to his head and saying, "Make that an A, thank you." With confidence I can tell you that your relativist ethics professor will become a strict proponent of moral absolutism before your very eyes.
After all, if he were to live in a manner consistent with his relativism, his life would implode.
An innate sense of the Moral Law has been inscribed into his being. And he can't escape or erase that knowledge simply by telling himself over and over again that Right and Wrong are merely cultural and societal conventions and that he's free to develop his own moral values
I think here of the Alfred HItchcock film Rope. Watch it if you haven't. It's a wonderful film with amazing dialogue. It's essentially a discussion of the atheist philosopher Nietzsche's view of morality and it displays in living color the exact tension I'm talking about in these lessons.
Nietzsche taught that with the "death of God", man is free to create his own values in the moral vacuum of an impersonal material universe. Two young men, inspired by their prep-school headmaster's approving discussion of these ideas, decide to put them into practice by strangling a fellow classmate they view as inferior to themselves. They do this to demonstrate their freedom to act in a universe without God. In other words, they commit murder as an intellectual exercise. Then, as part of the exercise, they hide the body in a large wooden chest, invite guests over for a dinner party, and use the chest as a buffet table for the food. The guests include the murdered boy's father, fiance, aunt, close friend---and the teacher who inspired their little experiment.
At the end of the movie, and after everyone has left the party, the teacher (played by Jimmy Stewart) returns. From the strange and troublesome conversation and events of the evening, he has deduced the truth. He lifts the lid on the chest and finds the body inside. Horrified at what his students have done. Deeply ashamed as they make it clear that it was his teaching that inspired them, he goes white and cries out (in essence), "But those were just ideas!"
As Auguste Comte once said, "Ideas govern the world or throw it into chaos."
Last of all, I think of the psychology professor I mentioned at the beginning. You see, even this man—a man willing to announce as fact to a lecture hall filled with college students that right and wrong do not exist—could not escape believing in right and wrong. When confronted with the unpleasant logical implication of his worldview—he collapsed. He simply could not maintain the fiction that he believed morality to be nothing more than cultural convention.
God's Existence and the Moral Law
It seems undeniable. We believe in Right and we believe in Wrong. And not merely as words we use to express our own personal preferences or tastes, or our society’s evolved preferences or tastes---but as something that has real existence. Something that applies to all people everywhere and at all times. Something that everyone ought to know.
And once again, the Christian theistic worldview makes sense of our experience. It explains the existence of a moral law and it even explains why we all seem to intuitively know it. The moral character of God provides a "standard" for moral law in the universe God created. And since every human being is created in the image and likeness of this God, it’s no wonder we know this Moral Law. God has written it on our hearts. It's inescapable.
But what about the naturalist worldview? Can it account for the existence of a Moral Law? Does a universe comprised of nothing but material particles interacting with one another provide the preconditions that could make sense of our experience in this matter of morality? What exactly would right and wrong be if the naturalist or materialist worldview were true?
A hint at our next lesson. A quote from British philosopher Michael Ruse:
Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction.... Morality is an ephemeral product of the evolutionary process..... It has no existence or being beyond this and any deeper meaning is illusory