Atheists are forever getting the moral argument wrong. A.C. Grayling, in The God Argument, says,
The argument that there can be no morality unless policed by a deity is refuted by the existence of good atheists. Arguably, non-theists count themselves among the most careful moral thinkers, because in the absence of an externally imposed morality they recognize the duty to examine their views, choices, and actions, and how they should behave towards others.
Begging a Question
There are multiple problems here. I'll note briefly that Grayling begs an important question. Atheists can indeed be very moral among other human beings, and I'm sure examples of this could be multiplied. But if there is a God, whom to love is the highest good, then there is no morally good atheist. This is the teaching of Scripture: see Romans 3, which also emphasizes that Christian theists' goodness is granted only by the grace of God.
“We're Right: Just Ask Us”
Second, there's something odd about appealing to the way atheists think about themselves in support of the idea that their thinking is right. It sounds oddly like, “we're right: just ask us!” And the reasoning he offers for it fails to rescue it from that silliness. His “because” clause fails completely, for theists (a) do not believe in an externally imposed morality (that's a straw man), (b) theists also recognize their duty to examine their views, choices, actions, and behavior toward others, and (c) theists do so in view of a standard that is pure love, holiness, justice, and goodness.
I recognize that Grayling tempered that statement with “arguably,” so I'll grant that he didn't stake everything on it. That's the counter-argument, or at least a brief beginning to it. It seems to me it undermines his “arguably” quite severely.
Getting the Whole Point Of It Wrong
But where I really want to focus is on his misunderstanding of the moral argument: “there can be no morality unless policed by a deity.” I wonder where he got that from. Theists (many of us) actually believe that without God there can be no objective morality — not because morality requires a police function, but because:
- Without something in the fundamental nature of the universe to make actions and attitudes objectively right or wrong, there is nothing in the universe to make actions and attitudes objectively right or wrong. If right and wrong are not essential features of reality, then they are accidental and contingent at best: contingent on fickle human opinion, on most accounts.
- As Mackie has perceptively pointed out, there is something strange (“queer,” he put it) about the nature of moral duties and values in a non-theistic universe.
- Humans may have the ability to develop a form of morality, but only of a subjective nature: contingent and non-essential as already stated.
Further, no theist would say that the moral argument requires that theists be better than atheists in human-to-human or human-to-world moral attitudes and actions. That's just not what the argument is about. It's about whether the word “better” has objective meaning in moral contexts. Without an objective standard to compare them to, self-sacrificial love is no better than murder.
Finally, no theist would say that knowledge of such a standard depends on whether one believes in God as its source. That standard exists in God's character, and it is in his nature to follow his standard. When he created humans in his image he imparted knowledge of his standard. Though we are impaired in that knowledge through rebellion from God, we have not lost it altogether.
1) There is no force in Grayling's appeal to the way atheists think of their ethics.
2) The existence of “good” atheists is
a) Question-begging, in terms of goodness with respect to God, and
b) Other than that, fully predicted by theism
3) It is the objective reality of good and evil, right and wrong, that is in question, not whether one group is more able than another to approach the good and the right, which means that what Grayling calls a refutation doesn't even address the question.
Grayling got the argument wrong, and his refutation misses by a mile.
Of course I’ve only responded to one paragraph on this from his book. If you’re interested I’ll follow through with more. The rest of it yields the same ultimate outcome.