I was looking for a quotation allegedly by G.K. Chesterton (I haven’t been able to find where it came from) to the effect that when people don’t believe in God it isn’t that they believe nothing, but that they will believe anything. We can see throughout history where this has no doubt been true at times, but I came across an atheist who seems to think what Chesterton was implying was that all atheists believe willy nilly in anything at all. This atheist, Austin Cline, or if he’s not at atheist, he is About Religion‘s “Agnosticism & Atheist Expert,” seems to think Chesterton’s quotation prompts this question:
Does Atheism Eliminate Any Standards for Belief, Truth, or Behavior?
Then he immediately sets up a straw man argument in the first two paragraphs:
Many religious theists think that their God creates or otherwise provides a set of objective standards against which they can measure all their beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, etc.
Without their god, they can’t imagine how anyone could possibly differentiate true from false beliefs, moral from immoral behaviors, proper from improper attitudes. Atheists who don’t believe in any gods are thus capable of believing and doing absolutely anything, having nothing at all to hold them back.
Yes, without a transcendent moral standard you cannot get to ought from is, but people do this all the time whether they believe in God or not. I, as a theist of the Christian variety, of course can imagine how anyone can differentiate true from false regardless of what their metaphysical commitments and assumptions are: They are made in the image of God, thus know right from wrong.
Maybe our atheist friends have never read the Bible, but this truth runs all throughout scripture, that God’s moral law is imprinted on every human heart. In Romans 1, Paul says that human beings “suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” In the final verse of the chapter he says that all human beings “know” God’s righteous decrees. We call this the Natural Law, or from a more Protestant perspective, common grace. Man can no more break God’s moral laws than he can break his physical laws without suffering the consequences.
So of course atheists can be good and moral, but their worldview, which assumes a universe without ultimate purpose or meaning, a product solely of chance, offers no logical foundation for morals. In other words, the only way they can be moral is if they are illogical! Nineteenth Century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is not real popular among modern atheists because he refused to accept any facile attempt to get morals from the merely material. Morality, he claimed, has no objective basis in reality, and how could it if all there is are atoms and molecules smashing against one another.
So no more articles or blog posts that claim Christians believe that atheists can’t be moral; they are often more moral and better people that many confessing Christians (and the Bible has an answer for that too: they are sinners! Saved, but sinners nonetheless). The world we find in our experience is more consistent with what we should find if Christianity is true more than it is consistent with the world we should find if atheism is true. In fact, the very concept of truth is problematic for the atheist, logically speaking. Very few of us live out our presuppositions with perfect logical consistency, but the validity of our worldview is largely determined by the logical conclusions of our fundamental beliefs.