Not all atheists are moral relativists – people who believe that morality just exists in our minds and decisions. The atheist, secular humanist, Max Hocutt provides a good example of moral relativist thinking:
· To me [the non-existence of God] means that there is no absolute morality, that moralities are sets of social conventions devised by humans to satisfy their needs…If there were a morality written up in the sky somewhere but no God to enforce it, I see no good reason why anyone should pay it any heed. (Understanding the Times)
Hocutt understands that without God, there is no possible basis for objective moral law, apart from our subjective thinking. In contrast to this, a small group of atheists are moral realists and believe that there is an objective moral law that pertains to all of us, irrespective of our thinking. In other words, even if every human being thought that it was okay to torture babies, it would still be wrong according to moral law, which transcends human thinking (although humans are generally tapped-into moral law.)
So far, the atheistic moral realist and the Christian agree, at least until we examine further and ask, “Is this moral law personal or impersonal? Is there a God standing behind it or just a natural force such as Karma?”
This raises several critical problems:
- If there is impersonal karmic moral law, how is it enforced? How can impersonal forces ensure that karmic justice is served? How can these forces make the critical assessments required by justice in order to deliver the right verdict and punishment? (It is important to understand that moral realism doesn’t negate relativistic factors such as personal history, culture, intelligence, ability and the various personal situations. Moral realism merely asserts that that there are objective moral principles in addition to the relative circumstances.) Instead, it would seem that only an intelligent Being could do so!
- How did these beautifully elegant, immutable and universal laws – both physical and moral – arise and what sustains them? There is absolutely no theory to account for how they might have arisen naturally!
- Moral laws are different from physical laws because they carry moral authority. While we can avoid the effects of gravity in a number of ways, like flying in a plane, it does not seem that we can avoid the implications of violating moral laws. There is no pill or scientific breakthrough that will allow us to torture babies without consequence. It’s just plain wrong, whatever the circumstance or innovation! There is no way to avoid the “karma” involved in such an action. Instead, it seems that a moral Being necessarily stands His moral laws to enforce them in a way distinct from His physical laws.
Even Hocutt seems to acknowledge this:
· If there were a morality written up in the sky somewhere but no God to enforce it, I see no good reason why anyone should pay it any heed.
Hocutt acknowledges that a moral law without a Law-Giver is no law at all. Against this wisdom, some moral realists will claim:
· I don’t require a Law-Giver or punishment in order to obey moral law. It is enough for me to know that it is objectively wrong to torture babies.
However, by rejecting the Law-Giver from this equation, the moral realist encounters additional problems:
- Even if there is an objective moral law, what makes it right to obey it? And why should we obey it? For the Christian, the answer is direct and easy. We love God and want to obey Him because He has earned our love by dying for us on the cross, removing any enmity between us. We are therefore safe and secure in Him. Besides, God is the source of all moral truth, and we are wired with that truth. Consequently, as we follow Him, we find that His judgments accord with what He has placed within our heart. As a result of this, rebellion is futile, because when we rebel against God, we also rebel against the truth He has placed within us. Therefore, there exists no legitimate basis for any moral judgment that would contradict Him.
- If we really hear what the moral says, we will hear it saying, “If you violate me, you have transgressed and deserve to be punished.” Guilt and shame reinforce this judgment. Therefore, it is not as simple as the moral realist makes it out to be. Moral law is more than just knowing something to be wrong.
- The moral realist also has to grapple with his rationale to follow the law. Why not simply ignore it if it just came about naturally. However, as with all other laws of “nature,” these are necessary gifts for human thriving. If we fail to ask where they came from, we are like the man who receives a gift in the mail and throws away the card, not wanting to know to whom he should now honor for his gift.
The laws cry out “God!” Frank Tipler, Professor of Mathematical Physics, would agree:
- When I began my career as a cosmologist some twenty years ago, I was a convinced atheist. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that one day I would be writing a book purporting to show that the central claims of Judeo-Christian theology are in fact true, that these claims are straightforward deductions of the laws of physics as we now understand them. I have been forced into these conclusions by the inexorable logic of my own special branch of physics.