The Christian Illusion of Moral Superiority

Many Christians will maintain they have a superior foundation for knowing and for choosing to do what is good. They claim to have objective ethical standards for being good, based in a morally good creator God, and that the atheist has no ultimate justification for being moral.

Consider what Dr. William Lane Craig wrote: “If life ends at the grave, then it makes no difference whether one has lived as a Stalin or as a saint.…” “Who is to judge that the values of Adolf Hitler are inferior to those of a saint? “The world was horrified when it learned that at camps like Dachau the Nazis had used prisoners for medical experiments on living humans. But why not? If God does not exist, there can be no objection to using people as human guinea pigs.” [Apologetics: An Introduction, pp. 37-51].

The Christian claims to have absolute and objective ethical standards for knowing right from wrong, which is something they claim atheists don’t have. The Christian standards are grounded in the commands of a good creator God, and these commands come from God’s very nature and revealed to them in the Bible. There is a philosophical foundation for this claim, and then there is the case Christians present that the Bible reveals God’s ethical commands. Both are illusions of superiority. It is an illusion that the Christian moral theory is superior, and it is an illusion that Christians know any better than others how they should morally behave in our world.

There are two bases for grounding Christian ethical standards. The first is known as the Divine Command Theory. I’ll deal with this theory first. The second basis is Natural Law Theory, which I will dispense with briefly later. I will show that neither of these bases for Christian ethics offers believers a special access to moral truth that unbelievers don’t also share. Christian moral foundations are not superior ones.

The Divine Command Theory goes like this: Morality is based upon what God commands. No other reasons are needed but that God so commanded it. If God commanded it, then it is right. If God forbids it, then it is wrong. Of this theory Socrates asked a fundamental question: “Is conduct right because the gods command it, or do gods command it because it is right?” [in Plato’s Euthyphro]

Ever since Socrates asked this question every philosopher who has dealt with Christian ethics has commented on it. But most all commentators will admit that this theory has some huge intellectual problems to overcome. If we say, on the one hand, that something is right because God commands it, then the only reason why we should do something is that God commands it. It makes God’s commands arbitrary, because there is no reason why God commanded something other than the fact that he did. If this is the case, God could’ve commanded something else, or even something contrary, or something horribly evil and simply declared it good. If God is the creator of morality like he’s purportedly the creator of the universe, then he could have simply declared any act good, and there would be no moral reason to distinguish such a God from the Devil. This presents us with the “seemingly absurd position that even the greatest atrocities might be not only acceptable but morally required if God were to command them.” [John Arthur, “Morality Without God” in Garry Brodsky, et al., eds,. Contemporary Readings in Social and Political Ethics (Prometheus Books, 1984)].

Furthermore, this makes the whole concept of the goodness of God meaningless. If we think that the commands of God are good merely because he commands them, then his commands are….well….just his commands. We cannot call them good, for to call them good we’d have to have a standard above them to proclaim that they are indeed good commands. But on this theory they are just God’s commands. God doesn’t command us to do good things, he just commands us to do things. “All that could mean is that God wants us to do what he wants us to do.” [John Arthur, “Morality Without God”). And God isn’t a good God either, he is just God. For there would be no standard above God for us to be able to proclaim that God is good. He is just God.

So if God were to tell us he’s good, then that only means that he labels his character with the word “good.” The word “good” here is merely a word God uses to apply to himself without any real definitional content, apart from the fact that God says this word applies to himself—see the circularity? The bottom line here is that if there is no moral standard for us to appeal to when we’re assessing the claim that God is good, and all we have to go on is the fact that God said he was good, then we cannot asses whether or not God is good. We still haven’t been given as answer to what he means by the word good.

If we say, on the other hand, that God commands what is right because it is right, then we must ask about this higher standard of morality that is being appealed to. If this is so, then we are advocating some higher standard above God that is independent of God that makes his commands good. Rather than declaring what is good, now God recognizes what is good and commands us to do likewise. If we ask why God commands it, the answer would have to be found in some higher standard than God himself. But where did this standard come from that is purportedly higher than God? God is supposed to be the creator of the laws of nature and the moral laws we must live by.

The Divine Command theory is in such disrepute in today’s philosophical circles that only modified Divine Command theories are being discussed today. Christian apologist J.P. Moreland actually claims, “I’m not a divine command theorist…this view implies that morality is merely grounded in God’s will as opposed to His nature. That’s not my view. I think God’s will is ultimately expressed in keeping with his nature. Morality is ultimately grounded in the nature of God, not independently of God.” [in Does God Exist: The Great Debate, with Kai Nielsen (Thomas Nelson, 1990), pp. 130-131; and also in Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Baker, 1987). After stating this, he refers to Robert M. Adam’s “Moral Arguments for Theistic Belief,” in Rationality and Religious Belief, ed., C.F. Delaney (Notre Dame Press, 1979)].

I’ll take a look at Robert M. Adams’ view next. But think of what Moreland is saying here. He’s saying that morality is grounded in God’s nature, not in his commands. But this is a difference that makes no difference. It does no good to step back behind the commands of God to God’s purported nature at all. For we’d still want to know whether or not God’s nature is good. God cannot be known to be good here either, without a standard of goodness that shows he is good. For unless there is standard that shows God is good beyond the mere fact that God declares that his nature is good, we still don’t know whether God is good. Again, God is….well….just God.

Furthermore, we usually call someone good when they make good choices. So an additional question here is whether or not God has ever made any good choices. To choose means there were alternatives to choose from. Did God at any point in the past ever choose his supposedly good nature? Christians will say he has always been good. Then when did he ever make a choice for this particular nature, which he calls “good” over-against, a different nature? At no time in the past do we ever see him doing this. But if he did choose his moral nature, then it stands to reason that the nature he chose is, by definition, good. God’s nature would subsequently be called good by him no matter what nature he chose, if he ever did choose a particular moral nature. Again, all we can say is that God is….well….God, and his commands are….well….his commands.

Robert M. Adams’ “A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness,” in Gene Outka and John P. Reeder, ed., Religion and Morality: A Collection of Essays (Anchor, 1973), along with Philip Quinn’s, Divine Commands and Moral Requirements (Oxford University Press, 1978), are the best alternatives when discussing Modified Divine Command theories. The modified Divine Command theory of Robert M. Adams claims that God must properly command what is loving, or consistent with that which is loving, because that is his very nature. God is love. Therefore God’s commands flow from his loving nature. God can only command what is good and loving.

The basic criticism of Adams’ view has been stated adequately enough by the late Louis P. Pojman: “If we prefer the modified divine command theory to the divine command theory, then we must say that the divine command theory is false, and the modified divine command theory becomes equivalent to the autonomy thesis: the Good (or right) is not good (or right) simply because God commands it. Furthermore, if this is correct, then we can discover our ethical duties through reason, independent of God’s command. For what is good for his creatures is so objectively. We do not need God to tell us that it is bad to cause unnecessary suffering or that it is good to ameliorate suffering; reason can do that. It begins to look like the true version of ethics is what we called ‘secular ethics.’” [Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong 5th ed. (Wadsworth, 2006), pp. 255-56]. “If Adams wants to claim that it is goodness plus God’s command that determines what is right,” Pojman rightly asked, “what does God add to rightness that is not there simply with goodness…If love or goodness prescribes act A, what does A gain by being commanded by God? Materially, nothing at all.” It is at this point where both a modified divine command ethic and a secular ethic share the exact same grounding. Why? Because then with Pojman, we must ask what difference it makes whether or not the same ethical principles come from “a special personal authority (God) or from the authority of reason?” (p. 256). For this reason Kai Nieslen argues that the Divine Command Theory in its modified forms “does not meet secular ethics head on,” and consequently, “does not challenge…secular ethics.” [in Does God Exist: The Great Debate, (p. 99); For a further critique of Divine Command Theory see Michael Martin’s The Case Against Christianity (Temple Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 229-251].

Steve Lovell also defends this position that God’s commands are rooted in His essential nature (known as the “Divine Nature Theory” or DNT), in “C.S. Lewis and the Euthyphro Dilemma” (July 14, 2002) found at, Lovell tries to explain something about the inherent circularity of this position. “The point is that any explicit justification of my belief that God is good will be circular. But that point can be happily conceded. Circularity need not be vicious, and the kind of circularity involved here is not in any way peculiar to my position. Indeed, any theory that posits objective values will face the same problem, which is essentially a skeptical one. A fair skeptical challenge is one that does not fault a position for not answering questions that no position could be expected to answer. But no position could help us to provide explicit non-circular justifications for all of our moral beliefs, and DNT is no exception here.”

But I have two questions here. One question remains to be answered is whether he’s correct that any theory that posits “objective values” will face “the same problem.” If by the term “objective values” Lovell means “ultimate objective values,” or “values objectively grounded in a divine being,” then he is indicting his own theory all over again, and so his accusation here is true by his own concession. It would also mean Lovell is not offering a fair alternative to his own theory for comparison, since there are alternative non-ultimate objective ethical systems which do not face an infinite regress of moral standards.

The second question is whether or not the circularity that is inherent in defending the DNT reveals something metaphysical about the nature of God’s existence? I personally think the inherent circularity in trying to defend the DNT points to the non-existence of God.

In an explanation to me Lovell points to an analogous case: “It might be helpful to consider the similarities of a non-moral case: trusting our senses. One theory of why we should trust our senses is that natural selection would have eliminated species whose senses weren't reliable. But why should we accept this theory? Because it's confirmed by scientific data? But that data comes to us through our senses! The justification is circular.”

But is this really an analogous case for our moral faculties? We are able to justify our senses pragmatically, but that’s all. They seem to help us live and work and play in our world. Can we trust our senses to tell us what is real? No. Reality is filtered through our human senses. With the senses of a dog, a porpoise, a snake, or a bird, reality would look and feel different to us. There is so much light and so much sound that we cannot see and hear it’s amazing. We know there is much more to see than what we can see, and we know there is much more to hear than what we can hear. But if we saw and heard it all, it might be likened to "white noise." About the only thing we can trust our senses to tell us is that we have them and that we sense something, and therefore we conclude that something is there. So in a like manner our moral faculties merely help us live and work and play in a pragmatic sense in this world. But what Lovell needs to explain is whether or not we can trust them to tell us something about God, just like I wonder whether our five senses can be trusted to tell us what is truly real.

The second philosophical basis for grounding Christian Ethics is Natural Law Theory. This is the ethical system of Aristotle as adopted by Thomas Aquinas, and it has been the dominant one in the history of the church. It’s an antiquated view of morals today, in that it presupposes the world has values built into it by God, such that moral rules can be derived from nature. [Modern virtue ethics are more interesting because these theories are distancing themselves from the older Thomistic view that moral rules can be derived from nature itself]. But if Natural Law theories are true, then, according to James Rachels, “This means that the religious believer has no special access to moral truth. The believer and the nonbeliever are in exactly the same position. God has made all people rational, not just believers; and so for believer and nonbeliever alike, making a responsible moral judgment is a matter of listening to reason and following its directives.” [The Elements of Moral Philosophy (McGraw-Hill, 1993), p. 53].

And this is exactly my point. The foundations of Christian morality are not superior ones to atheistic morality, based upon Christian assumptions. Neither of these two bases for Christian ethics offers believers a special access to moral truth that unbelievers don’t share, unless Christians are willing to grant that God could command us to do evil if he had wanted to, a conclusion that infringes on the whole notion of the goodness of God. Christian moral foundations are simply not superior ones.

Besides, there are several ethical systems of thought that do not require a prior belief in God, like Social Contract Theories, Utilitarianism, Virtue Ethics, Kantianism, and John Rawls’ theory of justice. Ethical Relativism isn’t the boogey man that some Christians make it out to be either, since relativism “is compatible with complete agreement on all ethical matters,” whereas “ethical absolutism is compatible with wide-spread disagreement.” [Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Temple, 1990), p. 9].

Even Christian philosopher Thomas V. Morris admits that, “It has…been argued in various ways over the past century that the evolutionary process somehow provides a framework of moral reference. Basic human instincts could be cited as loci for the moral constraints needed in society. The physical, survival, functional needs of men in society or community could act as moral matrices for the guiding of moral motions…there are many possible bases or explanations for moral motions in an impersonal universe. They could easily have arisen from evolutionary or community survival needs, for example, and consequently, when identified as a human ‘aspiration,’ the practice of making moral distinctions could be said to be ‘fulfilled’ when it is successfully functional within those contexts.” [Thomas V. Morris’ in Francis Schaeffer’s Apologetics: A Critique (Moody Press, 1976, pp. 69].

Even if Christians did have objective moral standards, they cannot be objectively certain that they know them, or that they know how they apply to specific real life cases! Just look at Christianity’s past and you’ll see what I mean. Believers will still disagree with each other on a multifaceted number of ethical issues, whether they start with the Bible as God’s revelation, or the morality gleaned from a Natural Law Theory. Just take a brief tour of Church history, or read a book like J. Philip Wogman’s Christian Ethics: A Historical Introduction (Westminister, 1993), to see for yourself. Willard M. Swartley’s book, Slavery, Sabbath, War & Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Herald Press, 1983) reveals how people who share the same views of the Bible can vehemently disagree with what God wants them to do.

Since Dr. Craig earlier mentioned Hitler, Auschwitz, and Dachau in his apologetics book, consider this response: Germany was a Christian nation—the heart of the Lutheran Protestant Reformation! How could a Christian people allow these evil deeds to happen and even be his willing executioners? How? The Holocaust and the horrible things done to millions of Jews and various minorities is more a problem for the Christian ethic, because it was a more or less Christian nation that did these horrible deeds.

The fact is that Christian religious moralists are largely in the same boat as atheists. Kai Nielsen: “The religious moralist…doesn’t have any better or any worse objectivity. Because, suppose he says, ‘We should love God,’ and then further suppose we ask the religious moralist, ‘Why Love God…Why obey his commandments?’ He basically would have to say, ‘Because God is the perfect good, and God with his perfect goodness reveals to us the great value of self-respect for people. He shows that people are of infinite precious worth.’ But even if you accept this, you could go on to ask, ‘Why should you care? What difference does it make anyway whether people are of infinite precious worth?’ Faced with such questioning, you will finally be pushed into a corner, where you say that ‘It is important to me that people be regarded as being infinite worth because I just happen to care about people. It means to me that people should be treated with respect. So the religious moralist as well has to rely finally on his considered convictions. So if that too is subjective ground, then both the religious person and the secular person are in the same boat.” [Kai Nielsen (with J.P. Moreland) Does God Exist: The Great Debate (Thomas Nelson, 1990), pp. 107-108].
What I wrote above reflects some additional thoughts from the responses below.