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Why is it wrong?

Making moral decisions is not always easy. Sometimes we get pulled in different directions; maybe our heart says one thing and our head another. But some things are crystal clear – some things are just plain wrong. The murder of an innocent person is wrong. The abuse of a child is wrong. Rape – regardless of the gender or the circumstance – is wrong. But where does this moral conviction come from? Why is it that we think that morality is important? Why is it we spend so much time worrying about whether something is right or wrong?

Atheism does not provide very satisfying answers to these questions. Some atheists say that human morality is just a happy coincidence – we could have developed differently, but luckily we happen to think that murder and rape are wrong. But this isn't very encouraging, if our sense of right and wrong is just chance. Nor does it seem to reflect our experience of moral decisions – morality isn't just a trick of our brains; some things are obviously bad.

Some atheists say that human morality developed as a survival strategy – a society without lots of murders will work better than a society with lots of murders so evolution should select for the society without lots of murders. Whilst that's true, it is also true that it is even better for the survival of my genes for me to feign morality when it suits me and to behave immorally when it suits me better. We would expect evolution to equip us with a survival instinct but we would not expect evolution to equip us with values of self-sacrifice, compassion and altruism. And yet, we just do think that self-sacrifice is morally good and that murder, regardless of the selfish motives, is bad.

Some atheists say that morality is a consequence of our rational faculties, that when we evolved rational minds we realised that murder or rape was wrong. But morality is something different from reason. Reason is great working out how to get what you want but it cannot tell you what it is you desire. If I want to be successful and powerful then it is perfectly rational for me to commit immoral acts to further my career (if I can get away with them). Reason can help us make our moral decisions but only once we have some moral values to work with.

In contrast theism has a very straightforward explanation for why we think morality is important – God has given us this moral capacity for our benefit. God is good and God wants humans to be able to form relationships with him, so has given them this moral capacity. Our moral capacity is part of what makes us personal and relational beings.

This is not to say that atheists can’t do good things (they can). All human beings have this moral capacity and can choose to act upon it or not. The question is where does that moral capacity come from? Why do we think that morality matters? If morality is real, if some things are just plain wrong, then we cannot explain the universe in purely physical terms. Our tendency to think in moral terms indicates that there is a moral being behind the universe – and that is God.

Further reading

William Lane Craig, "Can We Be Good without God?"

Paul Copan, "The Moral Argument for God's Existence"

Further reading – advanced

Mark D. Linville, "The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism", in Contending with Christianity's Critics (2009) (PDF)