Says Who?

I was recently told that a militant atheist tweeted something to the effect of, “I believe humans are inherently good, and therefore do not need a God to save them.” It would be easy to get sucked into an argument about whether or not this assessment is accurate, but that would miss a greater irony. What does the atheist mean by “good?”

Let me tell you about myself. I am two legs tall, and weigh 100 water bottles. Does that tell you anything (other than that I have a strange way naming units of length and weight?) Can you tell exactly how tall I am or how much I weigh? One person would see me as five feet tall and another as five feet, eight inches. Which is right? One would see me as weighing 81 pounds, another as 211 pounds. Which is correct? Why is there disagreement? The one, who sees me as five feet tall, has a 30-inch leg. The one, who sees me as weighing 211 pounds, drinks from one-liter water bottles. You can see where I’m going with this. At this point you might ask, “Why don’t you just use standard measures like feet, inches, and pounds? Or, use meters and liters?” I suppose I could use these standard units, but why are they standard? Because a competent authority declared them to be so. If you are really dying to know some history of this, you can look here.

What does all this have to do with the tweet in question? The claim was that humans were “inherently good.” What does the atheist mean by “good?” As an atheist, he has rejected any competent authority who could give us a standard of goodness that is independent of our opinions. If God does not exist, then “good,” in the sense relevant to whether or not one needs a God to save them, does not exist. If “good” means “well suited for its intended purpose,” and there is no intended purpose for humans to exist, then good, in that sense, does not exist. If this is the case, good can only mean, “I like it,” or “We like it.” However, who says humans are inherently likeable? I think we all know some who are not. (If we are brutally honest, we can all think of times when we were not.) What if one person likes a group of people and another does not? Who’s to say who is right? On what basis? As Ravi Zacharias has said, “…in some cultures they love their neighbors; in others they eat them, both on the basis of feeling. Do you have any preference?”

Some, like Sam Harris, argue that morals and values refer to “the well-being of conscious creatures.” Again, however, I must ask, “Says who?” Why should the well-being of conscious creatures outweigh the well-being of creatures that have no consciousness? What about when the well-being of one (or one group of) conscious creature(s) is in conflict with that of another? Who decides?

Let’s go back to the claim. If we use Harris’ definitions, it would seem the claim is that humans inherently tend to consider the well-being of other conscious creatures. However, look around you. Look at the headlines on any given day. Racial tensions, terrorism, oppression all lead the 24-hour news cycle. Even by the atheist’s own definition (assuming he accepts the one above) it is clear that humans are anything but inherently good, and therefore without the need for a savior. However, for the atheist to claim anything is good in an objective way (independent of his own opinion) is a category error. It would be like me saying music does not exist because I have never tasted it.

Mitch Stokes would agree with many atheists in that “all value— and moral value in particular— is subjective in that all value depends on a valuer, a valuing subject. All morality is ultimately personal.”  However, if the “valuer” is merely a human being, we are right back to the original problem. However, if God exists, and he created humans for his purposes, we are valuable because he values us. Good, then, is grounded in what God values because he is the very embodiment of good. God is the competent authority from whom we can get a standard unit of goodness.

If theism is true, we can evaluate humanity in a meaningful way. What we see tells us human beings are deeply flawed and in need of help. Christian theism in particular makes sense of this, showing us that we are made in the image of God (which is why we are often capable of good behavior) but are deeply broken. Christianity offers the only remedy for this in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who made a way for us to be reconciled to God.

If the atheist’s tweet is true, atheism is false. If the tweet is false, atheism is still false, since both require a non-human valuer. If atheism is true, the tweet is meaningless.



Author: apologeticsminion

Daniel has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. He is married and has four grown children. Professionally, Daniel is a sign language interpreter.

23 thoughts on “Says Who?”

  1. Great thoughts man! What basis do they have to call things good and evil. Surely there’s very little, if all we know is the result of a massive accident in space.


  2. There’s nothing wrong with moral relativism. I’m sure we have fairly similar ideas of good and bad, and I’m an atheist. Are you saying that you only do what you perceive as good things because you think God doesn’t want you to do these things? Are you saying an atheist can’t show compassion (and again, I’m sure we have similar concepts of compassion) just out of a common respect for other people? We don’t need a man in the sky to tell us how to treat each other.

    And even if (your specific) God being real would create a common set of morals, that doesn’t mean someone should believe in him. Atheists aren’t atheists beside they love moral relativism. I know your post isn’t about the existence of God, but atheists don’t believe in him for other reasons. And we don’t need to believe in any supernatural being to treat other people with respect.


      1. Moral relativism means that our society has to come together and decide what sort of actions are acceptable, and this develops over time. Every time a law is changed or a social movement occurs, you see it developing. There’s no supernatural force which gives us our morals.


      2. “Moral relativism means that our society has to come together and decide…”
        This is a little different from how I would use that term. That societies do such a thing is obvious. However, what would make the decisions and acceptable acts of one society any better or worse than another? Nazi Germany decided they should exterminate Jews and invade other countries. Was their decision better or worse than societies that did not? If their decision made the act right, while we see it as wrong, calling both correct is what is moral relativism. Moral relativism is the idea that morality just is what an individual or group decides it is.

        “There’s no supernatural force which gives us our morals.”
        I never claimed that “a supernatural force gave us our morals. I said God, who created us for his purposes, is the very embodiment of good, and therefore moral values and duties flow from his nature, that is, as the ground of good, what he values is good, and what he commands is right. Moreover, if God exists, he is a person, not a force. If he was a force, there would be no basis to obey him, as a force has no authority.


      3. I know that apologists love to hit moral relativism with the whole Nazi Germany thing, but yes, there is nothing objectively that makes anyone’s actions “more wrong.” However, we can say that the majority of people choose to respect other human lives and view acts such as genocide as abhorrent, so this is the commonly accepted viewpoint. We don’t need a god to tell us this. If everyone on Earth thought X thing was okay, then it would be okay. It makes sense, even if it means that something we view as bad might one day be viewed more positively. Need I also remind you that the Bible condones slavery, misogyny, homophobia, etc. but Christians today are opposed to (at least some of) those things.


      4. “We don’t need a god to tell us this” Again, you miss the point. It is not God telling us this that makes it the right thing to do. It is his nature that makes what he commands good and right. It is his image in us that enables us to recognize this intuitively and our ability to ignore it that makes our actions what they are.
        “…he Bible condones slavery, misogyny, homophobia,” First, I would point out that on moral relativism, none of these things are wrong. Second, if the God of the Bible exists and revealed himself, then the slavery he condones was a mercy, misogyny is just your dislike for the authority structure he established, and homophobia is the prohibition against violating the natural order he established for humanity. However, you seem to think there is something genuinely wrong with slavery, misogyny and homophobia.
        I think even you would agree that if Nazi Germany (that’s right, we’re back to them because it is such a clear case example) had won WWII and killed everybody in the world who disagreed with the Final Solution, the everyone alive on the planet would agree it was a good thing, it would still be a bad thing.


      5. Tons of other religions have made similar claims. Lots of people intuitively felt what Zeus proclaimed was good and right.

        I agree that Germany wiping out everyone would be a bad thing because I personally disagree with The Final Solution and all that. But if all that was left was Nazi Germany, that would be the world now. Morals would change, and that’s just how life would be. (no matter how much we personally disagree with it)

        Also you just said that the slavery condoned in the Bible is a mercy. Did God change his mind about slavery? Is he against it now? Do you think under some circumstances slavery is okay? (And again, I do not. But there is no supernatural being that makes this so. It’s just what I come to believe because I respect human beings.)


      6. If Christianity was true, and we humans are made in the image of God, I would expect even false religions to get some things right.
        Glad to see you are consistent

        Is it your view that everything God allows he condones? Is it your view that the Bible is a rule book? Neither is the Christian worldview. Making allowance for a reality that exists is different from condoning the reality that exists. If God came on the scene and commanded all slaves to be freed, you would complain that he left all these people with no homes and no property and no way to feed themselves. You are reading contemporary conditions into ancient narratives. You can only see God as a fan of slavery in the Bible if you have that idea before you read it.


      7. “I would expect even false religions to get some things right.”
        Christianity (and its predecessors) didn’t even come onto the scene for thousands of years. Did God not want anyone to know about him for a long time? When was the first upright creature considered a human capable of following God’s will?

        Also I would consider the Bible a rule book if it has a big scary list of 10 naughty things you’re not supposed to do. Also, Leviticus is just a huge list of other rules. Are you saying we’re not to adhere our lives to the rules presented in the Bible?

        And if God wills certain things to happen and simple allows others to happen due to our own free will, which I believe if what you’re getting at, why do babies have bone cancer? Why are people still in slavery all over the world? Is that God’s will? Your god seems like a really stellar guy to allow all these things to happen, considering he’s all powerful and he supposedly loves us and all that.


      8. I guess what I should have asked is, do you think the Bible is merely a rule book? Go back and read the OP and you will see how I unpack this.
        As far as your question about what God allows, if you are going to evaluate a worldview for coherence, you need to do so on its own terms. You question reflects an assumption of your worldview. However, if this world is not all that there is, and human beings really do live forever, then the question of what happens to us in this life take on a very different tone.


    1. Actually, Travis, I would disagree with you that “atheists don’t believe in God…” in the sense of a positive belief claim. In fact, “atheism” literally means “non-theism” and not “anti-theism.” This is a common misconception among apologists and ill-read secularists alike, as evident in the essay above.

      You see, “theism” is basically the belief in a god or gods, whereas “atheism” or “non-theism” is simply a neutral position that does not hold, at its bedrock, any positive belief for or against theism. A common example: if my friend had a stamp collecting hobby and I did not, I would not be known as a “anti stamp-collector,” because the lack of having a particular positive belief (positive as in I readily accept something) does not in itself qualify you as having the opposite positive belief. Another example, if someone asks if I’m a republican and I say no, it does not mean I’m a democrat. I’m in fact neither.

      If I were to suggest that I positively held the belief that I did not believe in God, then I could be considered an anti-theist or strong atheist or what not. But notice that agnosticism is necessarily contingent on the more fundamental meaning of the word “atheist.”

      As far as morals are concerned, I would argue the exact opposite of what was said in this article.


      1. If you didn’t have a stamp collecting hobby, that would mean you don’t collect stamps. Atheists don’t believe in God. That doesn’t contradict the non-theism that you discussed.


      2. Dan, I would say I withhold judgement. Travis, I’m an atheist too. There’s just a gray area that people get lost in sometimes when trying to define “atheism.” Your tone of writing made it seem as if atheism was exclusively anti-theism, which it is not. I agree that an atheist does not believe in God positively (nor does he necessarily positively refute God), and that was the point I tried to make. I could have worded that better.


  3. Interesting, despite some circular arguments in there.
    There are other sources of yardsticks that we can measure ‘good’. One of which is the standard of behaviour agreed by people. This happens in every society in government and courts.
    You haven’t mentioned those.


  4. What exactly prevents humans from being competent authorities on how humans treat other humans?

    Another thought, if God supplied the moral laws then we would expect those moral laws to be perfect from the beginning, which we don’t see at all, unless you want to argue that slavery and sexual slavery are at worst morally neutral.

    God also waits a really long time to give anybody a law code. In fact it really seems the height of Einstein’s definition of insanity. Adam is kicked out of the garden, isn’t given a law code. Cain is banished for murder, still no law code. God drowns the whole world for being wicked, Noah isn’t given a law code. Abraham is the father of gods religion, no law code. Lot is the only righteous man (who thinks it’s okay to offer his daughters up to be gang raped) and Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed for being wicked, still no law code. Jacob is the father of God’s favored nation (a feat accomplished with two women procured in a business arrangement and their two slaves), no law code. It isn’t until the Hebrews really haven’t done anything bad because they’ve been slaves for 430 years before he finally sets down some rules, and then he forgets to ban slavery even though he just decimated Egypt for owning slaves. Which is another mark against “god’s perfect morality” because he has different rules for different people.

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  5. Thanks you all for your comments. Either I was unclear (entirely possible) or Travis, and byblacksheep missed the point. That also is not hard to do since this is a difficult topic, called “the grounding problem.” The question is not whether or not God is necessary to know good from bad, right from wrong, or even to behave accordingly. The question is, what makes good things good and bad things bad? Simply appealing to a group agreement is not sufficient, unless you are willing to say the Holocaust was right because the Germans agreed it was. If that was the case, then antebellum chattel slavery in the United States was good because most southerners thought so. If right and wrong is determined by consensus, then a reformer, by definition would be doing wrong.
    Moreover, byblacksheep seems to recognize our ability to recognize right and wrong in the absence of a moral code. I agree, but then again my argument was not that we need a divine moral law code to know right and wrong. Rather, there needs to be a standard that is independent of human opinion by which we can call good things good and bad things bad. Moral law codes may spell some of these things out, but the values reflected in the code are logically prior to the codes. The question is not how do we know good from bad, it is what makes good things good?


    1. Minion, the “grounding problem” and the examples you provide really the highlight problematic nature of morals from God and less so the morals from human conscious. Perhaps it would have been more clear if I had explicitly stated the flip side of the argument.

      As I mentioned if we have morals from a perfect God (we know what is good because god said so) we would expect perfect morals from the beginning. Morals from human conscious on the other hand absolutely does have a grounding problem. How do we determine what makes a good thing good and a bad thing bad? Can we do it by consensus, can we do it mathematically or logically? Does self interest reign? Does the “good,” however we determine that, of the group outweigh the good of the individual or vice versa? Humans are a conflicted group, fickle even. But our knowledge and our understanding grows, it builds on itself, it evolves over time. Like our understanding of science has grown over time, each scientist growing the work of the scientists before him/her. And because of that you would expect the moral codes of earlier civilizations would be just totally wrong and gradually change and be refined over time, which is what we see, globally we have moved in a direction that increases human dignity for all people. Can I definitively say we’ve moved in a direction that is “better?” No I can’t, I will leave that to the philosophers, but what i can do however is look back at the holocaust and say “they got it wrong” I can look back at slavery in the U.S., and slavery across the globe and say “they got it wrong.” I have that freedom, and I can provide reasoned thinking for why I believe that, even if these things were decided by consensus, which they weren’t. Slaves vastly outnumbered slave owners, do they not get a say in what is moral or not? Do 6 million Jews plus homosexuals, and people with disabilities, and other undesirable races not have a say in what is moral or not? Not to mention consensus really isn’t how we decide what is moral or not moral. Sure it is how we collectively agree what codes, rules, and norms we are going to follow, but that isn’t necessarily WHY we follow them. Even in ancient times, nobody just sacrificed their children for kicks and giggles, that is entirely against everybody’s self interest. You sacrificed your child to prevent the volcano God from blowing up the nearby volcano and killing everybody. It was by definition a sacrifice for the good of the group, that’s why it was a moral action (and not terrible moral thinking for the time) not because everybody said, “hey, let’s push our children into this volcano, it will be fun.” Of course now we view that as absurd, barbaric and immoral because we don’t believe in volcano gods anymore, at least not most of us, some people still consecrate their children to a deity precisely because they are afraid that deity, a Canaanite storm God in this case, is going to destroy the world with fire and water some day. But on the plus side most don’t murder their children, so it is a virtually harmless practice.

      But back to the point, whereas morality from human conscious, we are expected to get things wrong and improve over time. Morality from God is stagnant, already “perfect.”Which really puts its adherents in a bind because you can’t go back and say the holocaust was wrong. Maybe you can argue genocide was inflicted on the wrong group of people, but you can’t say the act of genocide is morally wrong because on numerous occasions God commands genocide so genocide must be, at least in certain instances, morally good. The same with chattel slavery, which I love the specific designation there, I’m assuming your use of “chattel” is an attempt to distance US slavery from Jewish slavery, but please go read exodus 21 and tell me that Jewish slavery was any better. You can at best argue the US did slavery the “wrong” way (but again exodus 21) but you can’t argue the act of slavery is morally wrong because God, on numerous occasions, specifically commands the taking of slaves for either sexual or forced labor purposes.

      So yeah, morals from human conscious have a grounding problem. What makes good things good, or this is good for me but bad for you, who wins? It’s tricky, it’s hard, but we can continue to reason things out, to refine why we think what we think (no more volcano gods for us). But with religion, those moral codes were determined by the same process we determine our morals today, but because they have been attributed to a deity they haven’t been allowed to grow, or change, or be refined. You don’t have the freedom to think, it’s already rigid. The holocaust can’t be wrong because it is murdering a group of people because they are a group of people, because there are times when it might be morally right to murder a group of people specifically because they are a group of people. So you are left holding the bag on some truly terrible moral laws all the while saying “I’m rubber, your glue, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you. I can’t be morally bankrupt, you are morally bankrupt, God said slavery was good, so slavery must be good!”


      1. You said, “Can I definitively say we’ve moved in a direction that is “better?” No I can’t, I will leave that to the philosophers,…” This is the whole point of my post. This is the crux of the grounding problem. That is why the Moral Argument for the existence of God is a philosophical argument. All of the rest of your response addresses epistemology, or how we come to believe or know moral principles. That is a different issue, believe it or not. You have raised some good issues, here, but rather than post a lengthy response, I will be writing a new post in response, so keep an eye out for that.


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