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.