Post Author: Bill Pratt
Clearly the answer must be “yes.” In fact, the apostle Paul teaches this very truth in the book of Romans. There are some moral truths that can be known without a person ever acknowledging God’s existence. In fact, the world would be a complete disaster if everyone had to agree on the existence and attributes of God before anyone could know moral truths.
But it seems that atheists often think that Christians are making this claim. They think that Christians are saying a person cannot be moral or know right from wrong without believing in God. No Christian thinker of any stature has ever said this, though.
When Christians present moral arguments for God’s existence, or when they argue that moral values cannot exist unless God exists, they are making a very different point. David Baggett and Jerry Walls explain what is going on in their book Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality:
[I]t might seem inconsistent to argue that moral truth is dependent on God if we can know it without even thinking of God. This alleged inconsistency can be dispelled if we recognize, as numerous classical thinkers have pointed out, that the order of being is different from the order of knowing. That is, the order in which we come to know things might be different from the order in which things exist, or have come to exist.
The order of being has to do with metaphysics and the order of knowing has to do with epistemology. Christian arguments about God and morality are almost always about metaphysics (the order of being) and not about epistemology (the order of knowing). Baggett and Walls add:
Certain moral truths might be as evident to us as anything can be, but may still leave unanswered the question of where morality came from. Likewise, the foundations of morality might be at a greater distance from us in terms of immediate knowledge than morality itself. This is a fundamental distinction, but one that is often missed, resulting in needless confusion.
Baggett and Walls point out that many atheists just seem to completely miss this distinction:
Recent books defending atheism have perpetuated this confusion, unfortunately, but not surprisingly. For instance, Richard Dawkins seems to ignore this distinction when he asks, “if we have independent criteria for choosing among religious moralities, why not cut out the middle man and go straight for the moral choice without the religion?”
Nobody disagrees that we can gather a bunch of people from different worldviews together in a room and agree on a basic set of moral values. This simply is not in dispute. What is in dispute is the question of where these moral values come from. Answering this question is what atheists need to work on.