Often in debates I am a part of a time of cross examination.
During one debate on God’s existence, my debate partner, Paul Chamberlain, asked one of our 2 opponents, “How does your atheistic view avoid moral nihilism?” (that life is without any objective meaning, purpose, intrinsic value, and especially objective moral values & obligations).
After we pushed him on the inability of atheism to provide a foundation for objective moral values and obligations he not only agreed, he then exclaimed, But “What’s so bad about nihilism?”
A hushed silence came over the audience and the atheist’s debate partner then felt the need to lean over into the microphone and state that his partner’s views did not represent his own views. Now what was going on here?
The first atheist was acknowledging the incapacity of naturalistic processes to supply a basis for objective moral truth and especially moral obligation. But then he didn’t think that the implications of that were a big deal. He didn’t think it was a problem that there was no real good or evil, or right or wrong.
The second atheist, and many other atheists, recognize though, that the absence of objective good or evil, or right or wrong, presents a serious crisis. But unlike atheist#1, they do not recognize the fact that naturalism (the view that nature is all that there is) cannot supply the needed foundation for these essential notions for human behavior and flourishing.
Essentially, atheist #2 denies the first premise of the moral argument for God (1. If God does not exist, objective moral values & obligations do not
exist) and atheist#1 denies the second premise (2. Objective moral values & obligations do exist).
Later in the debate #1 began making a case that human beings can figure out how they should live based on a principle of harm. Since we don’t like to be harmed, he argued, and human beings are essentially alike, we should not do things that harm other human beings. So he was contradicting his previous position that there are no moral obligations.
Moreover, this is exactly how the other atheists argue for the truth of premise #2, that objective moral values and obligations do exist! And there is no way to get should and ought into the conversation. There is no way to get ought from is in the natural world. One cannot get from a mere fact to a value, with one exception I believe.
In our presentation of the moral argument we argued that God, if he exists, is by definition the greatest conceivable being, because if there was a greater conceivable being, then that would be God. This is what philosophers mean by the term God. Furthermore, it is greater to be the paradigm of goodness than to merely conform to the good or exemplify goodness. So God’s nature must be the paradigm of goodness. It defines the good.
W.L. Craig offers an analogy, “Think of some audio recordings being ‘high fidelity.’ Whether or not a symphony recording is high fidelity is determined by its approximation to the sound of a live orchestra. The sound of the live orchestra does not exhibit fidelity to anything else; it just is the standard that determines whether some recording is high fidelity or not. Similarly with God’s nature.”
There is nothing higher than God. Any finite stopping point that an atheist could offer, like the objective value of human beings or sentient creatures, seems arbitrary and implausible compared to God. God, as the greatest conceivable being is more plausible than any naturalist stopping point. God is the only plausible ultimate stopping point.
Our moral obligations are determined by his commands, which are expressions of his essentially good nature, the paradigm of goodness. Only in this way can an ought (a value) be derived from an is (a fact). Things are right or wrong insofar as they are commanded or forbidden by God, the paradigm of goodness.
Atheist #1 misunderstood our use of the idea that God is the greatest conceivable being as a statement of the ontological argument for God. But we made no reference to the Ontological argument at all. We simply referred to the widely agreed-upon definition of God by philosophers. This happens to be the definition of God the Ontological argument uses but our use of it had nothing to do with that argument. To critique the Ontological argument misses our point by a mile (or two).
So, if God exists, he is the greatest conceivable being and he is the only plausible explanatory stopping point that can provide a foundation for the objective moral values and obligations that we all, atheist and theist alike, know to exist. This is the only way to avoid nihilism—and that is a big deal!!
Moreover, naturalism or atheism can’t adequately explain the reality of core notions and concepts that we know are real and are essential for human flourishing, like ultimate meaning and purpose to life, the intrinsic significance, value and worth of human beings, a conscious personal identity that endures through time, genuine rationality, free will, objective moral obligation and moral responsibility, justice and fair and just punishment.
Naturalism cannot provide good reasons to affirm the reality of these essential notions.