Why oppose godless (human) morality?

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by Neil Godfrey

This post relates to an earlier one on Keller here.

There is plenty wrong with human nature but there is also plenty of good. I have been lucky enough to have travelled a little bit to places where different religions are practiced and where the majority of people appear to profess no religion, and one thing stands out in my experience: the extent to which people are friendly, kind, gentle, bears no obvious correlation with religion or lack of it.

Timothy Keller (The Reason for God) admits that all people have morals.

Conservative writers and speakers are constantly complaining that the young people of our culture are relativistic and amoral. As a pastor in Manhattan I have been neck deep in sophisticated twentysomethings for almost two decades, and I have not found this to be the case. The secular, young adults I have known have a very finely hones sense of right and wrong. There are many things happening in the world that evoke their moral outrage. (pp.143-44)

People still have strong moral convictions . . . . (p.145)

[W]e all have a pervasive, powerful, and unavoidable belief not only in moral values but also in moral obligation. . . . All human beings have moral feelings. We call it a conscience. When considering doing something that we feel would be wrong, we tend to refrain. (p.146)

From the above I would have concluded that our moral sense is something inborn, part of our nature, just like language.

And there are anthropological studies that have concluded exactly that. Acts such as rape, murder, pushing in to get to the front of a queue, are no-no’s the world over. Donald Brown’s compilation of human universals confirms Keller’s observations.

Brown’s Human Universals include:

age statuses


conflict, consultation to deal with

conflict, means of dealing with

conflict, mediation of


cooperative labor

copulation normally conducted in privacy

culture/nature distinction

distinguishing right and wrong




fairness (equity), concept of

family (or household)

generosity admired

food sharing

gift giving

good and bad distinguished



incest between mother and son unthinkable or tabooed

in-group distinguished from out-group(s)

in-group biases in favor of

judging others

kinship statuses


law (rights and obligations)


moral sentiments

murder proscribed



rape proscribed

reciprocal exchanges (of labor, goods, or services)

redress of wrongs

sanctions for crimes against the collectivity


self is responsible

sexual modesty

sexual regulation

sexual regulation includes incest prevention

socialization expected from senior kin

stinginess, disapproval of

tabooed utterances


thumb sucking

true and false distinguished

violence, some forms of proscribed

Doomsdayers who predict the end of the family or total anarchy and loss of respect for elders or complete sexual abandon and immorality should find reassurance in this (partial) list. Idealists expecting to be able to create a perfectly harmonious society should also be sobered by it.

Incidentally, believers sometimes make much of the fact that a religious sense is also a human universal. And indeed “belief in supernatural/religion” is another member of Brown’s human universals list. Unfortunately this fact cannot be a “proof” of a God or the supernatural realm, since “magic” and “myths” are also human universals and few would conclude that this means they are “true”.

One sees some of the same acts and sentiments at work in the broader animal kingdom, too, as anyone who has spent any time watching the more social animals and birds knows. I have seen magpies and kookaburras sacrificing their own comforts and hunger to care for a long-term mate and anyone who saw the TV series on the meerkats knows how complex social rules and rule-enforcement can be amongst our distant non-human cousins.

Social rules and rule enforcement are part and parcel of all social animals, and human morality in particular is clearly integral to our human nature.

The worst thing about humans is, unfortunately, that they happen to be one of the more violent branches of the ape family. And not just against one another. Some scientists see the impact of the human species on the planet as akin to the earlier devastations of the planet from “natural” causes. See The Sixth Extinction.

The best thing about humans is that their brains have evolved in a way that enables them to reflect on their actions and control and make significant changes in their collective and individual behaviours. In this connection some have cited rape as a classic example. Rape is said to be a “natural” impulse, but all human societies have proscribed it at least in some of its forms. And there can be little doubt among most observers that particularly since the eighteenth Enlightenment era there has been significant moral progress with the abolition of slavery and advances of women’s, children’s, workers’ and citizens’ rights among many societies.

But this is not enough for Timothy Keller, nor, I think, for very many God believers.

Following in heavy type are the key arguments against “human” (“godless”, “non-Christian”) morality I have distilled from The Reason for God by Timothy Keller. My personal responses to each are attached.

1 (a). Everyone does NOT know that it is wrong to violate the rights of someone, since not everyone has a Western view of human rights.

By equating the cultural notion of “Western human rights” with “human morality” Keller is muddling different concepts. Encyclopedias and library catalogues always have separate entries for “human rights“, “ethics” and “morality” because most people do know they are not quite the same and require different types of discussions. “Western human rights” are an advanced codification of human values that are worth enforcing and propagating. But basic morality is something deeper still. Human rights will spread as people in other cultures learn to break down their in-group biases and fears of losing control etc. — that is, as they learn to apply, say, their innate understanding that “some forms of violence is wrong” and notions of “reciprocity” to wider circles.

Actually Keller is being disingenuous at this point. He elsewhere argues in the book that whatever the Bible endorses is good and right and the ultimate standard. He literally does endorse biblical slavery! (His argument is that anyone who claims to have a superior moral outlook than another is behaving contrary to their supposedly true belief that all morals are culturally relative, and that therefore the only honest way out is to accept the Bible as the arbiter of whatever is truly moral! He leaves readers to guess his views on “witches” and homosexuals.)

1 (b). If  human rights are created by majorities, of what use are they?

Keller argues that because majorities can legislate against human rights they have no stable basis and implies that they are therefore of little “use” as a standard of morality. He is so fired up about arguing for a Biblical code that he seems to diminish the real value of people for a time enjoying the benefits of “human rights”.

As noted in my previous response, human rights are a codification of advanced morality. As such, they need vigilance to be protected in a world when fears and circumstances can sometimes drag majorities back to more primitive ways of reacting towards others.

Human progress has never been a constant smooth ride. No thanks to the Timothy Kellers of the world that there have been many heroes who have sacrificed to hold on to and advance these values.

2. It is a “double standard” for humans to think they have to behave differently from the way animals behave in the natural world (e.g. strong prey on the weak)

No double standard at all. And Keller is either being a bit mischievous here or confused. Animals do not as a rule prey on their own kind. They prey on other kinds — just as humans do, to live. Humans even breed via artificial insemination thousands of four footed animals that they keep in cruelly confining cages and inject with growth hastening hormones just for money and food. Now that’s all part of “the natural order” of things — the strong preying on the weak.

But to take Keller’s argument in the way I think he meant it, inaccurate as it is: Animals do not have the mental capacities to reflect on their actions to the extent humans do. Our cranial capacities and uniquely human attributes make us accountable for our actions in ways other animals are not. Our human nature is defined by the sorts of universal attributes listed above — that is, for example, the cultural fact of “law” with its accompanying sense of rights and obligations is part and parcel of the natural world of the human.

3. It is wrong to violate the equal dignity of other human beings. But why should we believe that?

This line of Keller’s I found a bit amusing. Several times he also tried to stress that all humans not only have a moral sense, but that they also have a sense that their moral standards exist “out there” somewhere. That, of course, is Keller’s attempt to lead the reader to think of the standards being somehow derived from heaven. People really believe that their moral sense is “within” and that certain standards do and should apply to all peoples. If that’s what Keller meant by them being “out there” . . . .  but I doubted it somehow.

Keller can’t think why anyone should be moral unless an authority tells them to do this or not do that.

In other words, Keller’s morality is still that of an immature child — willing only to comply if a parent figure lays down the law.

And no wonder. Christians often seek to be “childlike”. They strive for a continual daily reliance on a loving Parent. A part of them in this sense never grows up.

Some, many perhaps, seem to even fear independence, or being responsible for making one’s own moral choices. This fear is understandable, since much of their lives is also one of denial and repression of thoughts and impulses. As a result they come to have an exaggerated fear of what “depths of depravity” or “evil” they might fall into if they ever let go of the shirt-tail of their Parent and just “be themselves”. They have been taught to fear above all things “being themselves”. They take to heart the Bible’s instruction to “put on” a new man — to live the life of a “put on”.

The answer to Keller’s question is simple. It is “natural”, or it is “human nature”, to get along with one’s group or society, and to live according to a moral sense. That moral sense, with its praise of generosity and giving, its habit of hospitality, its disapproval of extreme selfishness, its sexual regulations, its cooperative behaviours, even its prohibition to say certain words in certain contexts, its rational means of resolving conflicts, its acceptance of rules and sense of rights and obligations, and its sense of personal responsibility — that is “human nature”. That is not to deny that rape and murder do happen, that wrongs are committed. But human beings are social and moral animals, and the wrongs are condemned and punished according to the means each group devises.

Keller thinks he has a winning point in his argument when he notes that many people cannot say “why” they think something is wrong — “it just is”, they say. Keller thinks that therefore such people’s morality is without moorings, that it is “free-floating”. He is implying that they do not have a strong basis of their morality simply on the grounds that they cannot articulate why they feel that way. But the reason they can’t articulate why they feel that way is the same as if they cannot articulate why they have language, or why babies and children suck their thumbs. They just do — “it just is”. Far from being a free-floating morality without moorings, this kind of morality is the most secure. It is grounded in the nature of being human.

Specific beliefs can come and go. I used to believe in God and now I don’t. Strange (or self-deluded) as it must seem to a believer, I believe I have become a more moral — certainly more compassionate — person as a result. One does not need a reason to be moral – unless one is like a child and only being good in hope of some reward or in fear of some penalty. It is quite sufficient to feel a sense of identity with one’s fellow humanity, and to simply want to do what is good for all. Especially so given the shortness of life.

4. If there is no God, then there is no way to say any one action is “moral” and another “immoral” but only “I like this.” . . . [I]f there is no God, then all moral statements are arbitrary, all moral valuations are subjective and internal, and there can be no moral standard by which a person’s feelings and values are judged.

On the contrary, if there is a God, which one or collection of them is the right one, and which one’s moral commands should we obey?

If one is moral only because they read in a book that they should be moral and do this and that and something else, then I suggest that they are dangerous. They are suppressing their innate moral nature for a “put on” nature (Eph.4:24). History shows how all too easily such people can be manipulated to commit obscene crimes in the name of their and their God’s righteousness.

The list of universals above demonstrates the common ground across the whole of humanity. The addition of holy books of the non-human (and anti-humanistic) God can add little more than yet one more set of in and out groups.

Tragically, some of the geographic areas where these “in-groups” are strongest (Bible Belt of America, my old sleepy town Toowoomba in Australia) produce some of the worst statistics for domestic violence, child sexual abuse/incest, unplanned pregnancies, and violent crime. Probably surprisingly for some religious folks, some of the strictest moral laws are enforced in some of the most atheist countries. Prostitution is illegal in Sweden, for example. Men are charged with a crime if they offer a woman money for sex since they are deemed to be treating the woman in a degrading manner.

5. If violence is totally natural why would it be wrong for strong humans to trample weak ones? There is no basis for moral obligation unless we argue that nature is in some part unnatural.

I partly addressed this in point 2 above. Keller is again confusing the reality. The “totally natural” violence that exists in the world is between species, not within groups.

But within groups, that exist because of the human nature of cooperation and reciprocity, etc, rape and murder do happen. And when they do, the human nature of the rest of the group is outraged seeks to punish the perpetrators. Even non-human social animals punish members of their group that break the rules.

Keller complains that he can’t understand how evolution could produce moral beings who have a sense of caring, giving and self-sacrifice. Whether he understands the arguments or not (he only cites one side of the debate) the fact is that evolution has produced human nature, and this experiment with higher intelligence has had the added bonus of us being able to reflect and struggle to find ways to improve our collective ethical (and many other) standards and capacities.

6. [Without God and an afterlife] we can . . . live as if our choices are meaningful and as if there is a difference between love and cruelty. Why would we do that? . . . . That is, you get the benefit of having a God without the cost of following him. But there is no integrity in that.

Keller laments that even if human existence continues for countless more millennia, if after it all there is nothing but eventual extinction — with “no one to remember us” — that it will all have been pointless, and that somehow, therefore, being good and kind is even now “ultimately pointless”. So why bother being kind? It makes no difference in the long run if we are kind or cruel.

What Keller is saying is that he can’t see any reason to be good to fellow humanity if there is no ultimate forever-and-a-day happy reward for it.

If this is how Christians think, then I suppose I should be glad that they have their God and Bible to at least give them some motivation to be kind in the here and now.

Can Timothy Keller not conceive that there really are many people in the world who deep down in their hearts do not believe there is a god or gods, and who yet really do, from deep within themselves, from the depths of their own human nature, really care for others? (Keller sheepishly touts the biblical line that everyone really does deep down believe in God — presumably he implies that only fools say they deny it.) I mean care for strangers to the extent of giving up their own personal comforts at times, and even maybe their lives. Keller may complain all he wants that he can’t understand how evolution can produce such a creature, but we know it has. Novels and films speak of it without reference to religion or god. And they do say that art is a mirror of reality.

I’m among the first to admit that changing one’s world view from the fantasy tale of a magical castle in the sky, where one day we will all sit and be merry forever, to an acceptance that this world here and now is all there is, must be a traumatic experience. To move from the former to the latter takes courage, I admit. Any sort of growing up, taking on new responsibilities, takes some degree of confronting and overcoming our fears.

I recall wandering for some days suddenly feeling as if I was a mini-character in the Book of Revelation at the point where I had no sky above and no earth below me. Disorientation, trauma, taking all one’s future breaths in at once in order to step out into the truly unknown, — it is not easy. But then once on the other side, — finding maturity, courage (not Dutch courage that comes from artificial “spirit” ingest), and one’s fellow creatures (no longer divided between “them” and “us”). All it takes is honesty. There is the relaxation of finally being at one with one’s nature, and enjoying it and loving the company of others equally comfortable with their own selves. There is also the compassion of caring for those one has left behind. One does not find nothing but a pretty rainbow, however. Pain is sometimes there, too, but with the human courage to accept and bear it without sobbing in the pillow of a make-believe parent.

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Why oppose godless (human) morality?”

  1. “Keller complains that he can’t understand how evolution could produce moral beings who have a sense of caring, giving and self-sacrifice.”

    And yet Keller probably literally believes that God created man without morality and then created a tree which could give them morality and told them not to eat its fruit. But a snake came along and convinced them to eat the fruit. One might reasonably ask Keller how a talking snake and a magical tree could give man morality when God didn’t want him to have it. And how can God be said to be the only being who can give us morality, if in fact he was against us having it from the first? Wouldn’t it make more sense, if God truly was upset about us eating the fruit, that God would try and take away our morality? And what can better do this than putting the consumption of shellfish on par with rape? or putting Sabbath-breaking on par with murder? If a man is made to believe that genocide or infanticide is alright if God tells you to do it, then has not God taken away his morality? reversed the great primeval transgressive of man having ‘stolen’ morality from God by eating the forbidden fruit?

    Of course, another way to look at it is that God was using reverse psychology when he told Adam not to eat the fruit, because he wanted him to eat it and become moral, but there will not be too many takers here.

  2. I think you’re on to something with the reverse psychology tactic. God explicitly says he knows Pharaoh will not let Israel go when he orders him to, just so he can trigger a justification to destroy Egypt. Reverse psychology is his thing.

  3. thanks for this analysis. it’s amazing how many people are in NYC are eating up keller’s books and sermons without batting an eyelash at all the illogical arguments. its as if they are willing to accept any new fresh twist to defend their beliefs without regard for reason. wish there were more counterpoints like this out there.

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