To issue such ethical judgments implies a supreme standard that is both objective and absolute. And, regardless of ones world view, his or her behavior will be directed by some guiding ethical principle. Christians find their highest ethical directive from the personal God of the Bible, while Muslims appeal to Allahs will as expressed in the Koran. Though atheists reject a theistic moral authority, their lives, nonetheless, are governed by some supreme ethical principle. Whether the governing principle is live and let live, the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, or there are no moral absolutes, etc., each serves as the adherents ultimate standard for personal ethics. Thus, while we might argue over what should serve as our absolute ethical norm, we all acknowledge that there is such an authoritative principle governing our behavior. The question now becomes, Why do human beings accept as authoritative an absolute moral principle for their lives?
In response to this question, John Frame has suggested that, ultimately, the source of absolute moral authority is either personal or impersonal (1994, p. 97). Which of these two options better explains humankinds sense of moral obligation? Atheists, who reject the idea of a personal Creator, contend that the Universe is a natural artifact, and offer purely naturalistic explanations for its existence. To be consistent with this cosmological position, atheists must also attribute humankinds sense of moral obligation to impersonal, naturalistic processes. Yet, what type of impersonal structure can both create and demand compliance to ethical mandates? What kind of ethical guidance could we determine from the fortuitous combination of subatomic particles? How could blind, purposeless chance demand our ethical allegiance?
Rather than appealing to unpredictable chance, some atheists have attempted to structure their model of morality on the mandates of impersonal, natural laws. Accordingly, just as what goes up must come down in the physical realm, there are similar musts in the moral realm (Frame, 1994, p. 98). The difficulty with this approach to morality is its inability to explain adequately the sense of obligation that is characteristic of moral systems. For, not only do atheists and theists agree that some things are good while others are bad, they also recognize that there are some things that we ought and ought not do. Yet, how can an impersonal source of moral value explain this obligatory impulse common to humankind? Organic evolutions purposeless, impersonal force that somehow optimizes the preservation of the species is inadequate to create a sense of ought in the species it allegedly preserves. In fact, it might be right and noble to resist such a force, especially if we perceive that it is forcing Homo sapiens sapiens into extinction. Our personal sense of self-preservation would prompt such a legitimate resistance to the ominous force.
Obviously, appealing to an impersonal source for an authoritative ethical value has insurmountable difficulties. In reality, the basis for morality derives ultimately from personal relationships (see Saucy, 1993, pp. 25-27). Why do we feel obligated to remunerate someone who has performed a service for us? While there may be other factors at work (e.g., civil law with its threat of litigation, family values, etc.), the sense of ought in this regard ultimately stems from a previously forged agreement between two persons, both of whom recognize the other as a person. In such a personal arena, the sense of moral obligation is created. Of course, our obligation to pay our bills for services performed is not absolute. We might refuse to pay the full price for substandard work. In that case, a higher moral arbiter, the court, might be involved. But even the courts moral authority is not absolute for it, too, operates according to some guiding principle of ethical value (e.g., justice for all). Regardless of our particular place in the hierarchy of moral arbitration, there is a universal recognition of moral obligation (the ought factor). And this recognition implies some absolute standard of moralitya standard that can both create and rightly demand compliance. Since an impersonal force cannot meet these criteria, and since moral obligation is created in personal relationships, it logically follows that the universal sense of ought common to all ethical systems must stem from an absolute personal Being.
Thus, the sense of moral obligation unique to the human species argues powerfully for the existence of the personal God of the Bible Who created human beings in His own image (Genesis 1:26-27). And, practically speaking, without such a standard the lines between right and wrong not only are blurred, but actually fade into non-existence. In the final analysis, the atheistic attempt to erect a moral superstructure apart from the existence of a personal God will suffer the same fate as a house built on sandinevitably it will collapse.
Frame, John M. (1994), Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R).
Saucy, Robert L. (1993), Theology of Human Nature, Christian Perspectives on Being Human: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Integration, ed. J.P. Moreland and David M. Ciocchi (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
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