The Moral Argument (and Counterargument) by Michael Shermer

The Moral Argument. Humans are moral beings and animals are not. Where did we get this moral drive? Through the ultimate moral being – God. Without God, without the highest of higher moral authorities, anything foes and there would be no reason to be moral.

Counterargument. The argument that we cannot be good without God is easily refuted through a simple and straightforward question: What would you do if there were no God? The question can be followed by an additional question that draws the denouement: Would you commit deception, robbery, rape, and murder, or would you continue being a good and moral person? Either way the argument is over. If the answer is that people would quickly turn to deception, robbery, rape, or murder, then this is a moral indictment of their character, indicating they are not to be trusted because if, for any reason, they turn away from their belief in God (and most people do at some point in their lives), the plug is pulled on their constraints and their true immoral nature is revealed; we would be well advised to steer a wide course around them. If the answer is that people would continue being good and moral, then apparently you can be good without God.”

Shermer, Michael. 1999. How we Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. New York: W.H. Freeman, p. 98.


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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

4 responses to “The Moral Argument (and Counterargument) by Michael Shermer”

  1. Kristin Brænne says :


  2. Derek Williams says :

    Agreed, however those of the fundamentalist ilk might find it impossible to entertain for even a moment the very idea that there could be no God and therefore would refuse to negotiate with your hypothesis. And which God out of the over 38,000 Christian denominational creeds currently in existence, growing monthly by the hundred?

    My father is a confirmed and lifelong atheist, as well as being a confirmed and lifelong entirely decent human being, as passionate about his family as he is about world affairs. He has been able to achieve this I presume through a combination of nature, nurture, and accumulated personal values. Never though, can I recall him struggling with any manifest desire to rape, pillage and murder.

    The bottom line is that it is not in Mother Nature’s evolutionary best interests to allow all humans spontaneously to transmogrify into murderers, rapists et al. to prevail just because their malleable, plasticine selves weren’t in town at the time The Book was on tour.

    If humans needed to consult a list of 10 ancient admonitions each and every time before deciding whether or not to murder someone, it is questionable whether we’d even still have a human race by now. The Ten Commandments concept of what is moral is also very limited in its scope. Ethical behaviour is not defined therein, but would and should be expected of any person, religious or not and is very much culturally biased.

    On the other hand, Christ’s commandment to love others as you love yourself (which presupposes you already do love yourself), if observed, is more likely to inculcate ethical conduct toward one’s fellow man. There is of course ample evidence that some who feel called to Christianity have led significantly compromised lives beforehand, and that I believe may be what gave rise to the presumption by the proponent of your opening paragraph above, that everyone is constructed like that. Nevertheless, commendable ethical behavioural manifestations can and do exist both within and outwith religious strictures.

    There is also the yet to be unresolved conundrum that human sexual morality fascinatingly presents. In amongst the spectrum of 38,000+ different Christian religions, to say nothing of other Abrahamic sects, there are those who claim to know with unqualified certainty, inflamed no doubt by their charismatic pastors, that their God has decreed that homosexuals like me are creatures of the devil who will burn for eternity in the Fires-of-Hell, while other acolytes, equally devout, claim with comparably vehement ‘authoritah’ that their God says the exact opposite. Clearly then, homosexuals would therefore be far better off never having heard of the Fire + Brimstone version of God, because in blissful ignorance, they would be able to enjoy their gay lives in happiness. They then would perforce be forgiven at death, because they had not “heard the Word”, thus having the most official excuse possible for behaving as they perceived Nature created them.

    • Derek Williams says :

      *Oh, how I WISH one could edit one’s posts!

      paragraph 3 – delete “to prevail”
      paragraph 6 – change “yet to be unresolved” to “yet to be resolved”

  3. Mike says :

    I believe you have miss-phrased the argument. The argument is simply, as Dostoevsky put it, “Without God, all things are permissible.” That is, all actions are devoid of any moral quality, and each person is left to determine there own morality – each of which is valid to himself.

    Also – no one is arguing that we cannot be good without a god. The argument just says that without God there is no reason logically or morally for ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behavior. Again, refer to the Dostoevsky quote for clarity.

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