Few philosophers are willing to abandon the notion of morality when they adopt atheism as their worldview.  But when they try explaining morality without a theistic foundation, they explain something else.  They explain “what is,” and think they have explained “what ought to be.”


The evolutionary explanation for morality is that the development of the “altruistic” gene enabled some species, including humans, to better survive through mutual “backscratching.”  But this explanation does not even address morality. It may have some explanatory power for what we do, but none for what we ought to do.  And what about those who seem to have never inherited this gene?  Can we really hold them responsible?  If we are all just “dancing to our DNA,” as Richard Dawkins tells us, where does moral responsibility fit in?  Most evolutionary psychologists believe that both morality and the free will it requires are only an illusion.


Another popular explanation for moral standards is that morality is cultural.  Each culture develops “mores” by which it functions. But on this basis, no cross-cultural moral judgments can be made.  There is no standard by which to make them.   Women’s rights (or human rights for that matter) may be preferable in western cultures.  But can we say that cultures in which women are considered inferior or as property are  morally wrong? Not according to the cultural explanation.
The defense of the Nazi war criminals in the Nuremberg trials was based precisely on this  “cultural” view of morality. If the defendants had not violated their nation’s laws, then they could not be morally responsible.


Timothy Keller (The Reason for God) proposes that anyone who uses words such as ought, justice, or right and wrong is, in fact, conceding both the existence of God and an  absolute moral standard. I agree.  But if morality is only relative, it is an illusion.  If so, let’s drop the moral vocabulary. You first.

by Daniel Arsenault

Chapter Director, University of Alabama