C. S. Lewis, in his classic essay Man or Rabbit?, reflects on the frequent secular refrain:
“It’s possible to be a very moral person without being a Christian.”
I wrote recently about problems that come from viewing Christianity as a self-improvement program; this question looks from the other end of the issue. Can’t you be a moral atheist?
The first issue with this question concerns the value we place on truth. When a worldview makes major claims about ultimate reality, the central issue should not be whether it is useful, but whether it is actually true. In contrast, if we make a simplifying assumption of materialism to answer a scientific question, it is enough that the assumption is merely useful. But if we are basing our lives on a belief, then we must (if we have any intellectual integrity) seek what is true.
And when we are dealing with morality, our very basis for assessing the moral import of an action is determined by our worldview. If we think of individuals as mere packages of genetic material winding down the hours between conception and oblivion, then we may want to emphasise whatever fleeting happiness that we can get. Such a perspective will incline us to prioritise “society” over the individual, since “society” will last longer and contains more collective “happiness” potential at any one instant. We seen previously how secular humanism, the dominant atheist moral philosophy, leads logically to the devaluation of individual human life.
But from a Christian perspective, we cannot ignore the good of the individual. If we believe that true and complete joy can only come from an intimate and eternal relationship with God, then any nebulous increase in societal “happiness” is trifling in comparison with reconciling the soul of one individual person to God.
Clearly, the two worldviews have major differences in moral reasoning. There may well be areas of overlap in the implementation, but the motivations behind moral behaviour will be different in these two scenarios.
There is also the question of what morality actually means in a purely materialist worldview. Without an objective standard, morality becomes a fairly meaningless concept. “According to my personal standards of morality, I’m very moral!” – that’s great, Jeffrey Dahmer and Idi Amin could probably have said the same thing. (And no, “the general consensus amongst the people” is not an objective standard).
Perhaps more important is the hidden question that lurks beneath the surface. The proposition: “A person can be moral without being a Christian” is misleading. Lewis explains:
The question before each of us is not “Can someone lead a good life without Christianity?” The question is, “Can I?” We all know there have been good men who were not Christians; men like Socrates and Confucius who had never heard of it, or men like J. S. Mill who quite honestly couldn’t believe it. Supposing Christianity to be true, these men were in a state of honest ignorance or honest error … But the man who asks me, “Can’t I lead a good life without believing in Christianity?” is clearly not in the same position. If he hadn’t heard of Christianity he would not be asking this question. If, having heard of it, and having seriously considered it, he had decided that it was untrue, then once more he would not be asking the question. The man who asks this question has heard of Christianity and is by no means certain that it may not be true. He is really asking, “Need I bother about it?” Mayn’t I just evade the issue, just let sleeping dogs lie, and get on with being ‘good’? Aren’t good intentions enough to keep me safe and blameless without knocking at that dreadful door and making sure whether there is, or isn’t someone inside?”
We cannot turn to Christianity for moral guidance unless it is true. But if it is true, then it must totally transform our understanding of goodness.
Christianity is not a recipe for improvement on an individual or a societal level. It is a personal relationship with God. That relationship is the root, the blessings and improvements to our character are the flower. Cut off from the root, all our lovely “morality” and “goodness” will wither and fade.