Many theists (and even some atheists) assume that while theism readily accounts for objective morality, atheism faces a comparatively difficult task in attempting to show that objective morality is compatible with the nonexistence of God. From an atheistic perspective, objective morality is supposedly odd, difficult to account for, or problematic; but when we add God to the picture, the problem allegedly evaporates. Seldom are the details of how God is able to create these supposedly odd moral properties spelled out; that there is any further explanatory work to be done beyond the claim that God is the source of moral facts often goes unacknowledged. Even defenders of the most straightforward theistic moral theory—the divine command theory—rarely see the gaping ontological holes lurking in their explanation, though they are quick to point out the gaps in atheistic moral theories. That there are gaps in theistic explanations, problems that go well beyond the concerns raised by the Euthyphro dilemma, is not difficult to recognize. A careful look at the nature of these explanations, coupled with an examination of theists’ criticisms of atheistic explanations, will show that whatever problems are unresolved in atheistic accounts of morality are paralleled by problems equally unresolved in theistic ones.
This paper will challenge the assumption that explaining the foundation of morality is more difficult for the atheist than for the theist. I will evaluate some recent arguments that there is a fundamental incompatibility between atheism (the view that God does not exist) and moral realism (the view that there are some moral facts). I will take a careful look at some alleged difficulties for atheistic moral theories and enumerate some of the questions that atheists purportedly have trouble answering. I will argue that by the same criteria that are used to argue that atheistic moral theories lack a firm metaphysical foundation, typical theistic theories equally fail to provide a solid foundation. A fair evaluation of the respective capacities of atheism and theism to explain the ultimate basis of morality will show that these worldviews stand on equal footing; neither has any more right than the other to claim the ability to answer perplexing questions about the foundations of morality.
The Euthyphro dilemma presents a significant challenge to any view that grounds morality in the will or character of God. The dilemma takes its name from Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, in which the character Euthyphro gives voice to the view that morality (or more accurately, piety) is dependent on the gods. Euthyphro’s view is that pious (virtuous or righteous) acts are those that the gods approve of. The character Socrates responds by posing one of the most brilliant questions in the history of philosophy: “Do the gods love pious acts because they are pious, or are they pious because the gods love them?”
Like Euthyphro, those influenced by monotheistic religions often find it natural to assume that wrong actions are those that God dislikes or has prohibited, while right actions are those that God approves of or commands. But following Socrates, we ought to ask: Does God command that we refrain from wrong acts because they are wrong, or are they wrong because God commands that we refrain from committing them?
We have two choices:
- Wrong actions (like murder) are wrong just because God commands that we not engage in them. Right actions are right just because God commands that we perform them.
- God commands that we not engage in wrong actions (such as murder) because these actions are wrong. And he commands that we perform right actions because they are right.
On option (a) God is the ultimate source of morality because what makes an action wrong is just the fact that God commands that we refrain from doing it. But this view has some very odd consequences. If morality is dependent on God’s will, he could make any action right just by commanding that we do it. So, if he had chosen, he could have made killing our neighbors obligatory by issuing a command that we kill them. This is incredibly odd, and it poses a very serious problem for any theory that would ground morality in God’s will. It implies that morality is arbitrary; since actions are neither right nor wrong prior to God’s commands, his commands cannot be based on any moral considerations, and are thus completely arbitrary from a moral point of view. He could just as well have commanded that we torture children and ignore the less fortunate, and had he done so, torture would be morally obligatory and helping the poor would be wrong. The notion that something as heinous as the torture of children could be obligatory is deeply counterintuitive and since it has this consequence, a theory that grounds morality in God’s will is very problematic.
On the other hand, if we accept option (b) then we are forced to admit that morality is independent of God. We can only make sense of (b) if we assume that actions such as murder are wrong prior to God’s commands. This option doesn’t tell us what makes actions right or wrong; but whatever makes them right or wrong, according to (b) God recognizes the rightness or wrongness of an action and bases his decisions about what to command on these moral properties, which exist independently of him. So (b) entails giving up the idea that God is the ultimate source of morality.
The upshot of the Euthyphro dilemma is that morality is either arbitrary or else completely independent of God. Of course, some theistic moral theorists have argued that the consequences of the Euthyphro dilemma are not nearly as counterintuitive as they appear, or that there are alternative ways of grounding morality in God which are immune from such counterintuitive consequences. However, I will not be entering into this particular debate here. My contention is that theism has no more secure metaphysical basis that accounts for objective morality than atheism. If I am right, then despite the philosophical value of Socrates’ argument, atheism can be defended against the moral argument quite independently of the concerns that arise from the Euthyphro dilemma.
The assumption that theism can account for objective morality has been challenged on numerous occasions. However, these challenges tend to neglect significant holes in theistic accounts which are independent of Euthyphro-type concerns. The apparent need of many atheistic moral realists to offer a well-developed foundation for secular ethics only serves to reinforce the prejudice that theism already has such a well-articulated religious foundation. It does not.
In recent years Michael Martin has perhaps done more than any other philosopher to defend atheistic moral realism. Nevertheless, one doesn’t have to look far to find such a staunch defender of atheism expressing the attitude that objective morality poses a special problem for atheism:
In order to maintain that atheism is compatible with objective morality it is important to develop a nonreligious foundation of morality. Unless one can show that an objective basis of morality need not presuppose God, a defense of atheism … will not be successful. The best way to show this is to argue successfully for a basis for morality that is not dependent on God. (Martin, 2002, p. 21)
Here Martin suggests that, in the absence of an atheistic moral theory, a commitment to moral realism tips the balance toward theism. But that would only follow if theism could account for morality more readily than atheism. Such a presumption unfairly stacks the deck in favor of theism, and in any event provides the wrong analysis.
Many have noted that our commitment to moral realism is exceptionally strong, and theists like William Lane Craig and Paul Copan (and many before them) have argued that this strong commitment is sufficient to make theism reasonable. But simply affirming moral realism is certainly not enough to establish that theism is more reasonable than atheism. I concur with Copan about the strength of our moral intuitions:
Even if it impossible to prove in some scientific/positivistic fashion that moral values exist, we probably find ourselves far more certain of the wrongness of such actions [as an adulterer’s abandoning one’s wife and children] than we may be of the truth of Einstein’s relativity theories or of the universe’s expansion. (Copan, 2003, p. 151)
But there is no obvious contradiction between a strong commitment to moral realism and disbelief in God. That atheism and moral realism are in tension is a philosophical position that must be argued for. Given the common and strong intuition that some actions are intrinsically and universally wrong, there is no reason why an atheist cannot appeal to such intuitions as his basis for maintaining that morality is objective. Atheists no more need a godless moral theory to rely on these powerful moral intuitions than theists need a divine one to do the same. Indeed our certainty that some actions are universally forbidden—such as torturing young children for fun—is often used in discussions of the Euthyphro dilemma to show that God cannot make an action right just by commanding us to do it. Unless there is a demonstrable, deep incoherence in atheistic moral realism, the atheist’s commitment to objective morality can be as strong as that of the theist. Similarly, in order to maintain that objective mathematics and logic are compatible with atheism, atheists need not develop a secular foundation for math and logic.
The demand that, if they are to be moral realists, atheists must offer a well-developed theory of the foundation of morality assumes that theists are already in possession of such an account. If there were no assumption that morality is easier to account for in a theistic framework, then it could not possibly count as a strike against atheism that it lacks an explanation of the basis of morality. I will show that (1) there is no reason to suppose that morality is more easily explained on the assumption that God exists and (2) there is no argument that succeeds in demonstrating that moral realism is the least bit in tension with the position that there is no God. Simply put, positing God makes it neither easier nor harder to explain the basis of morality. Contra Martin, then, atheists need not develop a secular foundation for morality in order to be moral realists.
Though I will not pursue the argument here, I think that the Euthyphro dilemma is fatal to any theory that grounds morality in the will or character of God. The responses to this dilemma are unconvincing, and the autonomy of ethics seems to require that God plays no role in the grounding of moral facts. However, focusing on the Euthyphro dilemma can result in our neglecting very significant weaknesses in theistic moral theories. When we move beyond Euthyphro-type concerns, we find that theistic accounts of morality fail to answer many pressing foundational issues (which, in turn, leaves ample room for moral skepticism even under the assumption that God exists). Thus, when it comes to explaining objective morality, disbelief in a Supreme Being does not make the task more difficult. The task is difficult, period. Theistic “explanations” are little more than attempts to allay our curiosity while simultaneously maintaining the appropriate level of reverence for the profundity of the question; they blindly gesture toward an answer without actually removing any of the mystery.
Typically, responses to the moral argument for theism involve three lines of criticism: First and foremost, critics will appeal to the Euthyphro dilemma to show that theistic voluntarism about morality has very counterintuitive consequences. Second, the nontheistic moral realist will point to various deficiencies in the explanatory apparatus of the theistic theory. Third, the defender of the thesis that morality is independent of God may sketch, develop, and/or defend some nontheistic moral theory.
If I am correct about the relative levels of tension between moral realism and the different positions on the existence of God, then the atheist’s primary objective should be to summarize and amplify the second of the three responses. Moreover, the third response tends to shift the debate from its proper focus. To formulate an atheistic moral theory is to invite skeptical criticism, and those who promulgate the moral argument for the existence of God are quite happy to point out the flaws in any such account. The discussion has a tendency, therefore, to shift toward the merits (or lack thereof) of atheistic moral theories. This obscures the point that this paper is trying to emphasize, namely that theism has no advantage over atheism in trying to account for morality. The atheist does not face a special task that the theist has already performed. An atheistic moral theory need only be as developed, explanatorily powerful, and able to respond to the moral skeptic as the moral theory offered by the atheist’s theistic critics. Theistic moral theories typically leave many unanswered questions, and whatever intuitive plausibility they have is not derived from any intrinsic power to explain mysteries about the ultimate basis of morality, but from an unexamined bias that treats explanations that invoke God as having ultimate finality.
Many who seek to undermine atheism argue that none of the atheistic moral theories on offer are metaphysically robust enough to answer certain important questions. Typically these questions arise from a philosophical standpoint that regards moral properties as fundamentally odd, with features (such as the prescriptive force or “to-be-done-ness” of moral properties) that make them vexing and difficult to explain. In essence, those who invoke the moral argument evaluate atheistic moral theories from the standpoint of the moral skeptic—one who holds that there are no moral facts—though they are not themselves moral skeptics. According to proponents of the moral argument, since atheists have not been able to offer satisfactory explanations to resolve vexing issues—such as explaining what could give putative moral facts their prescriptive force—atheism does not have the resources to account for the objectivity of ethics. But when we look at how theistic accounts handle the same or comparable issues, we find that they are no better than atheistic accounts in answering such questions, or in responding to the challenges of the moral skeptic. In effect, proponents of the moral argument insist that the nontheistic moral theorist must defeat the radical moral skeptic while assuming without argument that their own theistic theories are immune from the moral skeptic’s critique. Thus, the most appropriate response is to point out that theistic moral theories do not meet the very same standard that those who use the moral argument demand of atheistic moral theories.
In a 2001 debate between William Lane Craig and Paul Kurtz (an edited version of which appears in the collection Is Goodness without God Good Enough?), Craig defends the following two theses:
- “If theism is true, we have a sound foundation for morality.”
- “If theism is false, we do not have a sound foundation for morality.”
Before reviewing Craig’s arguments for the two theses, note that his formulation of them has unintended consequences. Consider his understanding of theism. In “The Most Gruesome of Guests”—Craig’s response to several of the articles in the collection—he writes: “The theism of which I speak is traditional Anselmian theism, or perfect being theology, which conceives of God as ‘the greatest conceivable being'” (2009, p. 168). For now, then, let’s understand theism as follows:
Theism: There is a being who is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, and in every other way perfect.
Craig’s argument for (I) is brief: “Moral values are identified with certain attributes of God, and moral duties with what God commands” (2009, p. 168). A slightly fuller account is given during the debate:
On the theistic view, objective moral values are rooted in God. He is the locus and source of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature supplies the absolute standard against which all actions are measured. He is by nature loving, generous, just, faithful, kind, and so forth. Thus, if God exists, objective moral values exist. (Kurtz & Craig, 2009, p. 30)
As for the source of moral obligations, Craig says:
God’s moral nature is expressed toward us in the form of divine commands that constitute our moral duties. Far from being arbitrary, these commands flow necessarily from his moral nature. On this foundation we can affirm the objective goodness and rightness of love, generosity, self-sacrifice, and equality, and condemn as objectively evil and wrong selfishness, hatred, abuse, discrimination, and oppression. (Kurtz & Craig, 2009, p. 30)
Given the definition of theism above, it is fairly easy to show that, on the assumption that (I) is true, (II) is false. Consider the following alternative to theism:
Maltheism: There is an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-hating creator of the universe (and there is no similar all-loving being).
If (I) is true, then it would seem that the following is true:
(IA) If maltheism is true, then we have a sound foundation for morality.
After all, for every claim that Craig makes in favor of theism’s ability to provide a sound foundation for morality, there is a parallel claim in favor of maltheism’s ability to do the same. Consider a brand of maltheism that I’ll call Asuraism:
Moral values are identified with certain attributes of Asura, and moral duties with what Asura commands. On the Asuraistic view, objective moral values are rooted in Asura. He is the locus and source of moral value. Asura’s own unholy and hating nature supplies the absolute standard against which all actions are measured. He is by nature hating, miserly, unjust, unfaithful, cruel, and so forth. Thus if Asura exists, objective moral values exist.
Asura’s moral nature is expressed toward us in the form of divine commands that constitute our moral duties. Far from being arbitrary, these commands flow necessarily from his moral nature. On this foundation we can affirm the objective goodness and rightness of hatred, miserliness, selfishness, and inequality, and condemn as objectively evil and wrong self-sacrifice, love, fairness, equality, and freedom.
Whatever strength there is in Craig’s explanation of how theism grounds morality must also be granted to the above maltheistic account. Any consideration in favor of God’s capacity to provide a secure foundation for morality must also be a consideration in favor of Asura’s ability to do the same. That is to say, there is no reason to believe that Asura can’t do what God can do just because Asura is not nice. If an all-loving being can be the ultimate source of morality, then so too can an all-hating being. Thus if (I) is true, it appears that we have at least one alternative account of the foundation of objective morality—maltheism—and so even if theism is false, we still have a sound foundation for morality; so if (I) is true, then (II) is false. If Craig believes that only an all-loving God can ground morality, then he needs to explain why this is so.
My argument rests on Craig’s conception of theism as equivalent to perfect being theology, which requires that God be all-loving. If instead we understood ‘theism’ more broadly to include any view that asserts the existence of an all-powerful and all-knowing creator (leaving his/her/its character unspecified), then maltheism is merely one brand of theism and my argument above does not go through (since the truth of maltheism would imply the truth of theism on such a definition of ‘theism’). And perhaps Craig is more interested in showing not that his particular brand of theism is the only possible worldview that gives us a sound foundation for morality, but that if atheism (as the denial of any supernatural creator, no matter what his/her/its other properties) is true, then we lack such a foundation.
Before moving on, we should briefly consider the extent to which Craig’s account actually does explain the basis of morality. I think we can see that it is, at best, a partial explanation. This is because it leaves many open questions which, in the absence of clear answers, reveal that the theory fails to adequately explain much of anything. These include questions such as: “Why are moral values identified with the attributes of God as opposed to some other being?” “Why is his nature the absolute standard of goodness and badness?” “How is it that God’s nature can serve as the absolute standard while the natures of other beings cannot?” That Craig does not even acknowledge these questions, let alone try to answer them, will be very significant when we consider how to evaluate the theistic challenges to atheistic moral theories.
When we look at the reasons Craig gives in support of (II), we find that he does not so much insist that perfect being theology alone provides a secure ground for objective morality, but that a particular kind of naturalism is in some way incompatible with the existence of objective morality. This latter claim is itself open to a variety of interpretations. When someone asserts that there is an irreparable conflict between a naturalistic worldview and the existence of objective morality, they could mean either of the following:
- The existence of objective moral value is incompatible with naturalism because naturalism makes claims that undermine belief in objective moral values.
- Naturalism does not have the resources to explain the metaphysical basis of objective moral values.
Much of what Craig says suggests interpretation (i). Here is a representative sample of the kinds of considerations he points to in favor of (II), “If theism is false, we do not have a sound foundation for morality”:
But if there is no God, what reason is there to regard human flourishing as in any way significant? After all, on the atheistic view, there’s nothing special about human beings. They’re just accidental by-products of nature that have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe and doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. (Kurtz & Craig, 2009, p. 31)
On an atheistic worldview, moral values are just by-products of sociobiological evolution. (Kurtz & Craig, 2009, p. 31)
To think that human beings are special is to be guilty of speciesism, an unjustified bias towards one own species. (Kurtz & Craig, 2009, p. 32)
There is a great deal of confusion here. The last statement makes it appear that Craig misunderstands speciesism. As explained most famously by Peter Singer, speciesism is the view that the interests of members of the species Homo sapiens always override the interests of members of all other species. To be antispeciesist is to believe that preferring human interests over those of nonhuman individuals is arbitrary. Instead, equal interests should be given equal consideration, regardless of species membership. We can be antispeciesist and consistently maintain that human beings are in some ways unique or special in the animal kingdom; for example, we have unique (or uniquely developed) cognitive abilities, technological prowess, emotional capacities, etc. We would only fall into speciesism if we believed that, because of our unique capacities, human interests always trump nonhuman interests.
Craig seems to think that rejecting speciesism amounts to believing that human beings don’t matter in a moral sense. But nothing could be further from the truth; for Singer and others who reject speciesism, humans are special in a moral sense in that their interests matter morally, but nonhuman animals are special in precisely the same way.
Let us move on to the contention that, according to atheists, as natural byproducts there is nothing special about human beings. This seems obviously false. We could list atheists—from Ayn Rand to Bertrand Russell to Richard Dawkins—who believe that there is something very special about human beings. But Craig’s claim is not that atheists don’t believe that there is anything special about humans; rather, his claim is that it is not consistent for an atheist to believe there is no God and that there is anything at all special about human beings. But even this is not the case.
First, something might be very special even though (or even because) it is doomed to perish in a very short time. We naturally want special things to persist indefinitely, but this is rarely, if ever, possible. The world is full of things, even very special things, that are impermanent. The fact that the Mona Lisa will ultimately decay into dust does not in any way reduce its status as a very special work of art. Furthermore, if impermanence somehow compromises an object’s status as special, then under the plausible assumption that there is no afterlife (an assumption consistent with theism), it would follow that human beings are not special. But that a human being will die and not persist in any form (physical or nonphysical) is not a reason to think that this person is not special. At the same time, persisting indefinitely does not automatically imbue something with special moral significance. It is perfectly consistent to imagine a very cruel and unholy supernatural and immortal being. Sisyphus’ never-ending task of rolling an immense rock up a hill only to unfailingly watch it roll back down was not endowed with moral significance just in virtue of its being endless.
A parallel point applies to that which evolved recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust. I see no reason to suppose (and Craig certainly does not provide any) that a life-form that evolved recently on a relatively small planet cannot be imbued with special moral significance. If there are criteria for possessing moral significance, then whether a life-form is morally significant depends on whether it satisfies those criteria, not whether it is an evolved creature on a small planet. Suppose, for example, that what makes a life-form morally significant is that it is sentient. If so, then factors such as the origin, location (spatial or temporal), and relative size of a creature are completely irrelevant to whether it is morally significant. The only thing that matters on this analysis is whether the life-form is sentient; all other considerations are beside the point.
Whether sentience is the right criterion for moral standing is incidental to the argument. All that matters is that if there are some criteria for having moral significance (and Craig certainly agrees that there are), then the facts that life-form L is short-lived, evolved, from a backwater planet, and so on are irrelevant to whether L is morally significant. If the correct criterion for being morally significant is being made in the image of God, then whether or not a given species is morally significant will depend only on whether it is made in the image of God. And if a given species, in addition to being made in the image of God, also happens to have evolved only recently on a tiny planet, this in no way diminishes the species’ claim to moral significance.
In general, then, I see no reason why a species that is the product of natural forces cannot be morally significant. Craig has certainly not made the case that moral significance is incompatible with being a product of natural selection. To anyone who would insist that he sees no reason to suppose that a naturally evolved species is in any way significant, I would reply, “So much the worse for your moral sensibilities.” It seems intuitive to most people that any sentient and self-aware being is deserving of moral consideration. If the contention is that a being can only be deserving of moral consideration if it is has been created fully formed many years ago by God, then we must draw our attention to the fact that this contention is quite contrary to the normal moral intuitions of many people. Intuitively, any being that is capable of being aware of itself and others, of having experiences of pleasure and pain, and of having hopes, fears, and desires, would seem to be deserving of moral consideration, no matter where that being comes from. Again, for the purposes of my argument, I don’t need to defend this claim concerning the moral status of self-aware creatures. I am merely pointing out that this is a reasonable thing to believe, and pointing out that Craig has in no way shown that it is not reasonable. This is a challenge for Craig: show that the features that are relevant to moral status are being created fully-formed many years ago by a supernatural being, and that other seemingly important properties such as self-awareness are not relevant.
Craig has not established that any of the positive claims of the natural sciences (concerning the origins and constitution of human beings, or of the rest of the natural world) conflict with the position that human beings are morally significant. Of course, this failure does not demonstrate that a nontheistic worldview has the resources to offer a sound foundation for morality. Below I will discuss, first, whether and to what extent a nontheistic worldview lacks the resources to account for objective morality, and second, whether this perceived absence (to the extent that there is one) is relevant to adjudicating between atheism and theism.
Paul Copan has defended a view similar to that of Craig—namely, that for an atheist to be justified in believing that atheism is compatible with the existence of objective moral truths, the atheist must provide an atheistic account of the metaphysical grounding of moral truths; and since this is impossible, the atheist cannot justify a commitment to moral realism. Here are some representative statements from Copan to this effect:
When [Michael] Martin speaks of “bad making properties,” he simply assumes that human beings possess an intrinsic worth which snails and sea urchins do not. But on what naturalistic or materialistic basis can human dignity or human rights be affirmed? What is it within Martin’s worldview that furnishes us with such an ontology or metaphysic of personhood as being of intrinsic value or worth? Nothing, so far as I can tell. (Copan, 1999, p. 47)
Martin fails to present an adequate metaphysical basis for thinking a naturalistic context of non-conscious, valueless, impersonal, materialistic processes could produce conscious, valuable/moral, personal, rights-bearing beings (value from valuelessness). (Copan, 2004, p. 296)
Though Copan’s criticisms are directed at Martin’s efforts, his conclusion is much broader. Copan insists that atheists have failed to ground objective morality in a godless universe because atheism lacks the metaphysical resources to do so. In his 2003 contribution to The Rationality of Theism, Copan argues that the moral argument demonstrates that atheism is false in part because atheists have failed to provide a compelling explanation for how morality is grounded in a godless universe. By implication, then, Copan believes that theism can easily handle what is very difficult (or impossible) for atheism to handle. Once again the assumption is that there is a fundamental tension between atheism and moral realism that does not exist for theism. Consequently, I will proceed to evaluate four different considerations that Copan, Craig, and others have offered for this view, and argue that a fair analysis of these considerations reveals that none of them suggest that atheism is any less capable of accommodating objective morality than theism.
Consideration 1: Naturalism/Materialism is Incompatible with Moral Realism
Many assume that modern science implies that the only things or properties that exist are material or physical. On this basis one might argue that since moral properties are not identical to any physical properties (to assume otherwise would commit the naturalistic fallacy), materialism implies that moral properties are not real. Earlier I argued that Craig has failed to make this case, but there is a more important point to be made here. Regardless of whether G. E. Moore’s naturalistic fallacy is indeed a fallacy, this concern is misdirected when used as a criticism of atheism.
The primary mistake is to assume that atheism is equivalent to a kind of reductive materialism, according to which real properties are all and only those that are invoked in materialist or physicalist explanations. But this assumption is problematic in at least two ways. First, we are not aware of every physical law, and thus cannot claim to know the boundaries the physical. Second, and more to the point, most atheists do not actually hold such a view because there are real properties other than those that figure in physical laws. Consider the property that an argument has just in case the premises imply the conclusion. I do not know whether Craig or Copan consider logical validity to be a physical property, but on the above criteria, it seems that it is not; logical validity figures in no physical law of which I am aware. But almost every atheist who has ever written is committed to the existence of validity as a genuine property. If atheists can legitimately be realists about validity and other logical properties, then why can they not also legitimately be realists about moral properties?
Rather than criticize reductive materialism, apologists ought to address a view more representative of what actual atheists believe. Of course, the apologist can ask the atheist to provide a worldview that does not have the same implications as materialism. But this request is easy to satisfy—here is a version of atheism that does not have these implications (let’s call the view nontheism to distinguish it from whatever view Copan and Craig might believe atheists are committed to):
Nontheism: to the extent that they are explainable, all properties/events/objects are explainable without reference to God/gods; there are no properties that require a metaphysical grounding and/or explanation in terms of God/gods.
As the bare claim that God is not necessary to explain the existence of anything, nontheism (as I have defined it) is much more relevant than reductive materialism to an evaluation of the implications of a worldview that lacks belief in God. Nontheism does not imply that there are no nonreducible properties, nor does it imply that there are no nonnatural or nonphysical properties. It only denies that there are properties whose metaphysical ground/explanation involves the existence or activities of God(s). The explanatory apparatus available to the nontheist is not limited to naturalistic explanations; it would be proper to characterize the metaphysics of nontheism as open, with the one caveat that gods are not allowed. Given nontheism’s lack of metaphysical assumptions, it is difficult to make the case that the existence of objective moral properties is incompatible with nontheism.
Nontheism is obviously not a full-fledged ontology, but this is just a consequence of its metaphysical openness, which, I would argue, is a virtue. Someone who believes that God does not exist (because, for example, he is convinced by the argument from evil) need not have a full-fledged ontology to believe in the existence of anything else. A nontheist can follow the reasonable general principle that we ought to believe in whatever there is ample evidence to believe in. And this rule holds whether or not we have a theory that explains the metaphysical basis of that in which we believe. It is false that for everything in which we believe, we need an elaborate worldview that explains how such things are possible. For example, our scientifically naïve ancestors did not require a theory about what stars are and what makes them possible in order to believe that they exist.
So it is an important consequence of the metaphysical openness of nontheism that nontheism can grant the existence of any feature of the universe for which there is either ample evidence or sufficient argument. Thus every consideration in favor of moral realism (that does not reference God as an explanatory power) can be used by the nontheist to justify his moral realism. In particular, every argument that Copan offers to justify the belief that morality is objective in his “The Moral Argument” can be appealed to by the nontheist. Nothing that is metaphysically odd or unusual is closed off to the nontheist just in virtue of its apparent irreducibility to physical properties.
Consideration 2: On an Atheistic Worldview Moral Properties are Queer or Difficult to Account For
J. L. Mackie famously argued that we cannot expect a naturalistic explanation of moral properties given their alleged oddity. If moral properties exist, Mackie argued, they necessarily possess “objective prescriptivity.” To say that a moral property is objectively prescriptive is to say that recognition of the property is sufficient to provide a reason for action, regardless of whether one wants to perform the action or not. So merely recognizing that some action is obligatory is enough to provide a reason to do it, independently of whatever desires you may or may not have. For example, if telling the truth is obligatory in some context, then recognizing this is enough to give you a reason to tell the truth, regardless of whether or not you want to do so. But such prescriptivity cannot be found in nature, Mackie argues, and thus could only be explained on the assumption that an all-powerful God exists: “[W]e might well argue … that objective intrinsically prescriptive features, supervening upon natural ones, constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events, without an all-powerful god to create them” (Mackie, 1982, p. 115).
The failure to explain such queer features would be a strike against atheistic attempts to ground morality if theistic efforts made the existence of moral properties less queer. But queer phenomena are not made less queer simply by suggesting that God is responsible for them.
The proper conclusion to draw from the observation that moral properties are peculiar is not that morality is queer on a naturalistic worldview. A more appropriate conclusion would be that moral properties are queer, period. They are unlike paradigmatic physical properties in that they have an essential imperative component or “to-be-done-ness.” The relevant question for us is whether theism adequately accounts for this odd feature.
In order to answer this question, we need to ask: What exactly does it mean to provide an explanation for objective morality? There are at least three interrelated topics that may demand explanation: moral conscience, moral motivation, and objective moral reasons. On the first issue, we may want an explanation for how it is that we have a sense of right and wrong. Given that people are often motivated by self-interest, it may seem odd that most of us have a fairly well developed sense of right and wrong; this cries out for an explanation. In the second case, we may want to understand whether (and if so, how) we can have a motivating reason to do the right thing. Again, given certain assumptions about the extent to which humans are motivated primarily (or perhaps even exclusively) by self-interest, it is legitimate to ask why we ever should do the right thing. Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to always act in our own self-interest? In other words, “Why should I be moral?” Finally, we also want to know whether there are objective moral reasons for one course of action over another, and if so, what constitutes their ultimate metaphysical basis.
To clearly distinguish these three issues, note that the second one seems to presuppose a positive answer to the third issue; “Why should I be moral?” only makes sense if there really is a way to behave morally. Further, we can believe that humans possess a moral sense without believing that there are any objective moral obligations, or that we ever have a reason to act morally. It is also possible to believe that there are genuine and objective moral obligations, but there are rarely or never motivating reasons to follow through on them. For example, one might believe that there are certain things that he objectively ought to do (or refrain from doing), but that these moral facts give him no reason to behave morally; in other words, his only motivating reasons would be born out of self-interest.
One immediate implication of all of this is that resolving the third question with a positive answer does not necessarily resolve the second question. That is, we may have a well-developed theory of the ontological basis of morality and yet not understand why it is that we ought to behave morally. I am laboring this point because it often appears that apologists (and sometimes their detractors) take it that if a worldview is unable to give a satisfactory answer to the second question, this shows that said worldview is inconsistent with moral realism. But I see no reason to suppose that it is impossible to understand the foundations of morality without thereby knowing how to answer questions about moral motivation.
Now consider the theistic responses to each of these three questions. Theism partially answers the first question: humans are endowed with a moral sense by their creator. The complete resolution of the question depends upon the particular theory of creation on offer; a theist who believes that God created human beings in one literal day will have a very different understanding of how God endows us with conscience than a theist who believes that humans are the product of evolution. Theism also has a very clear answer to the second question: we should behave morally because if we do not do so, then we will be judged and punished by God. So theism does offer an additional incentive to moral behavior that nontheism lacks. This is not to say that atheism cannot answer the question, “Why be moral?” but rather that, in positing divine punishment, theism includes an incentive that nontheism cannot appeal to. But even if theism did surpass atheism in answering this second question, this would not mean that theism has thereby accounted for the foundations of moral value. To see this we need only consider that even if there were no objective moral obligations, theism would still imply that we have reason to obey God’s commands. In other words, even if it is not objectively wrong to covet your neighbor’s wife, if God will punish you for such feelings, you have good reason to avoid them.
Explaining the fundamental basis of morality means answering the third question. Since most of the purveyors of the moral argument for theism (including Craig and Copan) accept some version of voluntarism, we need to closely examine this view. The voluntaristic answer to the third question was given above: God’s character is the ultimate standard for goodness, and our moral obligations are constituted by God’s commands. How does this fare as an explanation?
One of the negative byproducts of over reliance on the Euthyphro dilemma is that an important objection to voluntaristic moral theories is often completely neglected. Consequently, apologists like Craig and Copan feel that the divine command theory has been vindicated once they have responded to the Euthyphro dilemma alone. But even if the Euthyphro dilemma could be adequately circumvented, the divine command theory (or variants of it, like those which aim to ground morality in God’s character) faces another significant obstacle captured by the following question: In virtue of what do God’s commands create reasons for me?
No one would be much impressed by the Obama character/command theory, which says that morality is grounded in the character and/or will of Barack Obama. This shows us that not just any person’s commands, and not just any person’s character, can be the ontological basis of morality. Of course, nobody ever made such an absurd claim. It also tells us is that if God’s commands and/or character are indeed the source of morality, then unlike every other person who has or will exist, there is something unique about God in virtue of which his character and/or his commands can provide a secure foundation for morality. The modest question that I ask of the divine character/command theorist is: What precisely is this unique trait, and how does it allow God to ground morality?
If asked to enumerate the differences between Barack Obama and God, it would be easy to come up with a fairly long list. And it is just as easy to see that many of the properties on this list can have nothing to do with the issue at hand. Obama is not immortal, whereas God is. But being immortal does not give one the capacity to ground moral truths, since if there were an immortal human being, he would have no more claim to be the ultimate arbiter of morality than Barack Obama has now. So again, the question is: What special feature does God have that endows him with the ability to ground moral value, and in virtue of what does this feature grant him this ability?
Consider now one of the questions that Craig claims cannot be answered by an atheistic moral theory:
There seems to be an enormous gap in Murphy’s argument at this point. How does it follow from Homo sapiens‘ reflective and objectivizing intelligence that what is conducive to human flourishing is morally good? (Craig, 2009, p. 177)
[S]ome sort of explanation is required for why moral properties supervene on certain natural states or why such principles are true. (Craig, 2007, p. 83)
In asking such questions Craig seems to presuppose that his theistic account can answer the parallel questions posed of it. So, how does it follow from the fact that human beings are created in the image of God that humans have moral worth? What is the explanation for why God’s commands constitute our moral obligations? I suppose the idea is that God has ultimate authority as the creator, but there are a few serious problems with this view. First, it is an open question whether indeed God has such authority over his creation. Second, it is not obvious that the kind of authority that a creator might have over his creation is moral authority. And third, if it is genuine moral authority, this implies that there is some true general moral principle to the effect that a creator has moral authority over his creation. But then this would be a moral principle that must, if it is to work in the theist’s favor, be independent of God; in other words, God’s authority would derive from a moral principle over which he has no authority, and thus he would not be the ultimate ground of morality.
Neither Craig nor Copan offer answers to these questions, nor do they try to resolve the issue I mention above. This does not imply that they do not have a moral theory, but it does imply that they cannot expect an atheistic moral theory to have answered the parallel questions. It is notable that, in the absence of answers to the questions above, the appeal to God as the source of moral value is unmotivated. Sure, moral properties present special difficulties, but in the absence of a clear explanatory apparatus, why think that God had anything to do with it?
But is there not some force in Mackie’s observation that moral properties are so odd that they could only have been created by an omnipotent being? Mackie suggests that it is reasonable to suppose that a god must be responsible for the creation of morality:
[W]hy postulate a god, of all things, to explain this initially puzzling matter? The simple answer to this question is that the more intrinsically puzzling something is, the more it requires to explain it, something whose power is limited only by logical necessity. But we could add that the way in which intrinsic values are believed to be distributed is, on the whole, in accordance with the supposed purposes of a benevolent god. But a more subtle explanation is this: we can understand a human thinker, either as an agent or as a critic, seeing things to be done or not to be done, where this is a reflection or projection of his own purposiveness; hence if we are to explain an intrinsic to-be-doneness or not-to-be-doneness, which is not such a reflection, it is natural to take this as an injection into reality made by a universal spirit, that is, something that has some analogue of human purposiveness. (Mackie, 1982, pp. 116-117)
On Mackie’s simple answer, note first that saying that an all-powerful being would be capable of creating objective value is very different from explaining how such a being would do it. I have been interpreting the theist’s demand for an atheistic moral theory as a demand that atheists explain how moral value can arise in a godless universe. The analogous task for the theist would be to explain how God gives rise to objective values (and this is what I am claiming they have not done). Second, even if we grant (at least prima facie) that it is reasonable to think that only a very powerful—perhaps all-powerful—force is capable of accomplishing the feat, this is not in itself reason to suppose that this force must be an all-powerful person. Mackie disagrees; in his view it is precisely God’s personhood that makes him a likely suspect. But given Mackie’s recognition that a person’s goals and purposes cannot establish objective and universally binding moral obligations, the reasoning behind Mackie’s conclusion is deeply problematic.
Assuming that mortal persons cannot accomplish the task, whatever capacities God possesses in virtue of being a person cannot explain how he is able to create objective value while mortals lack that capability. Here is another way of putting the point: as Mackie notes, objective morality cannot be merely a reflection of an individual’s own purposiveness. My purposes create reasons for me, but not necessarily reasons for you; thus the reasons that stem from my goals and purposes are subjective, and relative to my goals and purposes. This constraint would seem to apply equally to even an all-powerful person; God’s own purposes can no more create objective value than can mine or yours. But then if mere purposes, no matter whose, cannot establish objective value, it is not in virtue of God’s having purposes that moral value exists. However intuitive the appeal to an all-powerful creator to explain morality, it is undermined, in this instance, by the creator’s personhood.
This is not to say that God cannot establish objective value; only that the move from the (subjective and relative) reason-creating capacities of normal persons to the supposedly far greater reason-creating capacities of an all-powerful person is self-defeating, for it depends on the premise that the purposes of one individual are not sufficient for establishing moral value. So if God can establish objective value, there must be some other explanation of how we can do it. Without this explanation we are left with a wide gap in theistic moral theory: Why does the fact that God commands me give me a moral reason to follow his commands?
Consideration 3: Atheism has no Account of How Morality is Grounded or Explained
Although nontheism (as I have defined it) is clearly compatible with moral realism, this doesn’t entail that nontheism has a ready-made account of the metaphysical underpinnings of moral properties. In this section I will show that to the extent that theism satisfies the desiderata inherent in Copan and Craig’s arguments, atheism/nontheism provides an equally satisfying account.
Copan and Craig seem to believe that claiming God as the source of morality somehow provides a more satisfactory account of the ground of morality than anything available to the atheist. But their arguments largely depend upon an equivocation between two different notions of grounding some feature of reality. Roughly, there is a difference between pointing to some ultimate aspect of reality as the ground of said feature, and providing an explanation for exactly how this ultimate aspect does the job. The two tasks are then:
- Point out some metaphysical features that might serve as the ultimate ground of morality.
- Provide an explanation for how exactly those features yield the special to-be-done-ness constitutive of moral properties.
Copan and Craig argue that atheists have not satisfied (1), but most of their observations are directed toward the claim that atheists have not satisfied (2). They point out that atheistic moral theories are full of gaping holes—for example, that they fail to explain the source of the normative force of moral obligations. Craig and Copan seem to think that theism satisfies both (1) and (2), yet their theistic moral theories satisfy (1) without even coming close to satisfying (2).
Consider the following argument offered by Copan:
Is morality as natural as granola? Did human dignity and moral obligation just emerge through the course of naturalistic evolution? I suggest that the answer is no. Rather, it is theism that furnishes the metaphysical resources to make sense of the instantiation of moral properties in the form of objective moral values, human dignity, human rights, and obligations. Theism actually offers us a more suitable environment and thus a more plausible explanation for the existence of objective moral values (i.e., the instantiation of moral properties). (Copan, 2003, p. 153)
But Copan offers little explanation for the existence of objective moral values. He does not acknowledge the gaps in his theory that remain to be filled. In particular, there is no explanation for how we move from the “is” of “God commands that we do A” to the “ought” of “We are morally obligated to do A.” It is an open question whether God has moral authority over his creation, but it is important to note that nowhere in their criticisms of atheistic accounts of morality do either Copan or Craig offer a theory that explains why God has such authority. Without such an account, they cannot maintain that the theistic theory satisfies (2). At best it satisfies (1); but without an explanation of how God does it, this “explanation” is no more satisfying than the claim that the universe does it.
Consideration 4: You cannot Derive Value from Valuelessness
At least since the work of David Hume it has been common to claim that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”—that we cannot conclude anything about what ought to be the case merely from a description of what is the case. I won’t rehearse this famous argument here. It is enough to point out that if it really is impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is,” then the chances for an ultimate explanation for value appear bleak. For any move that the theist might make in response to this fact (assuming that it is a fact), there is a parallel, nontheistic move. For example, if the theist insists (with Copan below) that God has inherent moral value, the atheist can assert that the universe (or at least certain parts/aspects of it) does as well. In any event, such explanations are not accounts of the ultimate basis of morality since they presuppose its existence. Throughout his writings Copan appears to claim that it is natural to think of God as the source of value since God is intrinsically valuable:
Theism, by contrast, furnishes just such a more plausible and necessary context: being made in the image of a self-aware, supremely valuable, personal Creator. (Copan, 2004, p. 296)
Human beings possess intrinsic or inherent worth because they are made in the image of God. They share the moral likeness of a personal God in their very nature or being, and, by virtue of their personhood, they are moral agents…. Their personhood derives from the personhood of God. Their having basic moral intuitions about justice, goodness, and kindness reflect this moral connection. Thus we ought to be moral because we have been made as moral beings in the likeness of a good God. (Copan, 1999, p. 49)
Within theism, on the other hand, there exists a continuity, a smooth transition of intrinsic dignity—from a maximally-great personal Being to valuable created persons—as opposed to the naturalistic shift from the non-moral to the moral. (Copan, 1999, p. 52)
If we say that God can be the basis of moral properties because he has intrinsic moral value (as Copan seems to be saying), then we have not given an account of the metaphysical basis of intrinsic moral value (we have not satisfied (1)). On the other hand, if we say with Craig that the characteristics of God’s nature provide an absolute moral standard, and that his commands constitute our moral duties, then though we have given an account of the (possible) ultimate ground of moral properties (and thus satisfied (1)), we have not satisfied (2) in as much as we have not explained why it is that God’s nature and God’s commands are able to do the job. As far as I know, theistic moral theorists have failed to answer the following basic questions:
- Why does the fact that I am made in the image of God endow me with moral value?
- Why does the fact that God commands me to perform some action give me a moral reason to perform it (especially since the commands of other people do not automatically create obligations for me)?
- Why is it that God’s nature provides an absolute moral standard when the nature of other individuals does not? What is special about God and his nature in virtue of which he and his character provide an absolute moral standard? (I am not saying that there is nothing special about God. Clearly, if he exists, there is much that is unique about him: immortality, omniscience, omnipotence, being the creator of the universe, and so on; but what is lacking is an explanation taking us from the uniqueness of God to the conclusion that his nature provides an absolute moral standard.)
In their criticisms of atheists’ failure to explain how morality is possible in a godless universe, Copan and Craig have not even tried to answer these questions. Indeed, Craig seems content to simply rest on the widespread prejudice in favor of theism’s capacity to do so: “The first contention, that if theism is true, we have a sound foundation for morality, should not really be a point of controversy. Even nihilists will generally concede this conditional claim” (Craig, 2009, p. 168). But the failure of two apologists to answer these questions is only part of my overall point. The larger point is that theism does not obviously contain ready-made answers to these questions. It is not obvious that a creator has authority over his creation, and while it is obvious that a divine being would be special, it is not obvious why his character traits would in themselves be the ultimate standard of moral value. More generally, there is no obvious explanation for how a perfect being would establish/realize/be the basis of moral facts. The most prominent theistic moral theory offered by proponents of the moral argument for theism—divine character/command theory—utterly fails to answer the sort of questions that theists pose of nontheistic moral theories.
Both Craig and Copan have chastised atheists for the perceived failure to offer an adequate explanation for how objective moral value can be grounded in a nontheistic universe. But before atheists feel obliged to offer such an account, they should demand the corresponding theistic one. This God-based account must do more than simply point to the Almighty (and his words, deeds, character, commands, etc.) as the source of moral facts; it must answer precisely the sorts of questions that Craig and Copan claim atheistic theories have not answered.
 I have formulated this discussion in terms of God’s commands because the divine command theory is the most common version of theistic ethics that is discussed in this context. However, the problems equally arise for theories that ground morality in the character or preferences of God.
 On both of these points, see: Robert M. Adams’ “A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness”; Robert M. Adams’ “Divine Command Metaethics Modified Again”; and Edward Wierenga’s “A Defensible Divine Command Theory.”
 For example, see: David O. Brink, “The Autonomy of Ethics” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism ed. Michael Martin (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press); Mark C. Murphy, “Theism, Atheism, and the Explanation of Moral Value” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics ed. Robert K. Garcia and Nathan L. King (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield); Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics ed. Robert K. Garcia and Nathan L. King (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield); and Eric Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (Cambridge University Press, 2005).
 Several theists, including William Lane Craig and Paul Copan, have argued that a moral theory that grounds moral value in the character of God (the divine character theory, if you will), rather than in his commands, is immune from the Euthyphro dilemma. However, the dilemma depends only on God’s capacity to make alternative commands or alter his character, not on whether doing so is consistent with his character. If God is able to command that we torture innocents, then according to the divine command/character theory (DCT), torturing would be morally required in a world in which God makes such a command. This remains true even if we add the assumption that God won’t actually make such a command because it is not in his character to do so. On the DCT, that possible alternative commands would create (possible) obligations depends only on God’s abilities, not his will. See Brink’s “The Autonomy of Ethics,” Martin’s Atheism, Morality, and Meaning, and Wielenberg’s Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe for more on the Euthyphro dilemma as applied to theories that ground moral value in God’s character.
 See, for example, Paul Copan’s “Can Michael Martin Be a Moral Realist?: Sic et Non,” “The Moral Argument,” and “Morality and Meaning without God: Another Failed Attempt”; Robert M. Adams’ “A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness”; and Norman Kretzmann’s “Abraham, Isaac, and Euthyphro: God and the Basis of Morality.”
 For recent examples, see Brink’s “The Autonomy of Ethics,” Martin’s Atheism, Morality, and Meaning, and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s “Why Traditional Theism Cannot Provide an Adequate Foundation for Morality.”
 An opponent might claim that God can be the source of morality while Asura cannot because God is good while Asura is not. But this undermines the claim that theism provides a sound basis for objective morality, for objectivity implies the existence of some standard of goodness independent of either God or Asura against which each may be judged. This is one of the important lessons of the Euthyphro dilemma; if there is an independent standard against which a god can be judged as good or bad, then God cannot be the basis of this independent standard. If there is not a standard of goodness that is independent from divinity, then it is incoherent to say that God is good while Asura is not. If God is the basis of morality, then, by that standard, cruelty is bad and thus Asura’s character traits would indeed not be good. But if Asura is the basis of morality, then, by that standard, compassion is bad and thus God’s character traits would be bad.
 As I read him, Singer (like most other animal rights proponents) agrees that humans have capacities that make us special, capacities which are absent in nonhuman animals. His point is that those features that make us unique (assuming that they exist) do not justify ignoring the interests of nonhuman animals. The fact that I can speak while a cow cannot does not mean that my interest in eating a tasty hamburger trumps the cow’s interest in not being slaughtered. According to Singer, in this case the cow’s interest, since it is stronger, should trump mine.
 However, we should acknowledge the existence of religious systems, such as atheistic Buddhism, that offer moral incentives that have nothing to do with divine justice. The notion of karma can be a powerful incentive to believers. And of course it is worth remembering that the primary moral incentive according to many Buddhist traditions (as well as other dharmic faiths) is not the desire to be free from the effects of negative karma, but rather the desire for enlightenment. Moral behavior is, after all, a part of the Eightfold Path, and so moral activity is a precondition for enlightenment.
I want to thank an anonymous reviewer and Keith Augustine for reminding me of the relevance of the dharmic faiths here and offering other very helpful comments concerning how I have approached this issue. Thanks are also due to Keith Augustine for his more general comments and guidance with this paper.
 Arthur Schopenhauer argues forcefully that theism does not provide better reason to be moral than atheism. He notes that a belief in a divine judge does not seem to have diminished the capacity for unethical behavior among believers, drawing our attention to such atrocities as the slave trade, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the massacre of French Protestants by Catholics in the sixteenth century. In On the Basis of Morals (1841) he argues that only compassion is a sure moral incentive: “boundless compassion for all living beings is the firmest and most certain guarantee of moral good conduct and requires no casuistry.”
 Though I formulate this problem in voluntaristic terms, there are parallel issues for any theistic moral theory to resolve. More generally, we can put the question as follows: Why does the fact that God does X (or has feature F) give me a moral reason to perform any given action?
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