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Richard Carrier Moreland

Does the Christian Theism Advocated by J.P. Moreland Provide a Better Reason to be Moral than Secular Humanism? (1998)

Richard Carrier


The following essay has been completely improved and superceded by a more accurate version and backed by more detailed analysis in Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God (2005), pp. 291-348. Any critique of this article that ignores the version and support provided in that book is not worth the trouble of reading. Likewise, anyone who still has questions or concerns after reading this outdated article should consult the relevant sections in Sense and Goodness without God for appropriate revision and detail.


According to Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland, “the ultimate values of [secular] humanism are incapable of rational justification” and “Christian theism is a background theory that makes the existence and knowability of morality more likely than does the background theory of atheism.”[1] But Moreland’s depiction of Christian theism does not provide a better reason to be moral than secular humanism, nor does it make the existence and knowability of morality more likely, and this can be demonstrated by examining the reasons to be moral that Moreland himself offers in his principal works. While he claims that secular humanism can supply no rational reason to be moral, while Christian theism can, the reasons he offers for Christian theists are ultimately the same reasons offered by secular humanists. And in actual practice, the secular reasons are more certain and knowable than the Christian ones.

Beginning with J.P. Moreland’s central work, Scaling the Secular City, he outlines several reasons Christian theism offers to be moral. After outlining a lack of good reasons to be moral in various secular world views [2], he begins his defense of Christian theism by declaring that “my motive for being moral should be because I love God, I recognize him as my creator, I want to do what is right for its own sake, and I desire my own welfare in this life and the life to come.”[3] But a secular humanist can make a similar declaration of equal merit. For example, a secular version of Moreland’s statement might be, “my motive for being moral should be because I love humankind, I recognize my debt to society, I want to do what is good for its own sake, and I desire my own welfare in this life as well as the welfare of generations to come.” These statements provide equally good reasons for being moral, because they appeal to exactly the same values, and a Christian has no better reason to commit to these values than a secular humanist.

Examine each element of Moreland’s statement. First, he offers “because I love God” as the first reason Christians have to be moral. But this only begs the question, “Why love God?” Secular humanists suffer from the same objection, since it could easily be asked, “Why love humankind?” However, this only proves that the Christian and the secular humanist are on the same footing here. The Christian can offer no better reason to love God than the humanist can offer to love humankind. In both cases, it is ultimately a matter of a nonrational commitment to love.

On the one hand, it can be argued that we should love God because he loves us (while humankind doesn’t). However, it does not necessarily follow that we should love those who love us, as in the case of the battered wife whose husband loves her but beats her to death anyway. And though one might say that true love is proven by acts of love, and that therefore a wife-beater does not really love his wife, this argument would also go to prove that god does not love us, since he also “beats us to death anyway,” as the horrifying treatment that millions of people receive at the hands of Mother Nature adequately demonstrates.

On the other hand, it does not follow that we should not love someone simply because they do not love us. Love for us (or acts of love toward us) are not generally the conditions we set for loving someone. Rather, we often choose whom to love based on certain qualities they possess apart from how they feel or act toward us, and we certainly love many things that are not even people, such as our country or our profession. I love my wife because of who she is and what she is. I love America because of what it represents and what it has accomplished. My reasons for loving humanity are similar. Naturally, with regard to God, it cannot even be proven that God exists, much less what his qualities are. It is easy to describe a god worth loving, but it is something else to prove that such a thing actually exists, and an atheist generally feels there is adequate proof that a genuinely benevolent god does not exist. But proving this would be an irrelevant digression here. For even if a benevolent god did exist, we would love him not for what he does for us, but for his character and quality.

Ultimately, the fact remains that secular humanists, by the very definition of ‘humanist’, love humankind — whatever their reasons — and this therefore stands as a reason to be moral equally as strong as the Christian’s “love for God.” One may even say that the secular humanist is on stronger ground here: for the love of God can lead to acts of immorality toward mankind, as exemplified by Abraham’s willingness to murder his own son because of his love for God, whereas love for mankind would only produce moral acts toward mankind — whether God were good or evil, or real or not. This is one of the fundamental and irreconcilable differences between the values of Christian theism and secular humanism: as a secular humanist, I see Abraham’s action as thoroughly immoral. A moral response in that situation would be to rebuke God, since the very act of asking Abraham to kill his son merely to prove his own faith would in itself prove that god was evil, a tyrant, and god’s standing as the supreme creator would not change the fact that his character was reprehensible.

Moreland’s second reason for Christian theists to be moral is “because…I recognize [God] as my creator.” This is no more justifiable than the secular version. On the one hand, simply being our creator is not a sufficient reason to listen to God. He could be a cruel or indifferent creator, for instance, and it would actually be more rational not to listen to our creator if that were the case. Indeed, given the evidence of science and history, this possibility cannot be ruled out. And this is identical to the secular humanist’s situation. A humanist who recognizes his debt to the society which “created” him, or the moral teachers and agents who created his society, has just as much of a reason to be moral for their sake. Even if god exists and created the universe, that would not change the fact that we all owe an even greater debt to the actions of countless moral agents whose works God can not truly take credit for.

Of course, the Christian theist can argue that if a humanist’s society were evil or degenerate, then respect for society would cease to be a good reason to follow that society’s morals or to return any favors. But this is identical to the secular humanist’s objection to Christian theism’s reasoning: if God were evil or degenerate, then the theist’s debt to him would also cease to be a valid reason to adopt God’s morals or to return any favors. And regardless of what Christians believe about god, they must recognize the fact that many secular humanists sincerely feel the evidence proves that if a god does exist, he must necessarily be evil or indifferent. Either way, secular humanists do recognize a certain debt to their society and seek to return the favor, for society is not as evil or degenerate as Christians make it out to be, and humanists therefore have the same reason to be moral on this ground as the Christian theist. Indeed, this would remain a valid justification even if we were all certain that God existed, since a debt to society is not owed to any god.

Next, Moreland offers “because…I want to do what is right for its own sake” as another reason to be moral. Of course, this begs the question, “Why do right for its own sake?” Both the Christian theist and the secular humanist can offer this as a reason to be moral, and neither would be any more justified than the other. The secular humanist would say they do good because they want to be a good person, or they want to create and embody the moral values and ideals they believe to be good, and this is essentially the same reason Moreland offers for Christians. There really isn’t much more to be said about this, since this justification for moral action is not entailed by, or dependant on, the truth of Christian theism: by definition, we either want to do good for its own sake or we do not. That is, to offer a reason to do good for its own sake would be to do good for something other than its own sake.

The fourth reason Christian theists have to be moral, according to Moreland, is that we should “desire [our] own welfare in this life and the life to come.” Ultimately, this reason boils down to an ordinary appeal to self-interest, and differs from secular humanism in only one respect: the inclusion of a “life to come.” On the face of it, this does seem to be the one point on which Christian theism has a better reason to be moral than secular humanism. After all, in the Christian view, appropriate rewards and punishments are guaranteed. Secular humanism can never offer such a guarantee, since doing the moral thing may sometimes lead to things going badly for oneself, or doing the immoral thing may not lead to any negative consequences for oneself at all. Of course, this uncertainty affects everyone, moral or immoral: even if you reject morality completely and seek to live entirely for yourself, you still cannot be sure that any given act will actually benefit you in the long run.

However, if Christian theism is false, then its guarantee is false, and it then ceases to be a good reason to be moral. Thus, while the rewards and punishments of the real world are at least observably real, and reliable enough to study and to take into account, there is no reliable evidence of any kind to prove the certainty or even the nature of any supernatural rewards and punishments. And this places a dependance on the afterlife on very poor footing indeed. Moreland himself admits that if one “lives one’s life in a self-induced delusion…then satisfaction comes from living a lie.”[4] Thus, if I do not honestly see adequate empirical evidence to justify believing in Christian theism, then I cannot use its claims about the afterlife as a reason to be moral.

Moreover, even if this Christian claim were in any way true, it still does not offer a better guarantee than secular humanism. This is because there is no certainty as to which acts or beliefs God will reward or punish, and to their very death a Christian can never be any more certain than a secular humanist that living a moral life (or not doing so) will turn out best for them in the end. God may, for instance, send all Catholics, or all Lutherans, or all Christians to hell — after all, Jesus may have been a fraud, or Mohammed may have been right — regardless of how moral a life they think they have lived. And the Christian must acknowledge the very real likelihood of this, since his own Bible states quite clearly that only those who approach moral perfection shall attain heaven (Matt. 5:20), and that God will only forgive those who forgive all their own transgressors (Matt. 6:15). Both of these conditions effectively exclude nearly every Christian in existence no matter how much “faith” they have. Indeed, how many Christians in human history have actually adhered to the principles defined in Matt. 5 and 6? We cannot rationally conclude that Jesus “didn’t really mean” we had to follow those guidelines, since why else would he emphasize them?

Likewise, there is no guarantee that God will judge wisely or compassionately or recognize your religious denomination, or disregard religious denomination altogether. That he will do so can only be taken on faith. This is the same position a secular humanist is in, although the humanist has at least some empirical evidence in his favor, whereas the Christian has absolutely none. That is, a humanist can point to the awful life of a criminal as proof that a life of crime is bad for you, but when the Christian is asked to point to that same criminal in Hell to prove that his punishment will extend even past death, the Christian has nothing to point to. Thus, that living morally will lead to the greatest sum of happiness or satisfaction in a person’s own life can never be known for certain, nor can it be known for certain that not living morally will lead to a better life, not even by a Christian, and that is the central point at hand. The Christian is thus in no better position than the secular humanist. It may even be worse, for there is abundant evidence that a moral life is more likely to produce happiness than an immoral life, whereas for the theist there is no evidence whatsoever as to who has actually made it (or will make it) into heaven and who not.

J.P. Moreland offers a few other important reasons Christian theists have to be moral, and to avoid engaging in the refutation of a straw man, I should address them.

For instance, he argues that “it is rational to obey a kind Being [God].”[5] However, if this is true, then it is equally rational for a secular humanist to obey a kind human being, such as a compassionate moral teacher. It is noteworthy that if one can actually prove that it is rational to obey a kind being — and I have no idea what such a proof would look like, but I’ll buy it for the sake of argument — then this would remain a valid Christian argument even if God did not exist! That is, if God were known to be a fictional character who was kind, it would still be rational to emulate him or follow his advice, if he and his advice were truly kind. The actual existence of a hero or moral teacher is irrelevant in this case: if it is wise to emulate a kind being, then even the example of a fictional kind being would be valid. And in this light, the atheist would be no less justified in emulating divine virtues than a Christian, for belief in God is not a precondition to do so, if Moreland is correct. However it may be, the Christian has no better reason than the secular humanist to be moral on this account.

Moreland also argues that he is rationally justified to live a moral life because he was made in God’s image and attends to himself “as an image bearer” in that he does not “dehumanize or trivialize” his own existence. In short, by being moral he affirms that he is “a creature of value who is worthy” of rewards like heaven.[6] However, he is still begging the question, “Why care about God’s image?”

First of all, it is uncertain whether God’s image is a good act to follow. If the Old Testament is anything to go by, God presents himself as a cruel and irrational image. The second commandment makes it clear that God’s jealousy drives him to proclaim unjust laws, since he says he is “jealous” and “punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Ex. 20:5, Deut. 5:9). Mere men have presented better ideals to follow than this, for the Constitution of the United States forbids the very injustice which God gloats over: “no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood” (Article 3, Section 3). Indeed, I imagine even Moreland would agree that punishing the children of criminals is not an act anyone should follow, yet God does this with cruel zeal, ordering his followers to “put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys,” (I Sam. 15:2-3). Wanton rage and genocidal war crimes are not evidence of a good character.

Moreland would also agree, I hope, that executing people for using bad language (Lev. 24:13-16) or picking up sticks on Saturday (Num. 15:32-36) is not a good image to follow. Note, also, that Jesus never laughed. Is that really an image we ought to follow? And contrary to popular belief, he was not a peace loving man (Mt. 10:33-6). He could not even restrain himself from violence in the marketplace (Jn. 2:13-16), and this makes even Gandhi a better man than Jesus. But even if we could excise all this from the Bible, even if we could paint an ideal image of God, the only reason to care about that image would either be a prudential one, i.e. you will be punished if you don’t, or rewarded if you do, or a nonrational one, i.e. you simply choose to care about that. Is this any better a position than the humanist’s?

In my opinion one of the best and most important reasons secular humanism offers to be moral is that we are indeed, in Moreland’s own words, “image bearers.” But in humanism, the image we are bearing is not that of God, but of our own ideals of what a good human being is and can be. This is the same thing the Christian does: he thinks about what would be good, and then attributes those qualities to god. For instance, Christians conveniently ignore the bad stuff in the Bible, only some of which I cited in the previous paragraph, because it does not fit their pre conceived notion of the ideal. They praise the Ten Commandments, but ignore the Corruption of Blood clause, and they also ignore the other commandments beyond the first ten. For example, “the Lord said to Moses” that “anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord must be put to death” (Lev. 24:13-16). Almost any decent Christian today would say that this was an unjust law. But it is the law of god nonetheless. Thus, Christians pick and choose not according to the example of their god, but according to their own notion of what is just. And then they add other things, like the love of democracy and the abhorrence of slavery, to the character of their God, despite the fact that no such notions can be found in the Bible. Thus, humanists and theists are simply doing the same thing: creating an image of the ideal and choosing to follow it.

Secular humanists, just like Moreland, choose to be moral because they do not wish to “dehumanize or trivialize” their own life, because then life would lose its meaning and quality. We all want to affirm that we are “a creature of value who is worthy” of the gift of life itself, and thus the humanist has exactly the same reason to be moral as the Christian. This is a principal fact which Christians routinely fail to understand about secular humanists: the meaning in our lives is derived directly, and in numerous ways, from the significance and beauty of our own humanity and conscious existence. It is not necessary to be someone’s creation for our lives to have value. As I have said many times, even if I were the accidental by-product of a giant rubber tire machine, my life would not be meaningless. It would be meaningful to the precise extent that I endeavored to make it so. But if I did nothing to make my life meaningful, even being created in god’s image would add no meaning to my life. I would be nothing but a pawn or lab rat, a mere homunculus cooked up in some divine kitchen, if I did nothing on my own to make myself into more than that. The inability to see how an accidental existence would be no less valuable than a planned one is one of the greatest stumbling blocks before all Christian intellectuals.

Finally, Moreland appeals to worldly self interest. He argues that “we are protected, satisfied, and fulfilled best [in this life] by doing what is right.”[7] He means that God “will harmonize happiness and duty.”[8] But the secular humanist says the same thing about friends, family, and the good society that Moreland says about God. According to the secular view, we cannot count on there being a God to ensure our protection, satisfaction, or fulfillment. We are protected only by fellow human beings whom we can trust and who trust us. And trust can best be won by committing ourselves to a moral life and living by that commitment. We are truly satisfied only by living in a society that is safe and prosperous, and we cannot rationally expect such a society to exist for us if we are contributing to its corruption and ruin with our own immorality. In a sense, polluting the world with immoral deeds is identical in nature to polluting the world with trash. Even when the effects of either act may not directly affect us, the result of setting the bad example, and contributing to the effect, is still exactly what makes for a dirty and unpleasant environment. But one fact remains above all of that. There is a common advantage to be gained from working together with justice and compassion, as much on a project like maintaining a good aqueduct as on maintaining a good society, and this remains equally true for Christians and humanists, regardless of god’s existence.

Secular humanists have still another reason to be moral, which I personally take to be the most compelling in my own life, and it should be no less compelling to Christians. We naturally hate those who lie, cheat, murder, and steal; we hate those who are intolerant or insolent or malevolent in some way. This is simply a natural emotion arising from the human constitution. After all, such people represent a threat to our own survival and well being, as well as to that of our family, friends, and all those whom we care about, and this includes not just people, but ideals and institutions. But this hatred is felt not merely for those who threaten us or our loved ones — it is felt for anyone who embodies malevolence. For we react this way even to fictional characters who can never harm anyone in the real world. The very idea of villainy is repugnant to us. Even the real villains among us try to paint themselves as heroes, more I believe to deceive themselves than to deceive others. People who actually want to be evil, as opposed to those who are evil but want to believe they are good, are not only rare, they can also be called monsters, for whom no argument of any kind could ever persuade them to become truly good — even if God himself rebuked them. In the very same manner, we love those who are benevolent, honest, or otherwise virtuous — fictional or not.

Because of this natural moral sentiment, whether inborn or learned (or both), whenever we act like those we hate, we will be faced with a psychological dilemma. We will be forced, on some level of our being, to hate ourselves. Even if we try to take steps to hide from this fact, as I believe most villains in the world do, we cannot avoid deeper psychological ramifications. Self-hatred, self-defeating hypocrisy, perpetual dissatisfaction with the world and ourselves, even outright madness will creep upon us, as history and personal experience shows. And once we have seen the truth about ourselves, even the option to hide from it no longer exists. Our self-loathing will then become direct and profound. It is those who have achieved this state of mind who truly know what it means to ask others how they can sleep at night, or how they can live with themselves, after doing something personally loathsome.

It follows, I believe, that the only way to achieve self-respect, to truly love ourselves, to be content and happy with our lives, is to be like those we love, and to embody the virtues that we respect. The reason virtue is said to be its own reward is that merely embodying the ideal, merely knowing that you are the vessel of creation, or of justice or of compassion, gives our life greater meaning, and greater value. To fall short of this is to waste our life. To abandon virtue is to make ourselves useless, cancerous, loathsome. Only the monster can find pride and joy in being the vessel of destruction, injustice, or cruelty. And it is a far cry from humanity to want to be a monster rather than a man.

This is what happens to the devoted hypocrite. For if you come to love or idealize the sort of person who uses a different standard for themselves than they apply to others, in an attempt to maintain your self-respect by acting this way yourself, you still cannot escape. It is unlikely, of course, that anyone does not feel angry at being on the receiving end of such hypocrisy, and it is not natural to come to love or idealize the sort of person whose conduct angers you. The sort of people who can get past this, the sort who can indeed come to love evil, must of necessity be so filled with hatred or madness that they would not find any argument for the virtuous life appealing. I do not doubt that such people exist. Psychopaths comprise the majority of them. But these are simply monsters, true freaks, aberrations from humanity so great that they are by their very nature enemies of us all. This in no way negates the value of the moral life for them or anyone else, since living as a hunted and hated monster can never be an efficient or reliable path to happiness.

No matter where you turn, no matter how you try to hide or escape, to avoid the misery of self-loathing and to enjoy the elation and fulfillment of profound self-respect, the moral life is a necessity. And this is, indeed, the only reason anyone needs to be moral, whether humanist or Christian. All the other reasons we have examined nevertheless remain to make the case for virtue even more compelling still. Even if we all knew for a fact that God existed, or even that he didn’t, all the reasons to be moral examined above would not change in their degree of relevance or justification. It should now be clear that the Christian theism that Moreland defends provides no better reasons to be moral than secular humanism, and on many of the very same points as well as others Moreland does not examine, humanism may actually provide more compelling arguments.

[1] Quotes from J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Book House, 1987): p. 121, and J.P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen, Does God Exist: The Debate between Theists & Atheists (Buffalo, NY. Prometheus, 1993): p. 119, respectively.

[2] I have addressed one of these (the issue of free will) beginning with my discussion of David Beck’s version of the moral argument. I also present a summary of my ethical system in What an Atheist Ought to Stand For. Editorial Note: All this has been superceded by Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God (2005): pp. 291-348.


[3] Scaling the Secular City, p. 128.

[4] Scaling the Secular City, p. 121.

[5] Scaling the Secular City, p. 128.

[6] Scaling the Secular City, p. 131.

[7] Scaling the Secular City, p. 129.

[8] Scaling the Secular City, p. 128.

Copyright 1998 by Richard Carrier.