TALKING TO AN ATHEIST: Who Can Say What Is Right or Wrong?

Written by John Tutten on August 22, 2015

What follows is part two of an actual conversation I had with an atheist friend. While my friend’s name has been changed and some details have been modified, the conversation presented below faithfully represents the arguments and points of reason that were made during the course of this exchange.

Part one ended with my friend, Hal, asking the question:

Hal: “Would you like to argue that torturing random children to death for pleasure is not evil?

Me: “No, what I’m saying is that you can’t say torturing babies for fun is evil without an objective moral standard to judge that action against. And by objective, I mean that it is not dependent on anyone’s opinion. You can’t say something is good or evil, bad or good unless you have an absolute measuring stick to compare the actions to. In an atheistic worldview you cannot judge something objectively good or bad. It’s just your opinion. Were the 9/11 attacks bad? Without an objective moral standard, it’s just your opinion versus Al Qaeda. The Muslim world rejoiced while we were appalled. Who’s right? The German people in the 1940’s thought it was good to exterminate Jews. Again we were appalled. Who was right? A materialistic worldview only allows for relative morality. There’s no absolute standard. Only a theistic worldview provides the objective moral standard that atheists like to borrow from. That is God’s perfect moral character.

Hal: “Well I believe that we can develop objective moral standards through reason and they may be more universal than theistic standards because they would not be arbitrary.”

Me: “Of course YOU can develop moral standards through reason but that does not make them objectively true for all humanity. They are personal to you. I may come up with different standards through MY reasoning. OK, so then who is right? How do you judge? It’s again, just my opinion against yours. Think of my point this way. Let’s say you have a grievance with a neighbor and you take him to court. He has his position and you have yours that is in direct conflict with his. You each then present your evidence and justification to the court. How do we then decide who wins the case? You have an objective legal code against which the arguments of each side is compared. The one that more closely aligns with the legal code is awarded the case. Similarly, to have objective morality, you have to have an objective moral standard that transcends space, time, and matter/energy. We have greatly differing positions on various moral issues, Hal. The only way one of us can be right and one of us to be wrong is to have an objective more code to compare our two positions to. Otherwise, we’re just debating personal preferences.”

Hal: “ But you can…”

Me: “Sorry to interrupt, but I need to add one more thing. Francis Crick is a scientist and Nobel Prize winner. He won the Nobel for co-discovering the structure of the DNA molecule with James Watson. Crick is an atheist/materialist and is also known for something he called “The Astonishing Hypothesis”. He states the hypothesis this way: ‘The Astonishing Hypothesis is that you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact nothing more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.’ With your worldview, Hal, you can tell yourself anything you like. That your choices are moral, that your intentions are good, etc., but it’s all meaningless without a transcendent moral standard existing outside of material existence.”

Hal: “With great respect, I disagree. On the one hand, objective moral and legal standards can be rationally derived from objective facts such as the manner in which beings are constructed or the manner in which nature appears to work. On the other hand, some people’s gods contradict other people’s gods and one has no ability to discern the truth, because everyone’s gods set equally arbitrary rules.”

Me: “Certainly Hal, through reasoning and the scientific method, we can discover objective facts about the material world. We can know that the force of gravity between two masses is inversely proportional to the square of the distance separating them. We can know the rate of radioactive decay of uranium into lead. Through the kind of reasoning you are talking about, we can learn what IS. What you can’t arrive at is an objective OUGHT, i.e., what you ought to do. You have to access a moral standard that transcends the material world. Just like mathematics and the laws of logic, an objective moral code that we all access exists outside space, time, and matter/energy. It is not a product of the universe. You can’t prove it or derive it. It just exists. Without it, again it’s just you opinion versus mine.

Tune in next time for the final chapter of this debate to see to see whether or not our atheist will come to see what shaky ground his worldview is based on.


John Tutten
John Tutten holds degrees in both engineering and business management. He is veteran of thirty-three years in the high technology business world where he spent time in development engineering and technology management predominantly in the area of custom semiconductor circuits. He recently retired to the mountains of north Georgia where he devotes his time to the study of Christian Apologetics and writing in defense of the Christian worldview.