The Burning Building
A buddy of mine is a firefighter and an EMT and he has some amazing stories to tell. He just got back from helping to fight the wildfires in east Tennessee and it occurred to me how counter-intuitive it is for a person to willingly walk into a burning forest. Typically at the signs and smells of danger all the forest critters, along with most rational humans, opt to make a run for it; but not our brave firefighters. They’ve got a job to do and they understand the greater good they’re serving by doing that job. Risking one’s life to fight a forest fire and help to prevent the loss of nature, property and human life is a beautiful example of objective morality; every human would agree it’s the right thing to do.
In a recent conversation on Twitter with an atheist called GrandmaSheilaDefarge we were discussing objective morality. My basic position is that there can be no such thing as objective morality without God as the logical ground for it. To which she replied:
— GrandmaSheilaDefarge (@Grandma_Shelia) December 9, 2016
I have to say, I agree with Grandma here. She makes a good point, and it brings up a distinction I may not have made very well earlier in our conversation. So I wanted to take the time to elaborate here and offer some clarity on my claim.
When I say there is no objective morality without God to ground it, I am not referring to external moral laws set by society. I’m talking about an internal moral law that is unique to humans; the sense of “ought” we each feel in certain circumstances, regardless of man-made laws or evolutionary survival instincts.
As an illustration, imagine coming across a building on fire and hearing screams from inside. You see people at the windows and notice there is an easily removed barricade on the front door. The people inside are trapped and will die if you don’t intervene, but the building is surrounded by a fence with a sign that reads “Government Property: Civilians Not Allowed Under Any Circumstances.” In this circumstance, any human would feel a need—an “ought” or sense of duty—to break the laws of society (by trespassing) and risk self-preservation in an attempt to save those people. And this is true regardless of the country, or society, or historical era in which you place this illustration. It’s also true regardless of the beliefs of the human watching the fire; they could be atheist, Christian, Hindu or other. All would feel the same natural impulse to help, and the person who intervenes to save the people in the building will have “done the right thing” by objective moral standards.
Yet, if the homo sapiens in that building are merely the biological end product of a mindless, unguided evolutionary process (as nearly every atheist believes), letting them burn would merely be the moral equivalent of letting the cockroaches in the building burn. After all, cockroaches are also the biological end product of a mindless, unguided evolutionary process. It’s a startling comparison, I know, but it’s the inevitable logical outworking of the atheist’s position; without God, there is no moral difference between the death of a human and the death of any other living thing. And yet we all instinctively know that there is a huge moral difference between the two. This fact is powerful evidence against the atheist’s claims that God does not exist.
When a lion comes round to kill cheetah cubs, the cheetah mom retreats and lets her children die rather than risk her life defending them. When an alligator lunges out of an African river and snatches a zebra, the other zebra don’t rush to its defense. They hop out of the way and go find some more grass to eat. Animals have no concern for “right” or “wrong”, they only know survival or non-survival. Human beings, on the other hand, are unique among all other living things in that they possess an intrinsic, objective sense of morality. This moral sense is not merely an understanding of the concept of right and wrong. Nor is it merely the ability to rationally distinguish between right and wrong behaviors. Humans are hard-wired to value right over wrong; good over evil. Even humans who ultimately do evil things do not consider the things they are doing evil. In their minds, there is a sense of rightness or benefit to their actions.
What accounts for this moral difference between humans and all other living things? What is it inside the atheist that causes her to feel a sense of duty to intervene in a burning building to save humans but not cockroaches? Why does she place such a high value on human life? I would submit that God has set objective morality in the heart of mankind and that’s what accounts for this sense of duty in the atheist. Just like one does not need to believe in gravity in order to fall from a ladder, one does not need to believe in God in order to behave morally. (A great many atheists in the world are good, decent people that live very moral lives!) Ironically, by stepping in to save those victims the atheist would find themselves obeying the moral instinct hard-wired into them by God, and at the same time affirming the objective value of human life, a value that can only come from God.
From a strict materialist perspective, which is the default position adopted by atheists, one would expect that a human watching the burning building might behave more like the zebra watching his buddy get eaten by the croc, or the cheetah mom watching the lion kill her cubs. In the presence of immediate danger, one would expect the instinct for personal survival to override any sense of empathy or larger instinct for the preservation of the species. As the narrator said on the documentary where I learned about lions killing cheetah cubs, “Nature is neither good nor bad, it is merely indifferent.” Or in the words of renowned atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins:
“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
― Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life
I applaud Mr. Dawkins for having the courage to work the logic of atheism all the way through to its inevitable nihilistic conclusion, one which is very much echoed in the behavior of the cheetah and the zebra described above. And this brings us back to the question of the moral difference between humans and all other living things. Why aren’t humans, like all other animals, living in a morally indifferent world run by instinct and survival? How, on the worldview Dawkins holds, would any species have developed a sense of objective morality purely through biological evolutionary processes?
Among all other living things and species of life, the unique presence of morality in humans, which often manifests itself to the detriment of our evolutionary success, suggests the human mind was specifically designed to value right, wrong, and truth. Morality could not have arisen from natural evolution; a mindless, unguided evolutionary process won’t take you from a universe of inanimate rocks to living beings that care about “doing the right thing”. At the very least there must have been a special intervention by a mind outside the natural universe that specifically imparted mankind with, among other things, a sense of morality. This is what Christians refer to as God creating man in His image. And it’s why the existence of morality in humans stands as a strong and compelling piece of evidence for the existence of God.
In the case of the burning building, from the Christian perspective, saving those people is intuitive for any human because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the right thing to do because human life is sacred. Human life is sacred because every single human being (including atheists!) has intrinsic value as the beloved creation of a Creator God.