Why God Exists | Moral Knowledge and Miracles

In my previous post, I surveyed some evidence for theism provided by physics. In this post, I consider further evidence from our ability to obtain moral knowledge and from the events surrounding Jesus’ death and purported resurrection, and then offer some concluding reflections. (Also make sure to check out the first post in this series; it dealt with the probability of theism before looking at the evidence.)

Moral Arguments

For quite a long time, I haven’t been particularly impressed by what we might call the “standard” moral argument for theism, which claims that God’s existence is necessary to explain the existence of objective moral rules. To put the point in an extremely rough way: I think my obligations to other people, and to the other animals, have primarily to do with how they are, taken on their own, with the kind of value and standing they possess just in virtue of being fellow sentient creatures, and that claiming that I would have no obligations if God did not exist fails to adequately respect this fact. [1] I feel similarly about arguments which claim, for instance, not that the mere existence of moral obligations depends on God, but that we wouldn’t have any decisive reasons to comply with these obligations if God didn’t exist. (Essentially, I agree with nearly everything Shelly Kagan said in his debate on the moral argument with William Lane Craig.)

At times, I’ve thought this meant that there was no good moral argument for theism. I don’t think this now. For it’s possible that though the moral standing of our fellow creatures does not depend on God (except in the sense that God is responsible for their existence), our ability to know that they have this moral standing does. And, in fact, there are some good reasons to think this is the case.

Moral Knowledge

Let’s begin by clarifying the state of affairs which this version of the moral argument takes to be in need of explanation. Suppose we encounter a race of benevolent, peaceful, intelligent aliens. Call them the Vulcans. If someone claimed it would be a good thing to launch an unprovoked, genocidal attack against them, that person would (barring very odd extenuating circumstances) be wrong, and we would know that they were wrong. This entails that there are truths about morality–morality is the sort of thing people can be right or wrong about. It also entails that we have some knowledge about morality. Most of us think, in fact, that we know quite a lot about morality, even though we’re not sure about everything. Of course, we recognize that our moral intuitions sometimes steer us wrong, but we learn that fact, ultimately, by evaluating certain intuitions in light of others, so we must think that our intuitions are at least fairly reliable, at least under the right conditions, if any kind of moral reasoning is to get off the ground.

Suppose we meet another alien race. Call them the Klingons. Their homeworld was much harsher and had fewer resources than ours, and evolutionary pressures favored extreme xenophobia. The clans that survived were those which were most ruthless in exterminating other clans. The Klingons came to take it as a moral axiom that exterminating those outside your tribe is a moral duty, just as, say, we take it to be the case that providing for your children or not causing unnecessary pain is a moral duty. Eventually, one clan destroyed the others, and now the Klingons live in relative peace with each other. However, encountering humans and Vulcans and recognizing us as outsiders, they now take it to be their duty to destroy us.

I take it that we have, to put it mildly, a disagreement with the Klingons. When they say “It is good for us to exterminate you” and we say “it is bad for you to exterminate us,” we can’t both be right, and it would make sense for us to argue about who is right. This shows that the fundamental moral truths don’t vary depending on the views or preferences of individuals, societies, or even species. If you put me in check and I say “That’s bad!” while you say “That’s good!,” we probably don’t have a real disagreement. All I mean is something like “That’s bad for me” or “That’s bad from my perspective” or “I don’t like that,” and all you mean is “That’s good for me,” etc. We don’t really express disagreement, since we can both be right; in fact, I agree that it’s good for you and from your perspective that you put me in check, so I think we both are right. That our dispute with the Klingons is not like this shows that, in making claims about fundamental moral principles, we are not expressing how things look relative to our perspective, or how we feel about something, or whatever; instead, we are invoking an objective set of moral facts which don’t depend on what we think about them.

This state of affairs–our possession of a large amount of knowledge of moral truths which are objective in the sense that they don’t depend on how things look to us, etc.–is what’s puzzling. Here’s why. Like the Klingons’, our own moral intuitions have been formed through evolutionary pressures and various other natural forces. If we had evolved on the Klingons’ homeworld, or if, say, lions or bees or wolves had become the sapient species on earth, it seems that the resulting morality might have been mostly different. Darwin realized this point, writing that:

If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.

If we think our moral intuitions are even just fairly well-correlated with the objective moral facts, this might seem like a stunning coincidence. As Sharon Street puts the point, if there is no explanation of why natural processes would lead to our having reliable moral judgments, then:

…allowing our evaluative judgements to be shaped by evolutionary influences is analogous to setting out for Bermuda and letting the course of your boat be determined by the wind and tides: just as the push of the wind and tides on your boat has nothing to do with where you want to go, so the historical push of natural selection on the content of our evaluative judgements has nothing to do with evaluative truth….Of course it’s possible that as a matter of sheer chance, some large portion of our evaluative judgements ended up true, due to a happy coincidence between the realist’s independent evaluative truths and the evaluative directions in which natural selection tended to push us, but this would require a fluke of luck that’s not only extremely unlikely, in view of the huge universe of logically possible evaluative judgements and truths, but also astoundingly convenient to the realist.

Notice that, while both Street and I have focused on the threat posed by evolutionary influences on our intuitions, the argument might well be able to work even if there had been no such influences. If naturalism is true, our moral faculties were formed by natural processes of one sort or another, and it’s not clear why any of these would have been aimed at producing moral truth.

Naturalistic Response?

The only response which I think has a prayer of working for the naturalist who accepts that we have a substantial amount of knowledge of objective moral reality says something like this: evolution didn’t aim at moral accuracy, but it did aim at making us think things were good if they promoted reproductive success, and reproductive success requires survival, and, fortunately, things that help us survive do in fact tend to be good, so it’s not too surprising that we wound up with mostly accurate intuitions. I think there are two main problems with this view. One is that it’s not clear that the value of survival actually does make it not too surprising that our intuitions are as reliable as they are: the evolutionary paths mentioned above don’t seem particularly unrealistic. But another problem is that, even if this succeeds in explaining the correlation between our judgments and moral truth, it would still be the case that nothing in the moral domain played any role in explaining why we hold the moral judgments we do. Arguably, this fact alone is enough to make it the case that we wouldn’t have knowledge of the moral domain, that, when accurate, we would be accurate merely by luck (see this paper, which was brought to my attention by Andrew Moon, and especially the examples given in section 7).

Ultimately, Street thinks that there is no plausible naturalistic account of why we would have reliable moral intuitions. As a naturalist, she thinks this means we should give up on the idea that we have knowledge about any kind of objective moral reality. However, the theist has another option: the theist can say that the reliability of our faculties is no coincidence, but is instead the result of God designing or guiding natural processes so that we would have the ability to discover moral truths. (This doesn’t require rejecting the evolutionary explanation of the development of our faculties, just the claim that this process was totally unguided.) If our having as much moral knowledge as we do is much more likely given theism, then this is strong evidence in theism’s favor. [2] (For more on this argument, see my and Philip Swenson’s paper “God and Moral Knowledge” in a forthcoming volume edited by Joshua Rasmussen and Kevin Vallier.)


I know many people who think they have experienced miracles. If we have good evidence for the occurrence of events which violate, or are rendered extraordinarily unlikely by, the laws of nature, but which would be much more likely to occur if God exists, then this would be good evidence for theism. Unfortunately, I have to admit that I’m not particularly impressed by most of the miracle stories I hear. It usually seems, on the one hand, too easy to think of some natural explanation for what’s happened, and, on the other hand, too hard to see why God would intervene in this case when God doesn’t intervene in other, apparently similar cases. (The second point is illustrated by the infamous trope of someone who attributes their survival in a deadly disaster to miraculous intervention–leaving open the question of why God didn’t intervene to save the other people affected.) I don’t necessarily mean that I disbelieve the ordinary miracle stories that I hear: if you already believe in God, it’s hard to rule out a miracle even if another explanation seems possible, and God might always have some unknowable reason for acting here and not there. But I don’t think atheists should be particularly troubled by most miracle stories.

I say all this to indicate that, when I do find a miracle claim impressive, that means something. And one which I do find impressive is the claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead by God. I will not be able to survey the full range of historical evidence here, though interested readers are welcome to look into it for themselves (note: there are five different links). But my impression is that the historical grounds for believing that something like the following happened are extremely strong: Jesus was executed; very shortly afterwards, Jesus’ disciples began claiming that he had appeared to them after death, and, in fact, that he had appeared to them when they were in groups (a fact which would tell against the possibility of hallucinations); James, Jesus’ brother, who had not been a follower of Jesus and so had no reason to expect this, similarly saw Jesus and converted; so did Paul, who was not only vehemently opposed to Christianity, but who had everything to lose by converting; none of these people ever recanted, but instead, they, being in a position to know whether the Christian message was true, continued preaching it even in the face of persecution. Though the historical grounds for establishing this are not quite as decisive, it also seems to me that there is a very good case for thinking that Jesus was buried in a tomb, and that the tomb turned up empty.

This is essentially the course of events we would expect if Jesus really was resurrected, and then walked out of his tomb and appeared to the people in question. Otherwise, it’s clear that something extremely bizarre must have happened–some incredibly unlikely confluence of events. Of course, if one thinks it is unlikely enough that Jesus would have been resurrected, one might ultimately conclude that, despite the evidence for the resurrection, some extremely bizarre series of events must have happened after all. As I mentioned in my first post, when I was younger, I was tempted by the view that this something like this was true–that a theistic explanation should always be avoided, no matter how implausible the alternatives. I think this view is much harder to defend in light of what I’ve said. But in any event, none of this changes the fact that the evidence for the resurrection is there.

If Jesus was resurrected, this is clearly extraordinarily powerful evidence for theism. We can see why God might have reasons to resurrect Jesus: namely, the various reasons given by Christian theology. Meanwhile, the odds of Jesus being resurrected on any non-goofy alternative hypothesis are likely to be vanishingly small. Of course, Jesus’ resurrection would provide powerful evidence, not just for theism, but specifically for Christian theism–a fact, clearly, with important implications.


I mentioned at the beginning of these posts that I think I have a psychological bias against theism. Theists and atheists often accuse one another of being biased against the opposing view due to not wanting it to be true. They therefore accuse their opponents of a kind of wishful thinking. And no doubt, for both sides, the accusation is sometimes true, though seldom helpful. But it’s also possible to be biased against something because you want it to be true, if you are also overly pessimistic and distrustful of good things. And while, as I said earlier, I do think there is some important evidence for atheism (most notably in the form of evil and hiddenness) and I understand why it convinces people, I also think I have the bias described, and that this is a source of some of the skeptical worries I’ve had.

I certainly do want my religious views to be true. The form of Christianity which I accept entails that something like the following is true: there’s a community which is now still only in its faintest beginnings, but which is going somewhere stunning. It’s being formed by a being of perfect love and beauty and goodness, one who wants to have relationships with you and I, of all people, and has even proven willing to undergo terrible suffering to bring that about. It’s a community in which you’ll again see your departed loved ones, in which people whose lives consisted of nothing but suffering will have their wounds healed and will be able to go on, a community without death, without oppression, without degradation, without hurt (even the little animals won’t get hurt, if you can believe it), one in which we’ll relate to God and to one another without fear or anxiety or shame or pretense–in which, as St. Paul says, for the first time, we’ll see each other face to face. And it is our job, here and now, to help this community be realized. “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

This is a beautiful and inspiring picture of the world–about the most beautiful and inspiring one which there could be. Sometimes it seems too good to be true. But when I rationally reflect on it, I think the case I have sketched here provides the beginning of a very powerful case in its favor. My arguments suggest that the universe was created by someone or something to exemplify beauty, order and comprehensibility, as well as to give rise, in addition to the other sentient animals, to conscious, embodied agents such as ourselves who have the ability to comprehend right and wrong. The intrinsic probability of theism, I claim, is not too low, and is higher than that of other views which also account for the evidence in question. My final argument argument further suggests that the creator had an interest in vindicating the person and life of Jesus; this would, in turn, provide strong evidence, not just for theism, but for Christianity. So, there are powerful reasons to hope the worldview I described above is true. If I’m right, there are also powerful reasons to think that it is.


[1] Saying I’ve thought this way for a long time is actually an oversimplification; there have been brief periods where I flirted with other views, but I always come back around to the view expressed in the main text. More specifically, at present, I am some kind of contractualist, although I think standard forms of contractualism require some important modifications.

[2] It’s reasonable to ask why our moral faculties aren’t more reliable than they are if theism is true. Of course, I don’t know why they aren’t, but if I had to speculate, I might say that part of the answer is something like this: I think the faculties of ordinary people are reliable enough that they can, in principle, obtain the truth about the vast majority of important moral questions, but that human moral faculties are nonetheless weak enough to give us responsibility for developing our own moral knowledge, and for helping others do the same, and that there is something valuable in this responsibility. So, for instance, many people in the United States currently do not worry much about factory farming. But it isn’t hard for a non-psychopath to see that factory farming is a horrific atrocity, given even cursory exposure to the empirical facts and reflection on their moral significance. That people do not have such exposure, and do not engage in such reflection, is generally the result of culpable wrongdoing on the part of themselves or other people: of attempts by people in the agricultural industry to cover up the empirical facts, or moral apathy on the part of many people, etc. This instance of failing to apprehend an important moral truth is therefore, the story would go, not ultimately because the moral faculties of these people weren’t up to the task, but because of abuses of responsibility with which humans had been entrusted by God for good reasons. My response to this problem therefore bears an important similarity with a response I have defended to the problem of divine hiddenness. But even if that isn’t particularly convincing–for instance, it may well be insufficient, on its own, to account for the terrible evil that moral ignorance brings about–note that it could also be that our moral faculties being as reliable as they are might be very unlikely on theism (since we’d expect them to be more reliable) while still being powerful evidence for theism if it’s even more unlikely on what are otherwise the most plausible alternative views that we’d have as much knowledge as we do (since we’d have even more reason to expect ourselves to have even less moral knowledge).

Part 1   |   Part  2   |   Part 3

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