Can Atheism Support Ethical Absolutes? A Reply to Roger Olson

Roger Olson, a fellow Patheos blogger who can be found in the Evangelical channel on Patheos, has recently written a post entitled, “Can Atheism Support Ethical Absolutes? Is Ethics without Absolutes Enough?” In that post, he appeals to what has been called “Karamazov’s Thesis,” which is the claim (attributed to Dostoyevsky), that “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”

For readers who are interested in academic refutations of Karamazov’s thesis, see refutations by Christian philosopher Wes Morriston (here and here)and atheist philosopher Erik Wielenberg (here and here). But for everyone else, this post is for you.

Olson writes:

My point has always been, and I will keep saying it, that only belief in God provides good reason to criticize the bad actions of those who claim to believe in God or who claim to be Christians. The reason I can criticize their practices is precisely because we both believe in a higher power, God, whom we both believe stands above us all as the standard of moral behavior.

In other words, Olson seems to implicitly this.

(1) The only way an objective “standard of moral behavior” can exist is if God exists.

Why should anyone believe that? Olson writes this.

Of course atheists can choose or claim absolutes, but their assertions of the absoluteness of their ethical norms are empty because everything except God changes.

So another premise seems to be:

(2) Everything except God changes.

But it’s crucial to notice that (2) begs the question. If, for example, moral truths are logically necessary truths, which is the case if some form of nontheistic non-natural moral realism is true, then it is false that “everything except God changes.” If it’s a necessary truth that “It’s wrong to torture babies,” that is just an unchanging truth. So Olson can claim “everything except God changes” only by assuming that “an objective standard of moral behavior cannot exist unless God exists.” But “everything except God changes” is supposed to provide the argument for “The only way an objective ‘standard of moral behavior’ can exist is if God exists.” Thus, Olson’s argument is question-begging.

To put this into perspective, consider this. If you’ve read or listened to many theists on so-called “logical” arguments from evil against God’s existence, you’ve probably heard them say that “God” and “evil” are logically compatible. In other words, there is no contradiction between “God exists” and “evil exists.” It’s too bad that many of these same theists, like Olson, often fail to apply the same skepticism to so-called “logical” arguments from morality to God’s existence. In other words, there is no logical contradiction between “There is no God” and “An objective standard of moral behavior exists.”