Can We Be Good without God?

Brett's monthly letter for May 2013

Dear Friend,

Was I nervous? Yes, absolutely. In fact, I don’t think I’ve been more nervous about an event. Of course, this was no ordinary event. On April 5, about 170 people packed a room at Weber State University, to watch my formal debate with professor of philosophy Dr. Richard Greene. The question: Can there be objective moral values and obligations without God? Each debater had 20 minutes for opening arguments, a 10-minute rebuttal, about 30 minutes of joint Q & A from the audience, and a 5-minute conclusion.

Dr. Greene had home field advantage. He has been teaching classes at Weber State for about eight years and a number of his students came out for the debate (it helped that he gave them extra credit for attending!). 65% of the attendees indicated on a pre-debate survey that they held Dr. Greene’s view that morality is best explained without God.

I opened the debate with two main contentions: If God exists, we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties, and if God does not exist, we don’t. Then I provided five lines of argument for the first contention:

  1. God best explains the existence of transcendent moral values, which provide the standard by which we measure good and evil.
  2. God best explains the existence of moral obligations, duties to fulfill certain moral requirements.
  3. God best explains the intrinsic dignity of human beings and our equal human rights.
  4. God best explains moral accountability, as He is the appropriate authority behind our moral duties.  
  5. God best explains human free will, without which moral action and responsibility are meaningless.

Next, I argued that atheism is inadequate to explain each of these five facts about morality. Using quotes from atheist thinkers like Richard Dawkins, Michael Ruse, and Thomas Nagel, I showed how atheism undermines all five of these facts and therefore, cannot give us a sound foundation for morality.

I won’t rehearse all the details of the debate here,1 but what followed was a lively give-and-take about a very important matter. Certainly, as a rookie debater (this was my second debate in my ten years of work at Stand to Reason), there are areas I can grow in and arguments I can improve. Indeed, it was difficult not to obsess over those things afterward. However, audience feedback, from both believers and skeptics, made it clear that God’s truth was not only represented intelligently, but with respect and graciousness.

For me, the highlight of the debate came from an unexpected source—a group of high school students. The debate was scheduled at the tail end of a Utah Mission trip I was leading for Upland Christian Academy, a Christian high school in Southern California. We had spent the previous four days sharing Christ with Mormons around the Salt Lake Valley. However, all week I was regretting the decision to coincide the mission trip and debate, feeling like my attention was torn between the two. In contrast, the high schoolers kept sharing their excitement about the debate. “That’s nice,” I thought to myself, “but I’ll never do this again!” God needed to change my perspective.

The afternoon of the debate, students helped with set up and created signs to post around campus. During the debate, they sat at the individual tables, collecting surveys from attendees and facilitating questions for the Q & A. Afterward, they helped clean up. When it was all said and done, we returned to our host church for a late night debrief. But rather than being worn out from a long day, the students were beaming. Their excitement was palpable. They couldn’t wait to discuss the debate.

As they shared their thoughts and feelings, it was clear this event was a huge faith-builder. They didn’t just get a behind-the-scenes peek at my debate preparation and nervousness. They didn’t just get to help with debate details, like room setup. They felt like they had just walked side-by-side with me, into hostile territory, and then watched as one of their own Christian leaders stepped up in a public venue to defend the truth of Christianity. And from their perspective, our arguments won the day. Here’s how sophomore Micah summarized it:

“[L]ately, the secular world seems to dismiss Christians and Christianity, and theology in general, as an outdated form of science or philosophy. Brett totally proving them wrong was a very fun thing to see. Dr. Greene, the atheist professor, made bottomless and obviously last-minute mocked-up arguments that held no weight. He simply displayed possibilities, rather than giving a real objective moral basis without God.”

After hearing from students, I realized the entire endeavor was worthwhile. Studying for countless hours was worth it. Balancing the trip and the debate was worth it. Constantly fighting back my nerves was worth it. It was all worth it to build the God-confidence of those 20 high school students.

Not only did those students walk side-by-side with me, but my team of supporters did, too. Their advice, their prayers, and their encouraging messages sustained me. I knew I wasn’t stepping onto the battlefield alone, but in many ways, others were by my side. Would you consider joining that community of believers that surround me and support me financially? It’s a partnership that God is using to impact young lives.

Standing for the Truth,

Brett Kunkle
STR Student Impact

1 You can watch the entire debate online

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Brett Kunkle