Do Our Values Come from God? 

The Evidence Says No

Victor J. Stenger

Published on February 13, 2007


What Is Right?

The religions of the world, especially Christianity, have laid claim to the role of arbiters of human behavior. They insist that they have the right to tell the rest of us what is right and what is wrong because they have a special pipeline to the place where right and wrong are defined�in the mind of God.

     Even secular societies pay tribute to this claim. Whenever a moral issue arises in politics, such as stem-cell research or when to end life support, clergy are called upon to provide their wisdom. On the other hand, the opinions of atheists, freethinkers, and humanists are rarely solicited and frequently reviled.

     Society's submission to religion on matters of morality is based on the widespread assumption that an absolute good of divine origin exists. Of course, all this depends on the definition of good. A logical problem exists in associating good with divine command. In Plato's dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates meets a young man of that name who is presented with a dilemma. He is called upon to prosecute his own father for manslaughter and must decide between following his conscience and supporting his father or prosecuting him as the gods command.

     Euthyphro chooses to prosecute, arguing that he must follow the gods' will. However, Socrates tells him that it is wrong to obey the gods if you think that there is a higher good.

     The theist is faced with the same dilemma. Does God will us to do certain acts because they are good or is an act good because God wills it?

Suppose God were to appear before you and demand that you kill your son, as in the biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac. Would you obey God, as Abraham was prepared to do, or appeal to some instinctive higher good?

     The theist may respond that God would never ask you to do something that was not good. But he thereby admits that God does not determine what is good after all�that good exists independent of God. If God solely determines what is good, then he can decide that killing your son is good.

The God of the Old Testament frequently demands that atrocities be committed in his name. Let us look at some examples that are rarely mentioned in Sunday school.

After winning a large number captives in a battle, Moses tells his army, who had already slain every adult male at God's command,


Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. (Numbers 31:17-18 RSV)


     At another time, Moses orders three thousand men put to the sword on God's authority:


And he said to them, "Thus says the Lord God of Israel, 'Put every man his sword on his side, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.' " (Exodus 32:27 RSV)


Now, I am sure many Christians would dismiss these as anachronisms that were eliminated with the coming of Jesus. However, in the New Testament Jesus frequently reaffirms the laws of the prophets:


Think not that I have come to abolish the law, or the prophets: I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. (Matthew 5:17 RSV)


     Christians like to pride themselves on their "family values" and their desire for peace in the world. No doubt, most are devoted to their families and upright members of society. But they fail to remember that Jesus said:


Do not think that I have come to send peace on earth: I have not come to send peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man at against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:34-37 RSV)


Where did the notion arise that Jesus was the "Prince of Peace"?

The history of Christendom abounds with violence sanctioned by the Church and thereby defined as divinely inspired "good." This divine inspiration is not limited to Scripture but continually available to the specially anointed. Pope Urban II (d. 1099) assured the medieval knights of the Crusades that the killing of infidels was not a sin. And this did not apply just to Muslims in the Holy Land. The Cathar faith in southern France, which was apparently based on the notion of dual gods that appeared earlier in Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism,[1] was brutally suppressed in the Albigensian Crusade in the thirteenth century. When the besieged Cathar city of Beziers fell in 1209, soldiers reportedly asked their papal adviser how to distinguish the faithful from the infidel among the captives. He recommended: "Kill them all. God will know his own." Nearly 20,000 were slaughtered�many first blinded, mutilated, dragged behind horses, or used for target practice.[2]

If our solution to the Euthyphro dilemma is to define as good whatever God says is good, where God's word is defined as what is revealed in scriptures and other holy sources, then Jewish and Christian soldiers have a moral obligation to kill every enemy soldier and civilian�except for the virgins, which they have a moral obligation to keep for their own pleasure.

     If they are to rely literally on the Bible for moral guidance, then Jews and Christians have other obligations. For example, they are required to kill any family member who tries to convert them to another religion:


If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son, or your daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own soul, entices you secretly, saying, `Let us go and serve other gods,' which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples that are round about you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him; but you shall kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (Deuteronomy 13:6-11 RSV)


And, they are morally obligated to kill anyone who is caught working on the Sabbath:


Six days shall work be done; but the seventh is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord: whosoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. (Exodus 31:15 RSV)


Imagine the havoc that would occur if American Christians were to use their ample arsenals of semi-automatic weapons to shoot up every supermarket and filling station that is open on Sunday!

Some theologians suggest God has mysterious reasons to command these awful acts that we mere humans are unable to comprehend. Does that mean we are to carry them out despite what our own consciences say? Even if God appeared before me and threatened me with damnation unless I killed my son, I still would not do it. I suspect most other fathers and mothers would act likewise.

Obviously, few modern Jews and Christians take these scriptural passages literally. But this leaves them on the horns of the Euthyphro dilemma. If God does not define what is good, then who does?

Of course, the Qur'an is as bloodthirsty as the Old Testament. Numerous references can be found to to the horrible fate that awaits nonbelievers. However, it is Allah himself who generally metes out that punishment:


Lo! Those who disbelieve Our revelations, We shall expose them to the Fire. As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins that they may taste the torment. Lo! Allah is ever Mighty, Wise. (Qur'an 4: 56)


Those who make war on Islam are to be treated brutally�but they can repent:


The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His messenger and strive after corruption in the land will be that they will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off, or will be expelled out of the land. Such will be their degradation in the world, and in the Hereafter theirs will be an awful doom; Save those who repent before ye overpower them. For know that Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. (Qur'an 5: 33-34)


Of course, in every religion there are a few fanatics who follow to the letter what they regard as God's will:


q      Yigal Amir, who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, was an extremely religious Jew who stated in court, "Everything I did, I did for God."[3]

q      Paul Hill, who murdered abortion provider Dr. John Britton in Florida in 1994, made the following statement just before his execution in 2003: "I feel very honored that they are most likely going to kill me for what I did. I'm certainly, to be quite honest, I'm expecting a great reward in heaven for my obedience.[4]

q      On February 23, 1998, Osama bin-Ladin declared, "We�with Allah's help� call on every Muslim who believes in Allah and wishes to be rewarded to comply with Allah's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it."[5]


But, thankfully, they are the exception. Furthermore, each of these fanatics would be hard pressed to demonstrate where exactly in their scriptures were they commanded to commit their dreadful acts.

     How, then, is a theist supposed to decide what is good? Most do not go so far as to claim that they hear it directly from God. Rather, they rely on their rabbis, priests, ministers, and imams to define good for them. In most cases, these counselors make their judgments by appealing to scriptures and the teachings of the great founders and leaders of their faiths. But these holy people also pick and choose what to follow�guided by their own inner light. And, as we will see, they have no reason to think that inner light comes from God.

Noble Ideals

Of course, the Judeo-Christian and Islamic scriptures contain many passages that teach noble ideals that the human race has done well to adopt as norms of behavior and, where appropriate, to codify into law. But without exception, these principles developed independently in other cultures and history indicates that they were adopted by rather than learned from religion. It is fine that religions preach moral precepts. They just have no basis to claim authorship of these precepts for their particular God.

Perhaps the primary principle upon which to live a moral life is the Golden Rule:


Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.


In our Christian-dominated society in the West, most people assume that this was an original teaching of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. For some reason, their preachers, who surely know better, perpetuate this falsehood. In fact, Jesus himself made no such claim. Here's what he actually said, according to the Gospel:


So, whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law of the prophets. (Matthew 7:12)


Indeed, the phrase "love thy neighbor as thyself" appears in Leviticus 19:18, written a thousand years or so before Christ.

Furthermore, the Golden Rule is not the exclusive property of a small desert tribe with a high opinion of itself. Here are some other references:


q      In The Doctrine of the Mean 13, written about 500 BCE, Confucius says, "What you do not want others to do to you, do not do to others."

q      Isocrates (c. 375 BCE) said, "Do not do to others what would anger you if done to you by others."

q      The Hindu Mahabharata, written around 150 BCE, teaches, "This is the sum of all true righteousness: deal with others as thou wouldst thyself be dealt by."[6]


In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus also urged his listeners,


Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5: 39 RSV)




You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:43-44 RSV)


Again, these are generally regarded as uniquely Christian sentiments. But similar sentiments can be found elsewhere:[7]


I treat those who are good with goodness. And I also treat those who are not good with goodness. Thus goodness is attained. I am honest with those who are honest. And I am also honest with those who are dishonest. Thus honesty is attained.

�Taoism. Tao Te Ching 49


Conquer anger by love. Conquer evil by good. Conquer the stingy by giving. Conquer the liar by truth.

�Buddhism. Dhammapada 223


A superior being does not render evil for evil; this is a maxim one should observe; the ornament of virtuous persons is their conduct. One should never harm the wicked or the good or even criminals meriting death. A noble soul will ever exercise compassion even towards those who enjoy injuring others or those of cruel deeds when they are actually committing them�for who is without fault?

�Hinduism. Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda 115


No original moral concept of any significance can be found in the New Testament. In the early twentieth century priest and historian Joseph McCabe noted:


The sentiments attributed to Christ are . . . already found in the Old Testament. . . . They were familiar in the Jewish schools, and to all the Pharisees, long before the time of Christ, as they were familiar in all the civilizations of the earth�Egyptian, Babylonian, and Persian, Greek and Hindu.[8]


As with the Bible, the Qur'an contains many sentiments that most of us would classify as commendable. It tells Muslims to be kind to their parents, not to steal from orphans, not to lend money at excess interest, to help the needy, and not to kill their children unless it is necessary.

But, again, these are not original moral principles. In the scriptures and other teachings of the great monotheisms we find a repetition of common ideals that arose during the gradual evolution of human societies, as they became more civilized, developed rational thinking process, and discovered how to live together in greater harmony. The evidence points to a source other than the revelations claimed in these scriptures.

Observing Moral Behavior

The scientific perspective is rarely invoked in discussions about morality. However, the behavior of humans in both a personal and societal context constitutes observable phenomena. These observations can be used as empirical data in a scientific study of morals and values. Let us consider some of the facts about human behavior that we can all see by simply looking around us.

The majority of human beings behave more-or-less morally by a set of commonly accepted standards. While we live in a society of law, much of what we do is not constrained by law but performed voluntarily. For example, we have many opportunities to cheat and steal in situations where the chance of being caught is negligible, yet most of us do not cheat and steal. While the Golden Rule is not usually obeyed to the letter, we generally do not try to harm others. Indeed, we are sympathetic when we see a person or animal in distress and often take actions to relieve that stress. We stop at auto accidents and render aid. We call the police when we witness a crime. We take care of children, aged parents, and others less fortunate than us. We willingly take on risky jobs, such as in the military or public safety, for the protection of the community.

While many people will attribute their moral behavior to the teachings of their faiths, there is no evidence that people of no faith behave substantially differently. They seem to apply the same common set of moral principles.

Of course, this common set of moral principles is not equal to the complete set of all moral principles. Not everyone agrees on every moral issue. These disagreements can be very pronounced even within specific religious communities, where the scriptures are often used to justify contradictory actions.

For example, consider the opposing interpretations of the commandment against killing found within the Christian community. Catholics and conservative Protestants interpret this commandment as prohibiting abortion, removing life-support systems from the incurable, and stem-cell research among other actions. However, many in this group of believers do not view capital punishment as prohibited, pointing to the biblical prescription of an eye for an eye. Liberal Christians, on the other hand, may interpret the commandment as forbidding capital punishment, while allowing abortion, the removal of life-support, and stem-cell research.

As philosopher Theodore Schick points out, both sides of the abortion debate believe murder is immoral. Where they disagree is on the nature of a fetus�whether or not it is the sort of entity that can be murdered. In other words, moral disagreements are often not about what is good or bad but about some other aspect of reality.[9]

The Bible is not clear on what may be killed and what may not be. It does not explicitly sanction or forbid the killing of a fetus or stem cell. And, it certainly sanctions the killing of enemies, specifically those who do not worship Yahweh.

The Good Society

For many centuries, Europeans (as people elsewhere) were governed by despotic rulers who lived lavish lives while the great bulk of their subjects were held in miserable poverty and subject to the ruler's whim in every aspect of their lives. No matter how cruel or incompetent, the ruler claimed the divine right of kings. Why else would he be sitting on the throne if God did not intend him to be there? Similarly, for centuries Islam was marked by the rule of despots with unrestrained power.

Christendom and Islam have a long history of authoritarianism and have showed little disposition toward individual freedom and justice. Their influence waned when the Enlightenment demonstrated the power of reason.

     One of the prevailing myths in modern America is that the nation was founded on "Christian principles." However, God appears nowhere in the Constitution. And, the "Creator" in the Declaration of Independence is not the Christian God but the deist god of the Enlightenment and Thomas Jefferson. Most of the early presidents were not fervent Christians and based their commitments to freedom, democracy, and justice on Enlightenment philosophy rather than biblical sources.

     Nowhere in the Bible can you discover the principles upon which modern democracies and justice systems are founded. Slavery provides an example where the Bible is hardly a model for our modern free societies. The Old Testament not only condones slavery but actually regulates its practice:


When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. (Exodus 21:2 RSV)


If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master's and he shall go out alone.  (Exodus 21:4 RSV)


Jesus had many opportunities to disavow slavery. He never did. St. Paul reaffirms the practice:


Bid slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; (Titus 2:9)


In the nineteenth century, the Bible was widely used to justify slavery in the United States. Baptist leader and slave owner Richard Furman (d. 1825) laid the foundation for the biblical arguments that would be made in support of slavery leading up to the Civil War. While president of the State Baptist Convention, Furman wrote to the governor of South Carolina, "The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example."[10] Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, founded in 1826, was named for Richard Furman; his writings can be found in its archives.

Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, claimed to follow what the scriptures said: "[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation."[11]

Popes and other fathers of the Catholic Church owned slaves as late as 1800. Jesuits in colonial Maryland and nuns in Europe and Latin America owned slaves. The Church did not condemn slavery until 1888, after every Christian nation had abolished the practice.[12]Distinguished Catholic scholar John T. Noonan Jr. points out that the Church has traditionally denied that it has made any changes in the moral teachings of Jesus and the apostles.[13] Slavery and other examples he presents amply illustrate that the Church's teaching change with the times.

. Now, the campaign to end slavery in the United States and elsewhere was lead by Christians. However, the abolitionists clearly were not guided by the literal words of Scripture but by their own interpretations and innate senses of a higher good�more evidence that these values did not come from God.

Finally, let us just briefly mention the historical oppression of women. St. Paul said,


Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. (Ephesians 5:22-23 RSV)


Western societies finally have begun to recognize the irrationally and injustice of treating women as lesser human beings, providing a clear, recent example how our notions of right and wrong evolve independent of and often contrary to religious teachings.

An Inner Source

Most theologians will admit that not every statement of the Bible and Qur'an is to be taken literally and that many passages are anachronistic. They insist that much good can also be found in these documents, and I don't disagree. Admittedly I have selected out some notorious verses. But, I have not made them up. They, and many more in the same vein, are present in black and white for you to read for yourself. I have tried to choose clear illustrations of the widespread disobedience to the supposed will of God among even the most pious.

  Of course, apologists can come up with explanations for anything in the Bible that contradicts their own personal view of what a benevolent God should look like. They draw Jesus Christ in their own image.


Every time a theologian reinterprets Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed, he further reinforces the point I am trying to make: We humans decide what is good by standards outside the scriptures.

     It seems incontrovertible that the great majority of Jews, Christians, Muslims and other believers do not follow scriptural guidance to the letter but decide what is good and bad for themselves, from their own consciences. Hardly any Jews or Christians, and still a small minority of Muslims, feel compelled to perform violent holy deeds today in the name of God. And, of course, with the exception of a few extremists, they are strongly urged against such acts by contemporary religious leaders. However, though they may protest to the contrary, these leaders and their flocks rely on an inner sense of morality that overrides the literal commands of scriptures. As a general empirical fact, we observe that few of the faithful in any religion feel compelled to obey their scriptures literally. Society punishes many who do.

The great majority of religious people decide for themselves what is moral. When an atheist or humanist does this, he is accused of "moral relativism" or "subjectivism" in which "anything goes." Yet all but the most fanatical believers, those who need to be locked up, are guided by their own consciences�just as are nonbelievers.

Moral relativism means deciding what is right and wrong in every individual situation. However, most atheists do not change their ideas of right and wrong with every whim�any more than believers. Subjectivism refers to each individual applying a different set of morals. Believers and nonbelievers are not subjectivists either. The basic notions of good and evil that we all have are, for the most part, common and universal.

Anthropologist Solomon Asch writes, "Anthropological evidence does not furnish proof of relativism. We do not know of societies in which bravery is despised and cowardice held up to honor, in which generosity is considered a vice and ingratitude a virtue."[14] I can't imagine anyone of conscience today thinking it would be moral to kill everyone captured in battle, saving only the virgin girls for their pleasure.

Most believers not only reject the many atrocities committed by God and the major figures of the Bible, but ignore more benign rules as well. For example, hardly any Christians follow Jesus' command that they pray in private:


And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5-6 RSV)


In dramatic disobedience to Christ's direct and unambiguous order, Christians everywhere make a great public show of their piety by loudly and visibly praying in Churches, at political events, and around school flagpoles. They object furiously when courts rule against prayers in public schools. How can Christians morally justify this�other than by their own sense that praying in public is good despite what Jesus said?

How many Christians of any stripe obey their Lord's command to "Love your enemy" when it comes to Hitler or Osama bin Laden? And, why should they?

In short, the empirical facts indicate that most humans are moral animals whose sense of right and wrong conflicts with the many of the teachings of the great monotheistic religions. We can safely conclude they did not originate at that source.

Empirical Morality

If human morals and values do not arise out of divine command, then where do they come from? A considerable literature exists on the possible natural (biological, cultural, evolutionary) origins of morality.[15] Darwin saw the evolutionary advantage of cooperation and altruism and modern thinkers have elaborated on this observation, showing in detail how our moral sense may have arisen naturally during the development of modern humanity.

We can even see signs of moral, or proto-moral behavior in animals. Vampire bats share food. Apes and monkeys comfort members of their group who are upset and work together to get food. Dolphins push sick members of a pod to the surface to get air. Whales will put themselves in harm's way to help a wounded member of their group. Elephants try their best to save wounded members of their families.

In these examples we glimpse the beginnings of the morality that advanced to higher levels with human biological and cultural evolution.[16] It seems likely that this is where we humans have learned our sense of right and wrong. We have taught it to ourselves.



[1] Markale, Jean. Monts�gur and the Mystery of the Cathars. Translated by Jon Graham (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2003).

[2] For this and other tales of atrocities in the name of religion, see Haught, James A. Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990).

[3] CNN Report, March 27, 1996. Online at (accessed December 9, 2004).

[4] Associated Press September 2, 2003. Online at (accessed December 9, 2004).

[5] Federation of American Scientists on the Web at (accessed December 9, 2004).

[6] For other historical statements of the Golden Rule, see Shermer, Michael, The Science of Good & Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule (New York: Times Books, 2004), p. 23.

[7] Thanks to Eleanor Binnings for providing these quotations.

[8] McCabe, Joseph. The Sources of Morality of the Gospels (London: Watts and Co., 1914), p. 209.

[9] Schick, Theodore Jr., "Is Morality a Matter of Taste? Why Professional Ethicists Think that Morality is Not Purely Subjective," Free Inquiry 18, No. 4 (1998): 32-34.

[10] Furman, Richard, "Exposition of The View of the Baptists Relative to the Colored Population of the United States to the Governor of South Carolina 1822." Transcribed by T. Lloyd Benson from the original text in the South Carolina Baptist Historical Collection, Furman University, Greenville, South Carolina, p. 6. Available at (accessed December 1, 2004).

[11] Davis, Jefferson. " Inaugural Address as Provisional President of the Confederacy. " Montgomery, AL, Feb. 18 1861. Confederate States of America Congressional Journal 1 (1861): 64-66.

[12] Noonan, John T. Jr, A Church that Can and Cannot Change:The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching  (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005).


[13] Ibid.

[14] Asch, Solomon, Social Psychology, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1952), pp. 378-79.

[15]  For the most recent and other references, see Shermer. Michael, The Science of Good & Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule (New York: Times Books, 2004).

[16] De Wall, Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (Cambridge, MS: Harvard University Press, 1996).


Victor J. Stenger is emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii and adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. He is the author of five published books, with another one in press. This article is excerpted from his latest book, The Failed Hypothesis: Why Science Can Now Prove That God Does Not Exist, submitted for publication.