I take it as a given that every reader of this journal believes that murder is wrong. (By murder, I mean the immoral taking of a human life — not killing in defense of self or others; not a just war of defense; and not taking animal life.)
But I don’t believe that all readers of this column can answer a different question: Why is murder wrong? Or, if you will: How do you know — not merely believe — that murder is wrong?
In fact, if your answer is not God-based, you cannot answer the question. Unless there is a God who says murder is wrong, all you can say is that you believe it is wrong.
I know that this claim comes not only as a surprise to most modern men and women; it seems downright absurd.
So, let me answer the non-God-based responses I have received in 40 years of discussing this issue and debating it with some of the leading atheist thinkers of our time.
First response: Murder is wrong because we understand that if everyone killed everyone they wanted to kill, chaos would ensue.
But what if I don’t care if chaos ensues? Or, what if I think that my group can kill anyone it wants and get away with it? Then there isn’t chaos, just the triumph of the strongest. That is what much of humanity believed through much of its history. The Catholic Church found it particularly hard to Christianize the Germanic tribes of Europe because those tribes did, in fact, believe in violence; they were quite comfortable with the idea that only the physically strongest should prevail.
Other than getting those Germanic tribes to believe that there is a transcendent God who forbids murder (and will punish murderers), what effective argument would you have given to those Germanic tribes to stop their murderous way of life? There isn’t any.
Second response: We all know that we don’t want to be murdered. And because we don’t want to be murdered, we know no one else wants to be murdered.
This is true, but it only means that no one wants to be murdered. It doesn’t make murder wrong.
No one who does anything wrong wants that same wrong thing done to him. But they do it anyway. In fact, many people regard those who don’t engage in similar behavior as suckers. All drivers who cut into lines don’t want other drivers to do to them what they do. But they do it anyway. Why? Because they can, and because there is no compelling voice in them that tells them that it is wrong to do so.
This leads to the third response: There is a voice — what we call “conscience” — in us that tells us that murder is wrong.
To this I would respond first, that while I happen to believe that a conscience exists, its voice is easily silenced. Furthermore, in some people this voice, or conscience, appears not to exist. These people are called sociopaths, and they are plentiful. The primary reason most of them do not murder is either a lack of desire to do so, a fear of being caught or because they live in a society that has powerfully instilled inhibitions against murder (at least of fellow members of that society, as in Japan).
But the most significant response to the conscience argument is this: If you really believe that everyone is born with a conscience, where does it come from? Molecules? DNA? The brain?
Of course not. No electron microscope, no matter how powerful, will ever find a conscience. So, if you believe a conscience exists, it is solely because you believe it exists. It is entirely a leap of faith, and a far bigger leap of faith than belief that there is a moral Creator who put it there. At least those who believe in such a God can rationally believe that He put a conscience in the human being. But to believe in the existence of something that can never be empirically proven (while denying the existence of a Creator) — that is truly irrational.
Fourth response: Evolution.
Evolution is the current explanation for everything. But in the case of conscience, it posits the existence of something that can never be observed, let alone proven. Moreover, even if something like a conscience did evolve, it still doesn’t mean murder is wrong; only that evolution prefers that we not murder our own species. But what if I don’t care about my species — or think there are too many human beings on the planet? Moreover, how does evolution explain that the most recent century was the most genocidal in recorded history?
Fifth response: There are atheists who refuse to murder and religious people who do murder.
Of course this is true. But atheism doesn’t make murder wrong. Only the existence of a nonmaterial, moral Creator does. If there is no God, morality doesn’t objectively exist; it is only is a matter of belief.
If you do believe that murder is wrong — that it transcends subjective opinion and has an objective reality — you are making a leap of faith.
It is a tragedy of our times that this is not taught in our secular universities. And it is a Jewish tragedy that the one God is the source of the one moral standard — ethical monotheism, perhaps the Torah’s and Judaism’s greatest teaching — is no longer taught in most synagogues or rabbinic seminaries.