On the morning of Wednesday, November 3rd, Australia breathed a sigh of relief.

Four-year-old Cleo Smith—who mysteriously went missing from her family’s tent 18 days earlier—was found alive and well. She was found in the house of a man named Terrance Darrell Kelly, who has since been charged with kidnapping Cleo.

The response to Cleo’s rescue was what you would expect: relief, combined with moral outrage that someone would kidnap a child. Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in today’s Australia who thought kidnapping a child was acceptable.

Everyone agrees that kidnapping Cleo was an evil action. But can a secular approach to life give a compelling explanation of why it was wrong?

Everyone agrees that kidnapping Cleo was an evil action. But can a secular approach to life give a compelling explanation of why it was wrong?

On the surface, such a question might seem strange: isn’t child stealing obviously wrong? How could any sane person believe otherwise?

And yet, while the secular world believes child-stealing is wrong, it has problems giving a compelling answer of why it’s wrong.

Let’s explore this further, by seeing how morality works in the secular worldview.

Secular View #1: People Get to Choose their own Morality

In today’s individualistic West, our secular institutions give us some sense of what right and wrong is (e.g. ‘human rights and equality’) but no reason why we should believe it.

As author Tim Keller points out:

[Today] if we ask, ‘Why should we live in these ways? Why should we support equality and guard rights and sacrifice to help the poor?’ our [secular] cultural institutions can give no answer. All previous societies could point to some shared, outside ethical source—whether sacred writings or ancient tradition or wisdom of the sages—all of which expressed what was understood to be the moral order of the universe.

He continues:

In contrast, the morality of modern secular people is ‘self authorising’. All morals, we believe, should be chosen by us individually or perhaps by our culture collectively. In either case, it is said, there are no objective, moral facts ‘out there’ that we must discover and embrace. One way or another, we create our moral commitments.[1]

I saw this time and time again both as a student and then as a chaplain on a secular campus. University students—the best and brightest of secular society—commonly hold to the idea that we get to choose our morals. In other words, morality is relative, not absolute.

And yet—even as it insists that there are no moral absolutes, that ‘morality is relative’—the secular world condemns other people for their moral views. It condemns people who kidnap children. It condemns white policeman who kill unarmed black men.

If morality is nothing more than a personal or societal choice, then it becomes the equivalent of fashion or taste.

But if morality is nothing more than a personal or societal choice, then it becomes the equivalent of fashion or taste. Some people and cultures may have a ‘taste’ for child stealing, just as they have a different ‘taste’ in clothing. Just as there’s no overarching standard of which taste in clothing is ‘better’ than any other, so there’s no overarching standard of which moral tastes are ‘better’.

Thus, in this view, we’re unable to condemn the moral tastes of other people, and other cultures.

And yet people in our modern secular society routinely condemn the morality of others, even as they declare that morality is relative. Our secular world is inconsistent and illogical at this point.

Thus, the idea that morality is just a personal/social construct makes no sense of our moral outrage, and of morality in general.

We need another way to explain right and wrong.

Secular View #2: Morals are like Road Rules

 Another secular view is to say that morality is like road rules: society (and our own lives) work better if we as a society come up with shared moral values, and stick to them. This is the ‘social contract’ theory of morality.[2]

As Atheist journalist Phillip Adams argues:

Morals are simply expedients, rules that we set up like traffic lights to try to sort things out. To prevent collisions. To keep things moving along in a fairly orderly fashion … Clearly, if you live in a universe without meaning, there is, finally, no absolute morality.[3]

But there are many problems with this view.

First, what do we do with other societies that come up with differing moral rules from ours? If morality is nothing more than made-up rules which our society happens to agree to, then how can we condemn other societies that have agreed to different rules—e.g. that it’s acceptable to kill gay people, or oppress women?

Second, there is still a problem of justification. This view wants to say that rules are good because they provide the best outcome for the highest number of people. But it hasn’t explained what makes that good.

If ‘me getting hurt’ is what makes an action wrong, then ‘right’ becomes anything that I can get away with.

In lieu of that, it can try to make morality an appeal to self-interest—e.g., ‘I shouldn’t kill others’ because it is better for me—‘I’ll be less likely to be killed’. But if ‘me getting hurt’ is what makes an action wrong, then ‘right’ becomes anything that I can get away with: an affair behind my spouses back; a shady business deal—all become ‘moral’.[4]

Third, the common human experience of morality doesn’t work in terms of self-interest. When we feel a moral duty to do something (or not do something), it’s an urge to act in a certain way even though it doesn’t benefit us. Think of the whistle-blower who loses their well-paying job by exposing their firm’s cover-up. Or the Frenchman in World War 2 who hides a Jewish family at great risk to himself and his loved ones.[5]

 Thus, social contract theory fails to give a compelling reason why stealing children from their loving parents is inherently wrong, whether it’s done in Carnarvon or the Congo.

What about evolution? Surely evolution is a compelling source of our morality?

Secular View #3: Evolution Gives Us Morality

Evolutionary moral theory (EMT) is our next challenger.[6]

For EMT, acknowledging that our moral feelings are nothing more than feelings is not a problem. Our ancestors developed altruistic ways of treating others not because these ways are ‘good’ or ‘true’, but simply because it helped them survive.[7] Thus, our genes today have programmed us to see altruistic behaviour as ‘good’.

But if morality is nothing more than a feeling that once helped our ancestors survive, we’re not duty bound to obey it—any more than we’re duty bound to obey other feelings (that presumably still exist because it was passed down via our genes), e.g., our feelings of tribalism and violence.

EMT, if it proves anything, proves too much and too little at the same time. It threatens to call every adaptive behaviour ‘moral’ and still provides no justification for calling those strategies that happen to align with traditional morality ‘good’.

Secular View #4: Reason Alone Gives Us Morality

Finally, another common approach suggests that human reason alone can determine right from wrong: doing good is rational, and doing evil is irrational.

But again, this view fails on several levels.

Firstly, doing evil can be rational.

Is cheating on an exam the wrong thing to do? I know both Christians and secular people would say ‘yes’.[8] But now answer this: is it rational or irrational to cheat on a test?

The answer is not so obvious.

After all, if you can cheat on a test, and get away with it, and it means the difference between getting that great job, or that mark needed to gain entry to that prestigious university, cheating on a test may well be ‘reasonable’ (TV series Suits, anyone?).

The same could be said for a lucrative business deal: why not bend the rules, if it means you end up with thousands more in your pocket?

If you’re in an unhappy marriage, why not indulge in that extra-marital affair, if you’re sure you can get away with it? (Evidently millions of married people think this way: a company by the name of AshleyMadison.com made a business out of marital infidelity).

If the benefits of doing something illegal/immoral outweigh the risks of being caught, why not do it?

In sum, if the benefits of doing something illegal/immoral outweigh the risks of being caught, why not do it?

It’s a rational calculation: a rational calculation that leads directly to evil.

Secondly, doing good can be irrational.

As Jewish commentator Dennis Prager points out:

Was it rational or irrational for a non-Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II to risk his or her life to hide a Jew? We all know that this was moral greatness of the highest order. But was it rational?

He continues:

Not really. You can’t get much more rational than self-preservation. Moreover, in all the studies I have read of non-Jewish rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust — and I have read many — I have never read of any rescuers who said that they did what they did because it was the reasonable or rational thing to do. Not one.

Thus, human rationality alone cannot be trusted for determining ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and therefore fails as a basis for morality.

Our Moral Response to Cleo Smith’s Kidnapping Is a Clue That God Exists

While the secular view of morality can’t answer the most basic question of why it’s wrong to kidnap a child, the Christian view can.[9]

The Bible sees ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ not as social constructs or meaningless illusions, but as stitched into the fabric of reality by a God who is inherently moral.

The Christian view of reality gives a compelling answer to why it’s wrong to kidnap a four-year-old child: because stealing breaks God’s objective moral law that binds humanity (e.g., Ex 20:15; 1 Tim 1:10).

As Christianity leaves the western building, secular people still ‘know’ it’s wrong to kidnap a child: Cleo Smith’s abduction caused outrage across our culture.

And yet, our secular culture is left with the basic question of why kidnapping Cleo was wrong.

That’s a failure of secular morality.

[1] Tim Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation To The Skeptical (London: Hodder & Staughton, 2016), 179.

[2] Keller, Making Sense of God, 182, 309.

[3] Phillip Adams, Adams vs. God – The Rematch. Accessed via Google books, 17th Nov 21.

[4] Keller, Making Sense of God, 309.

[5] Keller, Making Sense of God, 309.

[6] Phillip Gorski, “Where Do Morals Come From?” Public Books, February 15, 2016, https://www.publicbooks.org/where-do-morals-come-from/. Accessed 17th November 21. Quoted in Keller, Making Sense of God, 182.

[7] My argument leaves aside the other question of why caring for others outside our tribe – a common secular value – could have helped us survive. Keller, Making Sense of God, 182.

[8] I’m indebted to Jewish social commentator Dennis Prager for the examples in this section – see his video on this issue.

[9] While this isn’t a knockdown argument for the existence of God, it’s a clue that he exists.