For those who subscribe to Judeo-Christian values, right and wrong, good and evil, are derived from God, not from reason alone, nor from the human heart, the state or through majority rule.
Though most college-educated Westerners never hear the case for the need for God-based morality because of the secular outlook that pervades modern education and the media, the case is both clear and compelling: If there is no transcendent source of morality (morality is the word I use for the standard of good and evil), "good" and "evil" are subjective opinions, not objective realities.
In other words, if there is no God who says, "Do not murder" ("Do not kill" is a mistranslation of the Hebrew which, like English, has two words for homicide), murder is not wrong. Many people may think it is wrong, but that is their opinion, not objective moral fact. There are no moral "facts" if there is no God; there are only moral opinions.
Years ago, I debated this issue at Oxford with Jonathan Glover, currently the professor of ethics at King's College, University of London, and one of the leading atheist moralists of our time.
Because he is a man of rare intellectual honesty, he acknowledged that without God, morality is subjective. He is one of the few secularists who do.
This is the reason for the moral relativism -- "What I think is right is right for me, what you think is right is right for you" -- that pervades modern society. The secularization of society is the primary reason vast numbers of people believe, for example, that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter"; why the best educated were not able say that free America was a more moral society than the totalitarian Soviet Union; why, in short, deep moral confusion afflicted the 20th century and continues in this century.
That is why The New York Times, the voice of secular moral relativism, was so repulsed by President Ronald Reagan's declaration that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire." The secular world -- especially its left -- fears and rejects the language of good and evil because it smacks of religious values and violates their moral relativism. It is perhaps the major difference between America and Europe. As a New York Times article on European-American differences noted last year, "Americans are widely regarded as more comfortable with notions of good and evil, right and wrong, than Europeans. . . . " No wonder. America is a Judeo-Christian society; Europe (and the American Democratic Party) is largely secular.
In the late 1970s, in a public interview in Los Angeles, I asked one of the leading secular liberal thinkers of the past generation, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., if he would say that the United States was a morally superior society to that of the Soviet Union. Even when I repeated the question, and clarified that I readily acknowledged the existence of good individuals in the Soviet Union and bad ones in America, he refused to do so.
A major reason for the left's loathing of George W. Bush is his use of moral language -- such as in his widely condemned description of the regimes of North Korea, Iran and Iraq as an "axis of evil." These people reject the central Judeo-Christian value of the existence of objective good and evil and our obligation to make such judgments. Secularism has led to moral confusion, which in turn has led to moral paralysis.
If you could not call the Soviet Union an "evil empire" or the Iranian, North Korean and Iraqi regimes an "evil axis," you have rendered the word "evil" useless. And indeed it is not used in sophisticated secular company -- except in reference to those who do use it (usually religious Christians and Jews).
Is abortion morally wrong? To the secular world, the answer is "It's between a woman and her physician." There is no clearer expression of moral relativism: Every woman determines whether abortion is moral. On the other hand, to the individual with Judeo-Christian values, it is not between anyone and anyone else. It is between society and God. Even among religious people who differ in their reading of God's will, it is still never merely "between a woman and her physician."
And to those who counter these arguments for God-based morality with the question, "Whose God?" the answer is the God who revealed His moral will in the Old Testament, which Jews and Christians -- and no other people -- regard as divine revelation.
The best-known verse in the Bible is "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). It is a reflection of the secular age in which we live that few people are aware that the verse concludes with the words, "I am God." Though entirely secularized in common parlance, the greatest of the ethical principles comes from God. Otherwise it is just another man-made suggestion, no more compelling than "Cross at the green, not in between."
Dennis Prager is a SRN radio show host, contributing columnist for Townhall.com and author of his newest book, “The Ten Commandments: Still the Best Moral Code.”