If there is no God, Why be Good?

People say we need religion when what they really mean is we need police. — H. L. Mencken

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wo iced coffee cans (“Kicking Horse”) in me, I think it’s about time I wrote a little bit more on morality. This blog post is to briefly deal with the claim that we can not be good without God. The issue does not need a lengthy discussion, since it has been dealt with in other sources rather well. I will include a book recommendation at the bottom of the blog of books that I found particularly helpful.

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Instagram: davidferencik

Michael Shermer, in The Science of Good and Evil, says that, if you agree that in the absence of God, you would ‘commit robbery, rape, and murder’ you in the end only reveal yourself as a pure immoral force in the world, ‘we would be well advised to steer a wide course around you’. If you, however, continue being a good person, you have undermined your claim that God is necessary for you to be good. Well put, Michael.

Timothy Keller reiterates this claim over and over in his books, The Reasons for God and in his more recent book Making Sense of God. Similarly, I have also dealt with such claims on this blog, (if you want some further reading):

Dostoevsky is perhaps most famous to speak on this, since he was a believer and believed that abstaining from Religion leads to moral chaos. In the words of one of his characters from his novel The Idiot (Ivan Karamazov):

“Egoism, even extending to the perpetration of crime, would not only be permissible but would be recognized as the essential, the most rational, and even the noblest raison d’ etre (reason for being — loose translation — I am new to french) of the human condition.”

Richard Dawkins confesses, addressing this quote in his book The God Delusion, that he is not “claiming that atheism increases morality, although humanism — the ethical system that often goes with atheism — probably does” (262).

How do Cultures with an Over-Whelming Christian Presence and Influence Look Morally?

Well if Dawkins is right, that humanism leads to morality and that Christianity does not necessarily, we should be able to clearly observe this from history and current culture.

1. The (Christian) Past

The past is too big of an issue to deal with completely in a short blog, so I just want to look at it from a philosophical perspective and then also from observing today’s intellectual world (since that is the one I am most involved in an interested in). Anthony Gottlieb helps us in this regard in his book, The Dream of Reason:

“By the year 1000, medicine, physics, astronomy, biology and indeed all branches of theoretical knowledge except theology had virtually collapsed. Even the few relatively educated men, holed up in monasteries, knew markedly less than many Greeks had done eight centuries earlier. . . . In short, Christendom was colossally ignorant” (363).

Gottlieb doesn’t completely blame the Christian, duly noted. He hesitatingly says that, “Perhaps Christianity can be blamed for some of this neglect. After all, some influential early Christians had maintained that the only important thing to know about the world was that it was created by God” (363). For example Augustine, one of the church fathers, condemned “vain inquisitiveness dignified with the title of knowledge and science” and similarly “the dissection of human corpses was regarded as an impious impertinence, so serious medical research was out of the question” (363).

It is clear that Gottlieb agrees that most of intellectual thought “fell asleep” during this period. In his own words:

“AD 529 is a convenient milestone for the history of philosophy. From round about this time, philosophy in the West remained more or less subservient to Christianity for about a millennium . . . philosophy fell asleep for about a thousand years until awakened by the kiss of Descartes” (359).

It is clear that this is an issue. Because meanwhile, the Muslim world was making rapid progress in medicine, science, mathematics, and philosophy, ever since its scholars began translating Greek works (namely from Aristotle and Plato) into Syriac and Arabic (8th century).

Why were Christians so hesitant to read the Greeks you may ask (apart from the few select among which was Thomas Aquinas)? It was because of Aristotle’s “pagan” beliefs (the largest philosophical influence in the medieval era up until Descartes).

Aristotle

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Aristotle believed that the soul dies after death; Christians believed in an eternal soul. Aristotle believed that the world had always existed; Christians said that it had a beginning. Aristotle’s God was deistic in nature; Christians believed that God cared for them to the point of sacrificing his son. This is why Christians dismissed his concepts and strayed from Greek thought — mistakenly so.

Atheists Being Burnt to Death

As recently as 1619 atheists were executed in Europe by having their tongues pulled out and then being burnt to death, and even in the eighteenth century there were stiff legal penalties in Britain for impiety: for example, in 1763, 70 year old Peter Annet was sentenced to a year of hard labor for questioning the accounts of miracles in the Old Testament (Fundamental Problems and Readings in Philosophy, 47).

On and on we can go, philosopher after philosopher, scientist after scientist were losing their jobs and lives because of skepticism. That was Christianity at it’s height intellectually. It did not change after the reformation with Martin Luther. Luther was arguably the most crazy of them all.

2. The Present

Now let us further progress to what the current situation we are in. Sam Harris helpfully illustrates this issue in his book Letter to a Christian Nation. He looks at data from the U.S. It is striking.

“If there were a strong correlation between Christian conservatism and societal health, we might expect to see some sign of it in red-state America. We don’t. Of the twenty-five cities with the lowest rates of violent crime, 62 percent are in ‘blue’ [Democrat] states, and 38 percent are in ‘red’ [Republican] states. Of the twenty-five most dangerous cities, 76 percent are in red states, and 24 percent are in blue states. In fact, three of the five most dangerous cities in the U.S. are in the pious state of Texas. The twelve states with the highest rates of burglary are red. Twenty-four of the twenty-nine states with the highest rates of theft are red. Of the twenty-two states with the highest rates of murder, seventeen are red” (taken from God Delusion, pp. 262).

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Gregory S. Paul, in the Journal of Religion and Society (2005), similarly compared seventeen economically developed nations and concluded that “higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy ad abortion in the prosperous democracies”.

Objective Morality vs. Subjective Morality

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C. S. Lewis

Why don’t universal claims work for everyone? For example, why can’t the belief that sex before marriage is evil and should be abstained from work in Africa and the U.S., currently?

It was C. S. Lewis that stated that only objective moral claims are valid ones. He proposed that all subjective views on morality must lead to ruin. I enjoy Lewis. I am currently re-reading a biography on him (C. S. Lewis: Life, Works, and Legacy by Bruce L. Edwards). It is hard to say why, I find him incredibly inspirational. He was quite the intellect, knew how to read in a handful of languages, had training in classical philosophy and was incredibly well-read in English Literature. That doesn’t mean he was incapable of error, unfortunately.

Lewis claims that there is a moral human consciousness that is given to us by God and is universal for all people groups and ethnicities around the world. People that agree with this position however have to ignore the vast differences between cultures. Anthropologists and Sociologists around the world could regard such a claim as ignorant, even.

The Evolution of Morality

Chimpanzees for example exhibit fear and shame when they violate the laws of their groups. Does that mean they too believe in God? Sam Harris explains this type of behavior and the rise of moral capability, empathy, and altruism in his book Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values:

“1. Genetic changes in the brain gave rise to social emotions, moral intuitions, and language . . .

2. These allowed for increasingly complex cooperative behavior, the keeping of promises, concern about one’s reputation, etc. . . .

3. Which became the basis for cultural norms, laws, and social institutions whose purpose has been to render this growing system of cooperation durable in the face of countervailing forces” (59).

Richard Dawkins also helps us in the same regard, he explains the four different Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic or ‘moral’ to one another.

1. Genetic kinship.

2. Reciprocation: the repayment of favors given and the anticipating of favors given back.

3. The Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness.

4. (Theory) Conspicuous generosity (Altruistic giving may be an advertisement of dominance or superiority).

“By any or all of the four routes, genetic tendencies towards altruism would have been favored in early humans” (252).

Belief in God Does not Equal Superior Moral Behavior

It is clear from both history and the present, as was briefly touched on in this blog post, Christianity does not necessarily lead to great moral behavior. If anything, we proved quite the contrary. Does that mean that Christians on an individual basis are worse than Atheists? No. I am not trying to suggest that. What I am trying to suggest, on the other hand, is that Christianity is not needed for moral goodness. The argument that we cannot be good without God needs to die alongside it’s logic.

Further Reading:

I would like to suggest reading the books already mentioned in this blog, namely: God Delusion, Moral Landscape, Dream of Reason to understand these claims. Further, I find these books dealing with the evolution of morality and philosophy to be eye-openers for me: Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (by de Waal Frans), The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God (by Peter Watson), The End of Faith (by Sam Harris), and Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (by Lewis Wolpert).

I kept the list short to the books that I have read. I find that the biggest reasons the people that I come in contact with don’t believe what I believe about Religion, is because they have not spent the time to try to understand both views from both perspectives.

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Author of “Up in the Air: Christianity, Atheism & the Global Problems of the 21st Century” on AMAZON | Exploring Ethical Living | IG: jakub.ferencik.official

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