“Can we be good without God?”


Is a belief in God essential to morality?


Many online articles carry that above headline so Mary’s question is a classic, one seen in this little incident: A traditional Nativity scene is being moved away from Nebraska’s state capitol for Christmas week 2015 to make way for atheists’ “Reason This Season” display. A sponsor explained the purpose: “It’s meant to communicate that atheists are not bad people; we can be good without God.”

Some might hold a simplistic view that religionists think they and only they are or could be moral, and that all non-believers fall short. Such assertions are nonsense, of course, and no serious religious figure would claim them. An individual atheist can lead an exemplary life, and a believer can be a scoundrel. British scholar C.S. Lewis observed that the fair comparison isn’t between problematic Christian X and virtuous non-believer Y, but rather what X would be like if he didn’t believe.

The actual question here is not virtues and vices of some individual but whether morality in general prospers if believers predominate, and whether society’s well-being suffers if many spurn faith in God. Does widespread respect for religious teachings, or fear of divine judgment, help people behave? Do supernatural ideals improve society’s over-all moral texture?

And the flip side. What is life like when foes of religion control society? The moral evidence from blood-drenched 20th and 21st Century Communist regimes certainly gives one pause. Robert P. George of Princeton University’s Program in America Ideals and Institutions [seriously ill at this writing] posed a variation on the theme in a November posting with the dramatic title “Could America Survive Without Religion?” More on that below.

But let’s start with prominent non-believers. Jerry Coyne, a University of Chicago specialist in biological evolution, contended in USA Today that much of morality “seems intuitive and inborn.” (Christians like the aforementioned Professor Lewis have agreed and, in fact, see humanity’s otherwise inexplicable and nearly universal sense of right and wrong as a reason to believe God exists.) Coyne said even for the religiously faithful “God cannot be the source of morality but at best a transmitter of some human-generated morality” because he sees no deity to give commandments. With the supernatural ruled out by definition, he finds the sources of morality in “evolution and secular reasoning.”

Coyne further argues that the God portrayed in the Bible sanctioned immoral deeds, specifically slavery (actually, Old Testament law didn’t advocate this system but accommodated it as a universal aspect of ancient economies) and genocide. That second issue is too complex to treat here but defenders of biblical religion answer it in, for instance, “Holy War in the Bible” (InterVarsity Press, 2013). Skeptics, of course, also cite one current Muslim faction’s horrific terrorism alleged to be in the service of God.

Note that Coyne believes in moral absolutes — no slavery, no genocide. Yet he criticizes religious morality because it’s absolutist. Likewise, President Ronald Lindsay of the freethikers’ Center for Inquiry contends at www.secularhumanism.org that “humanist ethics is far superior to religious ethics,” in part because it’s flexible rather than absolute and therefore subject to revision. Examples he cites are recent switches to favor same-sex marriage and the “right to die.” Of course, those two stands are also absolutist in their own way. Although religion, yes, upholds firm moral principles, theologians say applications vary, especially when two goods or two evils are in conflict.

Switching sides, an atheist-turned-Catholic, University of Texas philosopher J. Budziszewski, contends that denial of the goodness of God and related sense of right and wrong means “suppressing what we really know. . . . We lie to ourselves,” he thinks, because “we have a vested interest in doing so.” Can people do what’s good without following God?  He contends the answer is “yes and no, but mostly no.” Catholic seminary President Robert Barron recommends wariness about assumptions that “morality can endure apart from God. Much truer is Dostoyevsky’s observation that once God is removed anything is possible.”

Atheism’s moral flexibility is precisely the problem for philosopher William Lane Craig, who presents a typical evangelical case at his www.reasonablefaith.org. He asks whether values are merely social or personal preferences. “If morality is just a human convention, then why act morally, especially when it conflicts with self-interest. Or are we in some way held accountable?”

If “morality is wholly subjective and non-binding” without foundation, “objective moral values do not exist” so “why think that we have any moral obligations to do anything? Who or what imposes any moral duties?” Why shun, say, incest or murder when nothing is “really wrong”? Yet “the fact is we do apprehend objective moral values, and we all know it. Actions like rape, torture, child abuse, and brutality are not just socially unacceptable behavior. They are moral abominations.”

Also, he thinks that from the atheistic view lacking objective moral rules “it is difficult to see any reason to think human beings are special” with unalienable rights. “They are just accidental by-products of nature” that evolved “somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively.”

That brings us right to Professor George’s thoughts about the foundations of American democracy at www.thepublicdiscourse.com. He notes that Founding Fathers like John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington believed reason tells us that maintenance of human freedom requires widespread virtue and that, in turn, requires a religious basis. George ponders, “Dare we suppose that liberty-sustaining virtues can survive if the great mass of people over a great expanse of time lose or abandon a sense of the transcendent, the spiritual, the more-than-merely-human source of meaning and value?”

That “good without God” headline was used for a much-discussed 1989 article in The Atlantic by University of Massachusetts political scientist Glenn Tinder. He thought society may now be “living on moral savings accumulated over many centuries but no longer being replenished” as skepticism increases. Without God, he proposed, people instead worship false gods of politics or ethnicity, with “atrocious” results. “Nationalism or some other form of collective pride becomes virulent, and war unrestrained. Liberty, too, is likely to vanish when no God justifies and sanctifies the individual.”

Heavy stuff, on both sides. Your comments welcomed.

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