A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 1

A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 1 December 9, 2013

Author’s Note: This post kicks off the “Of God and Government” debate series, featuring me and a Christian author, Andrew Murtagh, which I intend to become a semi-regular feature on Daylight Atheism. You can read Andrew’s opening statement on Patheos’ Versus blog, and this is my initial reply. I’ll also be appearing at the Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with Andrew on December 14 for a live debate.

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Hello Andrew,

Thanks for contacting me! I appreciate your kind words about my writing, and I hope to learn more about yours over the course of this debate. I’m sure I’ll be able to offer a similarly positive and enthusiastic recommendation of it. You describe yourself as a “doubting theist”, which isn’t a term I’ve heard anyone claim for themselves before, and I’m curious to hear more about what it means.

I think this blog exchange was an excellent idea. These are the deepest and most fascinating questions there are, and I’m always happy to have a friendly debate with people of good will, whatever their viewpoint is. Besides which, I’ve always been of the opinion that any forum which consists only of people agreeing with each other is bound to be boring and unilluminative. Truth is best revealed in the light of the sparks that fly when two worldviews bump up against each other, illuminating the corners where they mesh and the rough areas where they clash.

You’ve laid out your starting principles, and I’m sure you’ll have ample opportunity to expound on them over the course of this exchange. In return, these are mine. Suffice to say that I see plenty of areas of both agreement and disagreement that we can productively explore.

You asked about my views on morality, and that’s a good starting point, because that’s really what it all comes down to, right? No matter what we think of someone else’s beliefs or customs, the most important question is whether we can live on the same planet together.

Well, my answer is that morality is the science of human happiness. In the same way that medicine is the science of restoring the body to health (whatever your definition of “health” is), I contend that morality is the same thing, but with a broader purpose: not just fixing what’s gone wrong, but figuring out how we should treat each other so that all our lives contain the most happiness (whatever your definition of “happiness” is).

I’m not saying that there’s a scientifically provable answer to the question of what we should do in every possible moral dilemma. But I am saying that we can know, and can prove to a reasonable person’s satisfaction, that some principles work better than others, and that we should construct our society along those lines so as to make it a better place for everyone. This is similar to what Sam Harris said in The Moral Landscape, although I flatter myself that I’ve been thinking independently along these lines for quite a while. My essay on atheist morality, “The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick“, was first published in 2001!

My contention is that morality should be based not on armchair reasoning or religious decree, but on evidence: the empirical observation of the world which shows that some things are more conducive to happiness and well-being than others. Once you accept this idea, the consequence of morality being an objective truth just falls right out of that, in the same way that the answer to any other scientific question is objective. That’s not to say it will always be easy to discover. But if morality ever seems vague or subjective, it’s only because we’re asking such big, complicated questions, and our evidence is still so incomplete.

I think that most people, including most atheists, who say they’re moral relativists really mean that they don’t grant any single book, tradition or authority figure the sole right to decide what’s right or wrong; that they find good ideas in many different viewpoints. And I agree with that! I doubt that anyone, including me, has the full picture of what’s moral and what isn’t. My most important objective isn’t to defend a specific set of moral principles as established truth – although obviously I do argue for certain conclusions – but to get people to think about morality in the right way, to ask the right questions. Once we’re doing that, I think we’ll converge on the same answers without too much fuss.

I find that the greatest source of opposition to this progress is the view that someone – some perfect source – has already told us what morality is, and all we have to do is find where it’s written down. I want to argue that this idea is unworkable for discovering moral truth just as it’s unworkable for discovering scientific truth. So here’s my question to you: To what extent do you think we can derive morality from religious belief? Do you believe that the Bible and other religious texts are trustworthy guides to how we should live, or do they need to be taken with a grain of salt? And whatever your answer, what do you think the best way is to communicate that message to everyone else?

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