A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 3

A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 3 February 19, 2014

This is part 3 of my “Think! Of God and Government” debate series with Christian author Andrew Murtagh. Read my latest post and Andrew’s reply.


Thanks again for inviting me to take part in our radio debate last month. It was fun, even if I sometimes felt like I was arguing with the host more than I was arguing with you! I’ve always found that thinking on my feet is tricky, but I welcome the chance to get more practice.

On the subject of how people acquire religious belief, I think this is mainly a question of what precedes what. I don’t know what your personal story is, and if you believe that Christianity speaks uniquely to the human condition in a way that other religions don’t, I’d like to hear why. But when I see someone first acquiring religious belief in childhood, or through a powerfully emotional conversion experience, and later using sophisticated apologetics to defend it, it sets my skeptical senses tingling. Human beings are very good at finding clever rationalizations for things we want to believe for other reasons, and the most obvious proof of this is that millions of people make the same arguments in support of completely different and incompatible faiths!

But perhaps we’ll revisit this later on. You asked about my views on morality, and I’m happy to oblige. I’ve written about this at much greater length, but I’ll try to present a short summary here.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that the basis for morality is human happiness. It can’t be otherwise, because if you start with any other virtue – justice, say, or filial duty, or individual liberty, or religious piety – you can ask why we should value that quality, why we should care about it at all. And whatever answer you give, you can ask the same question again. If you chase this regression as far as you can, you’ll ultimately end up at happiness: the only quality that’s intrinsically valuable, the only thing we desire for its own sake and not because it gives rise to some other good.

Here’s what I see as the really important step: the realization that happiness is an empirical phenomenon. Although individuals have unique likes and dislikes, there are basic, fixed facts about human nature which we all have in common. This means that there are objective truths about what does and doesn’t promote human well-being. These moral truths exist not by decree of a supernatural being, but simply by virtue of the kind of beings we are and the ways in which we relate to each other.

This means that not all opinions about morality are created equal; not all ideas about what promotes happiness are correct. Some are better than others, reflect reality more closely than others. And the only way to reliably identify those that are better and those that are worse is through rational debate based on empirical evidence.

As I see it, the purpose of society is to ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met, and then, as far as is practical, to get out of the way and make it possible for each person to pursue their own vision of the good life. In his book The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris invites us to imagine a landscape where every point stands for a particular way of organizing society, and the elevation of that point represents the happiness that that society produces. On this landscape there are foothills, ridges and mountain peaks, representing blissful utopias, and there are sinkholes, valleys and deep depressions, representing dystopias of various kinds – dictatorships, theocracies, oligarchies – where the well-being of the many is trampled for the sake of the few. Our task is to figure out how to move uphill: to find the innovations, whether they be technological, political or philosophical, that improve life for all of us.

Obviously, this is a very complex task, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. But I think there are some fundamental moral truths that it would be folly to deny. For example, because conscious existence is obviously a prerequisite for happiness, I agree that human life should be preserved whenever possible. To destroy another person, except in the direst cases of self-defense or to relieve otherwise unbearable suffering, is a terrible crime because it robs them of all the happiness they might otherwise have had.

I’d like to hear more about where we part company, but in general, I find that my views differ from religious believers in one of two ways. With some, I have a philosophical disagreement: the theists who believe that human happiness is not important, only God’s happiness is, and therefore he’s entitled to treat us however he sees fit. I think Calvinists could fairly be described as believing this, for example. (I once read a tract which said that people in heaven and people in hell glorify God equally, just in different ways – the saved by making it possible for him to show his love, the damned by making it possible for him to show his wrath. That always gives me a shudder.)

Then there are the theists who believe that human happiness is paramount, but that there’s an afterlife which is infinitely more significant than this one, and so our primary moral responsibility is to follow whatever rules have to be followed to secure access to the better class of afterlife. I think this view is less pernicious than the other, but I still have a fundamental disagreement with it. As I’ve often said, afterlife-based morality can produce good results for human beings, but when it does, it’s only by coincidence.

I’m curious to hear if you’d describe yourself as belonging to either of these camps, or if you’d advocate something different entirely.

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