[I’m taking a break from the blog to bond with and care for my new son. Please enjoy this classic post! I’ll check in periodically to answer comments.]
More times than I can count, I’ve heard the argument that atheists can’t be trusted to act ethically, that human beings need to believe in a supernatural source of morality to coerce us to behave. (The most recent time I remember hearing this was in my debate with Peter Hitchens last year.) The argument usually goes that even if we nonbelievers have a self-chosen moral code derived from philosophy and personal reflection, that isn’t good enough, because it lacks any means of enforcement. If there’s no one looking over our shoulder, nothing can stop us from rearranging our moral code on a whim to suit our own desires.
Well, today I’m going to tell you how you can know this claim is false. In fact, I’m going to offer myself as an example to prove that it’s false.
As a “professional” blogger, I make a little bit of money every month from site traffic and book sales. It’s a nice little bonus, but that’s all it is. It’s certainly not enough to live on all by itself. But, if I ever wanted to get rich from writing and speaking – not pocket change, but real, quit-your-day-job kind of money – I could do it at any time, and I’ll tell you exactly how. (To learn the author’s amazing money-making secrets, send $49.95 plus shipping to the address at the bottom of this post! Just kidding.)
All I’d have to do is stage a dramatic, public “confession” in which I announced that I’d seen the light, that I’d come to realize that God does exist after all, and that I was henceforth discarding my atheism to devote my life to spreading the higher, holy truth mercifully revealed to me and saving other people from making the same mistake I did. For some added verisimilitude, I could even make up some past transgressions, “admitting” that I’d only ever been an atheist to indulge my sinful hedonism, even though I secretly knew I was wrong all along.
As soon as I did this, you can bet that the money-making opportunities would rain down like, if you’ll pardon the expression, manna from heaven. There’d be book contracts, TV appearances, speaking invitations at churches and private colleges… The “former atheist” credential is a hot commodity on the religious-right lecture circuit, and unlike most of the people who claim that title, I could prove it. (For some Christians who claim to be converted atheists, the evidence of that is, let’s say, fairly thin on the ground.)
I don’t claim this is an original idea. In The Nature of Existence, one of the Oxford physicists interviewed by the filmmaker said that if he ever wanted to be rich, he’d write a book with a title like “How Particle Physics Proves the Existence of God” that would be a nonsensical slurry of misused scientific terms, but that would sell a million copies and let him retire comfortably. But even if it’s not original, it would work. As the Tempter told me several years ago, there’s a lot of money to be made in telling people with a certain ideological cast of mind what they want to hear (see also: Atlas Shrugged). Of course, the record of this post might present a problem for this scheme, but I’m pretty sure I could even work around that.
So why haven’t I already done this? Truthfully, it’s because I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. But that’s just another way of saying that I have an ethical objection to deception, and I don’t think I could make myself break that principle for personal gain. And that’s the solution to the Christian apologist’s argument. You don’t need a supernatural overseer if the person who enforces your moral code on you is you. If you truly internalize your own moral code, if you make it part of your self, you won’t break it because breaking it would turn you into the kind of person you despise.