‘Atheist Overreach’ and Being Good Without Gods

‘Atheist Overreach’ and Being Good Without Gods August 26, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Recently, we read and began talking about Christian Smith’s 2019 book Atheist Overreach. A solid chunk of the book frets about how on earth societies can possibly function without adopting the rules that religions have set in place for their adherents. Today, let’s examine the argument that he offers for religious-based morality — being good without gods, so to speak — and see what really makes it tick.

catholics showing us how they can be good without god
Filippo Dolciati, The Execution of Girolamo Savonarola. (Wikipedia.)

(Previous Atheist Overreach posts: Conservation of the Law of Worship; Blaming the Wrong People; The Wrong Questions to Ask About Atheism; Avoiding the Burden of Proof; Wingnuts Galore; The Courtier’s Reply; Atheological Metaphysics In MY Apologetics Book?; Evil Scientism; What This Book Gets Wrong About Meaning and Purpose. Page citations come from the 2019 hardback edition of the book. All emphases exist in the original sources unless noted. Also, I don’t use scare quotes without warning you.)

Can People Be Good Without Gods?

In Atheist Overreach, Christian Smith repeatedly expresses great concern about what would happen to humanity if we all completely abandoned religion. Indeed, he sounds very pleased with the religious people worldwide who “are pushing back hard against the pressures of secularism; they want nothing to do with what they view as a godless, secular way of life.” (For someone claiming to be trying hard to be nonpartisan, he sure does like loaded phrases like that.) Smith summarizes his concerns thusly (p. 2):

Central to this contest over religion and secularity are a set of open questions, the answers to which have big consequences for whether religions or secularism have viable long-term futures and how human societies might best be organized. One is What kind of moral standards are genuinely secular people justified in holding? Do secularists have good reasons to be “good without God?” Or, if belief in God fades, will that have moral consequences that most people today would consider harmful?

His answer to this question will take up a large part of the book.

Given that this guy is not only a Christian but a very scholarly Catholic, we know already what his answer is going to be:

Everyone needs to allow Christians to regain their lost dominance — or else society will fall apart in flames.

(In the book, Christian Smith acts like he’s speaking for all religions everywhere. But here — as in many other places — we perceive very clearly that this is an apologetics book for Catholicism specifically.)

Christian Smith’s Argument: NOPE.

In the introduction, he summarizes what he views as the only two sides to the whole morality question (p. 2):

If people can carry on their personal and social lives with functional standards of morality that produce order, happiness, and flourishing, if science really can prove atheism, and if humans can readily leave behind their previously influential religious beliefs and practices, then humanity’s long-term future may very well look quite secular. On the other hand if religion actually plays an essential role in upholding desired moral convictions and behaviors, if the findings of science actually do not or cannot endorse atheism, and if it turns out that human beings in fact are “naturally religious” in some important ways, then we should expect religion to persist indefinitely into the future, despite the forces of secularization and atheism.

We’ve already spent a great deal of time discussing his various distortions and misunderstandings regarding science and the scientific method, and we’ll cover “naturally religious” in coming discussions. Both of these are complete red herrings anyway, in the context of his book. Seriously, they don’t matter. Neither does morality, as we’ll see.

Ultimately, his concerns illustrate an appeal to consequences. And that first one might be the worst offender of the entire lot.

(In seeing only two outcomes here, he also stands guilty of making a false dilemma. There’s lots of ways this whole situation with religion could turn out. It doesn’t have to be either a theocracy or a secular world. He doesn’t explore any other options, though.)

A Brief Overview of the Fallacies Involved Here.

An appeal to consequences is a logical fallacy committed when people don’t support their actual claims, but instead seek to scare their opponents into accepting the claim without support. To do that, they try to raise their opponents’ fears of what might happen if they don’t accept the claim. (Sometimes this fallacy is called the argument from adverse consequences.)

One very common way to express this fallacy runs thusly:

  1. If P were true, then Q would happen.
  2. Q would be just awful.
  3. Therefore, P can’t be true.

Here’s another way to express it:

  1. If P were true, then Q would happen.
  2. Q is wonderful!
  3. Therefore, P must be true.

The arguer never gets around to actually demonstrating that P is true. Instead, the arguer bases everything around liking or disliking Q.

We could even go one step further and say that Smith asserts here a sort of argument from force:

  1. If we accept P as true, then Q happens.
  2. We really don’t want Q to happen, so we’ll act to prevent it if we can.
  3. Therefore, P can’t be true.

And in Application.

Here’s how I see Christian Smith’s argument running, worded more clearly:

  1. If people abandon religion, then secularization will happen.
  2. Secularization would be just awful.
  3. Therefore, people must not abandon religion.

Amusingly, Smith never actually even goes near establishing whether any of Christianity’s supernatural claims are true. In a way, that’s actually a relief. He’s going at it more from a utilitarian viewpoint.

Instead, he argues that Catholicism organized religion represents some massive force for social good that people really need. Thus, without that force in their lives, people will devolve into animals.

Being Good Without Gods: NOOOOPE.

Chapter 1 begins by graciously conceding that yes, of course “atheists can be good despite not believing in God.” (Ain’t that nice?)

Christian Smith immediately destroys that bit of goodwill by declaring that atheists just can’t be as “good” as the adherents of Catholicism religions. Sure, they can be good, but they can’t be GOOD-good. Not like religious people. I’m not kidding. Here’s how he puts it (p. 10):

I will conclude that atheists are rationally justified in living according to a certain conception of moral standards that we can rightly call “good,” but that this standard ought to be ethically modest, setting more more than a moderately high bar of moral expectations on human behavior. And this modest standard of morality falls far short of the kind of robust, universal, humanistic morality that most atheist activists have in mind today when they insist that we can be “good without God.”

Sounds rather insulting to me. He’s guilty of being snide frequently in this section of the book, for all his pretenses at fairness (like on p. 15: “each [atheist] author spells out a somewhat different rationale for being so very good without God”).

Being Good Without Gods Religious Rules.

Worse, Smith thinks that anybody who doesn’t belong to a religion (and I use the word belong in the fullest sense of the word here) needs to have not only a good reason to behave in a moral manner, but also a motivation for doing so (p. 12):

When it comes to justifying potentially costly moral behaviors for real human beings as we actually are, to have good reasons requires two parts: a warranting explanation and a justifying motivation.

And if you haven’t done all of that to King Him’s satisfaction, then don’t even bother trying to tell him that atheists do just fine without his religion’s ruleset. Since he thinks religion does that best, obviously humanity needs religion.

And by “needs religion” up there, I mean of course that we need to comply with the demands of Catholic leaders. You just can’t be good without gods, by which he means his own religious ruleset.

I was thinking of doing a big grand ole examination of natural law. We might later. But why bother? This guy’s just using it to rationalize his own overreach. I don’t need to go anywhere near that far to refute his thesis.

So: My Grand Rebuttal.

I hear Christian Smith’s constant drumbeat of you can’t be good without gods and raise him all of these Catholic horror stories:

Whatever Christian Smith imagines his religion brings to the table to make it worth non-Christians’ time now, he is wrong. There is nothing Catholicism could ever do for us that makes it worth us putting up with these abuses and more and worse, as they forced us to do for centuries.

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” know already: we’d have freed that captive child. It feels like Catholic leaders, however, would have put a few more kids in that broom closet — you know, just to be sure.


An excellent debate with Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens against two Catholic leaders. The topic: Is the Catholic Church a force for good in the world? An excellent listen. These two great minds are at their very best here.

And This.

Oh, but it gets worse than that even.

Whatever Christian Smith imagines his religion even does for its own adherents, that notion is also wrong.

There really isn’t any difference between Christians and non-Christians in terms of behavior — unless it’s a negative in Christians’ direction.

He can dress up his high-falutin’ morality however he wants. It’s done nothing to make Catholic leaders follow their very own rules, nor Catholic sheep. From the very first days of their religion’s creation, Christians in general have been known very well for their hypocrisy — their own inability to follow the rules they pretended to follow and wanted everyone else to follow.

Indeed, when we find a genuinely kind and ethical Christian, we do not ever attribute those traits to that person’s religion. We know Christianity had nothing whatsoever to do with their goodness.

And it never does.

People have always taken their morality from other places, then used their ideology to rationalize what they thought right and wanted to do anyway.

Just like Christian Smith himself does, and just like his Dear Leaders always have, and just like everyone does.

The Reality of Catholic “Morality.”

The literal only reason that Catholics’ scandals came to light, the literal only reason that their many victims have even begun seeing any justice for their pain, is the rise of secularism.

That’s it.

If not for secularism, for that same secularism that Christian Smith snidely dismisses as not being good enough for King Him to accept as a framework for morality, Catholic priests would still be brutalizing women and children worldwide. They would still feel utterly serene in knowing nobody’d ever bring them to justice for any of it, because who could? They were completely untouchable.

If a proposed moral system does not bring about good in the people practicing it, it’s not a good system — no matter how many knots someone can tie himself into arguing for its soundness and necessity. The Catholic framework of “morality” hasn’t led fervent Catholics to goodness. Catholic laypeople, especially in America, tend to be decent folks — but notably, most of them don’t follow their leaders’ party lines and are nowhere near as extreme as the Catholic keyboard-commanders infesting the internet these days.

(Captain Cassidy’s Law of Predictive Catholic Awfulness: Any Catholic who feels strongly enough about Catholicism to loudly announce that affiliation AND argue about it has a high likelihood of being a truly awful human being.)

And the Reality of Secularism.

I guess Christian Smith hasn’t figured out that plenty of secular countries, like Japan and Scandinavia, already exist. They seem to be doing fine with secularism. They’re bastions of human rights, functionality, law-abidingness, public health and safety, and good education.

At the same time, there are plenty of countries that are incredibly dominated by Christianity, like the United States, Brazil, Russia, Mexico, Haiti, and quite a bit of Africa. To be as kind as possible, these uber-Christian countries are not doing fine. By every measurement I know of, these super-Christian societies are dysfunctional dystopias compared to the more secular nations.

On the smaller scale, I don’t know very many people who look at Christians’ relationships and see anything there they desperately need or want. Or who see a Jesus fish on a business’ sign and immediately trust that place to treat them fair and square.

As much as it obviously drives ivory-tower Catholics crazy, their paradigm just doesn’t work in the real world. It never did. So now that we can abandon it without the gruesome retaliation Catholic leaders could once mete out, that’s exactly what we’re doing.

NEXT UP: Atheist Overreach has some weird ideas about morality. See you tomorrow for some of them!


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A semi-last note: As you probably suspect already, this book doesn’t talk about any of the scandals I brought up today.

I predict now: the Catholic scandals we know about represent just the smallest trickling of the truth. I have no doubt of this. If we ever do unveil the full extent of Catholic cruelty, that panorama will make the priests’ very prison stones weep.

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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