Only think 6

In a recent article, the Townhall columnist Jeff Jacoby discusses the proposition, put forward by the American Humanist Association in a series of TV and press ads, that people “can be good without God”.

Jacoby concedes that “people can be decent and moral without believing in a God who commands us to be good”. However, he argues, that is not because they reason their way to ethical behavior but because they “reflect the moral expectations of the society in which they were raised”.

He writes:

In our culture, even the most passionate atheist cannot help having been influenced by the Judeo-Christian worldview that shaped Western civilization. …

In a world without God, there is no obvious difference between good and evil. There is no way to prove that murder is wrong if there is no Creator who decrees “Thou shalt not murder.’’ It certainly cannot be proved wrong by reason alone.

Now then, now then (as British policemen used to say when approaching an area of rising excitement). Every moral law ever taught, whether or not as a divine injunction, came out of the heads of human beings. They may have claimed that a god inspired them, or instructed them, addressed them in dreams, or snatched them up for a brief sojourn in heaven and “revealed”  the message to them, but what they were actually doing was thinking.

Jewish sages bade people to obey the moral laws because, they warned, it was God’s will that they should. Disobey and you offend a terrible power! The Christian churches promised everlasting reward in paradise to those who obeyed and eternal punishment in the flames of hell to those who didn’t. The hope and the dread probably kept a lot of people behaving decorously a lot of the time.

The more sensible moral laws of Judaism and Christianity  – do not kill, do not steal, do not lie (“bear false witness”)  – are sound principles and are to be found in other cultures which do not claim that they were issued by a deity. They are precepts of Buddhism, for instance. It’s more than probable that many a forgotten tribe, whose gods were not of a kind to be drafted into law enforcement, penalized murder and theft and deception.

As for “doing unto others as you would be done by”, or refraining from doing to them what you wouldn’t like done to you – “the Golden Rule” that many religions preach -, was divine inspiration necessary for its conception? Common sense prompts it, experience teaches it, and reason approves it. It’s an excellent example of a moral idea arising out of intelligent self-interest.

Yet Jacoby opines:

Reason is not enough. Only if there is a God who forbids murder is murder definitively evil. Otherwise its wrongfulness is a matter of opinion.

Atheists may believe — and spend a small fortune advertising — that we can all be “good without God.’’ History tells a very different story.

The story that history tells is that religion has been the greatest source of human suffering next to bacteria, viruses, and natural disasters. And until quite recently, Christianity in all its major branches inflicted more agony on human bodies and minds than any other religion since Baal required babies to be thrown into the iron furnace of Moloch’s belly.

Jacoby is right that “in our culture, even the most passionate atheist cannot help having been influenced by the Judeo-Christian worldview that shaped Western civilization”. For good or ill, that must be the case. But there have been far better influences.

To men of reason since the dawn of the Enlightenment, to their skepticism, their enquiry, their science, their commerce, their exploration and invention we owe what is best in our civilization.

Jillian Becker  November 17, 2010

  • Tyler

    I would argue that notions of “goodliness,” morals, and ethics are inherent to Natural Law, which religion simply personified – many of these issues are essential to the prosperity of any living entity

  • Excellent piece. Obviously, fear of Hell and hope for Heaven have motivated many people through the years to behave themselves. Just as obviously, the real basis for human morality is consensus (otherwise religious doctrine about, say, homosexuality, would not change).

    Still, there is a sense in which I agree with Jacoby. If there actually were a God who issued divine moral commands, then we would live in a moral universe. There is something childishly appealing about that thought. The real universe is a-moral and indifferent. No matter how well we behave ourselves, our only rewards will come from inner satisfaction or the praise of other people.

  • Fan of Heather Mac Donald

    Yep, God is the source of human morality, and there is only one God and He has magic powers, which is how he can make every person in the world understand exactly how He commands them to act, and why they all behave that way in deference to his Awesomeness and Threateningness. Therefore all people adhere to the same moral code, which explains why the world is such a peaceful and loving place, with nothing to worry about except sickness, natural disasters, wild animals, and the eventual expansion of the sun.

  • Greg

    There is something so absurdly naive in believing that moral codes of conduct derive from the divine. How could it be that humankind ever evolved past the pre-historic stage if killing and other anti-social behavior was not frowned upon. (Oh yeah, I forgot the Earth is only 10,000 years old and the fossil record is faked by evil atheists with an agenda. But I’ll leave that notion for another rant). If an individual in any loosely organized social group starts stealing from, maiming or killing other members of that group, he will be quickly ostracized by the other members. Not in response to some godly commandment, but in a need to preserve self and community. They don’t need any proclamation from on-high to know they don’t want this type of individual in their society. To suggest that morals, ethics and social norms emanate from anything other than the evolution of civil societies is asinine. That most major religions have adopted these tenants is proof that universal truths prevail, nothing more.

  • MrFace

    This is a very great read, as I have had this conversation with theists before. And the same quote came about, “Atheists cause more suffering than Christians ever will.” My only point to refute that is the catastrophies of the Catholic church as well as mainstream fundamentalist Muslims have purported on our planet.

    Athiests in their own right can cause issues; it is inherent in man to cause problems; IE. envy, steal, kill, etc. However, Killing is different than murder and murdering in the name of a god is far worse than anything I have come across (I am a veteran of Iraq [x3] and Afghanistan [x2] ) and I have seen some stuff. Most of the enemy comes from radical fundamentalism and they do harm us because of their religion. Must I mention the Crusades by the Christians? Or the Salem Witch Trials? Or how about Jim Jones?

    Thank you for this piece.

  • TheImpaler

    What these holier-than-though Judeo-Christian would be moralists always compeltely ignore is that the very basis, the most fundamental precept of their religion is that ‘God’ will forgive any ‘sin’ you commit. In the final analysis, the is NO worse moral code in human history than this Christian idea that any act, no matter how heinous can be forgiven by simply apologising to your imaginary friend, Jesus. Also, of course, they ignore most of the old testament which defnitely does NOT prohibit killing per se, indeed it commands the killing of all sorts of people (see 2Chron 15:13 for starters), it prohibits only “doing murder” which is narrowly defined as the killing of a properly pious jew (presumably now also christian). Killing anyone else is just fine (required even).