Only think 111

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