“Good Without God:” What’s the Reality?

Someone on Facebook (“Zach”) was touting the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Doctors Without Borders, and the Foundation Beyond Belief yesterday, saying they were “doing good without gods.” Zach’s point was that atheists can be just as compassionate as Christians, or even more so. I have to say I am impressed with the Gates’ generosity and the great work DWB does. I’m not familiar enough with FBB to comment on that group.

What He Meant to Say Was…
But there’s confusion in this phrase, “doing good without gods.” It’s a uniquely atheist/skeptic kind of thing to say, but I wonder if we Christians are partly to blame for it.

I think what Zach meant was “doing good without believing in gods.” Otherwise what he said makes no sense. Atheists, Hindus, Muslims, tribal religionists, Jews, and Christians all do the good we do without gods if there is no God or gods; but if there is a God or gods, then we all do the good we do with God or gods. So if there is a God, and if this God is good and motivates humans to do good (as I’m obviously convinced is true), then the Gateses, DWB, and FBB are all doing good with God. They just don’t know it or acknowledge it.

With Or Without God?
Look at it this way. Suppose Zach and I wanted to settle the matter once and for all, so we set up an experiment:

Hypothesis H: atheists can be good without God or gods, as much as or more than Christians can be good with God.

EC1 (Experimental Condition 1): There is a good God who really exists, who created all of physical reality, who made humans in his image, and who has impressed his ethical nature upon our own natures so that we recognize what is good even if we don’t acknowledge God as its source. We measure how much good Christians do in that reality.

EC2: There is no God or gods. We measure how much good atheists do in that reality.

Statistical Test: compare the measurements. H is supported if the measurement in EC1 is not significantly greater than in EC2 by Student’s t-test.

Feel free to laugh–though there’s a point to it. Even as a thought experiment this fails miserably. Reality rules: in EC1, if atheists are good, they are good in a reality that includes God; they are good with God, whether they believe in God or not. In EC2, if Christians are good, they are good in a reality that does not include God; they are good without God, whether they believe in God or not.

Obviously the experiment is impossible in a more fundamental way. We live in Condition 1 or Condition 2, or potentially Condition 3, Condition 4, … Condition n, and whichever Condition x we’re in, that’s the reality we are in with respect to the existence or non-existence of God or gods; and we’re never going to change it. Obviously I believe we’re in Condition 1, and that it’s not an experimental condition at all, but I think you get my point.

But Zach and many others (including the authors of at least two books, judging by their titles) miss this. They think that if they’re good without believing in God, they’re being good without God. They treat it as if it’s the belief that matters, not the reality of God.

How Christians Contribute To This Confusion
And this is where I wonder if Christians bear part of the blame. Too many of our preachers have focused on what happens if we believe in God, rather than centering their message on the reality of God himself, and his character and his Kingdom. So if atheists and skeptics focus on what happens if we believe or disbelieve in God, maybe they’re just following certain Christians’ cues.

We could also assign some of blame for this logical error to postmodern rejection of knowledge of reality. Whatever the source of the confusion, I’m urging fellow believers in Christ to keep the reality of God at the center of your thinking. Belief and disbelief have their effects, but they have those effects because of their relation to reality.

And I’m urging atheists, skeptics, and seekers to bear in mind that your beliefs about God are not the same as the reality of God. If God is real, you can’t be good without God. You can’t be anything without God, for there is no such thing as without God.

Comments 45
  1. Ratio Christi, University of Marylant

    Mr. Gilson proposes some “thought experiments” in today’s post and then makes his point about what “whithout” means to two different groups of people (an exercise in equivocation, actually). What Mr. Gilson did not provide, however, were any data related to his experiments – probably because they wouldn’t contribute to his point (or detract from it) since his point was about the meanings of “without” rather than the actual measurements of the respective people groups’ philanthropies.

    Such data do actually exist, however, and they make another salient point with respect to atheists’ claims about being “good without God.”

    http://anotherslownewsday.wordpress.com/atheism-philanthropy/

  2. Tom Gilson

    Here’s what I told Zachary there on Facebook. It’s another perspective in addition to the one Ratio Christi just linked to:

    … do you know you’re begging the question when you say “doing good without gods”? What you really meant to say, I’m pretty sure, was “doing good without belief in gods.” Whether they’re doing it without the reality of God or gods is the question that’s on the table.

    Note too that they are not doing good without a cultural heritage of belief in God. Why is that important? Because as you look at world history, you find that the kind of good they are doing was a distinctly Christian innovation. Plato, Aristotle, and their Greek counterparts were indifferent or even opposed to helping the infirm. Rome was too [to an extent that would surprise most of us today]. So from where did the Western world acquire the value of compassion? Not from Renaissance or Enlightenment classical sources, but from its Judeo-Christian heritage.

    There’s a classic complaint from the Roman Emperor Julian, dubbed “the Apostate,” about how the Christians were caring for pagans, and how embarrassing it was to his attempted revival of pagan religion that his gods’ priests and people weren’t doing anything like it. You can look it up easily enough on the web. It’s not a quote-mine or any such thing: it’s quite representative of the general reality of the day.

    Look through world history especially for this: while it has been common throughout all cultures for people to care for their own kin and tribe, where do you see the value of caring for others, not of the same nation or race or religion, originating?

    So when you bring up DWB, Bill and Melinda Gates, and FBB, you’re reminding us all of the good that has come out of Western culture’s Christian heritage. Thank you for that.

    I didn’t bring this in to the OP because (as RC also noted) it wasn’t my main point. Mostly this time I wanted to encourage people–especially Christians–to keep in mind the difference between reality and belief.

  3. Fleegman

    Yes, there are Christians that do “good” things, but is that because they’re Christian, or because it’s the right thing to do, and therefor interpreting the Bible in a way that supports that view?

    If we take slavery, for example – something you believe Christians are responsible for ending – where there were Christians on *both* sides of the fence, using their interpretations of the Bible to support or abolish slavery. 

    Since Christian morality is so open to this kind of interpretation, how can you say that Christianity is any kind of diving force for these good things? 

  4. Tom Gilson

    The Bible is not open to a pro-slavery interpretation, if by slavery you have in mind the form of slavery practiced in the American South. That’s a misreading of Bible, human nature, and history.

    For other forms of slavery, please see my previous posts on it for perspective on how Christianity was responsible for its ending in many places, even though it was not an abrupt and sudden end.

  5. BillT

    I think the entire question of whether Christians or atheists “do good’ with God or without God or whether Christians or atheists “do good” with belief in God or without belief God misses the most important point. Whether people do or don’t “do good” given their belief systems isn’t really the question. There is no doubt they both do regardless of their beliefs.

    The salient question is whether people can justify why they “do good” with or without belief in God. The question is not whether people can act morally because or in spite of their beliefs. The question is whether people can justify their acts because or in spite of their beliefs.

    This is where the non believer inevitably fails. If there is no God or no belief in God then there is no good or bad. Atheists thinkers from Nietzsche to Dawkins have stated over and over that without God (capital “M”)Morality is an illusion. And Christians agree with them. Well, if that’s true then the non believer really can’t justify why they are “doing good” for without Morality there really is no good or bad. All there is is one’s own opinion about what is good or bad and even that is an illusion. For the non believer the question of good or bad is moot.

    Further, of course, there is the fact that both believers and non believers both “do good” and both generally agree about what it is to “do good”. This is pretty solid evidence that Nietzsche and Dawkins are wrong and (capital “M”)Morality actually does exist. And if (capital “M”)Morality actually does exist then there must be someone who established just what that is given everyone seems agree about it and follow it. Hmmmm…just who could that be?

  6. JAD

    Let me see if I understand Zach’s reasoning. Atheists co-opt the Judeo-Christian ethic, therefore atheism is true. Is that his argument?

    BTW I don’t mind if atheists co-opt the Judeo-Christian ethic, as long as they give credit where credit is due.

  7. thesauros

    Whenever an atheist tells me that s/he can be a good person without God, I ask, “So why aren’t you? Why don’t you live up to even your own moral code? Why do you judge others by their behaviours while judging yourself by your intentions?

    Beyond that, we must remember this. The issue at hand is one of forgiveness, not one’s degree of goodness.

  8. Otto Tellick

    @BillT: Thank you for bringing something tangible and substantive to the discussion. There is this one part where you’re wrong:

    The question is whether people can justify their acts because or in spite of their beliefs.

    This is where the non believer inevitably fails. If there is no God or no belief in God then there is no good or bad.

    Here’s how it actually works from a rationalist point of view: For every deliberate act of interest that we perform, we could consider taking the time to fill out a two-question survey; answering each question involves reviewing a set of labeled check-boxes, and placing a check-mark next to each label that applies (leaving all boxes unchecked for either or both questions is allowed):

    Q1: Who derives benefit as a result of this act?

    [] me; [] my family; [] my friends; [] my neighbors; [] my town; [] my state; [] my nation; [] everyone on the planet

    Q2: Who suffers harm or loss as a result of this act?

    (same list of check-boxes as above)

    The labels are mutually exclusive – e.g. “my town” refers to people in town who are not your family, friends and neighbors. We can add more check-boxes and labels as needed to cover whatever (sub)groups of people are relevant in assessing a given act. (Update: to clarify, by checking multiple boxes for a given question, you can say, e.g. that an act benefits you, and your family, and your friends, etc.)

    The answers would yield a sensible ranking of acts in terms of goodness vs. badness: an act is relatively good to extent that the scope or quantity of people deriving benefit exceeds that of the people being harmed; it’s relatively bad to the extent that it’s the other way around.

    (It’s worth noting that relative ranking is an important feature in comparing various acts with regard to their outcomes – limiting our assessment to the binary labels “good” and “bad” would be more difficult, less reliable, and less informative.)

    Now, do you really believe that such a questionnaire can only be filled out if you believe in some supernatural entity as the source for moral judgment? Do you actually think the survey results would be meaningless without a theistic mindset?

    In case you think this “begs the question” about how we determine what constitutes benefit or harm, bear in mind that each individual has a fair bit of reliable experience regarding what is beneficial and what is harmful to him or her; most people (leaving aside those who suffer mental disorders or deficiencies – i.e. psychopaths, etc) are also able to understand how their own benefit/harm assessments are consistent with those of other people. This is true regardless of one’s choice or lack of religious belief.

    As for your point about how consensus on “good” vs. “bad” comes about:

    … believers and non believers both “do good” and both generally agree about what it is to “do good”. This is pretty solid evidence that … (capital “M”)Morality actually does exist.

    As Dawkins and others have explained, the evidence is actually consistent with the theory that “moral” behavior is an expected outcome of natural selection operating on a species whose survival is fostered by social structure, and by the benefits that come from collaboration and altruism as opposed to stubborn independence and unenlightened self-interest.

    And if (capital “M”)Morality actually does exist then there must be someone who established just what that is… Hmmmm…just who could that be? (emphasis added)

    To the extent that “Morality” exists outside the domain of human social interaction (e.g. as shown by experiments with monkeys that demonstrate an obvious sense of “fair” vs. “not fair” etc), there is no necessary entailment that some singular (and non-physical, unevidenced) sentient being must be posited to account for its existence. The explanation falls easily within the scope of natural causation.

    I think this “someone” you say must exist is just a product of your imagination (assisted, of course, by the imaginations of the various authors and editors responsible for the holy scripture you grew up with).

  9. Otto Tellick

    @JAD:

    BTW I don’t mind if atheists co-opt the Judeo-Christian ethic, as long as they give credit where credit is due.

    So, it really was Christ who invented the Golden Rule? I guess before that sermon of his, no one had ever heard of anything remotely resembling this principle.

    (Oh wait… except for a bunch of Greek and Chinese writers ~500 years earlier, and the Hindu Vedas ~1000 years earlier, and Hammurabi ~1800 years earlier, and the Middle Kingdom of Egypt ~2000 years earlier, and a bunch of other cultures who had no connection whatsoever with Judeo-Christian theology.)

    Hmm. So maybe the specific Judeo-Christian God imbued the specific Judeo-Christian ethic on all those other cultures, but chose not to let on who He really was to those people. For some reason, He felt it would be better to damn them to hell because they never knew Christ, and weren’t direct descendants of Abraham, either. Right – that makes perfect sense.

  10. JAD

    Hinduism does not follow the golden rule. It treats some people as subhuman.

    According to Judeo-Christian teaching man was made in the image of God. That means even if you don’t believe in God you are made in the image of God. No one deserves to be treated as subhuman.

  11. Otto Tellick

    @JAD: Thank you – yes, I agree, no one deserves to be treated as subhuman, and Hinduism certainly has a bad side. Their ancient holy text does include the phrase, “treat others as you treat yourself,” but apparently they must have some basis for placing limits on that principle – e.g. by defining “others (human)” as different from “others (subhuman).”

    While that sort of qualification has a ring to it that seems to resemble the Judeo-Christian notion of “God’s chosen people,” the difference in practice is striking: the “untouchable” caste in India has had to endure countless generations of poverty, hunger, intense abuse, and even now are victims of cruel discrimination, which they can only escape through reincarnation (either into a higher caste, or into a genuine non-human species). In contrast, the opposing (non-chosen) peoples of the OT – that is, the ones who weren’t driven away or killed at God’s command – ended up as slaves with the benefit of specific laws to protect them from unduly cruel owners; then once Jesus came along, they had a path to eternal bliss in the afterlife. They clearly had the better deal.

    I know I should apologize for the snarkiness of that last paragraph (and the even worse attitude of my earlier reply). And I do apologize. But I can’t take it back. I’m placing into juxtaposition a set of facts that are no less true for being placed together in this way.

    You are making a broad claim that Judeo-Christian teachings hold sole primacy in accounting for common qualities of natural human decency, and that claim simply falls somewhere between a fantasy and a fallacy.

    Telling me that I am made in God’s image conveys no meaning, because I find no credible evidence that God exists, and have no basis for discerning any attribute He might actually have if He did exist. For me, it’s far more meaningful (and conducive to a better understanding of the world) to view the Abrahamic God as having been created in man’s image.

    I’m certainly not saying that everything Christianity teaches is wrong – forgiveness, non-violence, love and tolerance are vital for humanity, and to the extent that Christianity promotes these things, I applaud the Christians who pursue that path.

    I’m just asking that you try to give up hubris of asserting that your religion is the only way these things come about. It isn’t.

    (I’ll grant that Christianity could be the only way to attain salvation in the afterlife, whatever that might mean. I don’t expect we’ll ever have real-world evidence one way or the other about life after death, so I don’t see it as a big concern.)

  12. David

    I’ve always wondered if some of the organizations like “Foundation Beyond Belief” would exist without religion in the first place. They seem somewhat reactionary to me. Like a child who observes their sibling being good, or at least being considered a “goody two-shoes” of sorts. Being miffed at being the “bad child” or not sharing the positive attention, the child thus alters his behaviour to match or exceed his sibling’s.
    I speak more of organizations that go to lengths to proclaim they do not hold religious beliefs and that what they do is not motivated by religious belief, rather than simply generic good will foundations.

    Anyway, I’ve always found claims that one can only be “good” with (believing in) God or can be good without (beliving in) God to be silly. Christianity and other religions prescribe all sorts of ways of being “good” that don’t necessarily entail belief in their deity(/ies), theology, etc, so for example it is no surprise that some non-Christians can act in very “Christian” (or Christ-like) ways (while at the same time a belief in God doesn’t automatically make someone good either; they could in fact be very evil people). Good for them.

  13. BillT

    Otto, Thank you. I appreciate you direct response and look forward to more of the same.

    You state “The answers would yield a sensible ranking of acts in terms of goodness vs. badness: an act is relatively good to extent that the scope or quantity of people deriving benefit exceeds that of the people being harmed; it’s relatively bad to the extent that it’s the other way around.”

    Your test for relative good or bad acts is nicely thought out and certainly, as you say, sensible. There is only one problem with it. It is based on an assumption that I don’t believe can be backed up. That assumption is that acts with a plus score on the benefits side are “good” acts and those with the plus score on the harm side are “bad” acts. That can only be true if creating benefits or causing harm to people or the society is actually good or bad. However, the correlation of benefits to “good” and harm to “bad” is as I said only ” one’s own opinion about what is good or bad”. In this case your opinion.

    What can you say to me if I decide that creating benefits is “bad” or causing harm is “good”. I think I should have the right to have an opinion on what constitutes “good” or “bad” just like you did. Where is it written or by what rules does your definition of “good” or “bad” hold sway in this discussion. Your definitions are only true if people or the society they inhabit are intrinsically valuable. Otherwise, people or the society they inhabit are just accidents of nature that I believe I should be able to use in any way that suits me for any reason I decide.

    You have snuck in a absolute moral value ((capital “M”)Morality). That absolute moral value is that that acts with a plus score on the benefits side are “good” acts and those with the plus score on the harm side are “bad”. This, as I said, can only be true if the people or the society they inhabit intrinsically valuable. What is your basis for claiming that people or the society they inhabit are intrinsically valuable? Further, not only have you snuck in an absolute moral value but a theistic (and highly Judeo/Christian) moral valve. Only if we are created “in God’s image” does intrinsic value adhere and you’ve certainly made it clear you don’t believe we were created in that way.

  14. JAD

    @ Otto (#13)

    Why did God choose the Israelites? One of the reasons, according to Isaiah 49:6, was to be a “light for the Gentiles.” In other words, they were chosen to be missionaries. The Old Testament, the book of Jonah specifically, actually condemns ethnocentricism. Unfortunately, most sceptics get hung up on “Jonah and the whale” and fail to comprehend what the book is really about.

    Jesus’ parable of “The Good Samaritan” was also a condemnation of ethnocentricism. The concept of universal human rights can be traced back to Jewish-Christian roots. Christian thinking has been a major moral and ethical influence on western culture for almost 2000 years. That’s not hubris; it’s history.

  15. Otto Tellick

    @BillT: You do surprise me, sir.

    What can you say to me if I decide that creating benefits is “bad” or causing harm is “good”. I think I should have the right to have an opinion on what constitutes “good” or “bad” just like you did. Where is it written or by what rules does your definition of “good” or “bad” hold sway in this discussion.

    I can say that your choices run counter to a preponderance of objective evidence, which makes a clear and compelling case for the foolishness of your choices. Our personal opinions are viable only to the extent that they are supported by things that really happen. It’s the evidence that holds sway in the discussion, not our personal whims.

    Behaviors that cause harm and diminish collaboration also diminish our combined chances for surviving and flourishing. They may yield short-term gains for a minority or a specific individual, but the cost to the larger group will ultimately become prohibitive, and the offending behavior will either be brought to a halt by the affected group, or else will prove self-defeating for the perpetrator (i.e., in evolutionary terms, it’s a short-cut to extinction).

    Your definitions are only true if people or the society they inhabit are intrinsically valuable.

    Well, duh! Who in his right mind would assert that people and the society they inhabit are not intrinsically valuable? Oh, maybe bigots and psychopaths. Or maybe even some religious apologists who want to insist that anyone who forgoes belief in and tithing to their particular deity must therefore also lack intrinsic value. That’s sick.

    You have snuck in a absolute moral value ((capital “M”)Morality).

    I’ve been talking about things that are objectively verifiable – it’s all out in the open. You, on the other hand, have snuck in an unevidenced assumption.

    You have started from the simple observation (available to all normal people) that humans generally show a common preference for behaviors conducive to collaboration; and from there you jump to a conclusion that this constitutes some sort of universal, immutable, inviolable law, having some sort of existence of its own outside of human society, and created by some unobservable, undefinable, supernatural entity. (Oh, and it involves calling homosexuality a sin – there’s no substantive explanation why this must be, but it’s asserted as somehow essential.)

    What is your basis for claiming that people or the society they inhabit are intrinsically valuable?

    Do you really need to have someone explain that to you??? What is anyone’s basis for claiming that people ought not run to the nearest cliff and cast themselves into the abyss? What is it in your Christian world view that induces you to ask such a ridiculous question?

    Only if we are created “in God’s image” does intrinsic value adhere and you’ve certainly made it clear you don’t believe we were created in that way.

    Here we go again with this claim of exclusivity: ONLY CHRISTIANITY CAN DEFINE THE VALUE OF MANKIND. That is flat out offensive. I’ve tried to make it clear that there is no substantive basis for deriving anything meaningful from the phrase “created in God’s image.” It’s a vacuous statement.

    Humanity, and life as a whole, is autotelic. Look it up. We don’t need an external source that defines our value and purpose for us. We instantiate our own value and purpose, and what we do defines our value and purpose. If we treat ourselves like shit, then that’s what we are. We are generally able, willing, and succeeding to do better than that, and so we are better than that.

    If humans are not to go abruptly extinct (as many species in Earth’s history have done), we need to make fairly rapid progress in understanding how our purpose as humans must align with the broader purpose of life as a whole, and start to redirect our actions accordingly. Unlike most extinct species, which were victims of external forces, the most imminent and deadly threats to our survival are the consequences of our own unenlightened self-interest.

  16. Otto Tellick

    @JAD: Thank you – I do appreciate your comments on Jonah and the Samaritan story. Still, quoting Isaiah doesn’t really answer the question of why God didn’t reveal himself to the Chinese, or why he would so thoroughly abandon that portion of his beloved mankind who happened to live in India.

    The origins of the Vedic traditions (at least 1000 BCE) actually predate the emergence of Yahweh in Middle Eastern history (check the chronology presented here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlnnWbkMlbg – drawn from Karen Armstrong’s A History of God).

    Since the Abrahamic God hadn’t even been identified as such among the Hebrews when Hinduism began to record its musings, it would be disingenuous, to say the least, to say the Hindus deliberately rejected Him. How could they, given that He hadn’t revealed himself to anyone yet?

  17. Otto Tellick

    @JAD: Actually, I have to admit that when I read the story of Jonah, it made relatively little sense at all. I’m frankly at a loss to derive any significant lesson from it. I suppose it must have conveyed something deemed worthwhile by the ancient Hebrews, but I guess you had to be there to get it.

  18. BillT

    Otto,

    To begin with, I find your assertion that ”Our personal opinions are viable only to the extent that they are supported by things that really happen.” might be the most stunning thing I have ever read. In one simple sentence you have rejected the very basis intellectual discourse and inquiry begun by the likes of Socrates, Aristotle and Plato. Amazing wouldn’t begin to describe this. Of course, ridiculous wouldn’t begin to describe this either. Points of view are viable based on one’s ability to support those points with reason. It’s why this website is called Thinking Christian.

    More to the point, it is actually you that fail to bring the appropriate “evidence” to bear. You have failed to bring one reason based argument to bear on any of the points you make. You start with the above absurdity. You end with ” Humanity, and life as a whole, is autotelic.” This is another completely unsupported assertion, not a fact. There is no proof that is true. It’s just another way of saying you don’t have to provide any reasons why people have value. You just get to assume they are.

    To get back to the specifics, you claim that ”…acts with a plus score on the benefits side are “good” acts and those with the plus score on the harm side are “bad” acts.” Prove it! I propose the hypothetical opposite and you say my point is not valid because it ” … run(s) counter to a preponderance of objective evidence.” What objective evidence? Your “preponderance of objective evidence” is simply an empty appeal to authority.

    Why should I care that ”Behaviors that cause harm and diminish collaboration also diminish our combined chances for surviving and flourishing.” Why should I care about “surviving and flourishing”. The value of surviving and flourishing is another unsupported absolute moral value you have failed to prove is valid or binding on me or anyone else. Using one unsupported absolute moral value to support another unsupported absolute moral value without proving either is bootstrapping on an epic scale.

    Your appeals to the”evidence” are without merit. The only evidences you have provided are appeals to authority. If they are valid prove to me why I can’t reject them. Again, we are engaged in a discussion on morality and on what basis it does or doesn’t exist. Why should I care about “surviving and flourishing” or, “that humans generally show a common preference for behaviors conducive to collaboration”. More empty appeals to authority that I have every right to reject.

    Here is another point you fail to support. I said ”Your definitions are only true if people or the society they inhabit are intrinsically valuable.” In reply you said ”Who in his right mind would assert that people and the society they inhabit are not intrinsically valuable?” Show me why I should care what people assert about themselves. If people are intrinsically valuable prove to me why they are. No appeals to authority or unprovable claims they are autotelic.

    You have not provided one valid reason based argument to support any of the positions you have taken. Your point seems to be that things are the way they are because that’s the way things are and the proof for that is that’s the way things are. People do survive and flourish because they should survive and flourish and the proof is that they survive and flourish. People are valuable because they assert they are valuable and the proof is that assertion. On an intellectual basis I have the right to reject any and all of the way things are or what people assert. If I don’t, give me a reason why.

    [P.S. I will probably not be able to post over the weekend.]

  19. drj

    And this is where I wonder if Christians bear part of the blame. Too many of our preachers have focused on what happens if we believe in God, rather than centering their message on the reality of God himself, and his character and his Kingdom. So if atheists and skeptics focus on what happens if we believe or disbelieve in God, maybe they’re just following certain Christians’ cues.

    My sense has always been, that even among the more high minded, rigorously thinking Christians in the modern age, its a pity to them that objective facts in reality absolutely demand they cease with claims, so cherished in apologetic circles, that atheism is hand in hand with untrustworthiness, moral deviance, and even bad citizenship.

    BillT,

    Let’s say the atheist concedes that he has no rational justification for his belief in moral oughts. Well, you haven’t led him to God, you’ve simply given him permission to feel no guilt were he to stab you in the gut and take wallet. I’d be rather more careful with such lines of argumentation.

    I think the more noble project (and better for us all) is to promote a secular basis for morality. But why do that when you can halt serious talk about right and wrong for the purposes of apologetic extortion, right? Its not that hard to find reasons for *all* of us to be good, regardless of our theism or atheism. It really isnt. If you guys weren’t so attached to that metaphorical carrot on a stick, maybe you could see it.

  20. BillT

    drj,

    I understand what you are saying but I think you miss some important points. First of all, you are right to say that the atheist has no rational justification for his belief in moral oughts. However, despite his lack of rational justification the atheist can’t really deny they exist. That is quite a quandary. Wouldn’t the rational person seek to resolve that quandary? One of the strongest tools for Christians in leading people to God is to press them in the places where their opinions run contrary to reality.

    However, it’s much more than just a tool for leading people to God. It is itself is a moral imperative. People whose opinions run contrary to reality are people who are living in darkness. Seeing people live in darkness is not something we can ignore. We are duty bound to try to bring them into the light. We hear their denial of reality as a cry in the wilderness. And it’s a cry we all once uttered.

    As the Gospel writers tells us:

    “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Mark 8:36, Luke 9:25

  21. Tom Gilson

    drj, what are these “claims, so cherished in apologetic circles, that atheism is hand in hand with untrustworthiness, moral deviance, and even bad citizenship”? Who makes claims like that?

    I would say that atheism goes hand in hand with rebellion against God and rejection of proper respect to one’s Creator. I would say that the one true corrective against that form of immorality is to repent and to place one’s life in God’s hands.

    I would say that atheists can and often are trustworthy, good citizens, etc., apart from their deathly and deeply wrong rejection of God.

    I would say that atheism (not atheists but atheism) provides no corrective force whatever against the universal human tendency toward untrustworthiness and much worse; for as is often said, “atheism is not a belief; atheism is not anything but a lack of belief.” Christianity on the other hand does possess spiritual and moral force for good. It even plays out that way, though hardly with the kind of consistency I would love to see among believers. The witness of history is replete with Jews and Christians being innovators in compassion, in limits on undue power, in standing up for the oppressed, in care for enemies, in mutual encouragement, …

    Other than that, I don’t know quite what you were referring to…

  22. d

    Tom,

    Those claims have been the common refrain in Christianity for its entire existence – its only in the most recent era that those at the top (very top) have relented on that front… so in short I agree with your 3rd to last paragraph, except to say its the understatement of the millennia (the last couple, actually).

  23. SteveK

    d,

    so in short I agree with your 3rd to last paragraph

    Regarding that paragraph, what good is there in being a good, trustworthy atheist only to lose your soul because of it (Matthew 16:26)? Seems not so good. What do you think, d?

  24. d

    SteveK,

    I can’t make heads or tails of your thesis. If I were to be a good person, and there is a God, it makes no sense that he would punish me for it.

    If I were a good person, yet there is no God, then I would have been a good person all my life, which is worthwhile in and of itself.

    So I can’t make any sense out of what you are saying.

  25. SteveK

    d,

    If I were to be a good person, and there is a God, it makes no sense that he would punish me for it.

    Considering all of the time you spend playing music in church, perhaps you ought to stick around and listen to the messages every once in a while (Sorry if I am confusing you with someone else on the blog)

    Who taught you that God punishes atheists for being good and trustworthy?

  26. SteveK

    d,
    Perhaps you read my comment differently than the way I intended it?

    When I said “…only to lose your soul because of it”, the “it” that is being referred to is being atheist. You lose your soul because you are an atheist, not because you are a kind, caring humanist.

  27. d

    SteveK,

    I don’t play music for any churches, so you are indeed confusing me with someone else.

    As to your last question, I’d refer you back to your post #27.

  28. SteveK

    I think Sault is the musician. Sorry. See #31 for clarification, and then go back to #27 and tell me what you think.

  29. Otto Tellick

    @BillT: Just for grins, check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FmIF3l4rKlM (that particular youtube author has created a wealth of content worth watching; the particular item cited is not his best work, I think, but it’s still good, and quite relevant to the topic at hand).

    As for your seeming thick-headedness, best captured here:

    Why should I care that ”Behaviors that cause harm and diminish collaboration also diminish our combined chances for surviving and flourishing.” Why should I care about “surviving and flourishing”. …
    On an intellectual basis I have the right to reject any and all of the way things are or what people assert. If I don’t, give me a reason why.

    If you really are intent on viewing your life as lacking intrinsic value, both to yourself and to other people, then go ahead and throw yourself over a cliff – humanity will be diminished and many will truly regret the loss, but as the rest of us retain our own sanity, life goes on and we may at least learn something from the consequences of the kind of insanity that drove you to toss your life away.

    If belief in some imaginary deity is the only thing that keeps you from doing that, I honestly do pity you. I gather there are people in the world who believe that they are worthless, and that the only value attributable to their lives that they can conceive involves a word-of-mouth, unsubstantiated assertion that some deity has created them for some mysterious purpose. That’s frankly very sad, and I’m hoping that there are (or can be) effective therapies to remedy that kind of illness.

  30. Otto Tellick

    @Tom:

    “… atheism is hand in hand with untrustworthiness, moral deviance, and even bad citizenship”? Who makes claims like that?

    I recall George H.W. Bush, in particular, expressing his opinion that atheists should not be entitled to full U.S. citizenship. It’s hardly a consolation that he had long since retired from political office when he said this.

    Since you go on to say:

    … atheism goes hand in hand with rebellion against God and rejection of proper respect to one’s Creator.

    Please clarify: how is it that “rebellion against God,” in the minds of devout Christians, does not go “hand in hand with untrustworthiness, moral deviance, and even bad citizenship”? To assert that no true Christian is inclined to associate one with the other is disingenuous at best.

    (And BTW, I do not rebel against something that does not exist. The concept of such a “rebellion” is meaningless. All I’m doing is rejecting Christianity’s supernatural assertions, including the assertion of certainty that its supernatural assertions are true; I reject them because they are groundless, inconsistent, and incoherent. I’ll grant that Christianity makes other assertions that are supportable, as do many other religions; it is after all in the nature of religions, as human cultural artifacts, to contain some truth.)

    The framers of the U.S. Constitution were able to recognize the essential truths that make a purely secular form of government a sine qua non in order for democracy – government with the consent of the governed – to have a plausible chance of success.

    This was despite the presence of Christian faith among them – indeed, it was because of the obviously irreconcilable differences between the competing Christian faiths in their midst that the need for secularism was so patently self-evident, and so readily acknowledged.

    It’s unfortunate for us as a nation that this vision, so clear in the late 1700’s, has been under such active attack in recent decades by demagogues in the name of Christianity, despite the fact that this religion is even more fractured now than it was in 1780, when there were no Mormons, 7th-Day Adventists or Jehovah’s Witnesses, to name just a few.

  31. Otto Tellick

    Addendum to my last response to BillT: I grant that the universe as a whole is indifferent to life in general, including human life in particular.

    Since we only have the vaguest notions at present about the likelihood of life developing elsewhere in the universe, we have no basis for claiming any value or purpose for life within this universe, independent of the value and purpose that life creates for itself, given that it has come into existence.

    (So the implication is that the value and purpose that life creates for itself must suffice: life’s self-invoked purpose, based on what we observe about how life has been behaving, is not just to survive but to flourish, to expand and diversify to the fullest possible extent within its given environment. Enhancement of well-being and curtailment of harm are conducive to that purpose. Will you continue to insist that you don’t see evidence for this? Most people see the evidence every day of their lives.)

    If/when life as we know it is utterly obliterated, the universe will continue on its way to ultimate entropy, “heat death,” etc. Oh well, that is perhaps none of our business, unless and until we happen to achieve an understanding of how to transcend it. (Who knows? That could happen.)

    You can go ahead and believe that Christianity is the way to transcend it – good luck with that. I’m unconvinced, because the Abrahamic religions are too close-minded and provincial, their foundation is too deeply rooted in ancient ignorance, and they simply don’t make sense.

  32. Tom Gilson

    Otto,

    In reference to your 3:23 am post, I’m not taking the time right now to watch the video, but I do want to ask you to be more careful before you accuse someone of of thickheadedness. You misread BillT. He asked a why question. You read it as a conclusion instead. You went on to say, “If belief in some imaginary deity is the only thing that keeps you from doing that, I honestly do pity you.”

    You misunderstand the Christian position on these things. I was going to write what it is, but first I want to know whether you’re interested. Do you want to know what it is?

    Here’s my challenge and invitation to you: if you want to learn the Christian view on this, let me know; but once I do so I’ll expect you to believe that it is what Christians (in my tradition at least) actually take to be true about these things; and I’ll expect you to acknowledge that it’s a good time for you to change your mind concerning your beliefs about what Christianity is.

    I’m not asking you to believe Christianity is true, I’m just asking you to be willing to learn that Christianity is not what you thought it was, and that you let that learning actually change your mind about what Christianity is.

    Interested?

  33. BillT

    Tom,

    Otto didn’t misread me. No one could be so oblivious to the argument I am making to think I was stating a conclusion rather than asking a question. Otto simply doesn’t have an answer to the question I am asking and he is doing everthing he can think of to avoid having to answer it. Life is autotelic! That wouldn’t pass muster at a middle school debate. His explanation of it in #36 is simply proof of it’s vacutity. “Life must have meaning because it exists!” Please.

  34. SteveK

    The video that Otto linked to above ends this way:

    “The problem is NOT that people in the world DON’T see morality as fixed and objective. The problem is that they do.”

    You, sir, are an idiot.

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  36. BillT

    Otto,

    Just so you are under no false impressions. No one doesn’t “really understand” your position.

  37. Tom Gilson

    BillT and SteveK aren’t ignoring obvious truth, Otto. You’re misrepresenting their position. Here’s a chance for you to get it right.

    I asked in my last comment whether you were interested in learning. Here’s your chance also to demonstrate that you are. Educators know that learning needs to be demonstrated, and what would indicate learning on your part would be something like this:

    “Okay, even though I don’t agree with the Christian position on these things, I see now that I’ve been misunderstanding it. You’re not denying atheists have meaning and worth, you’re saying something else entirely. I’ll be careful not to misrepresent you on that for the rest of this discussion and from this point forward.”

    It does little good, after all, for you to interact with Christians’ views while misrepresenting and/or misunderstanding what you’re interacting with. If I were you I’d want to get on topic rather than talking about something that doesn’t even exist.

  38. Otto Tellick

    @Tom:

    Okay, even though I don’t agree with the Christian position on these things, I see now that I’ve been misunderstanding it. You’re not denying atheists have meaning and worth, you’re saying something else entirely. I’ll be careful not to misrepresent you on that for the rest of this discussion and from this point forward.

    Actually, let me say I’ll do the best I can in being careful not to misrepresent you on that, to the extent that you and your colleagues will be careful not to make misleading remarks that suggest a change in your opinion about meaning and worth as it applies to atheists.

    (Please note that this response is subsequent to my replies on the newer thread you cited. I apologize in case those other replies seem inconsistent in any detail with the above statements.)

    Best regards.

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