16 December 2012

Being good without (believing in) God

I've seen several debates between theists and atheists on, or touching on, morality. Frank Turek, William Lane Craig, etc.... and I've read many an author on the subject.

Something that strikes me as a bit unusual is that they will almost always try to steer the debate away from whether we can actually be moral if we are non-believers; instead, they tend to want to focus on a philosophical or academic question of where we fundamentally derive our morals. Tom Gilson, who co-authored True Reason, said something along these lines in a blog post:
[Atheists] 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.
William Lane Craig echoes the sentiment:
The question is not: Must we believe in God in order to live moral lives? There is no reason to think that atheists and theists alike may not live what we normally characterize as good and decent lives. Similarly, the question is not: Can we formulate a system of ethics without reference to God? If the non-theist grants that human beings do have objective value, then there is no reason to think that he cannot work out a system of ethics with which the theist would also largely agree. Or again, the question is not: Can we recognize the existence of objective moral values without reference to God? The theist will typically maintain that a person need not believe in God in order to recognize, say, that we should love our children. Rather, as humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz puts it, “The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns this ontological foundation. If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, are they purely ephemeral?”

I'm all for debating the notion of where we "ground" our moral values, and obviously I don't think it's in any God or gods. But I'm also more than a little surprised at how readily theologians seem to be willing to cede this ground to atheists: we don't have to believe in God to be good.

It's worth pointing out that this is not merely some sort of anecdotal observation; we actually have mountains of data showing that this is the case:
  • Across the industrialized world, we now enjoy the most peaceful and egalitarian era in human history[1]. Not only are we less violent, but we are more tolerant of others. This has positively correlated with increasing secularism [2] – there are more atheists and agnostics, church attendance and adherence to organized religions is dropping off, etc. Young people, especially, are less religious.
  • Here in the United States, it is the more liberal, secular coastal states that have the lowest per capita crime and are the soonest to adopt civil rights legislation. In the more religious states, per capita violent crime is higher, teen birth rates are higher, domestic violence and abuse are higher – even online porn subscriptions are higher.[3],[4]
  • More secular nations donate more money per capita to charity; atheists and agnostics are also less likely to be nationalistic, racist, anti-Semitic, dogmatic, ethnocentric, and authoritarian.[3]
On a more anecdotal note, when we look at the most violent and oppressive countries in the world, they are very often countries with theocratic governments and/or a great deal of religious fundamentalism among the populace (Iran, Saudi Arabia). The Israel/Palestine conflict has been raging for decades because two opposing religious groups are convinced that God gave them a patch of land in the desert.

So we aren't just blowing smoke when we say we can be good without God. Of course we can. It's a fact supported by mountains of data. Theists, usually knowing at least anecdotally that there are plenty of good people who are also non-believers, seem to be willing to concede this point and then try to steer the debate to the more philosophical conversation of meta-ethics.

But hold on a sec. If it is true that there is an Objective Moral Law, and that God is the one who gives us this Moral Law, then why wouldn't rejecting God make us less moral? Or why wouldn't being Christian make us more moral? It seems rather intuitively logical to me that we should conclude, from the theists' argument, that a less holy society is a less peaceful, less free and less content society. This is especially true in light of the fact that theists are often eager to pin the blame for everything from Stalin to school shootings on a rejection of God. Make up your minds!

I think that theologians shouldn't get off the hook so easily. Theologians like Craig, Gilson, Turek, et al have a burden to explain why this should not follow from their argument. It's not enough to simply steer the debate into esoteric meta-ethics on the grounding of moral values. If it has no pragmatic value, what difference does it make? After all, presumably the whole point of these theologians engaging in debates of this sort isn't just to wank off with other academics; they want atheists to realize the error of their ways, to win converts for Christianity. But if we can be really be good without being Christian – as the data overwhelmingly shows to be true – then who cares whether we are Christian or not? I've always said: the only thing worse than a God who does not exist is a God who might as well not exist. 

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