Monday, June 18, 2007

Goodness before God

Over at Atheist Alley columnist Sarah Laimbeer has posted an essay We Don’t Need a Higher Power to Know it’s Wrong to Harm Our Fellow Man with which I agree. I suppose that I shouldn't be so shocked that so many theists believe that it is only through some belief in God that a person can wish to do good instead of evil. After all, theists are experienced at firmly holding onto beliefs which go against all available evidence.

Evil Atheists?

Certainly there have been some some evil atheists, Joseph Stalin being the most extreme example. But the fact of the matter is that criminal behavior just isn't a prevalent characteristic of atheists. What little evidence exists suggests that atheists are less likely to be criminals [a citation will go here to prison studies], but that result is probably better explained by the fact that atheists tend to have above average levels of education and intelligence [cite will go here], while it is exactly the opposite for the prison population [citation will go here]. At worst atheists are just like everyone else with respect to ethical questions.

More than an argument from ignorance

It is easy to say that the theists are just being silly when they claim that true atheists can't have morals. But I think it is more interesting to explore what might underlie such silliness. At first it looks like our accusers' reasoning goes something like this:
I don't see where atheists gets their moral imperatives from, therefore they must not have any.
When stated this way the logical flaw is obvious. It would be like me saying, "I don't understand how microwaves heat water, therefore microwave ovens don't work." But our accusers can be more subtle and less stupid. Theists, they say, get their moral imperatives from faith in God, while atheists, without such faith must either not have them or get them from somewhere else. "Atheists," they may go on to say, "need a separate explanation for a moral sense." So for the theists the existence of God explains our moral sense in a way that atheism can't. And so by Occam's Razor (which atheists like to quote so much) this is presented as evidence for God. There are two approaches I could take in answering this challenge. One would be to present all of the naturalistic explanations for morality. And without a doubt I would recommend the book Good Natured and other sources. I would also point out that the two great moral philosophies, utilitarianism and Kantianism make no reference to any supernatural God. But that is not the approach I'm taking in this essay. All of those points have been argued well by others, and I doubt I'd have anything useful to add.

God is not the answer

Instead I wish to argue that the theist and the atheist are in exactly the same boat when it comes to explaining the origins of good and evil. The God hypothesis doesn't help the theist at all once the argument is examined closely. Again, let me digress and briefly mention an argument that I will not be making in this essay. Most religions provide erratic moral guidance. The Old Testament fully endorses slavery (and that is echoed in the New Testament). The God of Abraham is prone to arbitrary judgment, temper tantrums, and is a crybaby who lashes out at all who don't worship Him properly. (I realized that God was a crybaby when my daughter, then in preschool told me that God gets very upset when people say He doesn't exist.) Only through cherry picking the nice bits can most religions be said to provide anything resembling moral guidance.

Good can't come from God

Now to the argument that I did set out to make in this essay. Let me start with a hypothetical question to a hypothetical theist. Suppose I say that God told me to skin you alive. The theist's response would be that I was either a liar or psychotic (or possibly hearing the voice of Satan posing as God). Now suppose that I had said that God told me to feed the hungry and spread His word. What would the theist's response be to that? In the latter case the theist may well be ready to believe that God really did speak to me. Let's look at what is happening in these two cases. The theist is making a judgment about which message really comes from God based on the morality of the message. And Jesus tells Christians that this is exactly how it should be in Mathew 7:15-20. "Beware of the false prophets, ... You will know them by their fruits." Theologians may try to develop a metaphysical argument about God and good and evil in which something is good because it comes from God. But that metaphysics isn't driving anyone's moral behavior. The theist who thinks skinning people alive is bad and feeding the hungry is good is using their own notion of good and evil to judge what is God. So to the theist who asks where does good and evil come from, I answer that I don't know. But neither does the theist. For the theist good can't come from God because the theist must use their knowledge of good to judge what is God.

No comments:

Post a Comment