Jeff Jacoby makes a point in his Townhall column today that I’ve been meaning to talk about in a little more depth for awhile,
Can people be decent and moral without believing in a God who commands us to be good? Sure. There have always been kind and ethical nonbelievers. But how many of them reason their way to kindness and ethics, and how many simply reflect the moral expectations of the society in which they were raised?
In our culture, even the most passionate atheist cannot help having been influenced by the Judeo-Christian worldview that shaped Western civilization. “We know that you can be good without God,’’ Speckhardt tells CNN.
He can be confident of that only because he lives in a society so steeped in Judeo-Christian values that he takes those values for granted. But a society bereft of that religious heritage is one not even Speckhardt would want to live in.
For 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. One might reason instead — as Lenin and Stalin and Mao reasoned — that there is nothing wrong with murdering human beings by the millions if doing so advances the Marxist cause. Or one might reason from observing nature that the way of the world is for the strong to devour the weak — or that natural selection favors the survival of the fittest by any means necessary, including the killing of the less fit.
It may seem obvious to us today that human life is precious and that the weakest among us deserve special protection. Would we think so absent a moral tradition stretching back to Sinai? It seemed obvious in classical antiquity that sickly babies should be killed. “We drown even children who at birth are weakly and abnormal,’’ wrote the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger 2,000 years ago, stressing that “it is not anger but reason’’ that justifies the murder of handicapped children.
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. Mao and Seneca approved of murder; we disapprove. What makes us think we’re right?
The God who created us created us to be good. Atheists may believe — and spend a small fortune advertising — that we can all be “good without God.’’ History tells a very different story.
First, note what Jacoby is NOT SAYING. He’s not saying all Christians are good people. He’s also not saying atheists/agnostics are bad people.
What he is saying is that without God, there are no moral absolutes. This is self-evidently correct, although people often go to great lengths to deny it.
If human beings are nothing more than very advanced animals, well — there’s no such thing as “morality” with animals. At best, there may be some activities that they have instinctive aversions to, but you certainly can’t say a Wolf that kills its own pups or a cat that toys with a mouse before he kills it is doing anything morally wrong.
So, do you believe that without God, there are no moral absolutes? If not, I’d suggest that it’s because you’ve been steeped in Judeo-Christian culture, traditions, and societal mores that you’ve accepted — at least to a certain extent. You may argue that you have reasoned them through. But, as Jacoby noted, Lenin, Stalin, & Mao reasoned them out, too.
This is what I was driving at on Friday in The 12 Traits That Made The Most Exceptional People I’ve Ever Known Stand Out. It’s why I said I admire…
A strong belief in God: Aside from the generosity of spirit and innate decency of devout Christians and Jews that I’ve known, there’s a welcome, yet underappreciated sense of stability that comes with the territory. These people are easier to trust because they don’t have to reason out every moral dilemma from scratch. They may not always live up to their ideals, but at least both of you know what they are.
It’s true that Christians often don’t live up to their morals. But, do atheists/agnostics have the same problem? To the extent that they don’t, it’s because they have no defined standards to live up to. In other words, without God, questions of morality have no definitive answers. You might reason out one thing. Someone else might reason another. A third person might come up with another idea. There can’t be any true “right” answer.
Christians, of course, sometimes have the same problem. We can and do have disagreements about interpretations of the Bible. However, there’s a lot less wiggle room for us.
Put another way, if I steal $20 out of your wallet to spend on concert tickets, I’m a hypocrite. That’s because I know, you know, and Christians almost everywhere are going to agree that stealing that $20 out of your wallet is an immoral act.
Now, is an atheist/agnostic violating her moral code if she steals $20 out of someone’s wallet? Maybe, maybe not. It’s entirely possible that she could reason that there’s nothing wrong with stealing $20 from someone if she doesn’t get caught. But, what if you’re an atheist/agnostic who disagrees with that reasoning? Well honestly, if there’s no God, humans are just sophisticated animals and it’s ultimately no more right or wrong for you to steal that $20 than it is for a chimp to grab another chimp’s banana while he’s flinging poo.
If you do believe it’s wrong, have you ever really considered why you think it’s wrong? If you live in America and have no core religious beliefs, you probably believe stealing is wrong because that message has been reinforced throughout your whole life. You heard it from your parents, in fairy tales, children’s shows, and from your teachers and friends. Again, if you’re in America, those people were probably Christians, Jews, or atheists/agnostics who were also steeped in Judeo-Christian traditions.
In other words, atheists/agnostics often imagine themselves to be swimming free in an ocean of reason, but in reality, they’re forming their conclusions in a fish tank that’s held together by Judeo-Christian values. Those values shape their lives, beliefs, and the way they live their lives in a manner that very few people even partially comprehend.