Jeff Jacoby asks a particularly pertinent question in his latest op-ed, Created by God to be good,” on Atheist “humanism” (as embodied in the American Humanist Society) and its hostility to biblical (or quranic) morality.
It brings to mind the argument made by Kwame Appiah’s book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen: that moral revolutions do not so much occur as a result of people who do the “right thing” for the “right reason” (practitioners of Kant’s categorical imperative), as they do because there’s a fundamental shift in the peer-group’s view of what’s moral: slavery, dueling, foot binding all go out when the dominant attitude disapproved of such behavior. If you duel to the death and win (as did Aaron Burr), and it’s a career-ender because your peers take you as a hot-headed fool, dueling will not last long.
Jacoby challenges the the core message of the American Humanist Association: “that God and the Judeo-Christian tradition are not necessary for the preservation of moral values and that human reason is a better guide to goodness than Bible-based religion.”
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 a society not even Speckhardt would want to live in.
This is the key point. Humanists are, in fact, free riders. They come along after centuries of hard work in prime divider societies where the zero-sum dominating imperative ruled social and political relations. In those long and painful years, some people, driven to by a sense of divine authority, systematically, and at great personal cost (sometimes one’s very life) pursued the generous impulses of positive-sum interactions. Now that we’re raised in a civil society, where we’re trained from childhood to cooperate, to eschew violence, to seek the positive-sum interaction, such behavior comes much more easily.
The Society can put up billboards reading: “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.”
But in a world where it’s “rule or be ruled,” where the nice guy is a sucker who’ll predictably get the short end of the stick, where alpha males use violence with impunity to dominate others, “for goodness’ sake” doesn’t cut much ice. Indeed, it’s quite risible.
For in a world without God, there is no obvious difference between good and evil. There is no way to prove that even murder is wrong if there is no Creator who decrees “Thou shalt not murder.” It certainly cannot be proved wrong by reason alone.
Indeed, in a tribal honor-shame culture, you’re not a man until you’ve killed another man, and although the honorable thing to do is to kill him in a fair fight, there are some tribes where, short of killing another man from the neighboring (and therefore rival/enemy) tribe, killing one of their women is required. Spartans had a whole season where they killed helots (the serfs, former free Greeks of the Pelopponesian peninsula) wherever they met them.
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 — and that natural selection favors the survival of the fittest by any means necessary, including the killing of the less fit.
In other words, the logic of the zero-sum universe – I win because you lose – operates in a radically different way from that of the positive-sum, and the evidence of nature supports the former much more than the latter.
The allusion to Stalin here serves to remind us that the traditional atheist’s accusation – “more people have died in religious wars than any other cause” – overlooks the fact that two atheists, Stalin and Mao, killed over 120 million people in the 20th century, the first century to have “atheist” governments with armies to kill. That’s a rather big headstart in the competition for most murderous ideology.
To us today, believers and nonbelievers alike, it may seem obvious that human life is precious and that the weakest among us deserve special protection. But would we think so absent a moral tradition stretching back to Sinai?
Just to get an idea of what Greeks honored as admirable behavior around the time of the Sinai revelation (i.e., 13th century BCE), read Eli Sagan, The Lust to Annihilate.
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 babies.
John Boswell began his book on child abandonment in Western History, The Kindness of Strangers, by citing several early Christian theologians who inveigh against their parishoners going to houses of prostitution, not because they might cheat on their wives, but because they might commit incest. How? By sleeping with their own children – male and female – whom they had abandoned at birth and had been collected and raised to become sex slaves (p. 3). Mind you, this is not the Christian communities of the imperial period, when large numbers of people became Christian merely for the advantage of being on the Emperor’s side; this is 2nd and 3rd centuries, when the early fires of Christian zeal still, supposedly, burned bright.
The God who created us, created us to be good. No, reason alone is not enough to keep human beings humane.
We systematically confuse human with humane, just another example of the liberal cognitive egocentrism that gets us to take so much of the Western accomplishment for granted. The idea that it dehumanizes the Nazis or the Jihadis to describe their savage rapacity misses the point. Savage rapacity is human. It’s not humane. But being human does not give you the right to be considered humane – that takes effort.
Only if there is a God who forbids murder is murder definitively evil. Otherwise its wrongfulness is no more than a matter of opinion. Mao and Seneca approved of murder; we disapprove. Who are we to say they were wrong?
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.” Human history tells a very different story.
There’s more to this story. It’s one thing to argue that we should be good “for goodness” sake. It’s another thing to disparage everyone else, in this case, religion for arguing another path to goodness.
The humanists seem trapped by the same zero-sum thinking that had the Enlightenment and the French Revolution convinced that not only were they legislating for all mankind, but that their genius superseded that of any previous legislators. (And that hubris contributed to the Terror which found murder a suitable “tool” for political order.) In the end, the Enlightenment shared with Christianity and Islam the deplorable notion that they replaced, erased that which came before.
Ironically, when the Christians of the Roman Empire had to choose between Jews or Romans in creating a world dominated by good people with good intentions, they preferred the Romans, despite the fact that morally speaking, Jews and Christians shared far more than either of them with pagans. (The adoption of infanticide, which Jews never practiced, illustrates the impact of absorbing large numbers of converts from pagan culture, which never abandoned the practice.)
One would expect people who found “being good” so easy could rise above the petty kind of envy and moral Schadenfreude that thinks it makes itself look bigger by making others look smaller, and join hands with religious folks who argue that we should be good for “God’s sake.” But apparently, that’s not so obvious, even to eminently “reasonable” folks.
I guess there’s a certain thrill to thinking that you represent the moral cutting edge of humanity, even if it’s just a dream (ready to turn into a nightmare).