Good With and Without God(s)

From remarks presented at the February 6th, 2011 monthly service of The North Texas Church of Freethought

"Good Without God" is not just a slogan. Like the spherical earth, like heliocentrism, like evolution, it's a very important idea that adds to and allows us to advance our ideas, in this case, about morality. Like these other important concepts, it's hard to make the best sense of it without first considering what came before it, in this case the notion of "Good With God." This is not about bashing other people's beliefs. It's about being sure we understand the how and why of the problems connected with the idea of good with god(s) that force us to turn to the principle of good without god(s). After all, before astronomy could really get started it was necessary to understand why astrology — which also still persists! — is unsatisfactory.

Good With God(s)

When believers connect their theological beliefs with morality they seem to do so by supposing that a system of rewards (eternal life and heavenly bliss) and punishment (eternal torture in hell) is necessary to motivate people to do good and not to do evil. It has to be more complicated than this, though, because many more people believe in heaven than in hell. Maybe some people believe in ?temporary hell," who knows? It's an interesting question.

But how about the facts? As many of us know, believers are disproportionately represented in the nation's prisons. And there is also data suggesting that homicide rates and teenage pregnancy rates are either uncorrelated or even positively correlated with the prevalence of theological beliefs in a nation. (See Gregory S. Paul's article in the 2005 Journal of Religion & Society)

Now if we were to be as uncharitable as those who say atheists are immoral we might even say that the promise of heaven and the threat of any kind of punishment is of no motivational value anyway because it is so easy to cancel out wrongdoing in the Christian scheme of things. All one has to do is pray to God for forgiveness or, for Catholics, get the sacrament of Confession and, like magic, one's sins are erased. Robert Ingersoll, the American "Great Agnostic" of the 19th Century, called it "crime on credit." Some Christians even believe in a doctrine of "once saved always saved," which is like some kind of double-O license of predestination that renders being good — or evil — irrelevant. Some people drive around with a bumper-sticker — I've seen them! — saying "I'm not perfect, just saved!"

The idea that to be good requires a system of punishments and rewards is corrosive of morality in another way too. Because it means that being good is not an end in itself but only a means to the end of getting into heaven and staying out of hell. It means that having pleasure and avoiding pain — even if it's pushed off to "the next life" — is really the most important thing. "Where will you go when you die?" is a question used by believers not to appeal to the best in humanity but to the worst. To appreciate this better, just ask yourself what we would think about someone who agreed to spend eternity being tortured in hell in exchange for their loved ones being spared such misery.

Believers like the philosophy professor I quote in today's bulletin are more sophisticated. They consider the matter to be more philosophical than motivational. Their idea is that someone has to say what morality is, and the best one to do it is an immortal and all-powerful being who can really make it stick. Perhaps the most sophisticated version of a divine command theory — and I recommend looking into it further because otherwise we're only attacking "straw man" theology — is that of the contemporary philosopher Robert Merrihew Adams. Adams, currently at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a past president of the Society of Christian Philosophers, spent his career — he is now 73 years old — on a modified divine command theory of morals, a key part of which is an insistence that the deity he is quite sure exists "is a loving God."

Theists who make a philosophical connection between morals and their deity seem to suppose that there just has to be some "higher power" for morals to exist. This leaves at least an echo of the idea of a system of future rewards and punishments. But it may also show that modern theists may be infected by postmodernism's rejection of objective truth, that there can be truths — in this case, right and wrong — independent of what anybody thinks about it.

Yet there can be a "higher power" without it's being a deity. Who is there, after all, to say what science or math is? Who is the authority that determines that the earth goes around the sun instead of the sun going around the earth? These may seem silly questions. But, in fact, it is possible to make geocentrism — the scheme of the sun and all the planets revolving around the earth — "work." Geocentrism did work for a long long time and it never stopped working. Heliocentrism, after Copernicus and others suggested and argued for it, just worked much much better. And what do we mean by "worked better?" We mean that heliocentrism accounted for the facts in a simpler way, and in a way that led to Kepler's laws of planetary motion and then to Newton's laws of motion and other advances. Despite the fact that there was — and is — no authority to say that heliocentrism is true and geocentrism is false, "everyone knows" that this is the case because our brains go to work and make sense of our perceptions by organizing and simplifying them.

Now suppose money disappears from the bank and one of the tellers is later found spending it. What can we conclude? But now suppose further that the teller says: "the money just dematerialized from the bank and rematerialized in my home! How was I to know?!" Then a video from the bank's security system is found that shows the teller taking the money. "Aliens planted that video!" says the teller. Again, what are we to think? Can we prove beyond any doubt whatsoever that what the teller says is wrong? Let us remember: "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Can we be so arrogant as to dismiss the teller's explanations and protestations of innocence as fatuous and self-serving? What if the teller took and passed a lie-detector test? What if huge numbers of people staged demonstrations taking the teller's side of the matter? Could we just ignore all that? Could we just throw up our hands and say we don't know and it doesn't matter?

Clearly, we can conclude that the teller stole the money. Why? Because a "higher power" than anyone's personal beliefs or feelings tells us that there is no reasonable doubt that the teller stole the money. This "higher power" is facts and reason. And a reliance on facts and reason as we know them — and discounting facts and "reason" as we might imagine them to be — is how we human beings live, or ought to live. Certainly, our system of civil and criminal justice relies on facts and reason and no one in their right mind would want it to be otherwise. Even theists don't defend themselves in court by saying "God told me to do it!" At least not yet they don't.

We prefer the simpler explanations to the unnecessarily more complex. This is known as Occam's Razor, named for a 14th Century monastic philosopher (and theologian) who put it this way: "entities are not to be multiplied unnecessarily." That is, the explanation with the fewest assumptions is to be preferred. And this idea was known to the ancients. Sometimes it's called "the principle of parsimony." Or as Albert Einstein put it (it certainly expresses his opinion well): "Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler." The idea that right and wrong depends on some deity saying what's right and wrong simply fails at this.

The worst difficulty with the divine command idea was known to be a serious problem for thousands of years and even for hundreds of years before the New Testament was written. In Plato's dialogue, The Euthyphro, Socrates asks:

Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious?
Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?

We can understand "pious" here as "the good." And this is really the crux of the matter, isn't it? What makes something good or right and something else bad or wrong? Do the deities — does God — know right from wrong just as we do and issue their/his commands accordingly? Or is something right or wrong just because God or deities say that it is? This is "The Euthyphro Dilemma."

The closest the Bible comes to trying to make sense of this problem is when Paul, in the 9th chapter of his epistle to the Romans, refers to the fact that God "hardened the heart" of the Egyptian Pharaoh in the Exodus story and yet the Egyptians were then punished for this. Paul writes:

O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him
that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay,
of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonor?

Here Paul forthrightly takes the second horn of the dilemma: that what makes something good is that God says it's good. And why is this? Because man is "the thing formed" and the power that formed man is therefore entitled to do whatever it wants. And what is this but a naked assertion of might makes right? And that ultimate might — possessing ultimate power over "the same lump" of different human beings — makes ultimate right? What, then, is the moral standard that Paul elsewhere referred to as being "written on the hearts" and arising from the conscience of Gentiles? What becomes of that when God can just "make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonor" as he pleases? Does Paul's God even have anything like a conscience?

The philosopher Robert Merrihew Adams' modified divine command theory has God possessing something like a conscience since Adams tries also to take the other horn of the Socratic dilemma. He does this by requiring that God be "loving," which effectively sets "good" equal to "motivated by love." That seems much better, doesn't it? But then we may begin to wonder whether God is good only because he is loving or whether being loving is good only because God is loving.

However it's looked at, good with god(s) is not so simple as most believers seem to think. In fact, it's way more complicated than any system of morality without god(s) because, just as when deities are layered on top of or in and around the sciences, there are all the questions of morality to deal with and then the additional complications of theology. Good with god(s) actually subverts morality, making it a game to please a deity or deities that can say right and wrong is whatever they/he want(s). And good with god(s) is not parsimonious. On the contrary, it makes things more complicated than they need to be. It unnecessarily multiplies entities.

Good Without God(s)

Over two millennia of philosophical thinking about right and wrong has produced some very interesting, well-developed and detailed moral theories having nothing to do with divine decrees. This, too, is a signpost on the trail of truth: that it is possible and productive to consider moral problems from a completely facts-and-reason point of view. We see the same thing in the evolution-Creationism "controversy." Evolution offers a wealth of ideas having striking explanatory power, while Creationism is marked by its poverty of thinking which is pretty much limited to the claim that: "there"s not any good explanation for     fill-in-the-blank     and so God must have done it!?

Philosophical theories of meta-ethics, ideas that "go beyond" ethics to ask what morality is and where it "comes from" are currently classified as either Realism or Anti-Realism. Anti-Realism further breaks down into things like nihilism, emotivism or expressivism, subjectivism or relativism. We've already mentioned divine command theory, which is considered — with good reason, as we know — as a form of anti-realism. There is even a version of divine command theory in which the deity is understood to be a hypothetical entity. This is called Ideal Observer Theory.

Another classification is that of cognitivism, which holds that moral statements can be true or false, versus non-cognitivism which holds that such statements cannot be true or false. Error theory is yet another view to the effect that moral statements are all wrong.

This subject gets very complicated very fast, just as any serious consideration of real problems usually does. But when it comes to practical moral principles to be used in human society there are really only two distinct ideas that seem to have been thought of. One is almost certainly the older: the moral theory of The Law Of The Jungle or Might Makes Right. As we have seen, this is really what divine command theories boil down to: the official "might" being a supposed deity and the functional "might" being those who manage to have it believed that they speak for or interpret the deity's commands.

Might Makes Right is widespread in nature. And in human society it "works" after a fashion. It has "worked" throughout history about as well as it has "worked" for Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Hosni Mubarak, Kim Jong Il and other dictators "good" and "bad." The problem with it is that those who are mighty tend to get into disputes with others who are also mighty or who want to get the might for themselves. The mighty, like everyone else, get older, can become infirm or turn their attention away from threats. They have to sleep sometimes too. And struggles between the mighty and over who will possess the might almost always hurt those of who are not mighty.

The second, and only alternative practical moral principle is: The Law Of Reciprocity, also known as "Do Unto Others" or "The Golden Rule" and sometimes "The Platinum Rule" or another variation. The idea here is that, regardless of who is most mighty, there is a kind of moral symmetry between any one person and any other person such that no one is entitled to do anything that anyone else is not entitled to do. "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow," the Rabbi Hillel is said to have put it even before Jesus is supposed to have lived. But Confucius taught the same 500 years before Hillel and the idea appears to go back at least another 1000 years before that.

Reciprocity is a thoroughly atheistic moral concept. No deity is needed for it to work or for anyone to say of it: "this is what good means!" And even if it were to be seriously asserted that Might Makes Right is a better rule, even if there were a deity that asserted it, we should still consider which is the better idea in the same way that we can consider the ideas of geocentrism and heliocentrism. Which is the simpler principle? Which principle makes it easier to answer moral questions and resolve moral problems? Which lends itself better to a stable and enduring system of laws and justice that must struggle to settle constantly-arising disputes in a complex global society? Although it seems doubtful that right and wrong will ever be simple and easy to sort out in all situations, the principle of Reciprocity is obviously much more powerful than that of Might Makes Right.

This is all that Good Without God means.