Monday, 25 February 2008

Good without God?

I want to discuss a little bit now the question of God and morality. To what extent must we depend upon the reality of God to be good? Can we be good without God? "Ah," said the politician. "It depends on what you mean by..."

Actually, though, in this case the politician is right. It really does depend on what you mean by "good", "without" and "God", though unlike the politician I see no need as yet to question the import of the words "can" or "we", or talk the whole question out via a filibuster.

First of I'd like to concede, and even argue that it's necessary to concede, that atheists can and must be good without God. The Christian position requires that they should so be. If they are indeed made in the image of God as explained in Genesis 1, then they must even though fallen (like all of us), retain an innate sense of the reality and importance of right and wrong. Unless we actually find atheists routinely arguing that X, Y or Z is moral or immoral, and that it's important, then Christianity would start to look suspect. If they were able to throw off all the shackles of morality and just live out the selfish genes or survival of the fittest or life is ultimately all without meaning or purpose hypotheses, I'd be worried. It would be a sign that maybe they weren't creatures made by God after all, and that atheism might actually be true. The fact, though, that most atheists find themselves unable to do this and find it necessary to live as if morality was a fundamental and universal part of reality (rather than an arbitrary human construct) and to hunt around for (far-fetched) arguments for justify this, is something rather re-assuring. There are of course some who have been more consistent in their atheism, at least in their theoretical thinking. Believing that man is a cosmic accident, they realise that after A and B you've got to travel to C - morality is a construct of the human mind, which is no more binding upon our behaviour than any other activity of that human mind. It's got know more "you ought to do this" compulsion than anything else thrown up by our brain cells - such as, for example, immorality. In real life, though, a punch on the nose will soon bring the atheist back to his senses. The old feelings regarding the reality of right and wrong will soon override the nice systems of a-morality they were trying to work out in their writings, and they'll begin speaking like a theist again.

None of this, though, is actually being good without God, is it? It's the opposite - being good with God. To actually talk about being "good without God", we need to journey into a different universe - the mental universe of atheism. Escaping reality, we need to forget our assumptions about what the statement "many atheists are moral" means, and talk about something more basic. Because the image of God is impressed upon our nature as created beings, we've all assumed some ideas about right and wrong. In an atheist universe, though, we need to drop those assumptions and start again from scratch. In a universe in which we're just highly-evolved pond goo, what does morality actually look like and how does it work?

Did I say "highly" evolved? Actually that's a value judgment, and that's not actually allowed until we've established just what the source and authority of values is. At the moment we can only say that we're much-evolved pond goo. Whether we're any "higher" than the dolphins (who can communicate over longer distances than we can) or bats (who can navigate better in the dark) or camels (who can go for weeks without water, which we can't) is a decision we can't yet make without doing some more intellectual donkey-work. If passing on your genes is the ultimate point of life, then I'd have thought that those expert breeders, bacteria and beetles must be the most "highly" evolved beings around, so we'll drop that word for now.

At this point I'd also like to question the meaning of the word "we". It seems to imply distinct personal beings. I'm pretty sure that an atheistic universe of mere matter cannot account for that either. More than one atheistic philosopher admits that we can't, and that we need to accept that consciousness is merely an illusion (experienced by we're-not-sure-who).

Filibuster over for now - to be continued!

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