Writing for The Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby offers a typically muddled argument against atheism. The column’s title: “Atheism’s Bleak Alternative”. Most of the column describes various atrocities perpetrated by secularists against religious people, particularly in England. But it’s the last three paragraphs that really merit a response:
What is at stake in all this isn’t just angels on Christmas cards. What society loses when it discards Judeo-Christian faith and belief in God is something far more difficult to replace: the value system most likely to promote ethical behavior and sustain a decent society. That is because without God, the difference between good and evil becomes purely subjective. What makes murder inherently wrong is not that it feels wrong, but that a transcendent Creator to whom we are answerable commands: “Thou shalt not murder.” What makes kindness to others inherently right is not that human reason says so, but that God does: “Love thy neighbor as thyself; I am the Lord.”
We begin with the obvious: Jacoby has no basis for his assertion that Judeo-Christian faith and belief in God lead to the value system most likely to promote ethical behavior and a decent society. Certainly England competes well with the United States in those areas, yet, as Jacoby hinself reports, England is majority non-religious.
But the real issue here is the old moral relativism canard. What could Jacoby have in mind in saying that murder is wrong because a God to whom we are answerable says that it is wrong? One possibility is that he means that God will punish us severely in the afterlife for our transgressions. I would agree that that is a persuasive practical reason for following God’s law. But if that is the inspiring alternative Jacoby places in contrast to bleak atheism, then I think I’d prefer the bleak. Incidentally, if fear of punishment is to be accepted as a legitimate argument in moral reasoning, then we may as well say that murder is wrong because the state will punish you for doing it.
If he doesn’t mean that, then his allegedly objective system of morality is quickly seen to be nothing of the kind. In reality, it is premised not merely on the assumption that God exists, but that the Bible really is His word, that we have a solid grasp on what the Bible is telling us to do, and that this God is genuinely a God worth following. I don’t believe he can defend any of these assertions with reasonable arguments. He certainly can’t defend them with arguments that will convince the majority of people in the world (most of whom aren’t Christian, after all.)
And what does he mean by murder? He doesn’t mean simple killing, for just about everyone would agree that there are situations where killing is justified. Presumably he means the unjustified taking of a human life. But then we have to decide what constitutes a justification. On this point, religious people do not agree. For example, the Catholic Church opposes the death penalty. Many Protestant sects endorse it. Both read from the same Bible, yet they have not managed to come to an agreement on whether this sort of killing is wrong. Apparently Judeo-Christian theism does not provide quite as much moral guidance as Jacoby seems to think.
As an atheist, I say murder is wrong because humans have certain rights and that one of them is the right not to be killed for no reason. That seems obvious to me. If you ask me to defend that in terms of something simpler I doubt I could do it. If it doesn’t seem obvious to you, and you think that murder is wrong solely because God said so, then I’m very glad you have your religious faith to keep you from killing people. I would point out, however, that the fundamental principles of my morality are, in fact, shared by most of the people in the world, regardless of their religion. That represents a big improvement over morality based on Christian theism.
And at the risk of being juvenile, someone needs to point out to Jacoby that his simple-minded reasoning would force us to conclude that if tomorrow God decides to remove his prohibition against murder, then murder would cease to be wrong. Is that really a position he wants to endorse?
Obviously this doesn’t mean that religious people are always good, or that religion itself cannot lead to cruelty. Nor does it mean that atheists cannot be beautiful, ethical human beings. Belief in God alone does not guarantee goodness. But belief tethered to clear ethical values — Judeo-Christian monotheism — is society’s best bet for restraining our worst moral impulses and encouraging our best ones.
The atheist alternative is a world in which right and wrong are ultimately matters of opinion, and in which we are finally accountable to no one but ourselves. That is anything but a tiding of comfort and joy.
Right and wrong are ultimately matters of opinion regardless of whether or not God exists. You don’t get to say, “You believe in fundamental human rights. That’s arbitrary and relativistic. I believe that God exists and the Bible is His word. So my morality is objective.” The fact is that any moral system must ultimately be based on assertions that can not be proved. As a practical matter we can only hope to base society on principles that most people are willing to live by.
Jacoby tells us that it is belief tethered to clear ethical values, and not belief alone that is our best bet for promoting moral behavior. One wonders what role the “belief” is playing there. It is the clear ethical values that matter, and Jacoby concedes that atheists can have those just as surely as religious people can. Jacoby’s argument would only make sense if he could show that people without belief in God find it more difficult to maintain their clear standards than people with such belief. He can show nothing of the kind, of course.
We atheists are constantly being lectured about the beauty and subtlety of religious thought. When we go fulminating about some bit of popular theistic silliness, we are told that such folks represent only a small minority of religious believers and that we really must read the work of some obscure theologian or other before we can comment authoritatively.
Well, I’m sorry, but it just isn’t so. People like Jacoby, with their flabby, ill-considered arguments, represent the mainstream of religious thought. It is the theologians who are doing it wrong.