Wednesday, December 20, 2006

If there is no God why be good?

Colorado Christian education activist Kevin Swanson devoted a couple of his recent "Generations" radio programs to the resurgence of atheism. In one he traces the rise of atheism (listen here) and in the second he asks some great questions about why atheism necessarily does away with morality (listen here). If there is no God, why be good?
Given some recent conversations on this blog about the Christian heritage of our nation, you might also want to listen to his interview with Doug Phillips of Vision Forum on the 400th Anniversary of Jamestown (listen here).
JTR

10 comments:

Butch said...

I understand that for people of faith it is very important to believe that God is rewarding the just and punishing the wicked. I used to be one. But the facts point out that that this is just not required for moral behavior. For instance billions of people of faith across the world pray to, and have faith in, “false gods and spirits.” They lead lives remarkably similar to American Christians in most cases and by all accounts are decent and moral people. Surely these “false gods and spirits” are not giving these people the same morality granted to Christians. If, after all, all it takes is belief in any ole god rather than atheism to make you moral and decent, then what’s the point?

Also please consider that if you examine American people of faith and American atheists for the “fruit” of their morality what you see is striking. For instance Christians make up about 75% of the overall US population. They also make up about 75% of the US prison population. Atheists make up anywhere between 5-12% of the US population at large but make up only 0.2% of the US prison population (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 1997). The two most plausible conclusions of this are that atheists are either committing less crime or are smarter at getting away with it. I won’t insult your intelligence by claiming the later. I prefer to draw the obvious conclusion that atheists are committing less crime.

If the measure of morality is based on social and family matters rather than criminal, the facts are hardly more encouraging for those trying to convince their flock that atheism = immorality. For instance the percentage of “Americans (who) are, or have been, divorced” is 25%. But the divorce rate for those self-identified as “born again Christian” is 27%. Actually making it higher than the overall population. However atheists and agnostics recorded the lowest divorce rate of all religious or nonreligious groups at 21%. As someone extremely concerned with marriage and family that fact stands out to me. The Barna Group, a Christian company, compiled these results.

Even though all the available evidence points out that atheists are not less moral than theists, and in most cases actually supports the contrary, it doesn’t prove anything about the existence of God or gods. Even if atheists were less moral, that would still not be evidence of the existence of supernatural.

If the question of the believer comes from honestly wondering where the atheist gets his or her moral code, the answer is from the same place theists get their own: from our own innate conscience. For example Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, in their many books on the subject, explain how our current morality could have evolved as a way of improving fitness. We increase our own fitness by creating stable relationships and civil societies. These things are a product of empathy, not faith.

I think it is a stinging indictment of the theist who says in essence that the only real reason he or she leads a moral life is fear of hell or reward of heaven. Perhaps it is the only reason -you- act morally, but there are millions of people living all around you today who prove that they lead moral lives because they are just moral people - even without bribery and threats. Because we don’t spend our all too brief lives in preparation for eternal reward or punishment, we strive to do everything we can, while we are here, to make the world a better place today, to improve the lives of our fellow man today, and live life as fully as possible - today.

"A man's ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death."- Albert Einstein, in an article which appeared in New York Times Magazine, November 9, 1930.

Pastor Jeff said...

Butch,

By God's common grace we see humans around the world and across cultures living by similar basic moral patterns (as summaraized in the Ten Commandments). So, it is universally wrong to lie, steal, murder, etc. Is this just an accident?

On your comparison of morality among individual Christians and atheists, here are several problems with your argument. First, there is no way to test whether those who profess faith in Christ are truly saved. One of the fruits of salvation is a changed life. Those who committed crimes might have professed faith and not been saved. Or, they may have been saved after conversion. Christians tend to do prison ministry, not atheists. Second, from a Biblical perspective all are sinners. Third, the question is not about individual "sins" but the human problem of "sin" in general. Fourth, the argument is that atheism does not provide an adequate moral blueprint for a society to work. I lived for two years in Hungary after the fall of communism. I have seen first hand the bleakness and misery that 45 years of state sponsored atheism brought to that country.

As for Dawkins' argument that "morality" evolved, listen to the Swanson program for a response.

I am not suggesting that the only reason a Christian strives to do and be good is fear of hell or hope of heaven (though these are not bad motivation!). The point is that if you adopt an atheistic stance you have no measure for judging whether anything is right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust, true or false, ugly or beautiful.

JTR

Pastor Jeff said...

Sorry, I wrote above:

"Or, they may have been saved after conversion."

And meant to say, "Or, they may have been saved (converted) after they went to prison."

Hopefully, that makes more sense!

JTR

Butch said...

I understand your point, but there is most certainly a “measure for judging whether anything is right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust, true or false, ugly or beautiful.” without relying on the supernatural. I gave examples of this. I think it is highly presumptuous for you to claim that because I don’t share your reasons for living a moral life that I therefore either must not lead a moral life (as you insinuated in the original post) or that I’m just floating along randomly without a firm basis for my actions. I also understand that evolution is usually dismissed by fundamentalists, but as a science it has given us tremendous insights into all fields of biology including human behavior - the basis for human morality included. If you reject this entire field of science, so be it, but the fact remains that we can show the origins of morality, as well as how and why it exists in modern man.

I also gave many points to show that atheists all across this great country prove this daily. I’m sorry but the “No True Scotsman” argument doesn’t work here. Even if you cut the numbers of professed Christians in prisons by 98% to account for “prison conversions” and whatnot, you still have almost ten times as many believers as atheists in prison.

Reading between the lines I get the sense that you have some odd notions about atheism. You imply in various places that everything is “random” or an “accident” and so forth. This is a common fallacy. Universal codes of conduct such as prescriptions against lying, stealing, murdering, etc aren’t based on Ten Commandments at all. Rather they are products of civil society itself, or rather these things are necessary for a stable society to function, and living in a stable society greatly increases one’s fitness.

Lastly, your analogy about Hungary is flawed. While the state was officially atheistic it bore all the hallmarks of dogmatic faith. They preached strict obedience to a leader, the suppression of questions and skepticism, and the value of conformity over the individual. It was dogma that created those conditions. They simply built it around communism rather than a religion. It’s not any particular religion that bothers me, but the idea that faith is a virtue and doubt a vice. That leads to things like the Stalinist nations of the Cold War and the Church/State tyrannies of the dark ages.

If atheism truly led to a less moral lifestyle, then wouldn’t there be some evidence of this with something like 30 million atheists living right here in our country? One of the verses in the Bible that holds real wisdom is Mathew 7:16. If you examine the fruits of atheists you find them living exemplary moral lives. In fact, usually more moral lives than the vast majority of believers of any faith.

By the way, thanks for posting my comment and responding to it. I’ll admit to being skeptical about the chances of that. That was a stand up thing to do.

Brian Hamrick said...

Butch,

You said:

For instance Christians make up about 75% of the overall US population.

When we think about what Jesus said in Matthew 7:21-23, you will see that no serious, born-again Christian would even remotely agree with your statement, though we would concede this is how people would respond to the polling question, "What is your religion?"

As I remember, Billy Graham once said he perceived the vast majority of people who attend church (and are "members") are lost.

I would probably put the number of born again Christians (the Bible says all true Christians are born again- John 3) is probably closer to 5-10% of the American population.

Brian Hamrick said...

Also, I would discount your marriage statistics in the fact that many atheiests/agnostics do not pursue marriage relationships like Christians do- they can live together without any violation to conscience.

Shawn said...

The point is that if you adopt an atheistic stance you have no measure for judging whether anything is right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust, true or false, ugly or beautiful.

I take an atheistic stance and DO have a measure for judging whether anything is right or wrong, good or bad, etc.

First, there is no way to test whether those who profess faith in Christ are truly saved.

ding ding ding: no true Scotsman?

we strive to do everything we can, while we are here, to make the world a better place today, to improve the lives of our fellow man today, and live life as fully as possible - today.
If this is the summary of what most people do, as you say, where's the "god" part come into play?

I have seen first hand the bleakness and misery that 45 years of state sponsored atheism brought to that country.
Negative. You've seen what dogmatism has wrought. Dogmatism in any "sheeps-clothing" is immoral, beit political, religious, economic, etc. There's a sharp distinction that fails to get through when speaking belief v. non-belief. I fail to get the point across most of the time myself and kick myself for not making the distinction when discussing.

-Shawn

Pastor Jeff said...

Shawn,

On responses to your four quotes:

1. If there is no God and no revealed revelation (Scripture) then how do you know what you think is right is right (or just, good, beautiful, etc.)? Are you the only measure of this? Is it only a matter of what's right for you? From a Biblical perspective, I would say, yes, you do have some inner sense of what is right and it is not relative (see Romans 1:20). Why? Because of God's common grace. Even you likely have a sense it is wrong to lie, steal, cheat, etc. If there is no God then it might be right for you sometimes to kill and steal, etc. Why not? It's survival of the fittest. What a cruel, selfish world godlessness creates.

2. The point is: Don't judge the merits of biblical Christianity by nominal Christianity.

3. I don't get your point. the quote is from Butch, not me. Are you asking why people who do not believe in God do good? Again, my response is that this would be due to the common grace of God.

4. Why do you think it is that democratic nations where human rights and religious freedom developed in places where Christianity had a major, historical influence? Compare the US and Western Europe, for example, with Islamic influenced nations. Is this just an accident?

Now, can you name one nation where athesim has *not* been dogmatically applied? Look at the reign of terror in revolutionary France, the former Soviet Union, the Eastern bloc, the killing fields of Cambodia, the cultural revolution in China. This is where atheism leads every time. Can you name even one instance where atheism has not been dogmatically applied with chilling results?

JTR

Butch said...

It seems you may have decided to not post comments from me, although I can’t see anything in what I’ve written to have deserved that. But if this one does get through, I’d like to address one point (I’ve addressed the others you keep bringing up to no response). You said “Now, can you name one nation where athesim has *not* been dogmatically applied?”

Sure can. Look at Western Europe of today. Especially the UK and France. By in large most of the population is completely secular or only nominally religious at best and they have standards of living higher than our own. In fact the biggest social issues facing them today are from the religious fundamentalists.

It wasn’t atheism that led to those tyrannies although you keep insisting it was even though two of us have already pointed out that the root cause was dogmatism. You can create a dogmatic faith around anything and just about anything will work. Besides, I don’t think any Christian wants to start comparing the relative morality of nations based on the official state religion. No one is advocating that atheism be pushed on anyone. It would be like advocating that everyone take up not collecting stamps for a hobby.

Pastor Jeff said...

Butch,

1. On posting. I think I have posted what you have sent me (your comment is the lead here, for example). Blogger sometimes malfunctions. I only reject comments if they have profanity or personal insults. Please resend anything that has not gotten posted and I will try to put it up.

2. The UK and France will not work as examples. Yes, they are currently secular but look at the hundreds if not thousands of years of Christian influence. The secularization of Western Europe is a very recent trend. The UK also retains a small but strong evangelical presence. By the way, it is also instructive to compare how the UK has been influenced by a more robust Protestantism and France by a weaker Catholicism, but that's another issue.

3. On "pushing" atheism. Sorry, but atheism was "pushed" in communist Eastern Europe, even as it is now in China. Christianity and other religions do not have full freedoms in officially atheistic China. This is the way state atheism works. There have been no exceptions to the rule.

JTR