In which I agree with Michael Egnor


Can you be good without God? Of the various questions raised in the theist/atheist debate, this question has, I believe, occasioned more witless commentary than any other.

–Michael Egnor, Evolution News & Views 2017-09-05

I couldn’t agree more. And you’ll find no better example of that witless commentary than Egnor’s article itself.

The answer to the question we started with hinges on what you mean by “without God.” Let’s take a look.

  1. If God does not exist, you cannot be good. You cannot be evil. You can’t conform or fail to conform to any transcendental standard, because if there is no God, there are no transcendental standards. There is no Moral Law if there is no Moral Lawgiver. If there is no God, there are merely opinions and consequences of acting on opinions. We may label certain opinions “good,” but that’s just our opinion. What we really mean by calling something “good” is that we like it. Which is fine, as long as we understand that “good without God” is just a metaphor for “something I (or we) like.” If there is no God, all of our “moral” decisions are just opinions — perhaps opinions we like, or opinions we don’t like — but neither good nor bad.

Beg the question much?

This is a load of crap from beginning to end. Dr. Egnor starts with the assumption that good and evil are defined, can only be defined, with respect to God. Why can’t we define good and evil with respect to human welfare? That’s not explained. “…if there is no God, there are no transcendental standards”? Bullshit. Slavery (for example) is evil. It was evil when (some) people thought it was good, and it will still be evil (if, hopefully not, it still exists) 10,000 years from now. Ditto rape. Ditto murder. They’re evil because they are contrary to human welfare. If you need God to tell you these things are evil, I truly pity you.

Dr. Egnor derides secular views of good and evil as ‘just opinions’, but his definition boils down to ‘God’s opinions’. Faced with a choice between the opinions of man (who exists) and those of God (who almost certainly doesn’t), I’ll take the moral philosophers over the fictional character.

2.  If God does exist, but you don’t believe in Him, then of course you can be “good without God”, in the sense that you can be good without believing in God.

No shit, Sherlock.

It is central to the moral theology of all the great faiths that non-believers may act in accordance with Moral Law without belief in God and even without knowing Moral Law in any formal sense. The Moral Law is written in our hearts, theists universally agree, and we feel the weight of morality whether we believe in God or not.

Well, that’s awfully damn generous of you: God gives us an understanding of good and evil whether we believe in Him or not. Do you notice the bullet-proof immunization against evidence? Knowledge of good and evil can only come from God. Okay, but there’s this guy over here says he don’t believe in God, and he acts pretty good. Well, you see, God put the knowledge of good and evil in him!

Now of course an additional question can be asked: Do theists actually behave better than atheists? I think this is the question that ticked off the atheists in the essay.

Yes, that’s actually the part that ticked off atheists. The essay in question is one more piece of evidence that atheists are among the most reviled minorities. Is there some reason we shouldn’t be ticked off about the perception that we are more likely to be serial killers? That’s actually what the poll said:

…researchers led by Will M. Gervais, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, discovered that most individuals intuitively conclude that a serial killer is more likely to be an atheist (approximately 60 percent) than religious (approximately 30 percent).

What delicate snowflakes we are, to get ticked off about being called serial killers!

Back to Dr. Egnor:

Atheists, however, are on quicksand when they argue about “goodness” and “evil,” given that their metaphysics, if taken seriously, utterly rules out the existence of either. Also, it would seem to me that atheists could be a bit more contrite in light of the fact that whenever they have assumed state power — from the Reign of Terror to the gang currently launching missiles from North Korea — atheism has brought hell to earth.

This is anti-atheist bigotry, pure and simple. Imagine substituting any other group for atheists in that last sentence:

Also, it would seem to me that atheists Europeans could be a bit more contrite in light of the fact that whenever they have assumed state power — from the Reign of Terror Adolf Hitler to the gang currently launching missiles from North Korea Benito Mussolini— atheism European leadership has brought hell to earth.

Also, it would seem to me that atheists Christians could be a bit more contrite in light of the fact that whenever they have assumed state power — from the Reign of Terror Ferdinand and Isabella to the gang currently launching missiles from North Korea Ivan the Terrible— atheism Christianity has brought hell to earth.

Also, it would seem to me that atheists women could be a bit more contrite in light of the fact that whenever they have assumed state power — from the Reign of Terror Wu Zetian to the gang currently launching missiles from North Korea Bloody Mary— atheism female leadership has brought hell to earth.

All of those statements are daft, cherry picking the examples that best support the pre-determined conclusion while ignoring the many counter-examples.

I know the saying “there’s no such thing as a stupid question,” but if there ever was a stupid question, “Can you be good without God” is it. Think about the unspoken assumptions required to even ask it. Imagine I asked if it was possible for members of some other demographic to be good. Not if they were more or less good on average, but whether it was even possible for them to be good. You’d probably call me a bigot, and you’d be right.

Where do people get the idea that atheists are immoral? From ‘witless commentary’ like Dr. Egnor’s.

Comments

  1. says

    What we really mean by calling something “good” is that we like it.

    No, that’s not what “we” mean. If a program is instituted to make sure that every single child in uStates has more than adequate food intake every day, that’s a common good, and goes far beyond “hey, I like that!” Not only is making sure people have good nutrition and plenty to eat good, but when it comes to children, it’s vital for proper growth, including brain growth. Those kids will be more involved in learning and education, then, when they reach adulthood, are more likely to be in a position to give back into the general societal pool. But…just an opinion of something I like, I guess.

  2. says

    Dr. Egnor derides secular views of good and evil as ‘just opinions’, but his definition boils down to ‘God’s opinions

    That’s also ignoring that it appears to be Egnor’s opinion that god exists. As you point out, he presupposes that is a fact – but if it’s not a fact, and he can’t support it, then it’s an opinion.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    Words only have meanings if those meanings if most people agree on what those meanings consist of. If I tell all my students to bring a shmercopf to class, and each student brings in something different, that’s a good indication that the word “shmercopf” doesn’t mean anything.

    I believe that that is the case for the words “good” and “evil” — there simply isn’t enough agreement on what they constitute for the words to be meaningful. Some people believe it is good to fly an airplane into a building; some think it’s good to kick their transgender child into the street to be homeless; some think it’s good to commit acts of genocide. At one time, there were a heck of a lot of people who thought that slavery was good. Vegetarians might think it’s evil to eat meat; others would disagree. And if Egnor was being honest in his argument, he’d have to admit that even Christians don’t necessarily agree on what is good and what isn’t, even with a whole book to quote from and use as an authority.

    If you’ve ever tried to get into an argument with a Christian about whether a particular act (like kicking the trans kid out) is good or not, I think you can quickly come to the same conclusion: there simply isn’t enough common ground between the two of you for the word “good” to have any meaning worth referencing.

    Instead of “good” and “evil” I prefer to use the terms “prosocial” and “antisocial”, where prosocial means actions that make it easier for humans to build communities, and antisocial means actions that make it harder. When I’m arguing with someone, it’s more likely we’ll be able to agree on the meaning of those terms, and you can’t even have an argument if you can’t agree on the meaning of the terms you’re using.

  4. suttkus says

    So, god gave us all an inherent understanding of good and evil, but we still managed to keep slaves for centuries? We still managed to spent most of history engaging in the most horrible racism and misogyny? We still managed to engage in the Crusades and the bigoted slaughter of people of other religions?

    Just how does this inherent understanding of good and evil work? I mostly just see people assuming their culture is good and not thinking about it very hard. It’s almost like there’s no inherent understanding of good and evil at all!

  5. brucegee1962 says

    I’d argue that the concept of morality has evolved (in a cultural evolution sense) quite a bit since ancient times. Intense suspicion and mistrust (prejudice) against outsiders would make more sense when every stranger might be bearing a disease, or be a scout for an invading army; now, we don’t have the same reasons to fear.

    Likewise, if the standard for the victors in a war was to put all the losers’ women and children to the sword and burn down their towns (as in the OT), then slavery might actually represent a moral advance.

    Encouraging martial values of bravery and aggression in men might be “good” if your society was engaging in pretty much constant warfare just to survive. Now? Not so much.

    In other words, what was “good” for one culture in one time and place, might stop being good somewhere farther along the line when social conditions change.

  6. Owlmirror says

    It’s pretty easy to flummox those who appeal to the supposed absolute morality of God by pointing to all the things that the bible says to do that they don’t any more. There’s usually some justification from the New Testament, but if the New Testament cancels out some laws from the Old Testament, then the Old Testament laws were never absolute to begin with, so God can’t be the absolute source of morality.

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