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April 13, 2011

Can you be good without god?

Yes.

It is a simple answer to a simple question. It should be quite self-evident to anyone. And yet, religious people manage to get some atheists to actually debate it. P. Z. Myers has posted all the YouTube links to a recent debate between Sam Harris and theologian William Lane Craig on the topic "Does Good Come From God?" I watched about half of it and although it was mildly interesting, I tuned out because I have little patience for discussions based on unexamined and unsubstantiated premises.

Craig was trying to make the case that without a god, there can be no objective morality or standards for what is good. My response to that argument is "So what?" What makes people think that the universe ought to have objective morality? All these discussions about how there must be a god because without a god people would go berserk and murder everyone else and life would be awful and not worth living seems to me to be missing the point. We cannot will god into existence just because we can't bear the thought of life without god.

Whether god exists or doesn't exist is a purely empirical question that can only be determined by evidence. In the absence of evidence for god's existence, we have to conclude that there is no god and must learn to deal with the consequences. That's it. The level of angst that may be produced by taking away the idea of an objective morality (or a god to specify it) is immaterial, unless you are going down the road of the 'noble lie', where the masses of people are deliberately fed falsehoods in order to maintain social order, while only the elite are aware of the truth. (For those who raise the false counter-argument that in the absence of proof that god doesn't exist, we can conclude that god exists, I refer them to this post.)

It seems pretty obvious that we can explain our morality and ethics as derived from biology (things that emerged as a result of our evolutionary history and the propensities for which are genetically and environmentally based) and culture (behaviors that we as a society have consciously decided are desirable or not desirable). The only debate is over the relative weight that we assign to these two causes and that can vary depending on the particular moral issue we are focusing on. However much people may want to include god as a third cause, the truth is that we no longer need god to understand the existence of morality.

Religious people have to walk a fine line. On the one hand, they have to argue that only humans perceive this objective morality. If all species seemed to have the same moral compass, then that would argue convincingly that it has a biological origin derived from our common evolutionary history. To allow for the assertion of a god-given objective morality, they have to argue that humans have at least some unique moral sensibilities not possessed by other species and that these could only have come from god. On the other hand, they have to show that this moral sense is shared among all humans. If moral standards varied widely for different populations, that would argue for a cultural source.

The philosopher David Hume articulated the 'is-ought problem' (which is related to, but is not identical with, what is called the naturalistic fallacy) where he warned about making claims about what ought to be based on what is. For example, just because we find some property occurring in nature does not mean that that property is necessarily desirable. So we cannot argue that some action is moral simply because it seems to be part of nature.

For example, some people use the presence of homosexual behavior in other species to argue that such behavior is natural and thus should be accepted in humans. While I am fully supportive of equal rights for gay people, I disagree with this particular line of biological reasoning. We can and should uphold equal rights for gay people because there are good cultural reasons for doing so based on general human rights principles, irrespective of whether we can find support for them in biology

Most people understand that we cannot usually infer ought from is. But what religious people like Craig seem to be doing is committing the even worse offense of what one might call the 'ought-is fallacy', where because they think that we need an objective morality in order to keep our barbaric impulses under control, therefore it must exist. And since they also think that only a god can supply such a morality, therefore a god must exist also.

No.

Believers in god have to first establish using empirical evidence that god exists before they can use god in arguments about morality or anything else. You cannot argue for the existence of god on the basis of some property that you arbitrarily assert must exist (for whatever reason) and that could have only come from god.

The source of morals is a question of interest and worth investigating. As the human race progresses and science advances, we are going to be confronted with trickier issues of morality and so determining the bases of such decisions is a worthwhile activity. But introducing god not only does not help in elucidating this question, it makes things even murkier by introducing purely arbitrary and non-empirical elements into the discussion.

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Comments

Just curious, aren't you violating the is-ought principle when you require empirical evidence for a god? Just because we can provide empirical evidence for material things does that mean we should require the same for non-material things?

Posted by Henry on April 13, 2011 09:13 AM

Henry,

No, I don't think so. If the non-material entity interacts in any way with the material world, then the call for empirical evidence is justified.

If it does not interact with the material world at all, then I would not demand evidence because such an entity would be totally irrelevant and redundant since it has no effect on the material world we live in.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 13, 2011 10:10 AM

It seems to me that to be "moral" only because you believe that a Sky Daddy has given you marching orders, is actually to be totally amoral. In that case your only actual principle is obedience to the dictates of beings more powerful than yourself.

And I don't think I need to provide the familiar examples of the kinds of horrible behavior that has actually been perpetrated by those who believe they get their orders from on high.

Posted by Steve LaBonne on April 13, 2011 10:24 AM

Craig's most dishonest tactic was to repeatedly say that even though the existence of God was required for his argument that wasn't the topic of the debate and therefore he wasn't going to discuss it.

Henry: You would have to show first that non-material things exist to begin with. There is no evidence for this.

Posted by Somite on April 13, 2011 10:30 AM

@Somite

Are you saying that an 'idea' doesn't exist?

Clearly we can measure the effect of an idea using MRI for example. Yet, an idea has to be the definition of a non-material thing.

Posted by Henry on April 13, 2011 10:42 AM

I always figured that evidence of homosexual behavior in other animals was merely evidence against such claims that homosexuality is "unnatural," and that it only supports gay rights to the extent that it being "unnatural" was a valid argument against it.

Posted by Evan on April 13, 2011 10:54 AM

@henry an idea is a configuration. No more or less real than constellations.

Posted by Somite on April 13, 2011 10:57 AM

@Henry

In a computer the symbols 0 and 1 are represented by a configuration of switches. There are no 0's or 1's, but the switches behave as such.

Similarly, in your brain, you have neurons and nerve endings. Their configurations carry your ideas.

Posted by zaybu on April 14, 2011 08:04 AM

Would you go so far as to say that something is only meaningful if it is empirically verifiable?

Posted by Clayton on April 14, 2011 10:29 AM

I've heard a couple of acquaintances resort to the 'without god there is no reason to be good' line. I find it very scary.

Either they don't believe it, and know in their hearts that it's not the fear of divine retribution keeping them from behaving like a criminal; or they really do honestly think that without a god-given morality they wouldn't feel constrained in their actions.

It's this second case that really worries me. These are regular everyday people, and I find it difficult to imagine that they would turn into Natural Born Killers without that sword of Damocles hanging over them.

Posted by Peter on April 14, 2011 12:49 PM

Clayton,

It depends on what you mean by 'something' and 'meaningful'.

If the something is say, an aesthetic sense of beauty, then 'meaningful' may not mean empirically verifiable, at least in the short term, although one may think that brain scans in the future may be able to detect patterns that correspond to it.

But if the something is an entity like a molecule or the Loch Ness monster or god, then yes it needs to be empirically verifiable to be meaningful.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 14, 2011 01:43 PM

@clayton

Human emotions are meaningful may not be empirically verifiable and they have meaning to us. That doesn't mean they are real anymore than a science fiction book is real.

I think conscious minds live in two worlds. A mental word that encompasses imagination, morality, human interaction, dreams, etc.; which doesn't exist outside our mind. And a representation of the material world which is what would remain if you remove every conscious mind.

Conscious minds can have both fantastical thoughts that do not exist in the real world and thoughts that reflect the world. Science thus is the process of teasing out what portion of our minds correspond to the real world.

@zaybu Love your metaphor! Another good one is a book that contains a fantasy story.

Posted by Somite on April 14, 2011 03:14 PM

"Can you be good without god?
Yes.
It is a simple answer to a simple question. It should be quite self-evident to anyone. And yet, religious people manage to get some atheists to actually debate it."

They do? The topic of the Craig/Harris debate was not "can you be good without god?" but, as you said, "is good from god?" That these are two different questions is obvious, for one can answer 'yes' to both of them (as Craig himself does).

"Craig was trying to make the case that without a god, there can be no objective morality or standards for what is good. My response to that argument is "So what?""

Sure, you can be an anti-realist with respect to morality, but both Craig and Harris are realists -- as are most people, and, incidentally, most philosophers -- so it is a legitimate question.

"All these discussions about how there must be a god because without a god people would go berserk and murder everyone else and life would be awful and not worth living seems to me to be missing the point."

Craig certainly would never say that there must be a god because without one, such and such bad consequences would follow. So he would agree that this misses the point. Indeed, any argument of this sort would be missing the point, for Craig was only arguing that without god, you cannot objectively ground morality. Now you can be an atheist and agree with Craig here.

"Whether god exists or doesn't exist is a purely empirical question that can only be determined by evidence."

While I do think that any argument for god's existence must appeal to empirical data, I don't think it's "purely an empirical question"; rather, it's a fundamental *metaphysical* question.

"In the absence of evidence for god's existence, we have to conclude that there is no god and must learn to deal with the consequences."

Isn't this a non sequitur? At best, the absence of evidence leads to agnosticism. Of course, 'absence of evidence' issues are complicated and contextual: I can reasonably conclude, from the absence of evidence, that there's not a great dane in my house; but what about a flea?

"It seems pretty obvious that we can explain our morality and ethics as derived from biology (things that emerged as a result of our evolutionary history and the propensities for which are genetically and environmentally based) and culture (behaviors that we as a society have consciously decided are desirable or not desirable)."

Yes, but as explanations, they would necessarily be descriptive, whereas morality as such, which is what is at issue here, is prescriptive.


"On the other hand, they have to show that this moral sense is shared among all humans. If moral standards varied widely for different populations, that would argue for a cultural source."

This depends on how they vary. If we see similar fundamental principles that vary in their application, which seems to be the case, then it's not necessarily true that this supports a "cultural" source.

"But what religious people like Craig seem to be doing is committing the even worse offense of what one might call the 'ought-is fallacy', where because they think that we need an objective morality in order to keep our barbaric impulses under control, therefore it must exist. And since they also think that only a god can supply such a morality, therefore a god must exist also.
No."

Craig would agree, and he would be as confused as I am as to how you ever came to attribute such a ridiculous argument to him.

"You cannot argue for the existence of god on the basis of some property that you arbitrarily assert must exist (for whatever reason) and that could have only come from god."

This is not necessarily true. As even atheistic philosophers like Mackie have recognized, *if* objective moral values exist, they make the existence of god more plausibly true than would be the case if they didn't exist. But as you formulated it ('arbitrary assertions' and all), it's true but irrelevant, since no one moves from arbitrary assertions of some X that "must exist" and that "could only have come from god" to the conclusion that god exists. Craig certainly doesn't.

Anyway, my main gripe with your post is that you don't seem to have cared enough about Craig's position to have taken the time to understand it accurately; why then take the time to write such a critical post about it?

Posted by Eric on April 14, 2011 05:27 PM

What I find troubling about morality coming from the christian god is that people are put in second place. This has led, I believe, in the case of my step-daughter who is very highly respected in her church, but I know first hand that she is a liar, theif and master manipulator. How can this be? I feel it's because christians feel that if you are a good christian, then you are automatically a good person. I think you need to be a good person, regarding the rest of humanity, first. If you've achieved that, then who cares if you are religious or not.

Posted by Jack on April 16, 2011 08:42 PM

Eric: are you saying that since moral rules are prescriptive, any explanation of their origins and effectiveness must also be prescriptive? I don't understand your point there.

Posted by Paul Jarc on April 18, 2011 03:42 PM

Hi Paul

Here's one way to think about it: We could take two cultures that have come to conclude contradictory moral prescriptions, e.g one concludes that rape is always morally wrong, and the other concludes that rape is morally acceptable as long as only members of conquered enemy peoples are raped. Now we could proceed to develop complex biological and cultural explanations of how these groups came to these conclusions -- explanations that are true -- but they would only be descriptive. This is obvious, for nothing in our explanations would answer the fundamental question both cultures answered differently, viz. is rape moral or immoral? This question demands a prescriptive answer (you ought not rape, you ought to rape, you ought only rape in these situations, etc.), one that may be supplemented by biological and cultural explanations, but that is not logically reducible to them.

Posted by Eric on April 18, 2011 07:55 PM

Eric how would accepting the demands of one God as being absolutely true and correct,enable us to get any closer to objectively grounding morality.How would accepting the conclusion of this God be more objectively grounded than accepting the conclusion of Hitler.Is it only the difference between thought of a human verses thought of a supernatural being,what defines something as being objectively grounded.

Posted by Dave on April 19, 2011 02:16 AM

@Eric,
"for Craig was only arguing that without god, you cannot objectively ground morality".

As Dave has responded, "How would the demands of one God as being absolutely true and correct enable us to get any closer to objectively grounding morality." Or, how would accepting the conclusions of this God get be more objective than accepting the conclusions of a dictator? I think Dave makes good points.

Also, I think what Mano was suggesting not only do we have no evidence for God's existence but the arguments raised by theists and Christians are not very convincing to say the least, and despite Craig's retort about "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence", we have good reasons to reject theism and indeed deism as well and have better reasons for embracing atheism. So, in order to argue for this objective morality that Craig is pleading for, there must first be convincing evidence for this "god" of which he subscribes to.

As the Hitch often says, "That which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence". When discussing the arguments for a god, I often replace the word "god" with "Leprechaun" and see how the argument sounds. This can be quite illuminating.

My contention is that morals are an emergent property of evolution, rather than some absolute truth. Morality is nothing more than a suite of behaviors which facilitate social cohesion among animals.

Posted by John on April 21, 2011 01:32 PM

@Eric,
"We could take two cultures that have come to conclude contradictory moral prescriptions, e.g one concludes that rape is always morally wrong, and the other concludes that rape is morally acceptable as long as only members of conquered enemy peoples are raped."

Let's look at "objective morality" from the Bible?
1. Murder, rape, and pillage at Jabesh-gilead (Judges 21:10-24)
2. Murder, rape and pillage of the Midianites (Numbers 31:7-18)
3. More Murder Rape and Pillage (Deuteronomy 20:10-14)
4. Laws of Rape (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)
5. Death to the Rape Victim (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)
6. David's Punishment - Polygamy, Rape, Baby Killing, and God's "Forgiveness" (2 Samuel 12:11-14)
7. Rape of Female Captives (Deuteronomy 21:10-14)
8. Rape and the Spoils of War (Judges 5:30)
9. Sex Slaves (Exodus 21:7-11)
10. God Assists Rape and Plunder (Zechariah 14:1-2)
Objective morality from that?

Posted by John on April 21, 2011 01:51 PM

From Euthyphro: Is the pious loved by the Gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the Gods?

Posted by Jared A on April 21, 2011 02:21 PM