Friday, July 13, 2007

Morality and God

In today's Washington Post, Michael Gerson has authored an article that ask the unendingly annoying question "How can anyone be good without God?":

If the atheists are right, what would be the effect on human morality?

If God were dethroned as the arbiter of moral truth, it would not, of course, mean that everyone joins the Crips or reports to the Playboy mansion. On evidence found in every culture, human beings can be good without God. And Hitchens is himself part of the proof. I know him to be intellectually courageous and unfailingly kind, when not ruthlessly flaying opponents for taking minor exception to his arguments. There is something innate about morality that is distinct from theological conviction. This instinct may result from evolutionary biology, early childhood socialization or the chemistry of the brain, but human nature is somehow constructed for sympathy and cooperative purpose.

But there is a problem. Human nature, in other circumstances, is also clearly constructed for cruel exploitation, uncontrollable rage, icy selfishness and a range of other less desirable traits.

You know, things that devout Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and so on don't have to worry about. But I interrupt:

How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.

Atheism provides no answer to this dilemma. It cannot reply: "Obey your evolutionary instincts" because those instincts are conflicted. "Respect your brain chemistry" or "follow your mental wiring" don't seem very compelling either. It would be perfectly rational for someone to respond: "To hell with my wiring and your socialization, I'm going to do whatever I please." C.S. Lewis put the argument this way: "When all that says 'it is good' has been debunked, what says 'I want' remains."

I'm no theologian, nor am I an atheist philosopher, but it seems to me that most people are good because they're raised to be good. In fact, most people want to be good, whether as a result of biology, or socialization, or personal insights, or whatever. Society, culture, our own evolutionary history (as Gerson admits) teaches us almost from birth that it is better to get along with other people than not, and to get along with them it is better to be decent to them. That's only the beginning of the lesson, as eventually that simple guideline will grow into a moral consciousness in almost each and every one of us. This all has much to do with individual development and psychology, and it's true that for many people this development of a moral consciousness is in the context of a belief in a moral God. But that's not true for everyone, as many people who have little or no interest in religion or even spirituality still have highly developed moral reasoning and will be considered by their peers to be good, decent people. Gerson has it backwards; God does not predate the moral consciousness. The moral consciousness comes first, and only later is God interwoven into the framework. This is as true of individuals as it was of our species as a whole as we evolved from primates living in trees.

For some, moral reasoning fails for one reason or another. This is no less true of the supposedly devout than it is of atheists. Each of us has probably met someone in our lives who claimed to be devoutly religious, and yet struck as intolerant, prejudiced, selfish and judgmental. These are certainly not elements of a morally developed person. What kind of guidance does religion and faith in God provide, if such people are even possible? "Well," the religious person may argue, "there are hypocrites in every walk of life." True, but then what explains the willingness of many devout believers in God to justify acts of intolerance, cruelty and barbarity with the tenets of their religion? There are many Christians today who sincerely believe that they are devout, moral beings, and yet they also argue passionately for unjustifiable wars that will kill innocent people. Is it their faith in God that leads to this seemingly immoral conclusion? Again, someone like Gerson might argue that those people are not "truly" following the requirements of their faith in God. Maybe. But once you reach a certain number of people (say, in the millions) who sincerely believe that their God permits them to kill innocent people for the barest of justifications, can their faith in God truly be considered some kind of guide to moral reasoning?

None of this amounts to proof of God's existence. But it clarifies a point of agreement -- which reveals an even deeper division. Atheists and theists seem to agree that human beings have an innate desire for morality and purpose. For the theist, this is perfectly understandable: We long for love, harmony and sympathy because we are intended by a Creator to find them. In a world without God, however, this desire for love and purpose is a cruel joke of nature -- imprinted by evolution, but destined for disappointment, just as we are destined for oblivion, on a planet that will be consumed by fire before the sun grows dim and cold.

This form of "liberation" is like liberating a plant from the soil or a whale from the ocean. In this kind of freedom, something dies.

Gerson damages his own argument by conceding that a moral argument for God's necessity does not prove that God exists (you won't see a Southern Baptist arguing such a thing.) Gerson implies that God doesn't even have to exist for us to be moral beings; we need only believe in him for the trick to work.

As for his depressing conclusion, he's all wrong. Those who reject or are indifferent to the existence of God are unafraid of and see joy in their worldview. For someone like Gerson, God must exist or the world is cruel, without purpose, and without love. But the athiest and the agnostic don't need God as a crutch to find meaning in their lives, or love in the universe. What could be more liberating than to believe that a universe that was created by immutable natural laws also-in a wondrous miracle-created us? And that we are free to forge our own purpose or meaning, free to grace the universe with love, free to love each other not because God says we have to, but because we want to? This isn't a "cruel joke." Far from it! This is the gift of life, and of free will, unconstrained by a belief that our individual choices only mean something if there is an arbiter to all of our decisions.


adam said...

Another good post.

Nat-Wu said...

It's certainly a tired old argument. Even if we accepted the existence of a God and his moral compass, we can see that obviously the world is no better off. And the vast majority of people profess some belief in God, so it can't be that the Christian world is just being messed up by all the non-believers. The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

Let's admit the existence of God. Even then, nothing makes anyone be good. Everyone has a choice, although there are incentives. Be good (good as according to the arbiters of God on Earth), and you go to heaven. Be bad, and you go to hell. But that doesn't make life better for anybody! Despite the fact that Christians have known about hell for a long time, it doesn't seemed to have changed anyone's mind about their actions! Hitler believed in God too. Didn't seem to bother him any.

Again, even if there really is a God, it doesn't deter anyone on Earth from doing anything. Practically speaking, God's morality just doesn't matter. Nobody follows it because for one, it's up to individual interpretation, and for two, with the modern belief that it's possible to be forgiven for just about anything, people can still sin and get away with it. What good is that?

Here's another idea: God's morality is nothing more than self-interest. People who actually care for other people would care for them regardless. And yet that goes for non-Christians too. So, what this author is saying is that the only reason Christians are better than non-Christians is that they fear God. But as I pointed out, fear of God just aint working.

Now there's not really any need to rehash this argument. It's old, it's done. This guy just brings it up to reassure his kind that they're so much better than everyone else. Oh well, that's what they do.

I may write more on this later.