A week: good without gods

As you can see, we’re bang in the middle of A week. For people wanting to know more, a good place to start would be recent Catholic convert Leah Libresco’s post. As she points out, it’s a good time for atheists to come out to their friends who may otherwise think that atheists like eating children.

While I don’t believe that anyone should be persecuted for their beliefs, which seems to be what is happening in the US today, I do think that atheists should be responsible for backing up the claims they make, while still entertaining the radical scepticism with which they approach religion. With this in mind, I will use the next couple of days, and beyond examining certain of those claims with a level of scepticism similar to that used by atheists.

The primary thing I’m interested in at the moment is the idea that you can be “good without gods.” This claim, which I’m sure you noticed on the A week banner, is something atheists try to promote, although some via the use of moral relativism.

Contrary to this, many Christians (although they aren’t alone among religious groups to believe this) believe that religion is required to give people a moral compass. This is problematic as shown in that post, but I still think atheists need to provide more.

The idea that you can be good without gods is based on the assumption there aren’t any. If there is a deity responsible for producing the universe and all the things therein, then it is fair to assume that morality came from such a being, whether you recognise its existence or not.

This isn’t really a problem though, since no atheist doubts that they are right, or they’d be agnostic. The problem really is, that while Sam Harris and some others have tried to define an objective view of morality, it’s still not clear what atheists mean by “good” in their claim. Many atheists are still moral relativists, and thus the statement seems to loose any meaning.

To add to this problem, is the issue that we don’t set the bar for good very high. Many Christians set the bar at simply accepting Christ’s sacrifice, which doesn’t make you good, even in Christian theology, it atones for the bad stuff, you still need to work on being good. Some people define good as not doing wrong (“I pay my taxes”; “I don’t murder” etc.). Some people that good is found in actions, like helping others. So, just like we wouldn’t classify good the same way for a tomato as we would for a dog, how can we define good the same way for an atheist who believes in moral relativism and one who accepts arguments like Harris’ in The Moral Landscape.

I like what Harris is trying to do, but disagree with his premise that morality is focused on concern for conscious creatures. One of the main problems is that it is a premise, and the yardstick for an objective morality should be a conclusion. My own explanation of an objective morality can be found here. For those unfamiliar with Harris’ views, the video below is a good introduction.

In my next post on this subject, I will examine the idea that atheism could be immoral if we push the idea of objective morality to it’s extreme. This, of course, wouldn’t prove that atheism is incorrect any more than arguments like The End of Faith, which argue that religion causes people to do bad stuff, would prove that religions are actually based on false ideas, or that God doesn’t actually exist.

I will be focused on the idea that, while morality is concerned with the well being of conscious creatures (as per Harris), it is primarily concerned with the well being of society in general.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Can people be “good without gods”? What makes someone good? How would you define objective morality.

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