25 March, 2008

Can We Be Good Without God? Part 1

The Missing Element in Humanism
by Paul Wasson

Moral Standards—Who Made the Rules?

Any responsible man or woman would agree that there is a difference between right and wrong, good and evil, vice and virtue, just as there is a difference between truth and falsehood, beauty and ugliness. Standards of right and wrong, like standards of aesthetic beauty, may vary from age to age. from culture to culture, but every reasonable person would agree that they exist.

Have we ever wondered however, where moral values come from, this distinction between right and wrong? Who made the rules in the first place? Who decided that some actions are right and commendable, and others are not? To this there are, broadly speaking, two answers; one secular, the other religious. If we were to ask the average man or woman, they would probably answer that they know instinctively that it is right to give to charity and wrong to steal. They were brought up to think that way. They live in a society which has developed laws and conventions to ensure that the law abiding can live in peace while lawbreakers are restrained.

These laws, conventions and moral standards are like cement which holds society together. If they were abandoned, then society would fragment into anarchy. It holds together only if there are generally accepted standards of right conduct, which require all its members to pay their dues and treat their fellows with respect. Most people are guided in this by conscience. They are aware of an obligation to do what is right and feel guilty if they fall short of the standards they live by.

The other possible answer concerning the origin of moral standards is that they are determined by the will of God. It goes without saying that the men who wrote the Bible believed this. They looked up to God not only as the Creator of heaven and earth, but also as the Author of the moral code. All that they needed to know about the right conduct of human life had been revealed by God. They took for granted that His guidance alone gave meaning and direction to human life.

Now, however, perhaps for the first time in history, morality is divorced from religious faith. Even a belief in God is viewed as an optional extra to human life. Just as there is no need to recognise the hand of God in the natural order, so there is no need, it is assumed, to look up to divine authority as the source of moral standards.

There are many people in the modern world who do try to live morally good lives. They devote themselves to serving their fellows. They seek to cultivate all that is good and noble in human life. Acts of benevolence, self-sacrifice and heroism have often been performed by people with no religious faith at all to underpin their actions.

Such people are humanists. They believe in the worth and the dignity of human life and the brotherhood of man. They emphasise the humane values of compassion, tolerance and freedom and take a positive view of human potential and achievements. They reject religious faith with its claim to be based on divine revelation and authority, putting their trust instead in reason and scientific enquiry. To them, such values as love and compassion are purely human values needing no religious support. Some, though not all, are hostile towards religion and see it as an obstacle to freedom and progress. Its hope of an afterlife is a disincentive to strive to improve the present world.

The Christian Roots of Morality

It is worth asking, how much of the Christian faith have humanists really discarded and where have they derived the moral values which are supposed to have replaced it? It might be said that many humanists and good-living atheists are far more dependant than they might care to admit on the Christian tradition which they claim to have rejected.

Standards of kindness, justice, honesty, compassion, respect for truth owe much to that tradition, to the teachings of the Bible and to past generations who had some respect for the Bible. Those who have chosen to discard the Christian tradition yet continue to believe in the worth of human life and the brotherhood of man are, to a great extent, simply living on Christian capital.

If we have a bank account we can draw money out of it only as long as we keep putting money back into it. Otherwise we find ourselves bankrupt. The traditional values on which western civilisation is founded are like this. We can reasonably draw on that tradition only as long as we continue to believe in its validity. Otherwise we will gradually find ourselves in a state of moral bankruptcy. Unfortunately, this seems to be the course which our own society has chosen. Little by little it is discarding those values which it has inherited. Therefore it is only with increasing difficulty that its members can look to traditional morality to find guidance.

Humanists often mistake the influence of that Christian tradition for a basic goodness in human nature. However, what may appear as self-evident differences between right and wrong may not be at all self-evident in a society which does not have that tradition behind it. A totalitarian government, for example, might govern by the principle that the individual exists only for the benefit of the state. It is therefore right to eliminate opposition: to imprison, torture and liquidate those who do not conform. To them this right because they, the government, make the rules and they are subject to no higher authority. A humanist would disagree. He would abhor and condemn the use of torture: simply because his conscience tells him to. A Christian would take a similar view, but on the grounds that there is indeed a higher authority than either governments or individual conscience. It is God who has defined the difference between right and wrong, who condemns cruelty and commands, respect for our fellow men.

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Blogger David said...

Hi Jason,

Just wanted to say I've enjoyed standing shoulder to shoulder with you over at DC.

I'm pretty new to that blog, how about you? Definitely getting me sharpened in my apologetics!

Take care,

March 27, 2008 12:11 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

Hi David,

Yes, it's been enjoyable and refreshing. Thanks very much for your contributions - there seem to be very few Christians making comments these days, which is always a bit frustrating, and so another voice helps relieve some of the pressure :)

I've been 'contributing' to that particular blog for quite a while now, maybe a year or so and you're absolutely right, it's a great way to brush up on your Bible skills.

You might have already seen it for yourself, but just a word of warning so it's not a surprise when it happens - some of the people there have a knack for first making incorrect statements (like Harry and his heart theory) and then when you call them on it, twist things around to attack your beliefs in everything from God to the 10 Commandments to your choice of literature.

All the best,

March 27, 2008 2:21 PM  
Blogger larryniven said...

Okay, so, if we're supposed to respect the Christian roots of secular morality, why are we then supposed to abandon the Jewish roots of Christian morality? Or the pagan roots of both? Or, what about Eastern religions, many of which never relied at all on a god to come to the same conclusions? I don't really find this kind of argument convincing.

March 31, 2008 2:34 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Define the Jewish and pagan roots of morality.

March 31, 2008 8:53 PM  
Blogger larryniven said...

Jason, that doesn't even begin to answer my question. Try to be serious. Christianity, as an offshoot of Judaism with pagan influences, indisputably grew out of their moral systems just as this person claims the US's moral system grew out of Christianity's. It's entirely irrelevant to the argument what those systems might be. Now, then, care to put away the tap shoes and answer the question?

March 31, 2008 9:04 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

I'll answer the question as soon as you define exactly what you think Jewish and pagan morals are. It's a fair question.

In all fairness as well, I don't see anything in the article about abandoning the Jewish roots of Christian morality. In fact, as the article plainly states "The other possible answer concerning the origin of moral standards is that they are determined by the will of God. It goes without saying that the men who wrote the Bible believed this." Jews wrote the majority of Scripture, did they not?

March 31, 2008 10:29 PM  
Blogger larryniven said...

Okay, it's fair to ask, but it'd be fair of me to ask you what the weather is. Fair doesn't mean relevant, here. Furthermore, not everything that Jews write is indicative of Judaic principles. Christianity has abandoned the vast majority of the mitzvot, as you well know, which were and are central to the Jewish moral system. Jews do not, and never have, believed that Jesus somehow negated the Torah. Christians, however, do believe this (if not all Christians, then certainly the ones to whom this argument refers). I ask you again, jason, why should we care about abandoning our Christian standards for morality when Christianity did the exact same thing to its predecessors?

April 01, 2008 9:29 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

If you're going to be difficult and not define Jewish and pagan morals, then I can't answer your question. Sorry.

As for Christians abandoning Jewish morals, I still fail to see where you're getting this from.

April 01, 2008 2:59 PM  
Blogger larryniven said...

That answers my question, then - you just don't know enough to be making arguments like these. At least you admitted it, though. Thanks, I guess.

April 01, 2008 4:16 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

It's a shame you couldn't be a little more open with what exactly your argument is.

April 01, 2008 4:37 PM  
Blogger larryniven said...

It's a shame you can't be bothered to do your research first. Until you understand the history of Christianity - which quite obviously you do not - you've got no basis on which to make arguments pertaining to the history of Christianity. It's not my job to teach you every little thing you need to know in order to be an apologist for a faith that has consistently failed to generate successful apologetics for itself (although kudos on ditching the Jesus-is-God idea). Go read some books or something, if you want that. Your local library has plenty of those, and if it somehow doesn't, you can go ask a local rabbi to teach you the difference between Judaic and Christian moral principles. When you posted this, I assumed that you already knew that stuff, but if you did, your conclusion doesn't make any sense. So, in the end, I'm just trying to understand why you think the things you do, and now I have my answer: you prefer to remain ignorant about the facts that are relevant to your case. Fine - ignorance is a fair choice, and I don't dispute your right to make it, but don't expect me to take you seriously if it's too much of a hassle for you to check the facts first.

April 02, 2008 10:23 AM  
Blogger Jason said...


Your empty rant is rather...empty :) If you'd like to intelligently discuss or address a specific item in the article, I'd be more then happy to have a grown up conversation with you.

April 02, 2008 11:49 AM  

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