Can We Be Good Without God?

The late great atheist Christopher Hitchens, one of the alleged “four horseman” of the new atheism, was known for often stating that the strongest argument he knew of for the existence of a deity of some form was the fine tuning of the universe. When one examines the minute balance of temperatures, chemicals, oxygen levels, gravitational pulls, etc. that Earth requires for life to exist, it is so improbable that one must admit that it appears to have been designed. Much like if a man was consecutively dealt a royal flush every hand in a game of poker, everyone at the table would assume the man was cheating, not that some remarkable rare phenomena was happening.

However, I disagree with Mr. Hitchens. I think this is a type of a straw-man concession in order to avoid the true stumbling block for modern atheism. Certainly I, as a Christian, believe that the heavens do indeed tell the glory of God and therein should be a good argument for God’s existence. Also, I do believe that there are many who question God’s existence but are troubled by the seeming beauty and design of creation. But, for the new wave of atheism, the militant, weapons-grade atheism that comes in big black barrels with white skulls and cross bones painted on the side, I think that for them to say the fine tuning argument is “the best argument for the existence of a god” is a kind of passive-aggressive insult to believers.

New Atheist’s Response to Fine Tuning

Here’s what I mean: an atheist can feign a sense of struggle with the fine tuning argument, pay it a bit of lip-service, “Yea, that’s a good point…” But this is only to quickly assert that the appearance of design proves nothing at all, only subjective interpretation. If Darwin is correct, than our lush, green world is here today by the blind forces of evolution – the fine tuning of the universe must necessarily be there, otherwise life would not exist, and we would not be here to observe it. There are, they would say, millions upon millions upon millions of other failed planets in the galaxies that got the balance needed for life wrong, and we just so happen to win the lottery with ours, and BAM, here we are. The appearance of design in fact only lends to the inherent beauty of the evolutionary argument, and the ability of mankind to appreciate it (Example A: Anything Richard Dawkins says; Example B: Anything Neil DeGrasse Tyson says).

So, when Hitchens says that he thinks that the fine tuning argument is the best argument for the existence of a deity, he is essentially saying, “Your best argument can still be easily dismissed.” It’s like telling a failed cook that the “best” thing they created for breakfast was your burnt toast – it’s more of a comment on how bad everything else is, not how good the burnt toast is. But this seems like nothing but rhetorical intimidation to me; simply choose an argument that you can attack easily and label it “the strongest”, so as to make all other arguments look indefensible.

Once again, I am a Christian, and believe that the invisible attributes of God can be clearly perceived in creation so that all men are without excuse (Rom. 1:20). I think the faith that the new atheism places in Darwin as an explanation for all of their fine tuning problems is shocking, and more often than not is more of a rhetorical device to win arguments than a substantive solution to real problems (especially in the case of Hitchens). If you are interested in more arguments about the fine tuning of the universe, I would highly recommend John Lennox’s excellent book “God’s Undertaker“. But, let me return to what I said earlier, I disagree with Hitchens; I do not believe that the fine tuning of the universe is the strongest argument for the existence of a deity, or more specifically, the personal God of the Bible.

The True Stumbling Block

In Romans 1, Paul makes the argument that God’s existence is clearly seen in creation, but in Romans 2 he claims that God’s existence is clearly seen in man’s conscience – the inner struggle that we feel between right and wrong. For our relativistic culture that we currently live in, I think that this moral argument is by far the strongest argument for existence of God. The Humanist chaplain of Harvard, Greg Epstein, has tried to answer this challenge in his 2010 book “Good Without God“. The book does not have the same vitriol of Dawkins or Hitchens (though he does praise them), and in fact is not trying to make an argument against the existence of a god, but is attempting to positively state that a god is not necessary to live a moral, upright life.

Epstein claims that morality is nothing more than a social construct, something that societies as a whole create and agree upon, and thus live by. Rather than making us immoralists, Epstein claims that this deeply binds us to live a life of doing moral good for others, not because some god tells us to do so, but simply because, “it feels good to give to others.”

As Christians, we should never be so arrogant to claim that one must believe in God to live an ethically good life. In fact, there are many non-believers who in some ways live far more closely to the Golden Rule than many professing Christians do. The Bible teaches that all human beings are made in the image of God and are therefore moral beings with a moral conscience, so as Christians we should expect that all humans to varying levels strive to live ethical lives. The problem with Epstein’s argument isn’t in whether or not someone can be good with God, but whether or not there is a rational basis for being good without God. Fyodor Dostoevsky famously wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” In other words, without God there are no moral absolutes. If there are two non-believers living seemingly moral lives, and one begins to cheat on his wife, the other may feel that this is wrong, but has no basis upon which to tell the other man that he must stop. Morality is subjective, fluid, and constantly being shaped by our choices and society as a whole – so, is an affair “wrong”? Is telling a lie wrong? Is tyranny or slavery wrong? Your response to those questions may seem obvious, “Of course they are,” but you then must ask yourself on what basis you are making this moral judgment, and why should other people listen to you?

A Few Objections

Some will object here and say that the one moral absolute we must adhere to is to never allow our freedom to inhibit someone else’s – so tyranny or slavery really is wrong, they will say. But first off, again, on what grounds do you make that little maxim? Why should anyone listen to you? Secondly, that is a contradictory sentence – if a king is “wicked” because he is imposing his own rule on others and robbing them of their freedom, and you decide to lock him up, then aren’t you equally guilty of the same crime? Aren’t you imposing yourself on his freedom? Are you then “wicked”? Should we depose you? See, this slowly devolves down to where all of our hands are bound, our mouths are gagged, and we can no longer object to anything – because to do so, we must admit that there are some things that are absolutely wrong, and to do that we must forfeit our entire worldview. There simply is no way around it.

Another will say that since human beings require a functioning society to live, and a functioning society requires a moral standard, therefore we must adhere to some kind of moral code. This is the argument of many (Epstein included) who believe that our morals merely evolved as a pragmatic appendage. They are useful for human flourishing. But to this I have two critiques. First, if morality is a human construct that is decided upon by a society, then doesn’t that imprison us to the morals of our society? Here is what I mean: what if you were a young German living under the Third Reich? Is it moral to treat Jews like vermin? It certainly is the popular perspective taken by the society as a whole. Or what if you lived in a nomadic tribe in Africa where they practice the barbaric act of female genital mutilation? Or the South during the horror of slavery? Or, Heaven help us, the future societies with newly invented evils? Perhaps you would voice your objections and try and change some things, but you actually can’t say that what they are doing is wrong. By definition, you would actually be wrong. Under this concept, to contradict the societal views is to become decidedly immoral.

Secondly, when we say that our obligation to do the “right” thing and refuse the “wrong” is built entirely on a pragmatic footing, the actual morality it creates is largely imaginary. Sure, when we are out in public our civility and morality will lead us to hold the door open for one another, but what happens when we are alone? When no one is watching? When the motivating force of “This is how we behave for the sake of the community” is pushed from our minds by the solitude of an empty room? As soon as a moral dilemma presents itself and I see that doing the “right” thing is not advantageous for me, then why would I do it? Will some abstract concept of “the greater good” of a faceless, mass of humanity propel me to do the right thing, even when I don’t feel like it? Even when I feel like no one will ever find out? Pragmatism in its essence is self-centered – what is the most efficient means to achieve my end? What will make me feel good? The moral pragmatist claims that a society where we look out for one another, pay taxes, not steal, etc. is a better society to live in than the contrary – and I agree! But this, by definition, means that our moral decisions we make aren’t primarily motivated by love, but self-interest – and I struggle to see how that will lead to the greatest amount of people in our society who are willing to consistently obey the golden rule. What is pragmatic or helpful about caring for the elderly, the mentally handicapped, or the severely disabled? How is it advantageous for you or society to risk your own life to save a stranger who is drowning, or stay in a marriage with someone who has a life threatening disease? What happens when doing the “right” thing doesn’t make you feel good, but anxious and uncomfortable? 

Again, I don’t want to give the impression that there aren’t moral people out there who hold this worldview, there certainly are, but I would say they are inconsistent with their own worldview.

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