Posts Tagged ‘morality’

A series of ads funded by eight atheist groups are being posted in the New York subway system.  The ads will show a blue sky with the words, “A million New Yorkers are good without God.  Are you?”  It seems that this sort of thing makes news (or at least, this blog) every year.  This time, the ad appears to be less an attack on theism so much as an attempt to reach out to other non-theists.  Michael De Dora, one of the directors for an atheist group sponsoring the ad, expresses the intent to create awareness of the city’s secular community, and foster “talking and thinking about religion and morality.”

I personally don’t find the ad to be particularly offensive.  That is, it is no more offensive than other advertisements that litter our view.  Other advertisements promise that a new car will bring satisfaction, that a better paying job will bring about personal fulfillment, or that we deserve a luxury cruise.  A harsher critic might call these claims lies, and he’d be right.   So, is this ad also a lie?  Yes and no.

I could argue from my worldview, and claim that this ad is a lie because the million New Yorkers are not good.  They are actually sinners who bear real moral guilt for their thoughts and deeds, just like everybody else in the world.  This lie is amplified by two more lies:  (1) the presupposition that goodness can be achieved without God, and (2) the claim that real “goodness” actually exists without God.

I could also take a cue from De Dora, and do some thinking about morality.  Such thinking could lead me to argue that this ad is true, but desperately in need of an asterisk next to the word “good.”   The asterisk could be explained in fine print on the bottom of the ad: *that is, good as they define it.  However, that would make the ad a boring non-statement, since one can easily be good without God, because “good” is a meaningless concept that can be defined by the individual.  Therefore the ad is true.

In the interest of honesty, the ad might want to incorporate an additional footnote that being good without God may require the consistent thinker to live the rest of their days in despair over the absurdity of life without God.  Without God, our meaningless, purposeless life in the cold, uncaring, and dying universe makes the chemical accident of our existence cruel (that is, if such a thing as cruelty existed), and all of our striving for good (whatever that is), quite pointless, save perhaps that it can distract us enough to live in delusional happiness on our fleet journey to non-existence.  This sounds harsh, but life without God is harsh.  I’ve yet to hear a cogent argument for how life without God (or even a god) has any meaning, value, or purpose.

In my worldview, I can say that much of what the ad is striving for is good:  I commend the notion of people getting together, even more so when thoughtful dialogue is the goal, and even more when morality is the topic du jour.  I, too, do not want individuals to feel isolated, lonely, or persecuted because of their beliefs.  However, I cannot argue that the ad is good from the atheist worldview, because my thoughts are all predicated on the notion that there is such a thing as objective “good.”  The ad is therefore self-defeating, since by its own worldview, it cannot make any claims to objective good.  It could try, perhaps by an appeal to a collective, but the claims would ultimately fail because (1) living out such claims would require inconsistencies, as noted on this blog, and (2) the collective would change over time, making “good” today something different from “good” tomorrow.  If “today” were ancient Greece, for instance, the collective might condone the exposure of female infants.

Thankfully, we do not have to live in despair, because there is a God, and He is good.  The existence of a good God is also grounds for despair, since we are guilty of moral wrong before Him.  Thankfully, there is more good news, because Jesus Christ died and rose again to free us from our bondage to decay, and forgive us for our sins, such that those in Christ no longer stand condemned before God.  While this ad has the best of intentions (like many atheists in my experience), it cannot deliver on its promises, for there is no good without God, no hope without Jesus, and no turning to the good without the Holy Spirit.

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The advertisement above is part of a controversial campaign sponsored by the American Humanist Association (AHA hereafter).  Signs like the one above will appear on busses and at bus stations around Washington, DC this winter.

Humanism, per the AHA, “is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity” (per their FAQ; the Humanist Manifesto, quoted extensively below, expands on these themes).  This “greater good” is  achieved in part by cultivating caring relationships, responsible and informed decision making in a free, democratic society, toleration of other humane ideals, cooperation, and striving for the well-being of others.

On the surface, I could say “Amen” to the AHA’s bottom line, at least, as I understand it (foreshadowing!).  Their efforts to put an end to human suffering, uphold the dignity of humankind, and spread of peace appear admirable.  Why indeed, then, do we need a god?  Allow me to answer this question.

Taking the ad’s advice requires an understanding of what it means to be “good.”  As far as I can understand the AHA’s philosophy, “good” is the maximization of personal happiness and fulfillment for all humankind, thus defining a subjective and vague term with two other subjective and vague terms.  “fulfillment” is what comes from the “participation in the service of humane ideals.” ” Humane ideals,” of course, are concerned with seeking the personal happiness and fulfillment for all human kind.  Thus spins the amorphous wheel of goodness.

Indeed, the rhetoric found in the AHA’s writing is full of positive terms:  “human welfare,” “happiness,” “fulfillment,” and “well being” are a few.  The problem is that each of these concepts are hopelessly vague and ill-defined.  The meaning of these concepts is assumed, presupposing a universal agreement among all people.   AHA is therefore decidedly collectivist in its outlook.  To reach their goals, we must agree on what these terms mean.  How exactly do we do this, since in truth, these concepts are immensely subjective, and as diverse in meaning as the peoples of earth?  This is especially problematic since the AHA is “committed to diversity.”

What if it so happens that the maximization of my personal happiness has a negative impact on the personal happiness of others?  How do we decide that case?  The AHA enjoins us to resolve differences cooperatively without resorting to violence.  But how do we know good and evil?  The good cannot compromise, otherwise evil will win.  When the Nazi party desires to wipe out the Jewish people, I see no compromise or cooperation available to us.  They must be stopped, even to the peril of their own happiness and fulfillment.

Perhaps anticipating this problem, the AHA qualifies their respect for diversity by limiting it to “those of differing yet humane views.”  We’re back to the original problem, though: Who gets to define “humane” here?  Perhaps the “humane” view is to euthanize anybody we deem unable, for reasons of illness or handicap, to “enjoy a good life?”

Even if we all agree upon these terms (PS: we never will),  why is striving for them the highest good?  Given the AHA’s epistemology (“observation, experimentation and rational analysis”), how do we arrive at the conclusion that personal happiness, comfort, or fulfillment comprise humanity’s summum bonum?  We’re back at collectivism; or at best, “majority rules.”  Given the vaguely defined assumption that everybody wants to be “happy,” is it therefore the highest good?  Who says?  Show me the logic, but only after you show me that everybody wants to be “happy,” as you define it.

Most people in the world believe in the supernatural, too.  Why doesn’t the majority rule here, as well?  If we take our cue from the natural world, (of which we are undeniably a product; see AHA’s anthropology below) the highest good for any living being is the propagation of its genes to the next generation; it is survival of the race, independent of, and often to the demise of, any other race.  Nature seems quite apathetic to personal happiness or suffering, why should we, nature’s children, be any different?

We quickly realize that the AHA’s anthropology is paradoxically exalted and impoverished.  On the one hand, humankind is highly valued, with intrinsic “worth and dignity.”  On the other, we are the result of millions of years of “unguided evolutionary change”:  a cosmic accident of no greater intrinsic worth than an amalgam of organic chemicals.  On one hand we are able to make sweeping decisions about what maximizes “good” and “happiness” for the most people possible.  On the other, history shows us that the much of our “progress” carries the excessive baggage of new and unanticipated problems.  On one hand we are noble, with the ability to “progress towards our highest ideals.”  Auschwitz, the Killing Fields, Darfur, and other sad histories speak to a very different human ability which is far from anything the AHA could call “noble.” 

Why believe in God?  Because any human designation of goodness, purpose, or worth is ultimately subjective and arbitrary.  These vague terms must be defined by something above ourselves.  As Francis Schaeffer said, humankind “is not a sufficient integration point for himself” (A Christian View of Philosophy and Culture, 278).  That is to say, we need something above and outside ourselves if we are to make any absolute claims about morality, purpose or meaning.  Brian Marchionni cannot make such claims for all humanity, nor can 100,000 people like me.  Even if we did, we have naught more than a small minority telling everybody else what’s right and wrong, which smells an awful lot like the authoritarian tyranny so quickly condemned by humanists.

The job of absolute claims belongs to the infinite One who is outside ourselves – the One who is omniscient and omnipotent, yet knowable and personal – the One who has the authority and ability to say not only what “good” is, but also how we strive for it – the One who Himself acts in history to bring about the best for humankind- the One who helps and guides us to these ends.  This One is the Triune God of Christianity, and we need Him.  We need Him not only because we cannot make absolute claims of good and evil, but because thousands of years of recorded history show us that we are incapable of consistently choosing the good.  We need Him because, functionally speaking, we’re lousy humanists.  Indeed, the only truly good “humanist” is God Himself.

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