“If you do not believe in God, how can you distinguish between right and wrong?”
Second only to some variation on “Nothing comes from nothing, therefore God created the universe” is the argument that without a perfect and eternal Authority, our laws and morality have no foundation. There would be no reason to prefer one moral claim over another, everything would be relative.
Strictly speaking, this isn’t an argument for the existence of God, it’s an argument that having a perfect moral arbiter is desirable. Neither argument stands.
If Christians believe in a God who is perfectly good, who is deeply concerned the moral choices made by his creation, who stands as the ultimate judge who will mete out eternal punishment and reward in the afterlife, shouldn’t we expect to find that Christians are better people, more peaceful, law-abiding, faithful, and chaste? Wouldn’t we be dealing with roving gangs of atheistic mother-rapers, father-stabbers, nuisance-creators and litterers?
Instead, we find our prisons full of Christians. (The fact that atheists are under-represented in prison populations is nice, but has more to do with education, social status, and age than lack of belief.) We find priests who molest children and preachers who hire male prostitutes and sanctimonious politicians cheating on their third wives.
Two days ago, the peaceful country of Norway was stunned by a horrific massacre of young people and a bombing in the center of government. The alleged mass-murderer in custody is not an atheist, he’s a conservative Christian who appears to have seen himself as a crusader.
Two possibilities occur to me: either Christians are wrong when they say that they derive their morality from obedience to their almighty God, or they’re wrong about the fervency of their belief in that God. Or perhaps both.
Did human beings really need God passing down commandments to know that murder is wrong? Didn’t we figure this out tens, even hundreds, of thousands of years before Moses? Picking up a club and bashing in Throg’s head would definitely be disruptive to tribal functioning, don’t you think? If Blarg steals my best loincloth, wouldn’t that cause arguments and strife in the camp, and possibly even someone picking up a club and bashing a head or two?
Empathy and reciprocity have been observed and studied in our closest ancestors, chimps and bonobos. Monkeys who share food are more likely to have food shared with with them. Monkeys who steal food from other monkeys are more likely to be driven off by the rest of the tribe. How many generations do you think it would take before we’d see a genetic predisposition in favor of sharing and against theft?
Most morality is simple empathy. I do not bash you over the head because I can imagine what that would feel like. I can picture the grieving of your spouse and your children. I would not hurt you because it hurts me.
There are people who believe in God who do terrible things. There are people who do not believe in gods who do wonderful things. And vice-versa. All evidence points to our morality being purely human.
But there’s one more thing. The Christian claims that his morality is founded upon a perfect and all-righteous Judge, yet he’s got the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card. Christians believe that, no matter what terrible things they do in life, by the very fact that they believe that God’s son died for their sins, they will be saved. There is no crime for which they would not be forgiven, save the ultimate crime of unbelief. Their God, in fact, gives them license to get away with murder. As an atheist, I believe that all life is unspeakably precious, because it’s only here for a brief moment, a flare against the dark, and then it’s gone forever. No afterlives, no second chances, no backsies. So there can be nothing crueler than the abuse, destruction or wanton taking of a life. It is a crime no less than burning the Mona Lisa, for there is always just one of each.
- J. Michael Straczynski