Godless but good

9

A couple of years ago, the idea of God came up, in an incidental way, in the Contemporary Moral Theory course I teach. I generally try not to reveal my particular beliefs and commitments too early in the semester, but since it was late in the course, I felt I could be open with the students about my lack of religious belief. I will never forget the horrified look on one student’s face. ‘But Professor Jollimore,’ he stammered, ‘how can you not believe in God? You teach ethics for a living!’

I shouldn’t have been surprised by this reaction. But I always am. We were 12 weeks into a class that discussed a great variety of recent moral theories, none of which made the slightest reference to any sort of divine power or authority, but this made no difference. After 20 years of living in the US (I was born in Canada), I still tend to forget how many people here assume, simply as a matter of common sense, that the very idea of ‘secular ethics’ is an abomination, a contradiction, or both.

I don’t want to suggest that this attitude is influential only in the US. It is simply more prominent here. In polls and studies, a majority of Americans don’t trust atheists and say they would not vote for a presidential candidate who did not believe in God. ‘Religion’ and ‘theology’ are still frequently cited in the American media as if they were the sole aspects of human existence responsible for matters of value. ‘We need science to tell us the way things are; we need religion to tell us the way things ought to be,’ as people around here like to say. I have spent my career studying the way things ‘ought to be’, outside of the scaffolding of any faith or religious tradition. No wonder I find such sentiments rather frustrating.

More than that, I find them perplexing. Perhaps it seems natural for a person who was brought up in a religious tradition to place their personal moral views in a framework of faith. But I’m skeptical whether religion can provide genuine knowledge of any sort — and I can’t help noticing the level of disagreement and difference that still exists, sometimes violently, between believers of different faiths. Given this, I find it dubious that we can, let alone must, go to religion if we want knowledge about how to live. The fact that ethical commitments, in some people’s lives, find a natural place in the context of religion does not imply that such commitments can only be grounded and motivated in religion, nor that a universe can only contain morality if it also contains God.

Moreover, when actual arguments (not just good plain ‘common sense’) are offered against the possibility of secular morality, they tend to be deeply unconvincing. One common argument is that if there is no God, moral views are merely subjective opinions and nothing more: God is said to be required to make morality objective. A second argument is that divine authority is necessary to give morality its motivational force: without the threat of reward or punishment hanging over them, people will supposedly murder, rape, rob, and in every other way give in to their inherently sinful natures.

Written By: Troy Jollimore
continue to source article at aeonmagazine.com

9 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent article. I often argue that one should try to cultivate virtues in themselves throughout their life. This doesn’t happen by accident, but requires that one actually think about what they think is right and wrong, and WHY they think it is right and wrong. Many people never take the time to examine, explore, and refine their core beliefs. Being virtuous involves many virtues: courage, compassion, prudence, justice, and temperance. Becoming a better person may involve stages: do no evil, do some good, do much good.

  2. One might argue that the First Commandment of all religions is “Thou shalt not think”, otherwise how can it be that religious people do terrible things? Using Satan as a convenient excuse doesn’t cut it- surely the posited existence of such a being negates the omnipotent God. There is no explanation for priests who rape or Muslims suicide bombers; they are doing their God’s work as they rationalise it, or invoking human frailty in justification. All is forgiven, just as long as they profess their faith. The well known aphorisms

    ‘Good people do good; bad people do evil. But it takes religion to make good people do evil’
    ‘Those who make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities’ and
    ‘Many people would rather die than think… and they do’

    are more than just cliches- they’re uncomfortably close to truth.

  3. I think many on this site just don’t understand how hard it is to get out of religion when you’re born into a family and a community that revolves around religion. There are a lot of intelligent, and yes thinking people that believe. I know it doesn’t make sense to us and we think if they’d just “think it through, they’d see how stoooopid it is” but they use their intellect to make sense of it how they can and just go on. I believe it takes a different kind of brain to be able to see behind Oz’s curtain or see the emperor has no clothes. Most people just can’t — it’s not that they don’t want to.

  4. In reply to #3 by MAJORPAIN:

    I think many on this site just don’t understand how hard it is to get out of religion when you’re born into a family and a community that revolves around religion. There are a lot of intelligent, and yes thinking people that believe. I know it doesn’t make sense to us and we think if they’d just “think it through, they’d see how stoooopid it is” but they use their intellect to make sense of it how they can and just go on. I believe it takes a different kind of brain to be able to see behind Oz’s curtain or see the emperor has no clothes. Most people just can’t — it’s not that they don’t want to.

    Well yes, low intellect and poor education makes fertile ground for those who gain by manipulating others; and humanity does have a special liking for the supernatural, lacking any other explanation for what we don’t understand. But it is all too true that folks don’t question enough and too willingly accede to ‘authority’. I feel society values conformity too highly and young people should be encouraged to demand evidence for the claims of the religious.
    Your point re indoctrination is taken; I am fortunate to have grown up where, although my mother was a religious fanatic and I was forced to attend church, there was no stigma in dropping out. Anyway it was just too bloody boring for a ten year old!

  5. No two people will ever be able to agree fully on a religious subject as it is all imaginary. No two people can possibly imagine the exactly same thing hence the endless fighting/disagreements on whose imagination is correct….unless two people had absolutely identical experiences in every single aspect of their lives todate, they would never visualise precisely the same thing when it is mentioned. There can be more agreement on factual things and where factual evidence is supplied but when it comes to purely imaginary stuff, there is no chance of complete agreement. The article highlights the impossibilty of trying to agree on imaginary things among people who come from completely different backgrounds and exposures.
    Imagination is a fantastic part of human life but to fight with someone because their imagination differs from yours is insane….. facts need to separated from opinions as much as possible..faith defined as ‘pretending that you know something that you do not know’ means it is an opinion, not a fact!

  6. In reply to #4 by Nodhimmi:

    In reply to #3 by MAJORPAIN:

    I think many on this site just don’t understand how hard it is to get out of religion when you’re born into a family and a community that revolves around religion. There are a lot of intelligent, and yes thinking people that believe. I know it doesn’t make sense to us and we think if they’d just “think it through, they’d see how stoooopid it is” but they use their intellect to make sense of it how they can and just go on. I believe it takes a different kind of brain to be able to see behind Oz’s curtain or see the emperor has no clothes. Most people just can’t — it’s not that they don’t want to.

    Well yes, low intellect and poor education makes fertile ground for those who gain by manipulating others; and humanity does have a special liking for the supernatural, lacking any other explanation for what we don’t understand. But it is all too true that folks don’t question enough and too willingly accede to ‘authority’. I feel society values conformity too highly and young people should be encouraged to demand evidence for the claims of the religious.
    Your point re indoctrination is taken; I am fortunate to have grown up where, although my mother was a religious fanatic and I was forced to attend church, there was no stigma in dropping out. Anyway it was just too bloody boring for a ten year old!

    To get a picture of what religion looks for some believers I highly recommend Why I believed: Reflections of a former missionary by Kenneth W Daniels. You can find a free copy on his website or it’s a few dollars on Kindle. It’s not always low intellect and poor education.

    Michael

  7. I’m very glad to see this article here. Philosophy is an integral component to rational, secular living, in league with – if not as tangibly productive as – the sciences.

    Also it’s nice to hear from a secular ethics professor about classroom encounters with this vestige of the religious monopoly on morality in the US, since I’d like to eventually try my hand at teaching the subject.

  8. To get a picture of what religion looks for some believers I highly recommend Why I believed: Reflections of a former missionary by Kenneth W Daniels. You can find a free copy on his website or it’s a few dollars on Kindle. It’s not always low intellect and poor education.

    Excellent recommendation. It’s a valuable read for atheists and believers alike.

  9. I enjoyed the first half of the article, but when he started to delve into “particularism”, I began to get annoyed. It seems as if the author is using “wisdom” and “virtue” as code words for some magical ability to apply without thinking the ethical ruleset he previously questioned the existence of. If we can’t say why something would be right or wrong in a given hypothetical situaton using the rules of an ethical system, on what does this wise and virtuous being that can base his decision on? And how would we scrutinize such a decision?

    Either it would be determinable as right or wrong based on a set of ethical rules, or it’s essentially arbitrary, and we must default to this hypothetical being’s superior wisdom and virtue. Which we can’t quantify. Which brings us back to square one.

    All in all, it’s a very interesting way to make secular ethics more palatable to the religious, but the problem of assessing the validity of particularism appears to be intractable. Despite being rather well elucidated, I don’t think the author really has anything of lasting value here.

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