If There Is No God, Why Be Good? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, there is a section entitled “If there is no God, why be good?”  I eagerly devoured this section as I sincerely wanted to see what answer Dawkins would give.  After all, he is the most prominent intellectual atheist in the world today, right?  What did he say?

First, he addressed the alleged Christian claim that the only reason anyone acts morally is for fear of divine retribution.  If you take God’s punishments away, everyone goes bad.  Dawkins points out to Christians: “If, on the other hand, you admit that you would continue to be a good person even when not under divine surveillance, you have fatally undermined your claim that God is necessary for us to be good.”

By Dawkins’s understanding of the Christian view of morality, we need God to scare us into behaving, and if belief in God were to disappear, every person would immediately cease doing good.  Dawkins thinks this view is obviously wrong.  He explains:

It seems to me to require quite a low self-regard to think that, should belief in God suddenly vanish from the world, we would all become callous and selfish hedonists, with no kindness, no charity, no generosity, nothing that would deserve the name of goodness.

According to Dawkins, Christians assert that without a person actively believing in God, they would do nothing good.  He then provides some brief statistical evidence to illustrate that religious people don’t always act very morally (it’s only a couple paragraphs that are meant to get this simple point across).

After “proving” God isn’t needed to motivate moral behavior, Dawkins quickly moves to another alleged Christian argument.  He imagines a Christian apologist saying the following:

Wherever the motive to be good comes from, without God there would be no standard for deciding what is good. We could each make up our own definition of good, and behave accordingly. Moral principles that are based only upon religion (as opposed to, say, the ‘golden rule’, which is often associated with religions but can be derived from elsewhere) may be called absolutist. Good is good and bad is bad, and we don’t mess around deciding particular cases by whether, for example, somebody suffers. My religious apologist would claim that only religion can provide a basis for deciding what is good.

Dawkins is claiming that Christians believe that a person can only decide what is right or wrong by reading the Bible, a holy book which issues absolute moral commands.  Without a book like the Bible, there would be no way to decide between right and wrong.  Dawkins then wonders whether it is necessary for moral laws to be absolute.

To examine that question, Dawkins briefly introduces Immanuel Kant, a philosopher who tried to explain absolute moral duties without God.  Dawkins isn’t overly impressed with Kant’s attempt and admits that “it is tempting to agree with my hypothetical apologist that absolutist morals are usually driven by religion.”  Dawkins quickly adds, however, that “morals do not have to be absolute” and so ends the section of his book entitled “If There Is No God, Why Be Good?”

Here is where Dawkins has taken the argument so far.  He has demonstrated that religious people are often immoral, which defeats the Christian claim that believing in God motivates morality.  He then stated that Christians believe that the only way a person can decide between right and wrong is by following the absolute moral commands of the Bible.  Dawkins leaves the argument at this point and invites the reader to continue to the next book chapter where he will address the subject of whether the Bible can be successfully used as a source of absolute moral commands.

In part 2 of this post, we will examine the next chapter, entitled “The ‘Good’ Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist,” to see how Dawkins answers the question, “If There Is No God, Why Be Good?”