If There Is No God, Why Be Good? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In Dawkins’s next chapter, “The ‘Good’ Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist” he “exposes” the Bible’s moral commands to be largely immoral and hopelessly outdated.  What the reader will find in this chapter is Dawkins riffing on how morally backward the Bible is.  In fact, Dawkins concludes that “those who wish to base their morality literally on the Bible have either not read it or not understood it.”  Scriptural moral teachings, “if followed through religiously . . . , encourage a system of morals which any civilized modern person, whether religious or not, would find—I can put it no more gently—obnoxious.”

What are these “obnoxious” biblical passages that Dawkins highlights?  If you’ve ever conversed with a skeptic before, the list is fairly standard.  He starts with the Noahic Flood, then moves to the story of Lot and Sodom and Gomorrah, the story of the Levite concubine in Judges 19, the stories of Abraham lying about Sarah being his wife, the story of Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac, and so forth and so on.

Dawkins also makes sure that his readers understand that the unpleasantness of the Bible carries over to the New Testament as well.  Dawkins accuses Jesus of teaching poor family values and God of sado-masochism.  Why?  Because “God incarnated himself as a man, Jesus, in order that he should be tortured and executed in atonement for the hereditary sin of Adam.”

Dawkins chronicles several other flaws of biblical moral teaching with the overall purpose of proving the Bible to be a complete disaster for moral instruction.  Again, none of these accusations are new to Dawkins.  I had personally seen almost all of them before ever reading The God Delusion.

If you’ll recall, we started out with a question that we hoped Dawkins would answer (hint: the title of the blog post).  Now we finally get to the payoff.  At the end of his biblical shop of horrors, Dawkins finally concludes his analysis of the question, “If There Is No God, Why Be Good?”  Here is his summary:

This chapter began by showing that we do not—even the religious among us—ground our morality in holy books, no matter what we may fondly imagine. How, then, do we decide what is right and what is wrong? No matter how we answer that question, there is a consensus about what we do as a matter of fact consider right and wrong: a consensus that prevails surprisingly widely. The consensus has no obvious connection with religion. It extends, however, to most religious people, whether or not they think their morals come from scripture. With notable exceptions such as the Afghan Taliban and the American Christian equivalent, most people pay lip service to the same broad liberal consensus of ethical principles. The majority of us don’t cause needless suffering; we believe in free speech and protect it even if we disagree with what is being said; we pay our taxes; we don’t cheat, don’t kill, don’t commit incest, don’t do things to others that we would not wish done to us. Some of these good principles can be found in holy books, but buried alongside much else that no decent person would wish to follow: and the holy books do not supply any rules for distinguishing the good principles from the bad.

There you have it.  Dawkins’ answer to the question, “If There Is No God, Why Be Good?” is to say that there just is a wide consensus on morality.  Based on that consensus, we can come up with our own morality and, even more importantly to Dawkins, we do not need a holy book to tell us what to do.  That’s pretty much it.

Do you feel cheated?  Do you feel like he didn’t answer the question at all?  Join the club.  In the third post of this series, I will analyze Dawkins’ arguments to see where he went wrong.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “Dawkins’ answer to the question, “If There Is No God, Why Be Good?” is to say that there just is a wide consensus on morality.”

    Not quite. He doesn’t say that we should be good BECAUSE there is a consensus. He says that REGARDLESS of what reason we come up with, there is a consensus:

    “How, then, do we decide what is right and what is wrong? No matter how we answer that question, there is a consensus about what we do as a matter of fact consider right and wrong”

  • Anonymous

    Dawkins said

    This chapter began by showing that we do not—even the religious among us—ground our morality in holy books, no matter what we may fondly imagine. How, then, do we decide what is right and what is wrong? No matter how we answer that question, there is a consensus about what we do as a matter of fact consider right and wrong: a consensus that prevails surprisingly widely.

    Bill interpreted this to mean

    Dawkins’ answer to the question, “If There Is No God, Why Be Good?” is to say that there just is a wide consensus on morality.

    I think this misses Dawkins’ point. I confess that Bill has the advantage in having actually read the book, but it seems to me that at least in the section quoted, Dawkins’ is not arguing that we get our opinion from the consensus (which may change with the whims of culture), but that we answer for ourselves, and find that the broad consensus agrees with me that theft is wrong. I would suspect that he, or others, would argue that I intuit something as wrong, and the consensus validates my intuition. The point there would be that I intuit x as wrong, cross-cultural consensus agreeing, because x really is intrinsically wrong.

    This of course goes back to our old argument of whether” God forbids x because x is wrong” or “is x wrong because God forbids it.” Dawkins seems to say that x is truly wrong on its own, and the pronouncement of a supposed deity or religious system is at best irrelevant.

    Interestingly, up until my last paragraph, C. S. Lewis devoted almost the whole of “The Abolition of Man” to making the same point about a cross-cultural consensus as to the heart of the moral law suggesting that such law pointed to something real.

  • Boz

    Dawkins said: “How, then, do we decide what is right and what is wrong? No matter how we answer that question, there is a consensus…”

    Bill Pratt said: “Dawkins’ answer to the question, “If There Is No God, Why Be Good?” is to say that there just is a wide consensus on morality.”

    In agreeance with rericsawyer, I also think you are misunderstanding what he is saying.

    Dawkins delibertely does not answer the question in the title of the chapter (If There Is No God, Why Be Good?). This is shown by the clause: “No matter how we answer that question”. He is avoiding giving an explicit answer.