If There Is No God, Why Be Good? Part 3

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In the first 2 posts of this series, I presented Richard Dawkins’ “answer” to the question “If There Is No God, Why Be Good?”  At the end of part 2, I said that Dawkins did not actually answer the question, even though that’s what he led the reader to believe he was going to do.  In order to understand why, let’s look back at his arguments.

Recall that Dawkins first argued against the alleged Christian claim that nobody would be good if there were no God to believe in.  Fear of divine wrath is the only thing that keeps mankind in check.

What’s wrong with this argument?  Well, first and foremost, I am unaware of any Christian scholar that has ever made this argument.  Dawkins is tilting at windmills.

I am perfectly willing to admit that atheists are capable of moral actions and I am perfectly willing to admit that Christians are capable of immoral actions.  There is no dispute on either point.  What Christians do claim is that a person who is dedicated to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior will improve morally, but Dawkins doesn’t even mention this claim.

Dawkins’ second argument was against the imaginary Christian apologist who says, in essence, 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.

Has Dawkins stopped tilting at windmills yet?  I’m afraid not.  Again, I am not aware of any apologist or Christian scholar who makes this argument.  Why?  Because the Bible itself clearly says in Romans 2:14-16 that every person is aware of the moral law, whether they have a holy book or not:

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.

Christians believe that God has written the basic moral law on every person’s conscience.  The Bible certainly contains what I would call advanced moral instruction, but the basics are known by everyone whether they read the Bible or not.  In fact, the Bible as we know it today wasn’t even available to Christians for hundreds of years after Jesus was resurrected, so a Christian claim that a person cannot make moral decisions without the Bible would be incredibly strange indeed.

Dawkins’ final argument, as explained in part 2 of the series, is that the Bible’s morality is outdated and “obnoxious.”  So, argues Dawkins, if the source of Christian morality is the Bible, and the Bible fails to give reasonable moral instruction, then the Bible cannot be needed for moral decision making.  Dawkins concludes that there is a human moral consensus, and that we as humans can make our moral decisions based on that consensus.

What was the question Dawkins set out to answer?  “If there is no God, why be good?”  I hope you can see that his conclusion completely fails to answer that question.  Why be good?  Dawkins answers that there is a moral consensus that we can use to make moral decisions.  Well, that’s nice, but that’s not the question.  We want to know why, rationally, should a person be good if there is no God.  It’s great that there is a moral consensus, but why should we follow it if there is no God?

On atheism, Professor Dawkins, give us a rational reason to follow the moral consensus without first just assuming that we should be moral (that’s called begging the question).  No such reason was ever offered in The God Delusion.  I wonder if Dawkins forgot that he even asked the question.

  • James Rountree

    It is the plain and simple truths that we need to hold on to as we defend our faith. Well done.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “Dawkins concludes that there is a human moral consensus, and that we as humans can make our moral decisions based on that consensus”

    I thought we all agreed in Part 2 that the quotes you gave from Dawkins were the opposite of what you claim above – that the consensus agrees with our moral decisions, not the other way round?

  • Boz

    Bill Pratt said: “Recall that Dawkins first argued against the alleged Christian claim that nobody would be good if there were no God to believe in. Fear of divine wrath is the only thing that keeps mankind in check. What’s wrong with this argument? Well, first and foremost, I am unaware of any Christian scholar that has ever made this argument. Dawkins is tilting at windmills.”

    Many everyday christians make this assertion, and the book was aimed at everyday christians.

    :

    Also, as Andrew Ryan notes, you are continuing with your misunderstanding of what Dawkins wrote on the consensus.

  • Todd

    “Recall that Dawkins first argued against the alleged Christian claim that nobody would be good if there were no God to believe in. Fear of divine wrath is the only thing that keeps mankind in check.
    What’s wrong with this argument? Well, first and foremost, I am unaware of any Christian scholar that has ever made this argument. Dawkins is tilting at windmills.”

    The first sentence of this section starts by admitting that the question itself is “ignoble.” Dawkins get’s the “why be good without God” question often, as have I; and while you might not find a sophisticated biblical scholar backing themselves into this obvious corner, there are plenty of Christians that will open with this type of statement. So from the beginning, I think Dawkins understands that he is “tilting at windmills”, but that in fact, it is the questioner that see’s ferocious giants.

    ___________________________________

    “Dawkins’ second argument was against the imaginary Christian apologist who says, in essence, 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.
    Has Dawkins stopped tilting at windmills yet? I’m afraid not. Again, I am not aware of any apologist or Christian scholar who makes this argument.”

    I just re-read both chapters and I do not see where Dawkins “in essence” says anything of the kind. He begins Chapter 7 by saying there are 2 ways to that scripture can be a source of morals: by direct instruction, or by example. He goes on to show several examples of these in the old and new testaments. If there is an “essence” to the chapter I think he sums it up with this: “My main purpose here has not been to show that we shouldn’t get our morals from scripture (although that is my opinion). My purpose has been to demonstrate that we (and that includes most religious people) as a matter of fact don’t get our morals from scripture.”

    ___________________________________

    “On atheism, Professor Dawkins, give us a rational reason to follow the moral consensus without first just assuming that we should be moral (that’s called begging the question). No such reason was ever offered in The God Delusion. I wonder if Dawkins forgot that he even asked the question.”

    I think we can safely say that most readers would not need to engage in “why be moral” questions and assume that wanting to be moral can be taken a priori. Dawkins does not beg this question.

    Also, Dawkin’s never asked the question “If there is no God, why be Good?” It was the title of a book section and presented as a question that he is asked, not asking. The answer comes almost immediately: …”that’s not morality, that’s just sucking up, apple-polishing, looking over your shoulder at the great surveillance camera in the sky, or the still small wiretap inside your head, monitoring your every move, even your every base thought.” The rest of the chapter evaluates the more important question, where should we get our morality… I would recommend reading ‘The Moral Landscape” and “Good without God” for further information. I think you will find their moral concepts better for humanity than any religious source…

  • I don’t recall agreeing to anything you said about this. please clarify your point as I don’t understand it.

  • Boz,
    First, I am not even aware of very many everyday Christians that make this argument, but I’ll grant that a few less sophisticated might.

    Leaving that aside, why does Dawkins, an Oxford academic, avoid dealing with Christian scholars and target simpleton arguments that most intelligent Christians disdain? What is he afraid of?

    And why is it that skeptics are extremely quick to point out all the times when Christian apologists address arguments to everyday people without quoting from experts or scholars in a particular field, but Dawkins is allowed to almost completely ignore Christian scholarship?

  • Please re-read pp. 263-266 for Dawkins’ second argument. You missed it.

    I quite understand that Dawkins never answered the question “If there is no God, why be Good?” That was my point, that he can’t answer the question on atheism, and it seems that you can not either.

    You said, “I think we can safely say that most readers would not need to engage in ‘why be moral’ questions and assume that wanting to be moral can be taken a priori.” Again, that is the problem with atheism. You just take morality for granted and assume that we should be moral, totally avoiding answering a question that you cannot answer – more evidence that atheism is a parasitic worldview that explains nothing when it comes to morality.

  • Todd

    Actually, when addressing your post about Dawkins “second argument”, which is what I was commenting upon, I think you missed the “essence” that Dawkins clearly states in the quote I posted above.

    I never addressed what you call Dawkins “final argument” on pages 263-266, which is the section labeled “The Moral Zeitgeist” and actually extends to page 272 where Dawkins sums up his point about morality changing over time… “Whatever its cause, the manifest phenomenon of Zeitgeist progression is more than enough to undermine the claim that we need God in order to be good, or to decide what is good.”
    I think it is a clear refutation of the religious position that God is necessary to be good. If you are asking me that question, (which you have not and that I did not attempt to answer though you seem to accuse me of dodging the unasked question) I would first shorten the question to “why be good?” as there is no God. We can have a debate about the hypothetical that god exists and whether or not the idea of God is necessary to be good, but that is a different subject.

    I did raise the point that morality should be taken a priori, which when using any standard definition that includes being good to one another, it is. I am in agreement with Sam Harris that there has been a lot of intellectual trepidation of defining a ‘moral truth’, which is not only difficult to define; it is even harder to defend philosophically. However, there is a good article from Harris that talks about the consequences of turning morality into the ‘word salad’ that inhibits human growth. If can be found here: (http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/morality10/morality.harris.html) if you can lower your nose long enough to read a dissenting opinion you might see that atheism never claims to explain morality, but science can have a lot to say about what is best for humanity…

  • Boz

    “Leaving that aside, why does Dawkins, an Oxford academic, avoid dealing with Christian scholars and target simpleton arguments that most intelligent Christians disdain? What is he afraid of?”

    Probably so that he can sell 1,000,000 books, instead of 10,000.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Bill, you accuse Dawkins of tilting at windmills because you are “unaware of any Christian scholar that has ever made this argument”. But then you admonish him for looking at where we get our morality from, rather than why we should be moral in the first place. I’m not aware of anyone – Christian or atheist – who refuses to be moral until someone tells them why they should be. Isn’t it you who is therefore tilting at windmills? If we pretty much all take the need to be moral as a priori, doesn’t it make sense to start the argument from that point onwards?

    Further, can you explain what you mean by ‘parasitic’? The term implies an organism that damages the host. Regardless of any way your might imagine atheism in general to be damaging, in what way SPECIFICALLY is ‘taking the need to be good as a priori’ damaging for any host?

    Finally, you’ve still not explained how a Christian gets to a need to be good without making any a priori assumptions. Last time I asked you, I’m sure you eventually answered that avoiding punishment (ie selfish self-interest) was a reasonable answer, though as you now claim no Christian Scholar makes such a claim, so I must have misunderstood you.

  • Andrew Ryan

    To clarify, you say:
    “”Dawkins concludes that there is a human moral consensus, and that we as humans can make our moral decisions based on that consensus”

    …And yet the quotes you provide from Dawkins do not appear to show him making such a conclusion. Rather they show him making an OPPOSITE conclusion: that we do NOT make our moral decisions based on that consensus, but that the consensus in fact tends to agree with our moral decisions.

    I hope this clarifies.

  • Matt Salmon

    “Recall that Dawkins first argued against the alleged Christian claim that nobody would be good if there were no God to believe in. Fear of divine wrath is the only thing that keeps mankind in check.” I think the first sentence here about Dawkins’ argument is misleading. The real argument Dawkins is making is that God is unnecessary for moral action, but the little phrase “to believe in” is the basis for most of his arguments. From this phrase he argues that people form a moral consensus, regardless of whether they believe in God. Dawkins makes it appear that belief in God, rather than the existence of God, is the important part of the argument. There is a moral consensus because everyone’s conscience has the same maker, even if they don’t believe He exists.

  • Personally, as a professor of religion and philosophy I HAVE been asked by many Christians why anyone would be good if there was no god.

    So what you are saying is that Gandhi “had the laws written on his heart”–apparently by your god–but your god decided NOT to “save” him by not giving him “grace”–what was his point in that? Your god decides who believes and who doesn’t, and he decided not to save one of the most humanitarian people on earth?–how bizarre. Instead, according to most Christians, since he did not believe in Jesus, he will be punished eternally. But then Christians go on to say that murderers and rapists who “repent” will be “saved”–how bizarre.

    The point is that morals and ethics DO NOT require ANY gods or goddesses–let alone yours. Our morals and ethics come from society and Normative Ethical Theories such as Utilitarianism–meaning doing what is right for the overall good–no gods required.

  • You deleted my comments because you and I both know you have no good arguments. Therefore, I decided to write my own blog post about your blog post, and the comments that you deleted. Feel free to comment, and if you dare, attempt a rebuttal.

    http://aisforatheist5760.blogspot.com/2011/08/answering-tough-questions-why-should-we.html

  • I have no idea who you are or what you’re talking about. I only delete comments that contain profanity or vicious personal attacks. I haven’t deleted a comment in weeks, so can you please tell us all which of your comments I deleted?

  • A is for Atheist,
    I found the following comment in my comments dashboard in WordPress. Is this the comment you’re referring to? If so, I have no idea why Disqus (the comment app I use) published it on my dashboard, but not on the blog post web page. Anyhow, I have copied it below in its entirety.

    “Personally, as a professor of religion and philosophy I HAVE been asked by many Christians why anyone would be good if there was no god.

    So what you are saying is that Gandhi “had the laws written on his heart”–apparently by your god–but your god decided NOT to “save” him by not giving him “grace”–what was his point in that? Your god decides who believes and who doesn’t, and he decided not to save one of the most humanitarian people on earth?–how bizarre. Instead, according to most Christians, since he did not believe in Jesus, he will be punished eternally. But then Christians go on to say that murderers and rapists who “repent” will be “saved”–how bizarre.

    The point is that morals and ethics DO NOT require ANY gods or goddesses–let alone yours. Our morals and ethics come from society and Normative Ethical Theories such as Utilitarianism–meaning doing what is right for the overall good–no gods required.”

  • Andrew Ryan

    I read it on the blog before, and then it did indeed disappear, as if it had been deleted. I don’t believe you deleted it, but for some reason it went.

  • Greg G

    A is for atheist,

    so you are ok then if “society” decided that all atheists were morons and needed to be exterminated? If not, how do you disagree with what society decides? What makes “your” opinion correct?

  • Charlie Carrel

    I had this exact reaction when I read the book. I’m glad I’m not the only one. Nice post 🙂