Humanist Perspectives: issue 151: Conscience and Belief

Conscience & Belief
Do we need ‘God’ in order to be good?
by Bruce Martin Wildish

Many people of faith, when confronted with rational arguments against the existence of a good and all-powerful God, will attempt to defend their belief in God through rational arguments of their own, their goal being to demonstrate that their faith is not “blind” and does not rest on mere whimsy, but is based instead on various kinds of evidence and good judgment. The quality of such arguments, known as apologetics, varies considerably — ranging from ill-informed, reactionary fundamentalist rhetoric at one end of the scale (Hugh Ross, Josh McDowell) to thoughtful, sophisticated, responsible commentary at the other (CS Lewis, Alvin Plantinga).

Yet despite their manifest differences in literary skill and intellectual competency, all such arguments share a common failing: rarely do they convince anyone who is not already a believer. In the final analysis such material does little to provide non-believers with good reasons to believe in God, and instead simply provides existing believers with intellectual reasons to continue believing in the face of mounting evidence or forceful arguments that contradict or challenge the tenets of their faith. Apologetics thus comforts believers by leaving them with the impression that their faith, like the disbelief of their opponents, is both reasonable and backed by good scholarship.

Yet one of the clearest indicators that even many believers recognize the limited value of apologetic arguments, if only subconsciously, is the frequency with which they feel the need to buttress them with additional arguments that derive their force and appeal not from reason and evidence but from their emotional and psychological value. In this regard many will defend belief in God not on the grounds that some form of evidence or principle of logic demands His existence, but by appealing to the putative benefits and advantages that belief in God offers over unbelief.

The argument typically goes something like this: life without God is without purpose, meaning and hope because it condemns all of us to mere existence in a world where every effort is ultimately for naught. For if there is no God then all the wonders of the world, from human consciousness to the vastness of space, are nothing more than the accidental products of the mindless flight of atomic particles, and humankind becomes little more than biological flotsam on the river of space and time, forever subject to the capricious nature of its ebbs and flows. A world without God is one in which there is no judge to right the manifest injustices and evils of history, no authority of appropriate power to vindicate virtue over vice, and no agency to protect us from the blind hand of fate or even the dark side of ourselves. Oblivion awaits the good and the bad alike, and life has no more purpose and meaning than that which we invent for ourselves in the short term. God’s existence, on the other hand, gives us reason to believe that we matter, that our lives have purpose, and that we have a destiny that extends beyond our own limited perspective. And in doing so it provides for our most fundamental needs, happiness and life-long security. Some even argue that many of our most cherished ideas such as love and justice are rendered essentially worthless, or at least pointless, if the fate of humanity and of the universe itself are, in the grand scheme of things, at the mercy of naturalistic processes rather than the guiding hand of an involved and caring deity.

A particularly striking example of this argument can be found in Rabbi Harold Kushner’s popular book Who Needs God (1989). Kushner argues that a world without God would be one in which the following were true:

The argument described here has two clear points of emphasis, the existential and the moral: without God there can be no genuine meaning, satisfaction and hope in life; and without God there can be no justifiable standards of right and wrong.

As has already been noted, the primary appeal of this argument and the reason that it resonates so widely with so many people lies in its recognition and addressing of those needs that are of deepest significance to all human beings. Few of us would question the claim that our lives must have meaning in order for us to be truly content and happy on more than a superficial level. Moreover, in emphasizing the role of God as judge, protector and agent of all that is good and worthy, the argument appeals to our deepest need for justice, fairness, love and our instinct for self-preservation. Even so, such provocative and sweeping claims as these demand substantial evidentiary support. One would therefore be forgiven for assuming, as logic and fairness would suggest, that the argument is based on an informed, judicious and representative survey of the life styles, beliefs and attitudes of both believers and non-believers in equal measure, with the alleged differences between the two, and the indifference and amorality of unbelievers, in particular being amply supported by appropriate statistical, observational and testimonial data.

In point of fact, however, the argument has no empirical support whatsoever. Once again Kushner’s example is instructive. Operating from a perspective he calls predicate theology, he declares that God is both synonymous with and the source of all goodness, kindness, love, selflessness, altruism, et cetera in the world. All examples of such acts are then explained as God working through individuals. By this bit of rhetorical trickery he makes goodness in all its forms dependent on the existence of God and is thereby able to argue that without God there can be no genuine goodness in the world, and by extension no defensible moral positions. Thus of the atheist he says: “An atheist is not a person who says ‘God has no meaning for me.’ He is a person who says ‘Helping the poor and the hungry, working for justice have no meaning for me.’” and “the atheist is not the person who denies the existence of God, but the one who denies the value of love, courage and honesty.”

Bold claims indeed. Yet it is readily apparent that this entire line of reasoning is completely dependent on the equally bold assumption that God is personal, i.e., benevolent, concerned with the promotion of virtue and interested in the affairs of individual human beings. For the mere existence of God in and of itself does nothing to ensure our well being, still less provide us with a sense of place and purpose or a basis of sound morality. A God who exists but who is completely uninvolved in human affairs, whether because of indifference, inability or in deference to some policy of non-interference, might just as well not exist as there would be no appreciable difference between a world ungoverned by such a God and one in which He does not exist at all. Likewise a God who exists but who is malicious is obviously a disadvantage to humanity and we would be much better off at the mercy of an indifferent natural world.

At this point many believers might insist that a benign, compassionate and personal deity is the only kind of which most people can conceive and in which they would have any interest; therefore the assumption that God is of such a nature is completely warranted. Yet it has to be said that such a view reflects a profound ignorance of religious reality. For while the traditional deistic faiths like Christianity, Islam and Judaism have embraced the notion of a personal God who is intimately involved in human affairs, other populous and vital faiths have not done so: neither Hinduism nor Buddhism, for example, entertain the idea of a personal, intercessory God and these represent the view of well over a billion people. Moreover, since the very existence of God is uncertain and demands a leap of faith, it follows that all theories about God’s nature and personality are even more speculative. Kushner and others of like mind thus have no grounds for demanding one particular conception of God over any other and for insisting that God be understood as a compassionate, involved caregiver and provider. Such a view of God, however appealing and comforting, is neither necessary nor obvious and cannot therefore be used to argue that belief in God is essential to a holding a moral perspective. To suggest otherwise, as Kushner and many other believers do, amounts to declaring that the Judeo-Christian tradition alone (with its various close relatives and offshoots) is able to provide for a moral perspective that promotes virtue and goodness.

The moral argument is thus based not on fact or observation but on one particular brand of theology, the propositions of which are simply taken for granted. As a result, in its attempt to deny the moral capacity and beliefs of the 850 million or so non-believers, skeptics, atheists and others with no specific religious beliefs — an absurd enough strategy, given that together these constitute the world’s fourth largest belief group behind Christianity, Islam and Hinduism (see Gregory S Paul’s “The Secular Revolution of the West” in Free Inquiry, vol 22, no 3) — the argument effectively disenfranchises the one billion plus Hindus, Buddhists and other religionists who hold to a different theology. Can it be seriously argued that over one third of the world’s population, representing individuals from every nation, culture, profession, level of education and demographic group, have no moral sense, no appreciation for virtue, and no honest, reasonable means by which to defend or justify their beliefs and views? Consider again Kushner’s list: are we to take seriously the claim that all such people feel no outrage toward crime and cruelty or have any desire to put an end to such acts? That none in this group see any benefit in generosity, mercy, or love or see any merit or point in teaching these practices to others? The argument is so profoundly insulting and so manifestly false that it scarcely deserves rebuttal. Frankly, it is astonishing that any sensible person today would dare make such an argument.

Moreover, belief in a personal God has not been the historical norm. Christianity has only been around for some two thousand years and for the first few centuries of its existence was a marginal cult. Islam of course has been around for even less time and Judaism, to which both owe their conceptions of the deity, was the religion only of one small community in a world brimming over with religions, cults and ideas about the divine. For most of history there have been many Gods, some conceived of in the loftiest of terms, others in the basest of terms, and some in terms that bear no resemblance whatsoever to most current ideas of God. Yet a capacity and concern for virtue and goodness, as well as for a proper response to villainy and vice, has always been present and did not suddenly spring into being with the advent of the idea of a personal, monotheistic God. Individuals from ancient Greece and Rome, for example, wrote just as passionately and earnestly about the importance of virtue to the function and well being of civilization, all the while holding views of the divine that were very different from those of contemporary theists.

Typically, believers respond to these points by maintaining that all goodness comes from God while simply adding the caveat that not everyone recognizes or acknowledges the fact. The fallacious and self-serving nature of this argument is readily apparent: all evidence and testimony is interpreted in a manner consistent with a predetermined conclusion and there is no possible way to disconfirm the argument. The goodness practiced by believers is offered as proof that God is the source of all goodness; likewise, the demonstrable fact that unbelievers and those of different views of the divine are equally capable of and concerned with such goodness is explained as God working invisibly or without due credit or acknowledgment. In short, no matter what the outcome, no matter what the observation, the believer claims it is consistent with his argument. It is theological equivalent of heads I win, tails you lose.

The argument is also guilty — unforgivably so — of completely ignoring several important developments and trends in moral thought by philosophers and lawmakers over the past several centuries that have contributed substantially to the moral principles and laws that are at the core of most contemporary, civilized cultures. Specifically, it fails to take into account the vital contributions of utilitarianism and its offshoot consequentialism, which effectively helped to liberate morality from the grip of religious and ecclesiastical authority by promoting a moral system of thought and practice grounded not on dogma and authority but on reason and the shared experiences of humanity. Such ideals are central to the moral perspective of secular humanism today and occupy a prominent place in the various humanist declarations and manifestos.

The moral argument is therefore guilty of several offenses which show it to be irrational and even dishonest: it ignores or misrepresents the abundant disconfirming evidence (the manifest ability and desire of billions of people to be moral without belief in a personal God) and it demonstrates virtually no awareness of the actual historical processes which have both shaped much modern moral thought and provided secularists with a solid and defensible moral foundation. Finally, in its repeated appeals to the necessity of God for a sound and clear morality, it relies entirely on the thoroughly discredited and enormously dangerous view that a moral system is only valid if it can appeal to the pronouncements of some sort of authority.

Having demonstrated that the moral argument is worthless, not to say pernicious, it remains to consider the existential argument. Is it true that one must believe in God in order to have a life of meaning and purpose and hope? That without God there is no effective way to make sense of life with all its pains and tribulations and causes of despair?

It has already been noted that those making this argument have a very specific conception of God in mind, that of a personal God who is both involved in the affairs of individuals and concerned for their happiness and well-being. And it has been shown that such a view of God is not held by a huge percentage of the world’s population. On one level then the existential argument fails on the same grounds as the moral: it advances the indefensible position that only those holding traditional notions of deity are capable of having meaning and hope in their lives and that they alone are capable of experiencing joy, inner peace and a zest for life, whereas the rest of humanity lives each day in unhappiness and despair, vainly searching for meaning and hope.

Yet there is a second, equally damning problem with the argument: it is inconsistent with many believers’ own views about the reasons for evil and innocent suffering. It is readily obvious that a world plagued by indiscriminate suffering and manifest injustice is very difficult to reconcile with the idea that God is both good and involved, for it is precisely in the prevention of injustice and harm that we would most naturally expect to see the hand of divine intervention. This is not the place to discuss the merits and weaknesses of the various theories of evil and suffering held by believers today, but as a general rule it can be said that most attempt to resolve the above-mentioned contradiction by explaining how or why a good and caring God withholds His protection and allows evil, suffering and injustice to prevail. Yet such an approach implicitly acknowledges that God is not involved in the daily lives of individuals — at least not in any obvious manner that protects those in jeopardy and ensures their safety and well-being. At best it can be argued that God intervenes only very selectively and in a manner that is not apparent or explicable according to the normal canons of logic and reasoning — how many times have we heard believers attempt to evade this fact by saying “God works in mysterious ways?” This confirms a point noted earlier: there seems to be no appreciable difference between a world wherein God does exist but will not or cannot intervene for our benefit, and one in which He does not exist at all. Evil and innocent suffering flourish in both.

For this reason a logically consistent and intellectually honest theodicy must exclude the possibility that assistance from God comes in the form of direct personal protection or other forms of overt special assistance in this life. This simple fact is in no way mitigated by the peculiar practice on the part of many believers of appealing to the free will defense or some other popular theodicy to account for evil and suffering, all the while maintaining that God is actively involved in the daily lives of themselves and other people of faith. This demonstrates a lack of logical consistency. More sophisticated believers on the other hand appreciate the problem and thus emphasize benefits and rewards that are less obvious and more personal (and more resilient to critical scrutiny).

Again, using Kushner as an example, it can be seen that such benefits fall into two categories: the emotional/psychological and the eschatological. The first asserts that belief in God equips the individual with the necessary emotional and mental resources to confront and overcome the painful realities of life in this world. God may not (or cannot) meddle in human affairs to save you from pain, trauma and grief, but He will give you the power to deal with them and He will comfort and strengthen you in moments of weakness and need. The second is more evasive: it all but ignores the pains of life in this world and shifts the focus to a future place and time when the sorrows of this world simply won’t matter any more, be it a future paradise on earth or a joyous afterlife. So without God, it is argued, one can neither confront and overcome the pains of life nor hope for a better world to come. One can only make the best of this world and learn to suffer its vicissitudes.

The first argument is rather easily refuted. While there is certainly little doubt that many people of faith derive valuable emotional and psychological support from their beliefs in times of duress and need, there is simply no warrant for the claim that such benefits are evidence of God’s existence. Rather, they are evidence only of the power of belief itself and the ability of belief to affect one’s mind and attitude — and at times even physical health. What matters is not whether the subject of the belief is factual, but how deeply the individual holds the belief. Consequently, the ability of those who consent to a comforting proposition to derive satisfaction from it tells us nothing whatsoever about the truth-value of that proposition. A comforting and encouraging falsehood that was sincerely believed would produce precisely the same results.

Moreover, there is something distinctly disturbing and contradictory in the idea that a God of love and mercy would be so selective with His support, bestowing comforting assistance solely on those who are willing or capable of accepting his existence in faith while allowing the rest to wallow in misery and despair. Surely a loving and merciful God would help all in need and would not be so petty and mean-spirited as to withhold His support from those whose only failing here is an inability or unwillingness to consent to traditional notions of theology. If so, then believers have no advantage over unbelievers here. Everyone would benefit equally, whether they believed in God or not.

Finally, if believers respond to the above point by claiming that they still have the additional advantage of knowing that they are being supported in times of need whereas unbelievers have no such comforting realization, it can still be asked why this awareness is of any genuine benefit. Certainly they do not mean to suggest that the power of God here is only effective if the recipient is conscious and accepting of it? Such an idea calls into question the omnipotence of God by implying that His powers are at the mercy of human intentions. Moreover, by what criteria are we to establish that the power and capacity to bear grief and pain is supernatural in origin rather than psychological and biological?

How do we distinguish between the two so that we can avoid the mistake of attributing to the intercessory power of God a capacity and ability we possess naturally? Many believers will admit that the distinction can not be validated scientifically or rationally and must be perceived through the eyes of faith.

If that is the case, there is a clear logical fallacy at work here since the conclusions are being validated by the very assumptions that make them possible. In other words what we have here is an article of faith justifying itself by appeal to its own claims about itself! Yet by the same token one could just as well argue that it is wise and beneficial to believe in leprechauns or fairies or any other mystical being whose existence is alleged to offer us advantages discernible only through such belief. The circular nature of the logic here is self-evident. Only by appealing to something outside of its own definition can belief in God be defended on genuinely practical grounds!

The eschatological argument is on no better ground. Aside from the fact that it makes the very dubious moral assumption that it is alright for God to allow innocent suffering now so long as He compensates for it later, it falters on the fact that the benefits being promised, unlike those of the emotional argument, are not tangible realities of which one can be assured at all, but are instead nothing more than mere possibilities that can only be hoped for in faith. Belief offers those willing to suspend a skeptical attitude the mere possibility of some kind of idealistic future or alternate world that is free of pain, suffering and injustice, a world where all the wrongs of this world are put right and human beings are privileged to occupy a special place in the grand scheme of things. But as wonderful and desirable as these are, mere hopes and dreams have no demonstrable correlation to reality, and as such they are at least as likely to prove false as true. For this reason those who require some assurances, some tangible evidence that the benefits in question are genuine and not merely the product of wishful thinking born out of desperation, desire and anxiety, are unlikely to find value in such promises.

Finally, believers seem to confuse meaning and purpose. In rejecting conventional notions of deity in favour of a naturalistic philosophy of life secularists have, it must be granted, lost the necessary frame of reference by which they can claim that their lives have purpose. Purpose implies design and intent. If the world and human life are the products of naturalistic forces rather than the creative act of a higher intelligence, and if the destiny of both is entirely unplanned, then it makes little sense to say that either has a purpose. But meaning is another matter entirely. Meaning is that which gives life satisfaction and vitality, that which leaves the individual with the feeling of living a useful, productive life and having something valuable to contribute. And the ways in which individuals derive such meaning are as numerous and as varied as individuals themselves. Believers have every right to derive theirs from the idea that humans were specially created by God and as such occupy a special place in the grand scheme of things, but it is arrogant, unfair and belligerent of them to argue that the lives of those who are incapable of sharing this view are less worthy, rich and fulfilling. In fact it can be argued that there is something distinctly unsettling and even dehumanizing in the notion that we must derive meaning in life from the fact that we were put here to serve the purposes and designs of someone else, even if that someone is God. For this reason many humanists and nonbelievers consider a meaning that is self-determined and self-validating far more enriching and ennobling.

Bruce Wildish is a writer who has published in Skeptic, Free Inquiry and American Rationalist. He lives in Mississaugua, Ontario.