The respected Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias tells this amusing story:
I was giving a lecture at the University of Nottingham when a philosophy student interrupted me.
“There cannot be a God!” he said. “There is too much evil in the world.”
I replied, “Young man, please stand up. I’d like to converse with you.” He stood up, looking somewhat defiant and a little sheep-faced. “When you say there is something as evil, are you not assuming that there is such a thing as good?”
And of course he says yes.
“When you say that there is something as good and evil, are you not assuming that there is a moral law on the basis of which you can differentiate between good and evil?”
He uttered his second yes with less certainty, sensing perhaps that he had walked into quicksand.
“Young man, if you assume a moral law, you must posit a moral law giver. But, that’s who you are trying to disprove. If there is no moral law giver, there is no moral law. If there is no moral law, there is no good. If there is no good, there is no evil. What is your question?”
The student thought for a moment, and I promise you this is what he said, “What then am I asking?”
Despite the use of poetic license, my transcription does not do justice to Mr Zacharias’s authoritative oration. It’s easy to get lost in the narrative and easy humour. The premise—of lecturer silencing student, like a comedian dealing with a heckler—makes the argument all the more compelling. It makes it so easy to accept.
The linchpin to the argument is the statement, “If you assume a moral law, you must posit a moral law giver.” The error—although I suspect that it’s no error on Mr Zacharias’s part—is the assumed divinity of the law giver. Attached to this assumption is a poisonous sentiment that is commonly shared by believers: you cannot be good without God; or you can be good, but it doesn’t matter.
Consider for a moment the actions of a thief thieving, a rapist raping, and a killer killing. Now, think about a donor donating, a carer caring, and a lover loving. If you accept Mr Zacharias’s reasoning, you must accept that it’s impossible for mankind to evaluate said actions and differentiate between good and evil.
As sure as Godwin’s law, any discussion on the existence of God is likely to digress to an argument about morality. What is it about morality that gets the theist’s goat? It certainly doesn’t bother atheists near as much—by which I do not mean to say that atheists think morality is unimportant—quite the contrary—but rather atheists don’t find it distressing to accept mankind as the authors of moral law. Theists’ fear appears to be that evil actions could become good actions in the eyes of a society who’s moral law is changeable. I guess they are glass-half-empty people.
This type of fear is also projected onto science. Science always changes its mind it is said. That’s just not true and it’s a fallacy to think so. There is a vast amount of scientific knowledge that is unlikely to change. The planets orbit the sun, DNA contain our genetic make-up, germs make us sick, gravity pulls, light travels at 1.07925285 × 109 km/hour, to name but a few. There is undoubtedly more to learn about these phenomenon, but the fundamentals aren’t going to change. Typically, it’s only the fringes of science where big shifts occur, but that’s how we get closer to the truth. The willingness of science to adjust its views, is its primary strength; it’s the reason why science can be trusted. Cannot the same be said about a “changeable” moral law?
An annoying theist habit is to blow things out of proportion, and expect the worst. For some believers, the pursuit of equal rights for gay couples must inevitably lead to a future where it’s okay for Bob to fuck his horse and marry a gerbil. Likewise, if moral law is man-made, anything goes right? The world is doomed to chaos! I have more faith in us than that.
There is evidence that humans—and other animals—have an evolved morality, at least in the tribal sense. That is why there are strong similarities in the answers to morality test questions across different cultures; murder is wrong, thievery is frowned upon. It’s good to know that we are inclined to behave well toward each other in our tribe, but we should not pat ourselves on the back. We are not so naturally altruistic towards those outside of our tribe.
Religion, of course, has done much for our moral values—more good than bad on balance, arguably, although there are some real stinkers—and it’s important to acknowledge the contribution. In a very real sense, religion helped us to transcend our limited evolved instincts—although it also struggles to think outside the tribe. But there are still many worthwhile pearls of wisdom to be had. The golden rule for example—treat others how you would like them to treat you—is common in many religions (it’s interesting to note that it predates Christianity), and it’s still a practical maxim that covers a lot of ground. If there is a better summary of what it takes to be good person, I’ve not seen it.
Like our evolved morality, religion has proven inadequate. We can think about our nature, see its flaws, and say that’s not good enough, we can do better. Similarly, we can analyse religion, and make the same conclusion. There are good bits, like the golden rule. Let’s keep that. There are bad bits, like stoning woman for adultery. Let’s weed that out. Ironically, believers are already adept at picking out the good and ignoring the not so good—the endorsement of slavery is a case in point.
Morality is complex. Massively so. But that is no reason for us to just accept the moral laws of thousands of years ago. The questions might be difficult and the answers might be hard to find, but nothing worthwhile comes easy, as they say. Given what history has taught us about the well-being of the tribe of collective consciousness, the wisdom in our literature, the revelations of philosophy and science, the ingenuity and compassion of the human spirit, and our dedication to intellectual honesty, I’d say that goodness is in good hands.
Does that matter, being good without God? Of course, how could it not? I reject the argument from morality for the existence of God—if you’ve not picked that up already—so, to anyone who concedes that I can be a good person, but that it doesn’t really matter because only God can judge me by His law, this is my response: meh.