n a recent series of posts I have been concerned with atheists going up against theists on the question of morality without God armed with arguments that, to put it kindly, tend to misfire.
I think that it is important to look at the issue that people are truly concerned with when they ask questions about the possibility of morality without God. They look at the world and see a great deal of unpleasantness caused by other humans - rape, genocide, tyranny, torture, slavery, theft, lies - and they ask, "How can we prevent these things from happening?"
The way most Americans are taught to see this problem is that they have a choice. They can choose atheism, which leads to Nazi Germany and Salinist Russia (rampant and unrestricted rape, genocide, tyranny, torture, slavery, theft, and lies), or theism with its trust in God and a nation under God which gives us American constitutional democracy.
Given these options, one would have to be a fool to reject theism.
It does not help that the U.S. Government itself has a massive program going on that aims to convince young children to associate theism with liberty and justice for all, and to equate atheism with tyranny and injustice.
I suspect that the vast majority of readers realize that this alleged choice is simply false. However, this is the fear that the atheist confronts when he enters into battle with a theist on the possibility of morality without God. The atheist will be well served to know the terrain that the battle will be fought on and address themselves to the audience’s actual concerns.
"Can you, the atheist, give me some form of protection from these evils?"
The theist says, "Yes, I can do this because I will convince people that there is a God who will deliver eternal torture to those who engage in these types of actions. The atheist cannot give you this. This is why theism gives you American democracy and atheism gives you Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.”
What is the atheist’s answer?
I have criticized the suggestion that we can simply assert that "good" is "an intent to reduce suffering." After all, the theist has just as much of a claim that they are out to reduce suffering as the atheist. This type of atheist cannot explain why morality is concerned with minimizing suffering, or provide a mechanism for motivating agents to do that which minimizes suffering.
I have criticized the idea that we can turn to evolution for an answer to our problems. Evidence that we have evolved certain forms of altruism (kin selection, reciprocity) does absolutely nothing to protect us from evils that we know humans are capable of committing against each other. You simply can't argue that evolution rules out the possibility of a Nazi Germany or a Stalinist Russia . . . or rape, slavery, tyranny, torture, theft, fraud, and wanton violence.
I have suggested that we can find our answer in a project to use social forces to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.
We can find motivation to do so in the very desires to be fulfilled if we succeed, or thwarted if we fail. Once a person has desires that tend to fulfill other desires and lacks desires that tend to thwart other desires, we can trust him to do the "right thing" even when there is nobody watching over his shoulder. He will tell the truth because he hates lying, and oppose tyranny because he has an aversion to tyranny.
On the other hand, the vast majority of what currently passes for religion actually gives us is blind obedience to religious leaders. Man does not get his morality from God. God gets his morality from man, and God is exactly as moral (or immoral) as the people who invented him.
These are people who realize that, "Obey me, or I will make you suffer the consequences" is a weak argument. However, "Obey me, or my invisible, omnipotent and omniscient friend will make you suffer for eternity," is a substantially more effective way of enslaving people to one's will.
We have seen, just in the last eight years, how blind obedience to the "feelings" of a leader who thinks that his own sentiments are the word of God can give us torture, imprisonment without trials, wars of aggression, lies, theft (of the national treasury to reward campaign contributors with no-bid government contracts), and a whole host of evils.
President Bush did not get his morality from God, Bush's God got his morality from Bush himself (or, probably more accurately, from Vice President Cheney).
This is the risk we face when we go with religious ethics – that the leaders who assign their morality to God and claim that their own sentiments are the word of God written into their heart. That the person who is assigning his morality to God is evil, and that we all suffer the consequences.
God is only as good (and as evil) as the people who invent him. Sometimes, the people who assign their morality to God are not very good people.