Belief in God Remains a Stumbling Block in Moral Debate

March 24, 2011

The Center for Inquiry launched a nationwide multimedia campaign earlier this month featuring a simple message: "You don't need God – to hope, to care, to love, to live." This slogan was featured on billboards in Washington D.C., Indianapolis, Houston, and on a viral Internet video. Yet while the campaign has been successful, it hasn't gone without criticism, some of which is worth considering for a moment. 

The goal of campaign was clearly explained by Ronald Lindsay, President and CEO of the Center for Inquiry: 

"With this campaign, we are aiming to dispel some myths about the nonreligious. One common myth is that the nonreligious lead empty, meaningless, selfish, self-centered lives. This is not only false, it's ridiculous. Unfortunately, all too many people accept this myth because that's what they hear about nonbelievers."

And as Lindsay wrote in an accompanying blog post :

"We're not trying to convert anyone by this campaign, if conversion implies persuading people there is no God. We are trying to prompt people to consider and converse about some of the myths surrounding the nonreligious, in particular the myth that life without God means a joyless, meaningless, selfish, self-centered life."

This is completely justified. These myths have an actual, harmful impact: surveys show that atheists are the least respected segment of the American population. Compared to more "in-your-face" ad campaigns that have criticized the veracity of religious claims and honesty of religious leaders, one might think that CFI's campaign -- which instead focuses on the fact that secular people can lead moral, fulfilling lives, just like their religious counterparts -- uncontroversial and hard to argue against. But two arguments against the substance of the campaign have emerged. Atheists would do well to briefly contemplate them, as they have important implications for discourse on the topic. 

One is known as the "common grace" argument. Originally made famous by C.S. Lewis, it posits that atheists are only able to lead good lives because God implanted within them such a capacity. This position was illustrated by Chris Coyne, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Coyne told an Indianapolis TV station that atheists can be happy and fulfilled, but that "all goodness, all happiness, all creation flows from God whether you believe it or not." Talk about humility worthy of envy.

The other states that while atheists can lead good lives, the secular lifestyle has inherent limits because of its detachment with God. This stance was explained by Rev. Edward Wheeler, president of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. Wheeler told The Indianapolis Star that "he doesn't disagree with the essence of the billboard messages -- he, too, has met admirable, responsible people with nonreligious beliefs." But, Wheeler said, "I believe we are created by a loving, caring God and, because of that, we are not fully complete without a relationship with God."

In response to these arguments, atheists often cite the biological basis for morality, the rich history of secular moral reflection, the human ability to collectively reason toward more objective moral values, and empirical data that shows religonists are no more moral than atheists. But these attempts, while reasonable, are often an exercise in futility. The theist will inevitably respond with arguments like those above (i.e., God made you moral, you can only be so moral without God). There is simply no getting around the fact that belief in God makes for an enormous stumbling block for discourse about morality.

How can atheists overcome this problem? Perhaps the best move would be to recognize that there are two different projects that are inextricably related and of equal importance. One aims to critically examine the veracity of religious claims; the other seeks to present the public an affirmative secular worldview. As I wrote in a recent blog post here, "The critic of religious faith and dogma is on the same side as the promoter of secular moral values. To squabble about whose interests are more important is to lose sight of the underlying problem: the staggering amount of uncritical thinking that is putting society to ruin."

Once atheists realize this, they can get on with trying to complete both tasks. Only with both accomplished will humans be able to collectively have a rational, constructive conversation about morality. 

Note: an expanded version of this essay was posted on the blog Rationally Speaking

Comments:

#1 L.Long (Guest) on Friday March 25, 2011 at 8:25am

g0d is not the stumbling block.
It is the delusional belief that (insert holey book) is the word or command of g0d that is the stumbling block.
At the same time the buyBull states ‘NO man may know the mind of g0d’ but then immediately tries to tell you what g0d thinks!
Even granting that a g0d exists there is still NO proof that any holey book is g0d’s word.

#2 Michael De Dora on Friday March 25, 2011 at 11:21am

To be sure, ignorance also remains a stumbling block:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-adam-jacobs/atheisms-odd-relationship_b_839352.html

#3 Daniel Mann (Guest) on Sunday March 27, 2011 at 1:43pm

If think that you still have to prove that naturalism is more rational than supernaturalism (theism).

#4 Michael De Dora on Sunday March 27, 2011 at 2:37pm

@Daniel, that’s just not something we will likely ever agree about, so I’m not sure it’s worth spending time discussing it.

#5 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Sunday March 27, 2011 at 4:05pm

@Daniel:

Rational: belief in something with evidence.

Irrational: belief in something with no evidence.

Faith:  belief without evidence.

So, Daniel, using standard definitions, it is clear that supernaturalism (superstition in every day language) is not rational.

Very clear.

#6 Daniel Mann (Guest) on Sunday March 27, 2011 at 5:07pm

Jim,

You define “rational” as something having evidence. This is just my point. What evidence is there for naturalism—that things happens naturally. What evidence do you have that the laws of physics are natural? While we both agree that they work predictably and in a way amenable to investigation, it seems that there is more reason to believe that these harmonious, omnipresent, elegant and immutable laws emanate from design and intelligence rather than being self-created and self-sustained.

#7 Michael De Dora on Sunday March 27, 2011 at 8:22pm

There is no scientific evidence for naturalism. It is a philosophical position.

#8 Daniel Mann (Guest) on Monday March 28, 2011 at 4:11am

Thanks Michael,

I’ve always appreciated your fair-mindedness!

#9 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Monday March 28, 2011 at 1:55pm

@Daniel:

You’re again being dishonest.

The scientific method allows for falsifiable ideas to be scrutinized by testing and re-testing.  That is a rational approach to understanding something.

How is it rational to ascribe an idea or observation to a supernatural (superstitious) force?  How does ascribing a supernatural force to matter allow prediction?

#10 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Monday March 28, 2011 at 2:08pm

@Micheal:

1. Are you suggesting that naturalism is as rational as superstition?

2. Are you suggesting that arguments based on logically unverifiable ideas are as sound as arguments that are falsifiable?

3.  When you state that naturalism is a philosophical position, are you suggesting that supernaturalism is merely arbitrarily dismissed?

My understanding of scientific investigation is that an inquiry starts with a question.  One then proposes an idea to answer the question.  If the idea cannot be falsified, another idea is proposed. 

The only philosophical assumption that is made in this is that the world exists somewhat how we perceive it.  In other words, matter exists and is understandable relative to how much the human brain can understand something.  The other option is radical skepticism whereby nothing can be known because for all we know our existence is nothing more than a delusion.  If one were to take that position, then superstitious explantations are also dismissed because NOTHING can be known.

#11 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Monday March 28, 2011 at 2:09pm

@Daniel:

You wrote:

“it seems that there is more reason to believe that these harmonious, omnipresent, elegant and immutable laws emanate from design and intelligence rather than being self-created and self-sustained.”

Why?

#12 Michael De Dora on Monday March 28, 2011 at 2:19pm

Jim,

No, I am not suggesting that naturalism is as rational as supernaturalism. I am a naturalist, and see no reason to suppose supernaturalism, and plenty of reason to assume naturalism.

However, I am saying that it is pointless to ask for scientific evidence that suggests naturalism is the more reasonable choice. Naturalism is a philosophical position held due to logic and reason, not scientific evidence.

#13 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Monday March 28, 2011 at 2:52pm

@Michael:

The scientific method requires evidence.  Otherwise, why not use science to test for any number of logically unverifiable ideas. 

It doesn’t seem to me that you’ve thought this through.

#14 Michael De Dora on Monday March 28, 2011 at 2:55pm

Jim,

The scientific method requires evidence for the claims made within the field of science, and rightfully so. But there is no scientific evidence one can use to argue that the scientific method is worth adopting in the first place.

#15 Michael De Dora on Monday March 28, 2011 at 3:00pm

Just to be clear, Jim, I am a naturalist, and I hope you do not construe the above as an argument in favor of supernaturalism. It is not.

#16 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Monday March 28, 2011 at 3:12pm

@M,

I should have been more thorough:

As I wrote earlier, the only philosophical position required of the scientific method is that we assume that what we see isn’t a delusion.  Since I can’t prove that my life isn’t a delusion, I assume that I live in a material world.  If I choose not to assume this, then I assume that nothing whatsoever can be known and any discussion about knowledge then becomes moot.

Since the scientific method assumes a material world, it relies on falsifiable ideas and tests to understand it.  Thus, science applies logic and reason in controlled circumstances to understand matter.  It is rational.  The conclusions require EVIDENCE.  The only philosophical assumption was that we don’t live in a delusion.  Further, the evidence is the proof of “naturalism’s” strength.  I try to avoid the word naturalism because it seems to be easily manipulated.  I think sticking to the scientific method is more precise because it just gives the steps to understanding.

The superstitious model to which Daniel believes assumes a material world with a creator.  In the christian religion on which Daniel’s i.d. is predicated, this creator is immaterial.  This creator cannot be falsified.  Logically unverifiable ideas are inherently irrational: you cannot apply logic or reason to its existence.  Thus, it is irrational.

What Daniel keeps playing with is a permutation on “you can’t disprove the existence of the christian god” whereby he states you can’t disprove that some superstitious power isn’t the ultimate cause of everything.  And he is right: no logically unverifiable idea can be disproved, that is why it is dismissed.  That is also why it is irrational: you cannot test a logically unverifiable idea’s existence.  To believe in something that cannot be tested, that cannot be examined in any manner whatsoever, is irrational.

#17 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Monday March 28, 2011 at 3:27pm

@M,

you wrote,

“But there is no scientific evidence one can use to argue that the scientific method is worth adopting in the first place.”

This is only true if one is a radical skeptic who believes that nothing can be known.  If one assumes a material world, then the overwhelming knowledge from science makes a good case for adopting it.  E.g., antibiotics make a good argument for adopting the scientific method; of course, if one assumes nothing can be known and that life is one giant, unknowable delusion, then NOTHING will be convincing about science.

I wrote so lengthy a response because your first statement seemed to endorse Daniel’s position: that there is no evidence to adopt the scientific method over i.d.  At that, I take umbrage. 

If we are merely arguing over whether the world is knowable or not, then I think we both agree that science requires the assumption that our lives are not one giant, unknowable delusion.  If you’re taking the position that evidence does not justify the scientific method, then I disagree.  Once the assumption is made that the world is knowable, then naturalism is based on evidence.  In fact, try to publish any scientific argument in a peer reviewed periodical without evidence.  I doubt you’ll have much success. 

Evidence is part and parcel with naturalism.  That is what makes it rational.  One may disagree that the world is knowable at all, but that has nothing to do with the rationality of science and the irrationality of superstition.

#18 Matthew Saunders (Guest) on Monday March 28, 2011 at 6:11pm

Good article, Michael De Dora.

You wrote “How can atheists overcome this problem?”

It requires lots of work on everyone’s part.

We believe in things for *emotional* reasons—even when I hear someone going on about how they are rational, I think they act in the world and believe what they believe for emotional reasons—we aren’t Spock-like computers.  So, any discussion with ‘believers’ has to take this into account.

Also, I think it is more fair to say that we are all believers, in the sense that we all believe in things.

Part of any talk with religious people needs to take into account how communication works, in that the channels of communcation need to be kept open and if offense, real or not, happens, then the barriers come down and no further communication can happen.  That is one of the reasons why I think the ‘ridicule’ approach doesn’t work and isn’t rational.

So, what we have, essentially, is tribalism.  People of similar beliefs consider themselves to belong to the same tribe and anyone outside of that tribe is treated differently, even more unfairly (ever notice political debates, where the people that support one candidate will use apply different ‘right/wrong’ metrics to the opposition?).

One thing that I have been doing is trying to show people the role they have in the creation and maintenance of their own beliefs—that even if it is G_d that tells them what to do, it is they who do the acting and the believing.  This goes for everyone, whether they are ultra skeptics or ultra religious believers.

Another thing I have learned is to go into a conversation without the goal of trying to teach or change someone’s mind—people can tell when that is happening.

I seriously think that one of the best things for a more rational and working-together world is for everyone to learn some form of meditation, yoga, way of self-knowing, Buddhism….that will go a long way to all of us getting along together better (and not by forcing others to live each other’s lifestyle or believe in them, but being able to treat everyone as part of one’s tribe).

Good food for thought.

#19 Michael De Dora on Monday March 28, 2011 at 7:50pm

Jim, let me go back to the beginning. I was only answering Daniel’s question, “what scientific evidence is there that naturalism is the correct position?” The answer, in my opinion, is none. My point was that naturalism is a philosophical position that does not require scientific evidence. I still think all of the following:

- naturalism is reasonable.
- supernaturalism is unreasonable and unproductive.
- the scientific method requires evidence.
- the success of the scientific method supports its continued use as a tool to discover knowledge about the world.

Are we really that far off? Or need I grant you that the success of the scientific method might support its philosophical underpinnings?

#20 Michael De Dora on Monday March 28, 2011 at 7:58pm

Jim, maybe thinking of it this way will help:

Imagine, in our modern world, that science did not exist. For whatever reason, there is absolutely zero scientific knowledge available. Wouldn’t you still think naturalism, and thus atheism, the most reasonable position? Why would that be?

#21 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Tuesday March 29, 2011 at 2:53pm

@Michael:

Humans lived in a world where science didn’t exist.  Because some people have a natural rational disposition, a scientific method evolved.  Further, if there were no scientific method there would not be naturalism as we know it.  It is a ridiculous point if ever I read one.

Further, you’re avoiding the point: the only philosophical assumption that need be applied for the scientific method is that we live in a material world.

Once that assumption is made then you may apply the scientific method. 

Not only can you make a rational case for accepting a material world, once made, it is the evidence that accrues from the scientific method that justifies it. 

It is the rational results from science—antibiotics, computers, space travel—that justify the scientific method.  Using science, aerospace engineers were able to predict the amount of force necessary to lift a rocket off our planet and into space.  It is the fact that the predictions match the result that makes science rational.  The scientific method is inherently rational. 

I can’t believe I’m having freshman level discussion about the nature of science with someone who writes for CFI.  It is extremely disappointing. 

No need to reply unless you have a compelling reason too.  If you’re an example of the minds at CFI, then I’ll take my contributions elsewhere.

#22 Daniel Mann (Guest) on Tuesday March 29, 2011 at 5:16pm

Jim,

I think that what you fail to see is that the successes of science do not argue any more for naturalism than they do for ID. In fact, scientists of all kinds embrace the same scientific methods and the same findings. Where they differ is in their understanding of the findings—whether the underlying causes are natural or ID.

This controversy can’t be decided by any further testing. Whatever the findings, the question remains, “What are the root causes of these governing laws?” You can’t see or measure whether or not the cause or law is natural or designed. Therefore, the question must be decided on the philosophical level.

As a Christian, however, I think that there are compelling reasons to regard the laws as a reflection of design. Unlike what we find in the universe, the laws are immutable, omnipresent, elegant, harmonious, and omnipotent—the laws affect the universe but remain unaffected by it.

#23 Michael De Dora on Tuesday March 29, 2011 at 8:45pm

Jim,

I think we disagree less than this blog exchange lets on. Sometimes it is frustrating trying to communicate in this medium. I much prefer in-person discussion.

Michael.

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