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 Originally made famous by C.S. Lewis, it posits that atheists are only able to lead good lives because God implanted within them such a capacity.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