Good Without God— How?

Recently in the comments of this post, blogger Althusius challenged me to explain my moral foundation. My initial response was to ask him a series of questions, to which he gave fairly typical fundamentalist Christian responses. In this post, I finally answer his question directly.

Althusius,

OK, I’ve heard enough. I’m ready to answer your question: “By what standard can you say that anything you do is good?”

My basis for knowing what is good is often called the Golden Rule. It is also known as the Ethic of Reciprocity. Although it is stated a couple of different ways in the Bible, the Golden Rule far pre-dates Christianity and is stated in many wisdom texts from cultures around the world. It is obviously as ancient as human societies, and probably even pre-dates humanity as we know it. (Since I know you are a Young-Earth Creationist, I don’t expect you to agree that there was a time before humanity as we know it, but that is beside the point, which is that Christianity has nothing original to offer humanity in its re-statement of the Golden Rule.)

Unfortunately, the Judeo-Christian tradition (and many other religions besides) corrupt the Golden Rule by adding layer upon layer of superstition, dogma, sexism, racism, classism, xenophobia, and other forms of bigotry to an otherwise simple and beautiful idea: treat others with the level of respect that you would like to receive.

The wisdom of the Golden Rule only requires a little thought to understand: humans live with other humans in societies. If I do not live by the Golden Rule then the suffering of others increases, and inevitably the increasing suffering of others increases my own suffering. In extreme cases society itself breaks down and suffering increases exponentially. There are no known cases where society broke down or wars were started because people were too respectful of others. So even from a purely selfish position, it pays to treat others well. Acknowledgment of any given deity or its whims is not necessary to come to this essentially game-theoretic conclusion.

Based on your answers to my questions, I judge you, Althusius, to be morally corrupt, i.e., depraved. Here is my analysis:

• Even though you aver that it is currently wrong to stone disrespectful children, you also allow that it was moral behavior at one time. By the Golden Rule, since I would not wish to be the victim of physical violence in return for mere disrespect, it is therefore wrong to inflict physical harm on anyone in return for mere disrespect. This kind of application of principle does not appear and disappear with epochs of deity-inflicted “judicial law,” as you believe— it is simply the right way to treat other humans in all times and places.

• You say the Bible promotes “merciful treatment of [slaves].” You’d like to use the word “servants,” but we are not talking about English butlers here: we are talking about people being sold as property to the highest bidder, with no name, no possessions, and no rights. Ephesus, where Paul addressed his letter, was in Greece, where chattel slavery was commonly practiced. People were also commonly kidnapped, captured, or born into slavery, and it’s quite unlikely Paul was unaware of this. But even well-treated slaves are still slaves, and paid slavery is not at-will employment— it doesn’t even rise to the level of indentured servitude— yet you use the modern euphemism “servanthood” as if you were making chitchat about respectable career options! Weasel words aside, we are talking about people owning people, which Jesus and Paul not only did not “focus” on (as you delicately put it,) but (if we are to judge from the Bible) tolerated with equanimity— and which apparently you would also do. Is there a single scripture in the Holy Bible (your moral foundation) that categorically condemns slavery? There is not, although there are many that regulate it, and generations of Christians have used this fact to condone slavery of both the “nice” variety you seem to approve of as well as the most atrocious. The Golden Rule simplifies things dramatically: as I do not wish to be treated as property, I will not treat others as property nor condone this activity in others.

• Just over half of humanity is female. Half of the bodies. Half of the minds. Half of the energy. Yet, you see this half of humanity as inherently undeserving of the same opportunities in life that you think your deity confers upon the other half— your half. When doling out opportunities you ignore individual aptitudes such as intelligence, curiosity, ambition, knowledge, character, maturity, leadership ability, stamina, and strength; and instead focus on a single trait: gender. You narcissistically see women as extensions of men, subject to the same sort of control a driver has over a car. The only possible way you can go on believing you hold to the Golden Rule, which says to treat (love, respect) others (“your neighbor”) as yourself is to establish a double-standard that doesn’t even let women rise to the standard of other. And the only reason you let yourself get away with such an egregious, dehumanizing moral violation is that you believe the primitive mythological stories in the Bible to be the word of an infallable deity (who is, unsurprisingly, male.)

Althusius, I’m sure you’re a nice guy in person and a productive member of society (and therefore not utterly depraved.) But I’m positive I could continue digging and come up with many other aspects of your morality that are just as questionable, when judged by the standard of the Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule is not inflexible dogma, but neither is it moral relativism. It is an application of our essential ability to “step outside” ourselves and view the world through another’s eyes. The Golden Rule is also perfectly consistent with evolution, because species that collect in societies must practice reciprocity to survive and flourish.

It is by the Golden Rule that I know what is good. And I am, as I said, good without God.

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52 thoughts on “Good Without God— How?

  1. Seems simple and intuitive enough without religion:

    If you want X to do A to you, then do A to X.

    (u:Axu >Aux)

    Applied universally:

    If it’s all right for X to do A, then it would be all right for anyone else to do A in the same situation.

    Ceteris Paribus , regardless of the agents involved, make similar evaluations about similar actions.

  2. Harbinger,

    The Ethic of Reciprocity is actually not as simple as “If you want X to do A to you, then do A to X,” unless you can guarantee that every other factor is equal, which virtually never happens. For instance, my brother loves eggplant, but I hate it. For him to know I dislike eggplant and yet to serve me a meal of eggplant pizza because he’d love someone to do that for him would be applying the Golden Rule, but inappropriately. In general, giving someone a gift that you yourself would like to receive is often a social faux pas for the same reason.

    Applied in a more human way, The Ethic of Reciprocity is about considering the desires, needs, and autonomy of others before acting, just as we wish to have our own desires, needs, and autonomy respected by others.