…And His Fate is Still Unlearned…

Thanks to J.P. for this story on an atheistic advertising effort on the New York City Subway system. 

There are a couple of minor details that struck me as I read this article.

First off, the claim of “A million New Yorkers are good without God”.  It’s a fuzzy number.  To be fair, most of our numbers are fuzzy these days.  This one is based on the American Religious Identification Survey, which noted a rise from 8% who marked “no religion” in 1990, to 15% in 2008.  Fifteen percent of 8 million people – the population of New York City – gives you roughly one million, give or take a few hundred thousand. 

I’ll note that this is an example of a logical fallacy – an appeal to majority or an appeal to numbers.  If x number of people think, believe, or do something, then it must either be right or acceptable.  Are you smarter than a million other people combined?  Then maybe you ought to reconsider your position.  This isn’t a valid argument.  It sounds impressive, but it doesn’t in and of itself give any evidence as to why those million people believe the way they do.  It doesn’t advance an argument, it at best shocks the reader with a big number.

The other thing that stuck out for me as interesting was the common argument made by Michael De Dora in this article, when he states that people “don’t need religion to be good people and productive members of society“. 

At the surface level, this is true.  Christians claim that even the ability or inclination to do something good is ultimately a gift from God, however an atheist isn’t likely to recognize the source of this gift, and will instead simply claim that the work or initiative was their own.  Fair enough.  We have a fundamentally different view on the nature of the universe, and at the end of the day, to the objective outside observer, a good work generally doesn’t look any different when done by a Christian or an atheist or a Muslim or a Hindu. 

The deeper question would be how that good work is defined.  Despite an impressive acceleration of reversals on core moral issues in our nation (sexual expression, homosexuality, abortion, etc.), the core moral precepts that undergird our society are courtesy of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  In other words, they have a basis that extends back to the dawn of creation, if you take the Bible seriously.  They aren’t arbitrary.  They aren’t supposed to be open for discussion.  They’re simply how things and people function best.

Now take away that foundation.  How do we decide what is good or what is bad?  How do we determine the meaning of justice, or liberty, or peace, or freedom, or anything else?  How do we determine that anything can be labeled bad or good?  And if everything is up for grabs in terms of being considered good, then who are we to hold anyone else to any sort of moral definition?  How do we berate Iran for hiding a nuclear weapons program if we’ve determined here at home that honesty is optional so long as nobody is getting hurt and no contracts are being broken?  How do we chastise the child sex trade in Thailand and other places around the world, when we’ve essentially unfettered sexual expression here at home from any sort of moral grounding?  How do we say to someone that they can’t marry their cat?  On what basis is good to be determined?  Where do we establish our moral baseline? 

We can’t.  Not that we won’t try, but our hypocrisy will be flagrant. 

Atheists and others tend to take great offense at this line of reasoning, but they don’t have a good defense, either.   What are possible sources of morality?  Traditionally, the three sources are God/divinity, philosophers/wise people, or law/courts.  It’s not hard to see where our morality is being driven from today – and in case you’re wondering, it’s not the first two options.  But there’s a massive difference between the three.  The latter two are simply human decisions.  Wise people – whether unofficially so or sanctioned as such by the State – are limited in their ability to define goodness in any form that offers stability.  Good will naturally change with philosophical or judicial trends.  There will be no point in assuming that past decisions on such matters ought to be binding, because truth and goodness become open to whatever we claim they are  for the time being. 

De Dora sounds convincing.  Atheists act like good people, therefore God must be irrelevant in the equation.  Biblical Christianity teaches that God is essential for the will and ability to do good, and that good is defined by God.  Does belief nullify these assertions?  If an atheist refuses to admit that God didn’t define morality or equip them to carry it out, does that mean that they are truly acting good without God?  Or does the Bible promise us that God will pour certain of His blessings generally – on those who follow Him as well as those who don’t? 

I’m grateful for atheists who act like good neighbors.  I want everyone around me to be a good neighbor, regardless of their religion or lack thereof.  But I also realize that our ability to agree on what constitutes a good neighbor is going to come into conflict eventually if goodness is something that some segment of humanity invents and enforces for the rest of humanity.  Because no matter how well intentioned or nice someone is, they’re still a far cry from the goodness of God. 

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