As atheists know, you can be good without God
One cold Chicago day last February, I watched a Federal Express delivery man carry an armful of boxes to his truck. In the middle of the icy street, he slipped, scattering the boxes and exposing himself to traffic. Without thinking, I ran into the street, stopped cars, hoisted the man up and helped him recover his load. Pondering this afterward, I realized that my tiny act of altruism had been completely instinctive; there was no time for calculation.
Coyne, predictably, starts off with a peon to himself.
We see the instinctive nature of moral acts and judgments in many ways: in the automatic repugnance we feel when someone such as Bernie Madoff bilks the gullible and trusting, in our disapproval of the person who steals food from the office refrigerator, in our admiration for someone who risks his life to save a drowning child. And although some morality comes from reason and persuasion — we must learn, for example, to share our toys — much of it seems intuitive and inborn.Coyne seems to be unaware of the 2000 year-old Christian doctrine that the Moral Law is written in our hearts (Romans 2:14-15), regardless of our faith.
Many Americans, including Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian, see instinctive morality as both a gift from God and strong evidence for His existence.Objective morality must have a source outside of man-- that's what 'objective' means. Subjective morality isn't morality. It's opinion.
Coyne seems to think that the issue is whether morality is instinctual or not. All agree that morality is instinctual. The disagreement is whether it's objective (originated outside of man) or subjective (originated within man).
As a biologist, I see belief in God-given morality as American's [sic] biggest impediment to accepting the fact of evolution.I see reason as Americans' biggest impediment to accepting the fact of evolution.
"Evolution," many argue, "could never have given us feelings of kindness, altruism and morality. For if we were merely evolved beasts, we would act like beasts. Surely our good behavior, and the moral sentiments that promote it, reflect impulses that God instilled in our soul."Americans understand that moral law is objective. It is not mere opinion. It is not subjective. It has an Origin outside of man.
So while morality supposedly comes from God, immorality is laid at the door of Charles Darwin, who has been blamed for everything from Nazism to the shootings in Columbine.Immorality is from man's choice to disobey God. Coyne needs to brush up on Genesis 2.
Darwinism is just another in a long string of man's conceits and mistakes.
Why it couldn't be God
But though both moral and immoral behaviors can be promoted by religions, morality itself — either in individual behavior or social codes — simply cannot come from the will or commands of a God. This has been recognized by philosophers since the time of Plato.
Religious people can appreciate this by considering Plato's question: Do actions become moral simply because they're dictated by God, or are they dictated by God because they are moral?The Euthyphro dilemma. Coyne's error is to assume that there are only two answers to it.
There is a third answer, the Christian answer:
God is Goodness. His acts are Good because that is Who He is. God is not a moral actor, pincered in a dilemma. The Euthyphro dilemma is a category error. God transcends moral action. He is Goodness.
Coyne seems unaware of this ancient Christian resolution of the Euthyphro dilemma.
It doesn't take much thought to see that the right answer is the second one.
The right answer is the third one, Jerry, the one you don't know.
Why? Because if God commanded us to do something obviously immoral, such as kill our children or steal, it wouldn't automatically become OK. Of course, you can argue that God would never sanction something like that because he's a completely moral being, but then you're still using some idea of morality that is independent of God. Either way, it's clear that even for the faithful, God cannot be the source of morality but at best a transmitter of some human-generated morality.Coyne is a better biologist than a theologian. In what sense is God "at best a transmitter of some human-generated morality". Like a call-in radio show?
This isn't just philosophical rumination, because God — at least the God of Christians and Jews — repeatedly sanctioned or ordered immoral acts in the Old Testament. These include slavery (Leviticus 25:44-46), genocide (Deuteronomy 7:1-2; 20:16-18), the slaying of adulterers and homosexuals, and the stoning of non-virgin brides (Leviticus 20:10, 20:13, Deuteronomy 22:20-21).The Israelites were a barbaric people and the Levitical code was God's first step in teaching them His Law. It was a long process. The Prophets pleaded for justice and mercy (why do atheists always quote Leviticus and not Isaiah?).
Finally, God came Himself the set things right.
The mistake atheists make in attributing immorality to God by quoting the historical books of the Pentateuch is that they forget that God created man with free will, and He had to work with very hard hearts and very unruly people.
The Prophets observed that the Israelites were far from God's heart, and that justice and mercy were the core of God's Law. Ultimately, God set it right, Himself.
Was God being moral when, after some children made fun of the prophet Elisha's bald head, he made bears rip 42 of them to pieces (2 Kings 2:23-24)?
The "children" were youths (in Hebrew the same word was used to describe Joseph when he was 28 years old), which in this context means young men, not little kids. There were many of them, a mob, most likely more than just 42. Their mockery of Elisha's baldness is mockery of his status as a prophet (prophets often shaved their head and a shaved head was considered a mark of a prophet). The term "go up" refers to Elijah's (Elisha's teacher) going up to heaven.
This was a gang of young men ganging up on and mocking God's prophet, an old man. The implication was that mob violence against Elisha was in the offing.
Coyne doesn't let Biblical scholarship get in the way of a talking point.
Even in the New Testament, Jesus preaches principles of questionable morality, barring heaven to the wealthy (Matthew 19:24), approving the beating of slaves (Luke 12:47-48), and damning sinners to the torments of hell (Mark 9:47-48). Similar sentiments appear in the Quran.There are straightforward understandings of these parables and teachings that have nothing to do with Coyne's grammar school interpretations.
Now, few of us see genocide or stoning as moral, so Christians and Jews pass over those parts of the Bible with judicious silence.Stoning is often discussed by Christians. John 7:53-8:11 is the text. This beautiful pericope is the paradigm for resistance to violent retribution.
But that's just the point. There is something else — some other source of morality — that supersedes biblical commands. When religious people pick and choose their morality from Scripture, they clearly do so based on extrareligious notions of what's moral.Coyne attacks a caricature. "Religious people" as a rule don't "pick and choose" morality from Scripture. Morality is discerned through conscience, prayer, and thoughtful contemplation of Biblical teaching, in context, including all of the Bible, not just isolated passages out of context.
Ironically, Coyne and other evolutionary biologists protest furiously when people cherry-pick evolutionary writings to make evolution look ridiculous. As a system of thought, both Christianity and Darwinism need to be understood in totality and context.
Further, the idea that morality is divinely inspired doesn't jibe with the fact that religiously based ethics have changed profoundly over time. Slavery was once defended by churches on scriptural grounds; now it's seen as grossly immoral. Mormons barred blacks from the priesthood, also on religious grounds, until church leaders had a convenient "revelation" to the contrary in 1978. Catholics once had a list of books considered immoral to read; they did away with that in 1966. Did these adjustments occur because God changed His mind? No, they came from secular improvements in morality that forced religion to clean up its act.Slavery was never defensible, and anyone that did defend it was wrong. It was the Christian understanding of man-- as a spiritual being created in God's image-- that ended slavery. Abolition movements-- from the Catholic church to William Wilberforce to the antebellum American abolitionist movement-- were deeply Christian movements.
And it's ironic that Coyne attributes moral progress to the rising secular tide that brought us Nazism and Communism.
...So where does morality come from, if not from God? Two places: evolution and secular reasoning.
"Evolution and secular reasoning" are the source of morality". How did I guess?
Despite the notion that beasts behave bestially, scientists studying our primate relatives, such as chimpanzees, see evolutionary rudiments of morality: behaviors that look for all the world like altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing — even notions of fairness. This is exactly what we'd expect if human morality, like many other behaviors, is built partly on the genes of our ancestors.Exactly how is the observation that animals do some kind things (doesn't Coyne have a dog?) inconsistent with Christianity?
And the conditions under which humans evolved are precisely those that would favor the evolution of moral codes: small social groups of big-brained animals. When individuals in a group can get to know, recognize and remember each other, this gives an advantage to genes that make you behave nicely towards others in the group, reward those who cooperate and punish those who cheat. That's how natural selection can build morality.
Natural selection: Struggle for survival. Behave nicely. Survival of the fittest. Reward those who cooperate. Selfish genes. Build morality.
Explains everything. Explains nothing.
Secular reason adds another layer atop these evolved behaviors, helping us extend our moral sentiments far beyond our small group of friends and relatives — even to animals.What does secular reason (is) have to do with morality (ought)?
Should we be afraid that a morality based on our genes and our brains is somehow inferior to one handed down from above? Not at all. In fact, it's far better, because secular morality has a flexibility and responsiveness to social change that no God-given morality could ever have.The 20th century was the century of secular morality in Europe.
World War I. World War II. Nazism. Vichy France. Quisling Norway. Communism. The Holocaust. The Holodomor. The Armenian Genocide. Londonistan. The self-immolation, enfeeblement and decline of European civilization.
Secular morality is what pushes religion to improve its own dogma on issues such as slavery and the treatment of women.
One of the reasons for the rapid spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire was the enormously improved status it gave to women. If you want a good example of secular morality's take on women, think Larry Flint and Marquis deSade.
And abolition of slavery was a Christian movement. Name the atheists who ended slavery.
Secular morality is what prevents ethically irrelevant matters — what we eat, read or wear, when we work, or whom we have sex with — from being grouped with matters of genuine moral concern, like rape and child abuse.This point was made, emphatically, by the Hebrew Prophets 2500 years ago, and was the central point of Christ's ethical teaching.
Secular moralists are finally coming around.
And really, isn't it better to be moral because you've worked out for yourself — in conjunction with your group — the right thing to do, rather than because you want to propitiate a god or avoid punishment in the hereafter?I'm always comforted when I'm dealing with a guy who makes up his own morals. How about you?
Nor should we worry that a society based on secular morality will degenerate into lawlessness.Please ignore the 20th century.
That experiment has already been done — in countries such as Sweden and Denmark that are largely filled with non-believers and atheists.Both nations have 1000-year Christian traditions, and still have Established State Churches.
Notice that Coyne didn't include atheist showcases like North Korea or the Soviet Union as secular morality "experiments".
I can vouch from experience that secular European nations are full of well-behaved and well-meaning citizens, not criminals and sociopaths running amok.
World War I. World War II. Cold War. 20th century secular Europe. Criminals and sociopaths running amok.
Coyne arrived late for his European vacation and missed the bad guys.
In fact, you can make a good case that those countries, with their liberal social views and extensive aid for the sick, old and disadvantaged, are even more moral than America.Socialism = morality. Until you run out of other people's money.
Clearly, you can be good without God.
Jerry Coyne can be good, by his own lights, without God.
Not me. I can't be good even with God. I think Coyne and I understand "good" in different ways. Jesus told a parable about this, about the publican and the sinner (Luke 18:9-14). I'm a sinner to the core, struggling every day. I ask the Lord for His mercy, and for His strength. I accept His sacrifice for me.
I've learned this much: I can't make it on my own. I'm not even close to good. For a Christian, that's where real morality begins.