The Right Opinion

Created by God to Be Good

By Jeff Jacoby · Nov. 15, 2010

It has become an annual tradition: The days grow shorter, the holidays approach, and the American Humanist Association rolls out an ad campaign promoting atheism and disparaging religion.

Last year, the organization placed ads reading “No god? No problem!” on billboards and buses in more than a dozen cities. Its theme in 2008 was: “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake.”

This year, the association is taking a more combative tone. It is spending $200,000 to “directly challenge biblical morality” in advertisements appearing on network and cable TV, as well as in newspapers, magazines, and on public transit. The ads juxtapose violent or otherwise unpleasant passages from the Bible (or the Koran) with “humanist” quotations from prominent atheists. For example, a dreadful prophecy from the Hebrew prophet Hosea – “The people of Samaria … have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open” – is contrasted with Albert Einstein’s comment that he “cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation.”

Of course anyone can cherry-pick quotes to make a point. And of course it is true, as the humanist group’s executive director Roy Speckhardt maintains, that there are “religious texts” that “advocate fear, intolerance, hate, and ignorance.” Religion has often been put to evil purposes or invoked to justify shocking cruelty. Then again, the same is true of every area of human endeavor, from medicine to journalism to philosophy to the law.

But it will take more than a few grim verses plucked out of context to substantiate the core message of the American Humanist Association’s ad campaign: that God and the Judeo-Christian tradition are not necessary for the preservation of moral values and that human reason is a better guide to goodness than Bible-based religion.

Can people be decent and moral without believing in a God who commands us to be good? Sure. There have always been kind and ethical nonbelievers. But how many of them reason their way to kindness and ethics, and how many simply reflect the moral expectations of the society in which they were raised?

In our culture, even the most passionate atheist cannot help having been influenced by the Judeo-Christian worldview that shaped Western civilization. “We know that you can be good without God,” Speckhardt tells CNN.

He can be confident of that only because he lives in a society so steeped in Judeo-Christian values that he takes those values for granted. But a society bereft of that religious heritage is one not even Speckhardt would want to live in.

For in a world without God, there is no obvious difference between good and evil. There is no way to prove that murder is wrong if there is no Creator who decrees “Thou shalt not murder.” It certainly cannot be proved wrong by reason alone. One might reason instead – as Lenin and Stalin and Mao reasoned – that there is nothing wrong with murdering human beings by the millions if doing so advances the Marxist cause. Or one might reason from observing nature that the way of the world is for the strong to devour the weak – or that natural selection favors the survival of the fittest by any means necessary, including the killing of the less fit.

It may seem obvious to us today that human life is precious and that the weakest among us deserve special protection. Would we think so absent a moral tradition stretching back to Sinai? It seemed obvious in classical antiquity that sickly babies should be killed. “We drown even children who at birth are weakly and abnormal,” wrote the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger 2,000 years ago, stressing that “it is not anger but reason” that justifies the murder of handicapped children.

Reason is not enough. Only if there is a God who forbids murder is murder definitively evil. Otherwise its wrongfulness is a matter of opinion. Mao and Seneca approved of murder; we disapprove. What makes us think we’re right?

The God who created us created us to be good. Atheists may believe – and spend a small fortune advertising – that we can all be “good without God.” History tells a very different story.

© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.

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Norge said:

The atheistic left and the AHA have always held that reason and faith in God are somehow mutually exclusive. They point to the fact that the existence of God cannot be proven by science or reason. "Why all the mystery?", they say. After all, an omnipotent God could simply come crashing through the clouds and announce his existence, removing all doubt.But God values our faith. And if He were to do this, what would that faith then be worth? It is through faith that God reveals himself to us, and I don't know anyone who has felt the presence of God in their life that doubts His existence. The AHA, in their denial, views faith in God on the same level as belief in Santa Claus, but those who have been touched by His hand know the difference.So let them buy their commercials and billboards.He will reveal Himself soon enough...

Monday, November 15, 2010 at 12:41 PM

Jimmy D said:

My Mother, now 88, remains a communist.She remembers that her father, a Quaker who walked with great difficulty, due to an old farm injury, climbed the stairs nonetheless, to pray with her sisters and her before bed every night. She has always acted in immitation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. She is in all appearances a kindly soul. Still she denies herself belief in the existence of God. She attributes much of her belief system to the strong impression made on her by a teacher at Georgetown, a Quaker Prep School in eastern PA.We have been losing the battle of protecting our children for more than Century.Most of my family is like that...Behavior echoing Christian norms, but the essence and source denied vehemently. Humanism, even wearing the best of Smiley Faces degenerates in short order to something hideous."Eat of the fruit that you might be as gods..."The goodness of our nation owes it's debt to Christ alone.

Monday, November 15, 2010 at 2:05 PM

Libertarian atheist said:

This is utter nonsense. It is perfectly possible to prove that murder, theft, rape, etc, are wrong through reason. No divine revelation necessary.An expectation of non-aggression is necessary for society to exist at all. To put that in layperson-friendly language, this means that people will not voluntarily interact and cooperate with others unless they feel reasonably confident that those others will not murder, rob, or otherwise initiate force against them. The prohibition on the initiation of violence is a necessary condition for society to exist at all. Without that, homo sapiens would be nothing more than a primitive race of solitary brutes. The "commandment" against murder came first, and the mystical-religious rationale was built around it post-hoc. To suppose that morality was revealed through religion is to put the cart before the horse. To suggest that the fact that morality exists is proof of a supreme lawgiver is to engage in shameless question-begging.

Monday, November 15, 2010 at 4:40 PM

Doktor Riktor Von Zhades said:

"For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts."Isaiah 55:9As far as the goot Doktor is concerned that settles it.

Monday, November 15, 2010 at 7:55 PM

sunforester said:

I love America. Although our media prefer otherwise, we are the most diverse home to religions anywhere in the world, ranging from zero to the most orthodox.Displaying ideas of faith (or lack thereof) in rented public spaces as a means of advertising is fair, although banning religious symbols from unrentable public space is iffy, in my book. Maybe what non-atheists should consider in competing with atheists for equal time is to put all those Nativity scenes on billboards or in cable TV ads as well.Such ads won't be as fetching or personal as a three-dimensional manger in the town square, but at least you won't have the risk of running afoul of a politically correct judge. Yes, the cost is atrocious, but think of the expanded venue for the message - all religions in our great country have the ability to enjoy the same free expression as the atheists are willing to pay for. Looking forward to a very ecumenical holiday season on TV and while running around town. Don't forget that your God (or not) may be very different than someone else's, and no faith or religion ever has a monopoly on goodness.

Monday, November 15, 2010 at 8:23 PM

Jim said:

Libertarian atheist, from your perspective how does reason prove which morality is right when moralities conflict? In your defense of your morality you base it on a value of the necessity of the existence of society. How does reason tell you that this is something to be valued? What if reason leads another society to value being a race of solitary brutes? How do you decide according to the pure reason that you seem to be advocating here? I look forward to your response.

Monday, November 15, 2010 at 9:01 PM

Libertarian atheist said:

Reason cannot lead human beings to an existence as solitary brutes. Reason leads man to recognize the economic law of comparative advantage in obtaining the material values that maintain and enhance his life. The laws of human morality derive logically from man's very nature as a being capable of rational thought.

Monday, November 15, 2010 at 9:42 PM

Army Officer said:

Jim,You'll be waiting forever for an answer that is not circular or otherwise logically invalid. Libertarian Atheist wrote, "It is perfectly possible to prove that murder, theft, rape, etc, are wrong through reason." It would have been slightly more accurate for him to write "It is perfectly possible to SUGGEST that murder, theft, rape, etc, are DELETERIOUS TO SOCIETY through reason," but that leaves him with explaining why societies that outlaw such things are more "right" than societies that do not. "Right" and "wrong" are moral concepts. The best you're going to get is that an atheistic citizenry can set norms based on what they judge to be most convenient for themselves and enact laws accordingly to punish those who act according to their own moral code (by, for example, murdering, raping, and theft), but that's just a roundabout way of saying that "might makes right." It's going to be pretty hard to "prove" that. Don't hold your breath.

Monday, November 15, 2010 at 10:05 PM

Cowboy in San Antonio said:

Libertarian atheist-- who, in your ideal world, decides what is right and what is wrong? I think we are all interested in your answer to that question.

Monday, November 15, 2010 at 11:46 PM

Libertarian atheist said:

Army Officer, you completely misrepresent the argument for non-theistic morality. I do not suggest merely that murder, rape, and robbery are deleterious to society. I am asserting that society literally cannot exist unless individuals refrain from those things. A "society" in which those acts are considered acceptable is no society at all, but merely a population of non-cooperating individuals. When there is no assurance of security in life, liberty, and property, there can be no cooperation, no division of labor, and no sharing of knowledge either between individuals or between generations. It is logically and empirically provable that without these forms of cooperation, human life is nasty, brutish, and short relative to what it is where cooperation is possible. It is logically and empirically provable that cooperation is possible only when aggressive violence is eschewed. If the purpose of morality is to promote human life and prosperity, then it is objectively and irrefutably true that murder, rape, and robbery are morally wrong, whether or not a creator deity exists. I myself prefer to apply Occam's razor to the equation, and eliminate the superfluous supernatural entity.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 12:41 AM

Bruce R Pierce said:

To: Libertarian atheist, If it were not for Societies that have already been established that have condoned evil and repressive things you might have a point. Let us hear your reasoning that proves Murder, Rape and Theft are wrong.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 8:08 AM

bob apjok said:

unfortunately, libertarian atheist is using God and the Bible to make his arguments. Without God, one cannot rely on logic in the first place. In a world of no designer or creator, there is no basis for logic, or morality. The world only works because there is one who sets the rules. Without God, there can be no law of logic as man and the world would be just a random rearragement of pond scum. It's like using air to argue that air doesnt exist. you cant see it, but you have to use it to make the argument that it doest exist. If there is no God then, as the author suggested, a group or society could easily argue that it is to the benefit of society to kill certain groups of people. It can only be wrong if there is power higher than man who makes the law.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 8:15 AM

Army Officer said:

Libertarian Atheist,I have to once again respectfully disagree. What you wrote was, "It is perfectly possible to prove that murder, theft, rape, etc, are wrong through reason."Prove is a very strong word. Something that is not directly observable can only be proven through deductive reasoning, and you did not even attempt to advance a deductive argument. You merely made the assertion that murder, theft, and rape were wrong because you personally prefer to live in societies that punish those who commit such acts rather than societies that do not. I agree with you in the sense that I prefer the former societies as well, but your or my preferences do not make them morally superior unless there is a moral code superior to the consensus of the individuals in a society. (Especially since some societies enforce such acts as a matter of law, i.e., Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.)If you wish to withdraw your original statement I understand, but if you're going to claim that atheistic morality is provable by reason, please advance a line of deductive reasoning to support that. If your position is as provable as you claim I'll enthusiastically concede your point, but I hope you'll withdraw it with equal enthusiasm if you cannot present a valid line of deductive reasoning.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 8:48 AM

Mariano said:

Great article.Indeed, when Richard Dawkins considered “If somebody used my views to justify a completely self - centred lifestyle, which involved trampling all over other people” he concludes:“I think I would be fairly hard put to it to argue on purely intellectual grounds. I think it would be more:‘This is not a society in which I wish to live. Without having a rational reason for it necessarily, I'm going to do whatever I can to stop you doing this.’I couldn't, ultimately, argue intellectually against somebody who did something I found obnoxious.I think I could finally only say, ‘Well, in this society you can't get away with it’ and call the police.”Note that he presupposes that the society/government/police would agree with him. Let him call the Gestapo in order to complain about Nazi mistreatment of Jews…he would be their next target.At least, he states, “I realise this is very weak, and I've said I don't feel equipped to produce moral arguments.”There is a debate between a theist and an atheist wherein this issue is discussed:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 9:58 AM

MIResident in Michigan said:

Generally speaking, most religious American's (80% or so) do not try and force upon non-believers their religious views (I am purposely leaving out a small % that would scream at Libertarian Atheist that they are going to hell).Yet the Atheist is intent of shoving it in our face. And yet, they don't see the hypocrisy.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 10:35 AM