“Without God, What Keeps You From Doing the Bad Stuff?”

Please note that I put the blog title in quotation marks.

The topic is taken from the Facebook page I follow about humanists, atheists, agnostics, and people of all faiths together, having civil conversations. I wanted to address it because a particular meme appeared that phrased the question something like what I have written above.

Many atheists, non-theists, and the non-religious often feel attacked by theists who ask the question, “If you don’t believe in God, what keeps you from murdering, stealing, raping, etc.?”

The retort is naturally a fierce one that “If takes belief in God to keep you from doing the bad things, you’re already a bad person!”

This, my friends, is a classic example of someone framing the question incorrectly. In other words, what the hypothetical theist means to ask and what they’re actually saying are two entirely different things.

A question approximating the meaning our hypothetical theist has is something to the effect of the following:

If you don’t think that Good and Evil have objective realities independent of a conceptual system of convenience for interacting with other humans and the world around us, if you don’t think that they exist as an essence all their own OR are delineated by the existence of Something that is Absolute and is the Source of Goodness Itself, is it really possible to make clear distinctions between what is Good and what is Evil, and where and how do you draw such boundaries?

That’s a mouthful, and it’s by no means a perfect articulation, but it takes us closer to the heart of the conflict that’s going on: the conflict ultimately is related to questions of subjectivity and objectivity and the values we place on each.

Admittedly, there are also presuppositions built into the subjectivity versus objectivity conversation, which is to say that the claim that good and evil are objective realities could be rooted in the idea that we cannot trust our inner whims, impulses, and desires- something that flies in the face of modern presuppositions where we seem to see our inner whims, impulses, and desires as being closer to something real than the things we’re taught by society.

Now, of course, there are thoughtful responses that can be made at this point, even with the more clearly articulated questions, that would be perfectly suitable and make sense. One such response is that when ones acts reasonably and does what one feels is good and sees that it, in practice, causes good, that this is an objective case of what is good, and the same can be said of the bad.

Of course, there are actually two different questions here, the first of which is, “Why should one do good?” and the second, in which the first is heavily rooted and on which it is heavily contingent, is “What defines good?” My blog on Christine Hayes and her interpretation of the Book of Job answers the first question, that one should do good simply for its own sake and not to follow a cosmic order of good and evil, reward and punishment, and so on. I tend to agree on this point.

The second question is more difficult to answer because the definition of good can vary depending on a number of factors, and even if the definition doesn’t vary, the manifestation may well vary.

I enjoy these sorts of questions, but they’re currently  beyond the scope of my blog, so I’ll leave my readers to ponder them for themselves.








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