Last year I was in a kind of debate with Andrew Copson – Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA). His final line of the evening was a plea for us all to “be good for goodness sakes.”
The line sounds twee but there’s a genuine point that deserves our attention: Goodness for the sake of ‘spiritual reward’ is neither necessary, nor desirable. In fact it’s pretty ugly. If a religious person is motivated towards goodness simply by celestial carrots and sticks (which some are) then you can understand a humanist’s protest. I hear the criticism loud and clear, and I wrote these four posts called “Why be good?” as a response. Only the gospel saves us from immorality and moralism.
But if you’re unaware of the gospel, then your view of religion will probably sound that of like BHA President Jim Al-Khalili:
I have often felt offended by the misguided notion that people require a religious faith to provide their moral compass in order to lead a good life. Reason, decency, tolerance, empathy and hope are human traits that we should aspire to, not because we seek reward of eternal life or because we fear the punishment of a supernatural being, but because they define our humanity.
We might want to be curious about why such traits define our humanity, and who gets to say, and why the ones mentioned by Al-Khalili are so darned anaemic, and why he didn’t also identify deep-seated characteristics like greed, hypocrisy and violence. We might want to point out that Christian faith brings far more to the table than ‘a moral compass’. Actually it’s a vision for the whole terrain and an accounting for why and where we fit into a moral order that is very old and runs very deep.
But we’re not going to mention those things. We’re just going to point out the terrible danger of moralism here.
Suppose that I’m a humanist who has unplugged the celestial CCTV and now I’m free to be good for goodness sakes. What will that look like? Well I’m still going to get outraged by ‘inhuman’ behaviour – good. But now God isn’t the ultimate court of appeal and dispenser of perfect justice. No, the ‘moral-outrage buck’ stops with me. Since God has been deposed, I’m going to have to mount the highest horse.
And, as far as godless high-horseing goes, get a load of this: [Read from the bottom upwards. RD was responding to this]
Dawkins has never let ignorance of a topic prevent him from weighing in with the full weight of his moral indignation. But feel the indignation.
When one tweeter asked him whence his moral compass (given Darwinism and all), he responded:
Darwinism, Mr Allnut, is what we were put into this world to rise above. Oh & do show a little intelligence & refrain from quote-mining this
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) July 13, 2013
Idiot that I am, I’m mining the quote – but I think it unearths a deep problem for those who let go of “God” but want to be “Good.” The problem is not in acting morally- of course not. The problem comes in adjudicating the morals and in acting The Moral One. Wonderfully for the Christian, the Father adjudicates and the Son is the Moral One, but what’s the situation for the humanist?
They are above the non-existent ‘God’, they are above the religious who (they claim) are only good for dubious reasons, and they are above nature (‘red in tooth and claw’) and their own selfish genes. They have risen above everything else in all reality… in order to be good.
How does a humanist not avoid hubris at this point? How do they not avoid moralism?
Dostoyevsky famously said “If there is no God, everything is permissible.” But nihilism isn’t the only danger. Dawkoyevsky’s dilemma is this: “If there is no God, everything is puritanical.”