After watching neuroscientist and atheist Sam Harris square off withÂ Evangelical Christian William Lane Craig over the topic: “Is Good From God?” I couldn’t shake the sense that thisÂ debateÂ came down to one fundamental difference: How each of these men perceives basic human nature.
I take “good” here as both ‘being good’ and ‘doing good.’
The take-home message I got from this debate was (1) Craig believes that doing good, being good is motivated by belief in God and following God’s orders to be good. (2) Harris seems to say that ethical behavior is an aspect of human nature and an evolved culture; people are and can be ethical and good without resorting to a god.
Here Doesn’t Come Santa Â I wonder how old Sam was when he decided to be a good boy on his own because he realized–Santa ain’t watching. And when Sam decided to be a decent person for decency’s sake and not because a mythological Father figure from above ordered him to be compassionate and good in lieu of burning in hell.
I confess to a certain cynicism myself, and Harris has exposed my worst fears. A lifelong nontheist, I have secretly appreciated the religious orders for keeping the feral masses in check. I’m talking about people who don’t respect laws or fear the earthly punishments established in our civic codes of decency. Who might nonetheless ultimately be held in check from mass hooliganism or the simplest murder because they dread having to stand someday before a fearsomeÂ almighty Maker where, there and only there, they understand they finally have to account for their actions. I don’t mean “masses” in a Marxist sense here; just the unknown number of people out there who commit heartless, soulless–shall we say, for Craig’s sake–godless acts. This includes not just the abject murderer taking a life or stealing the smallest slice of a resource for that life, but the heads of certain corporations that gut the earth of her resources and dump its wastes on her soil, air, and water, with only one motivator: endless “growth” and profit. Exploiters and wasters and petty thieves and murderers are all part of the soulless masses, for me.
Duck, It’s a Flying Spaghetti Monster Â I am not talking here about the horrific things people do in the name of religion–that’s a whole ‘nother topic that belongs under FSM.
I’m talking about whether people are innately good or not. Or if people need a God to be good. Would more folks commit crimes if there were no final reckoning? Would fewer do good deeds if they weren’t motivated by pearly gates?
Craig seems to say that human decency and codes of conduct aren’t enough. People need God to be good. He’s the ultimate cynic.
Not One More Goddamn Cigarette or Good Cause Â I have no problem volunteering, giving, donating to things that matter, to causes that make life better and my community and the world a better place. I do these things because I care, not for some sort of afterlife tally. I take food to my elderly neighbor because it makes her smile and feel cared for and that in turn makes me feel good. I volunteered to teach reading to children whose parents weren’t around or had time because these kids enjoy stories and they feel bad about being so far behind. I pick up trash and disgusting cigarette butts from trails knowing that I’m leaving a gift for the next person and the creatures around me, the gift of a clean trail, and that makes me feel better in the abstract. And there are times I don’t feel like giving anything because I am all “giving”ed out and the crush of human and planetary need sometimes overwhelms. I want to scream a giant “Fuck You!” if I see one more goddamn cigarette butt out in nature. And I might plug my ears to yet one more good cause. But I don’t stay down for long. I try to do my part.
Am I an anomaly or simply an atheist who cares? “Atheist” is so loaded and saddled with pejorative connotation that I find I have to retreat to the more neutral “nontheist” apellation before the doors slam closed. I am a nontheist who cares deeply. With a spirit and a soul, just not Â a religious one. In awe of the cosmos and all creation & chemistry, I meditate, I am thankful, I give back.
Just Say No to BulliesÂ My worstÂ fear, whether humans across the board can be decent all on their own, without recourse to a deity, is the main reason I tolerate the bullying, the invasiveness, the pushiness of the religious hegemonies in our culture, in our families, in our communities, and unfortunately in our political discourse. I don’t say: Get out of my face with your bullying mythologies, your assumption that your beliefs trump everything in our culture and that I am not encouraged to speak my truths in equal measure; I am forced to listen to your prayer at Thanksgiving and I can’t say thanks to the numberless, countless creatures who actually did produce and provide this food without being considered disrespectful to the grandparents or a heretic. I stifle my pique when I hear someone say, ‘we are so blessed,’ which to me is the most short-sighted,Â narcissistic, and uncompassionateÂ sentiment on the planet. OK, OK, I’m not being burned at the stake, here, but still. I’m surrounded.
I keep my mouth shut. Why? I’ve given into the fear that religions are doing some valuable work in helping keep the destructive forces of society in check, in providing some sort of structure for those who can’t make the time for their own existentialist crisis.
Harris shares the same fears. But he doesn’t let his fears get in the way of speaking his truth. That religion and God are a human construct. That good doesn’t come from God; it comes from people. That people can be good and decent simply because it’s the right and ethical way to be.
A Little Faith, Anyone?Â Â Harris, atheist friend of humanity (he must be a friend, or why would he trouble?), is asking for the larger measure of faith. If we somehow swept out religion, would these people still be good? Can we possibly believe in our fellow human beings? All those people who watch Fox “news”? All thoseÂ folks who desperately need their nondenominational and denominational churches? Harris is saying that religion is more trouble than it’s worth. Can society do without it? Could I share his faith that we will survive our neighbors if they are not specifically reminded every Sunday morning not to sin and also throw in a few good deeds?
I appreciate Harris showing me the light in his willingness to call a spade a spade. By giving into my own fears that–ooh, what if people aren’t inherently good? (Again, I don’t recall if Harris actually posited this–I’m just running with the ideas.) What if religion is serving some purpose, keeping society in check, giving people purpose–I am complicit in my own religious persecution, so to [not] speak. I thought I was being tolerant, being respectful of difference, respecting people of faith, by mostly I was keeping quiet my fears for humanity.
I’m still thinking about this larger issue of faith: faith in people and their inherent goodness. It’s a tough one. Maybe I should look at it as “the potential for good,” that we all have it, and that’s all we have. If people are good because they believe it comes from God, that’s a good start–it’s potential.
The debate was sponsored by the Notre Dame College of Arts and Letters: The Henkels Lecturer Series, The Center for Philosophy of Religion, and the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts.