I should preface this, I suppose, by preempting objections that I am about to raise a straw man. To those who would not themselves raise this argument, I appreciate your sobriety. Please understand however that not everyone shares this admirable trait. I am compelled to write this because this argument is real and there really are people out there who think this way, at least for a few hours at a time. I am compelled to write because violence is real and because hatred is real. And I am compelled to write because, irrespective of what religion is or is supposed to be, the belief that religion prevents these things is a lie. And lastly I am compelled to write because when atheists run ad campaigns which respond to this argument (that ethical behavior rests on a god), they have been reflexively regarded as overly aggressive or provocative (to the point of ad agencies demanding more money from atheists than from other customers as ‘insurance‘). This is not about atheism or religion at large. Rather, this about one specific argument.
‘Without God’, it begins, ‘there can be no right or wrong. There can be no good or evil.’ If the advocate is feeling particularly poetical, they might throw in something about murder being morally equivalent to rescuing babies from a house fire. ‘It is God’s will alone which defines morality- what he likes is moral, what he dislikes is not. We must therefore have God if we are to maintain a moral or even just a stable society.’
When I was a Catholic, I found this argument deeply troubling. To claim certain knowledge of your own moral standing would then imply claiming absolute knowledge of the mind of god, and thereby omniscience. Not only impossible, but blasphemous. Yet clearly no lesser standard is to be safe. You saw what happened to the fig tree. Even assuming that the story is metaphorical (and I pretty much did), the Christian message is that acting according to your nature- even when that nature inherently includes doing service to others (as all agricultural plants do)- is not enough.
Moreover, is god really just playing it all by ear? Is morality nothing but a whim? What if god just doesn’t like me? (An aside, the argument that god’s plan is anything more than god’s personal preference also undercuts the argument that morality flows from god alone. If god’s plan is based on anything more solid, it is in principle derivable without god.) And what about my stake in moral actions? If my moral actions are, by definition, actions designed to please god, and such actions are supposed to be rewarded by god, aren’t they selfish? Isn’t acting exclusively in your own interest supposed to be a sin? In a best-case, this is a narrow line to walk.
Not long before I began my deconversion to atheism, I began to realize that this argument was not merely personally troubling; it was just short of an overt threat. That is, if the person making it really felt that way, what would happen if suddenly they no-longer believed in god. Note that this question is independent of the existence of god. It is not the existence or non-existence of a deity that holds this person’s moral universe together; it is their opinion on the matter.
Supposing that god existed, but this person suddenly thought that god was fictional? Would the person arguing with me be less inclined to murder and more inclined to baby-saving than the day before? Suppose that this person’s opinion of god’s will suddenly changed to be more permissive of violence- would they still show the restraint that faith supposedly brings? They just told me that nobody would.
I am left with a disturbing conclusion. These theists (the particular ones advocating this sort of morality, not theists in the general case) are psychopaths waiting to happen. I have no reason to think that someone who tells me that they would kill, or at least assault me if god wasn’t stopping them is lying. What could possibly be their motivation for doing so?
The first time someone said to me “You’re lucky I’m a Christian.”, I was inclined to believe it. The more I think about it though, the less I feel that way. I’m lucky, perhaps, that he didn’t decide that particular day that he wasn’t going to be Christian anymore. But if he’d decided the same a week earlier, he would probably never have met me; some other poor sap would have been on the receiving end of his actualized violence. And then? I believe humans at large would have stopped him from doing it again. Perhaps even stopped him before his violence even became actualized since, at least in some cases, there are warning signs when develop violent behavior. Be it law enforcement, social shunning or just one of his victims showing some spine, he would be stopped. Because that is what we do.
Humans, by and large, would rather build than destroy. We would rather sow seeds than salt. Humans would rather defend the weak than attack them. We would rather grow in knowledge than wither in ignorance. Humans rather often choose to forgive instead of avenge, but we would rather stand up to a bully than appease a coward. Life and love are worth having without the supernatural. Divine grace does not and can not make one ethical. Millions are good without god. Are you?*