Saturday, February 9, 2013
Good Without God?
Good Without God: What a Billion Nonrelgious People Do Believe
Greg M. Epstein
239 pp; pb
Is it possible to be an atheist and still be a good person? Greg Epstein certainly thinks so. Mr. Epstein is the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, and his book is an attempt to explain how it is possible for someone to be an atheist and yet uphold human values at the same time. He is intelligent, widely read, and displays, if we may say so, a "pastoral" regard for his fellow human beings. Mr. Epstein himself clearly practices what he preaches.
Mr. Epstein makes it clear at the outset that he is an atheist and accepts evolution as an established fact. He also accepts the logical implication of this: evolution is an unguided process, and therefore "true nobility for us lies in being honest about being able to discern no purpose given to human beings by the Big Bang . . . The only purposes we've ever been able to understand are the purposes we have created and chosen" (p. 9). Moreover there are no objective moral standards: "Our morality is based on human needs and social contracts, and these things are not perfectly, eternally objective" (p. 35). He then follows this train of thought to its logical conclusion: "And if no morality is timeless and eternal, then we will never be able to fool ourselves into thinking that there is one set of easy and obvious answers to questions about euthanasia, abortion, capital punishment, or other such issues." (p. 36).
What Mr. Epstein offers in its stead as an ethical system is a form of Utilitarianism. He does struggle a bit in Chapter 3 trying to define "the good," saying that "happiness" is an inadequate standard. He finally settles on "the dignity of mutual concern and connection" and "self-fulfillment through service to humanity's highest ideals" as "more than enough reason to be good without God" (p. 103).
In a sense what Mr. Epstein has done is to provide a rational justification for the way most people make ethical decisions. They absorb certain values through their culture, largely through their parents and teachers, they live within a given legal system, and they try to earn and maintain the goodwill of their fellows. In short, they try to operate on the basis of enlightened self-interest. They realize that no man is an island, and that no one can achieve happiness as an individual unless he works cooperatively with the broader society.
Mr. Epstein is certainly to be admired for his passionate commitment to human values and ideals. Yet we are afraid that his enterprise is fraught with difficulties. He tells us at one point that Humanists "are committed to treating each other as having inherent worth and dignity" (p. 34 – this is actually a quote from the Humanist Manifesto – III – cf. p. 224). But if we are the products of a blind, purposeless process of evolution, what "inherent worth and dignity" do we possess? Human beings are just one of millions of species that inhabit the planet. Mr. Epstein tries to answer the question, but we think unconvincingly. If our morality is "based on human needs and social contracts," we can assign worth and dignity to other human beings, but they do not possess these qualities inherently. Qualitatively we are not different from dogs or trees. In and of ourselves we are mere accidents of nature.
Moreover, if there is no objective moral code, it is hard to see how there can be "human rights." Mr. Epstein cites Alan Dershowitz in support of the idea that human rights evolve from human experience – that an egregious wrong gives rise to the notion of an opposing right.
But absent an objective moral code there is nothing in the reality of things that says we have a "right" to anything. Either there is a real difference between right and wrong or there is not. And if there is not, why shouldn't a person harm someone else, if he thinks that by so doing he can advance his own self-interest? People lie, cheat and steal all the time. Even "enlightened self-interest" is still self-interest. Doesn't it come down to a shrewd calculation of what we can get away with? And in the struggle for survival doesn't might, in the final analysis, make right? What if Germany had won World War II? What might the moral lesson then have been?
Mr. Epstein cites, as one of his reasons for rejecting the Divine Command Theory of morality, the inability of religious leaders to agree as to what the Deity has commanded. Yet might this not apply with equal force to Humanism? In the last chapter of his book Mr. Epstein describes how difficult it is for Humanists to reach a consensus or even to organize effectively, comparing it to herding cats. He tells us that he and his fellow Humanists "value the messy, painstaking process of bringing a group of individuals to an evolving, overlapping consensus" (p. 222), and assures us that there no "one set of easy and obvious answers" (p. 36). In other words, Humanism has done no better at providing answers than has traditional religion.
We fear, then, that Mr. Epstein has led us into the Great Dismal Swamp of moral confusion. The reader is probably less certain about morality after reading his book than he was before. There is, however, a way out of the swamp. It is the light of God's Word.
Related blog posts:
A Scientific Basis for Morality?
Letter to a Unitarian Minister
The Case for Moral Absolutes