How good can we really be without God?
Perhaps the three best known atheists of the past couple of decades are Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens. They've presented powerful arguments against religious belief, and urgent calls for an end to religion in public life.
But among contemporary atheist scholars and activists, the focus has shifted from criticism of religion toward the possibilities of an atheist ethics — goodness without God.
Christian Smith is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, and is the author of Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can't Deliver. In the book, Smith addresses three main claims made by atheists: that science can determine whether God exists; that human beings are not naturally religious; and — the focus of this IDEAS episode —that human beings can be good without God. Not just good as individuals, but capable of a collective morality that can redress inequality and suffering, and lead to the betterment of all humanity.
What is 'Athiest Overreach'?
Smith's goal is not to discredit atheism. His objective is to identify where he feels atheists have overreached in their claims regarding science and morality. And he expresses a visceral sense of why a solid moral standard is so critical to a culture's health.
We need to have good reasons for the kinds of societies we have. We need to be able to explain them to ourselves and to future generations. And if we overreach, I think there is a tendency for there to be backlashes in next generations … already today we see certain kinds of backlashes, against kind humanism, against globalism, against liberal [ideas like] 'let's all take care of each other'. We see rightwing backlashes. We see racism breaking out in the world. We see new forms of nationalism. And so it concerns me that we only claim what we can justify and fight for, and not overreach and then be pushed back on by forces we don't like … and not have a good answer for them.
Is morality 'natural'?
One of the key problems with atheist arguments for universal benevolence, according to Smith, is the contention that we live in a "naturalistic" universe, in a realm that simply came to be, with no creator. So how can naturalistic atheist thinkers claim any rational basis for the high moral standard they're reaching for?
How do you get from a naturalistic universe to the commitment that every human being on earth possesses an innate dignity — no matter how terrible, empirically, of a person they are, by the way — that human beings whom you will never meet, on the other side of the world… should matter to you … and that everyone has human rights to X, Y, and Z that we can spell out. Where does that come from? What is the basis of those moral commitments? They're not easy to make happen. They're not necessarily 'natural' to human beings.
What Kant can't do
Some atheists and humanists do draw on the philosophical tradition to make their arguments for a high moral standard, but here again, Smith has his misgivings. When he examines the popularity of 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant among atheist thinkers, he finds they overlook some key factors.
His ethics were not atheistic at all. He believed that his ethics required the idea of a God as an image of what he called the 'highest good'. And he was also personally steeped in … a certain kind of strongly Christian background, even if he himself was not committed to that. That's the kind of cultural sensibility that he inherited and was trained in and believed in. So you can't simply take Kant, throw it into an atheistic framework and expect it to work.
Kant argued that if we could understand the rationale behind 'the good', our behaviour should naturally follow. For Smith, that's not enough. He says that human beings need a justifying motivation — a solid reason why we should care about doing good.
That's the trick here, because it's possible to explain to people: 'You should care about other people's well-being, because they have feelings, and they're like you,' et cetera et cetera. But very many human beings will say, 'OK, so they have feelings like me...I'm going to take care of mine and they can take care of theirs. So what?
Athiests: Meet Aristotle
Smith argues that the atheist "good without God" arguments could benefit from an Aristotelian ethics. Aristotle contended that human beings have a natural end, a telos, and that a good life depends on moving toward that end and living according to certain virtues. But Aristotle does not 'overreach'. And that lack of overreach, says Christian Smith, may be part of the reason he doesn't appeal to contemporary atheists.
Aristotle's whole thing is to be balanced, to be reasonable, to find the golden mean, in the middle. And if you're an atheist who's out there selling atheism, sort of 'being balanced' is not as appealing as, 'I can give you everything you want and more, without God'. That's a sexier, happier, more upbeat message.
- Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can't Deliver by Christian Smith, published by Oxford University Press, 2019.
- The Sacred Project of American Sociology by Christian Smith, published by Oxford University Press, 2014.
- Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Books examined by Christian Smith in Atheist Overreach:
- Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People do Believe by Greg Epstein, published by HarperCollins, 2010.
- Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism by Philip Kitcher, published by Yale University Press, 2015.
- The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by Sam Harris, published by The Free Press, 2010.
- Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-First Century by Lex Bayer and John Figdor, Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.
**This episode was produced by Sean Foley.