Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Can there be good without God? an honest atheist response

Last week I was in a team of Christian theists, debating a team of atheists at Flinders University. The question was Can there be good without God? (Here is what I said and here are some reflections on the nature of a debate).

I realised over the weekend that I probably left my conclusion at home.  Here it is, part of an Easter sermon from 2009 – from an article, written for the UK Independent newspaper, by a man called Matthew Parris.  Titled As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.

The article tells the story, of how Matthew grew up in Africa, became a journalist, declared himself an atheist and became a well known gay rights activist.

In 2008, he was invited back to Africa by a charity.  This is what he wrote: 

“travelling in Malawi refreshed …[a]… belief … I’ve been trying to banish all my life …. an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God. Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced …. [that] In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”

Parris goes on to say how he used to accept Christian involvement in Africa only because it was practical.  Shame about the God stuff, the wierd Christian beliefs in things like resurrection.

Because at least Christians were doing something practical and useful. Let them carry on because they care for sick and teach people to read and write.

But, says Parris, he can no longer avoid the facts.  When you travel across Africa, says Parris, you I’m quoting again.

“Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers …  but more open … It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. [Yet t]heir work was … influenced by a conception of man’s place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.

Posted by steve at 08:58 AM


  1. Hello Steve
    Would Africa need god if the big slice and dice of European colonisation had not occurred? We’ll never know. One thing for sure, though, Africa would be a very different place had the marauding hordes not upset the local apple cart in their quest for riches. Christianity might not have caused the greed, but it was used to justify it and if I still had faith, I would want to distance myself from such crimes sufficient to make me rescind christianity, if not actually question my beliefs.
    Ethiopia, the one patch that was only ever garrisoned by Europeans, and even then only briefly, serves as our only possible control site. The nation is rife with Coptic christianity in the north and islam in the Afar and Somaliland. The Falashas of Gonder were largely air lifted to Israel (where they are discriminated against by True Jews (TM)) but small communities still exist and receive regular doses of oppression from the larger, stronger christian communities that surround them. My visit in 2006 was brief (three weeks), but my reading on the area is extensive, and I think I can safely say that religion has hobbled that country. The Coptic priests and monks sponge off the local communities and hold a power which is hard to question because only they can read the holy texts, which are written in Ge-ez and which no-one is allowed to translate into Amharic. My discussions with locals often saw them lament that attempts at reform at any level are largely stymied by religious interference.
    In short, Africa is perfectly capable of inflicting christianity on itself and the results, a series of village based theocracies loosely affiliated by a flag and a national language, largely able to act as they please without government interference, is worse off for the petty hatreds and scope for discrimination religion offers.
    I would ask Matthew Parris to balance his accounting of missionary work against the crimes, many of them ongoing, christianity has inflicted on large swathes of an entire continent and to examine long term trends rather than gloss over the impacts of imposing a mythology by simply counting the smiles he sees.

    PS: I have made a further comment in one of your earlier threads you may have missed.

    Comment by Matthew McArthur — June 15, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

  2. PPS: The title of this thread implies that I am dishonest. Do you think that is the case?

    Comment by Matthew McArthur — June 15, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

  3. Hi Matt,

    Re your PPS – the title of the post was in relation to the content of the post – what I considered the honesty in the paragraph by Matthew Paris “It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God. Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced …. [that] In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.” I’ve only just realised you’re both called Matthew. It was about him, not you 🙂


    Comment by steve — June 15, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

  4. I’ll ask the question another way. Based on our interaction to date, do you think I am honest?

    Comment by Matthew McArthur — June 15, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

  5. Matt,

    Is this a genuine question? I’ve never been asked this before, by a virtual stranger on a public forum and I’m scratching my head …


    Comment by steve — June 15, 2011 @ 9:16 pm

  6. Yes it’s genuine. You’ve met me, broke bread with me, heard me speak. Do you think, based on that interaction, that I am honest, or does my atheism make me, in your opinion, innately dishonest? You did argue against the statement that there can be good without god, so it would be consistent with that position to think I am innately dishonest, but I would want to know how you reconcile that idea with what you know of me.

    Comment by Matt — June 15, 2011 @ 10:44 pm

  7. That’s helpful Matthew. Thanks for clarifying. In terms of the general question – can an atheist be honest – I tried to address that in the debate – in one of my caveats – “My second: I’m not seeking any privilege for the Christian God. Quite the opposite. To quote Bill Maher- Ghandi is so Christian he’s a Hindu. This is the radical nature of the Christian understanding. That a Creator creates all humans, not just Christians, with the potential for goodness. That all people made in God’s image stands against group claiming an exclusive appropriation of God.”

    So yes, you can be honest, as can all people.

    You question was also specific, about how I perceive you, based on my experience of you. So I interpreted you as being honest, very honest, when you declared that you would kill to protect your children. It was a pretty chilling example (IMHO)of an atheist ethic and I thought you were being very honest at that point.

    On the other hand, I think that you took a liberty in the debate question time – each side was asked for a question, and in your engagement with me, you stepped outside that by asking more than one (two and if I recall correctly three). So I would see that as not being honest to the debate process we had agreed to.


    Comment by steve — June 16, 2011 @ 2:41 pm

  8. Hello Steve
    If christianity doesn’t claim to hold patents on morality, what is on offer that can tempt a non-believer to consider investigating the faith?
    I’m glad that you recognise individuals are worth assessing on their individual merits and that an atheist can be a good person, but even in your own writing, you and other christians often assess a person or their actions based on their beliefs, which are seperate to their actions. In the case of the focus of this blog post, you have deemed it necessary to add the word “honest” to the epithet atheist, though (unless there’s something you’ve not yet revealed) you know less of that person than you do of me. Similar assessments of the honesty or otherwise of christians are absent from your other posts, so singling out this one instance of alleged honesty makes an unspoken pejorative on other atheists you mention. There’s no equivalent assessment of christians you mention.
    My question on the night of the debate only makes sense in the context of people for whom personal revelation is a part of faith, so I’ll take the criticism of my overstepping the bounds of the interaction on that one with the caveat that I would have asked a different question had none of you claimed a revelatory insight. The follow up question was, in my eyes, valid, as your answer was unsatisfactory, hence my request for further online debate on the topic in the blog post regarding the debate. If you claim revelation as part of your reasons for belief in god, I don’t think you can justify disregarding further revelations, even if they are distasteful. I am glad to know you would question your mental health if you received apparent instruction to kill me, but the double standard regarding revelations reduces my respect for the one you claim as helping you reach your conclusions about the existence of god.
    You might find my facultative approach to killing chilling, but I am determined that no-one will harm my children if I am in any position to prevent them. I would be horrified to meet a parent whose beliefs would see them sit idle while their children were harmed, but even more chilling are the people to whom I address the question about divine instructions to kill who look me in the eye and answer in the affirmative. At least if I am ever required to try to kill another human, there will be a concrete reason for me doing so. Anyone acting on their perceived divine instructions to kill is risking a type 1 error with catastrophic results for the target of their actions. With so many possible explanations for an apparent voice in the head, one of which you touched on during the debate, any risk of a type 1 error in such circumstances is too high, and I give people who answer my question in the affirmative a wide berth.

    Comment by Matthew McArthur — June 22, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

  9. Hi Matthew,

    some bullet points in response

    1- personally I really like a faith that is open to self-critique from outside itself including “non-believers.” It opens up a subversive space, it suggests potential for evolution and growth in practice and living. It expects cultures to change and insight to come from all sorts of places.

    2 – You say “There’s no equivalent assessment of christians you mention.” – Isn’t that what I did when I said “there are forms of Christian belief and practice which I consider to be good-less.”

    3 – In the debate both my partners made clear that we were not arguing for “divine command.” All theology assumes that divine command revelation needs to be balanced with reason and Bible and culture and tradition. It seems to me logical that God could communicate with a human using their human faculties and that in doing this involves discernment about the origin of this communication is it from God, from too much wine, from human selfinterest. It seems to me healthy to practice a faith that requires good hard thinking about how beliefs land in actions. The “God told me and I believe it and that settles it” works for a few on the fringes, but certainly not the majority of Christians.

    4 – What’s a type 1 error?


    Comment by steve — June 22, 2011 @ 10:26 pm

  10. Hello Steve
    While you claim your faith has more to it than divine revelation, I’ve examined the evidence through apologetics, miracles and the Bible itself and none of it would hold up in a court assessing to “beyond reasonable doubt.” Divine revelation is the only reason for faith that I take seriously because there’s no way I can assess another person’s experience. Without some rigorous mechanism to define which revelations are true evidence of the divine and which are caused by other psychological phenomena, a person ignoring what could be a divine command because it runs counter to their personal ethics loses respect for anything else they might say about their individual relationship with their deity. I worded the question very carefully: (from memory) if you received a message from god, every bit as compelling as the revelation of gods existence, instructing you to kill me, what would you do? If the two messages are equally compelling, how do you know to choose to accept the one and not the other?

    Type 1 error refers to the risk assessment we do, whether we’re aware of it or not, every time we consider hypotheses. For any statement regarding probability, there are four possible outcomes. In the case of the divine command to kill, the four possibilities are true positive (the signal is received and is real, a person is killed) false positive (signal is received but is not real, a person is killed), true negative (no signal received because there is no signal, no-one is killed) and false negative (no signal received despite there being one, no-one is killed). Type 1 error (false positive) would result in someone being killed even though no signal existed.

    The risk of making a type 1 or a type 2 error are inversely proportional. Making sure the risk of a false positive is very low makes the risk of a false negative high and vice versa. As the outcome of a type 2 error is no death, I am pleased that you have set very stringent limits of tolerance for a type 1 error regarding revelatory killing instructions, but the same limit should apply to all possible supernatural signals if you are going to claim ethical consistancy.

    Type 2 error (false negative) in the case of me defending my children cannot be countenanced, as ignoring or missing a threat to their welfare, resulting in that threat being carried out would be catastrophic to their life, and therefore to my life, so any threat made against them has to be taken seriously. This limit of tolerance makes a type 1 error more likely (I defend my children against someone who makes threats against them but doesn’t intend acting on those threats) but the result of a type 1 error in this case is my children are safe, so the decision to set that balance between type 1 and type 2 risks is valid.
    In this case, true positive (threat is valid, children defended) false positive (type 1 error, threat is invalid, children are defended), true negative (no threat, children not defended), false positive (type 2 error, threat is valid, children not defended).
    Have a play mapping out some decisions and their possible outcomes to get a feel for the balance of risk between the error types. It’s pretty straight forward once you know the syntax, and perhaps will help you understand why I have reservations about anyone introducing information only they are privy to (supernaturally derived knowledge) into the decisions they make.

    Comment by Matthew McArthur — June 23, 2011 @ 11:32 am

  11. thanks for the explanation. I must confess to a certain glazing – it reminded me of studying probability at high school, when I got 27% in the final exam!

    i find metaphors easier than bolean (either/or) logic.

    but i will try and have a play 🙂


    Comment by steve — June 23, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

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