Wednesday, June 08, 2011
can there be good without God? here’s what I said
On Tuesday I was part of a team of 3, debating a team of 3 atheists, at Flinders University, between 3 -5 pm. According to one promotional flyer, “Come and watch a fantastic exchange on one of the most important questions ..The Atheist Foundation of Australia will be debating some of the State’s finest Christian thinkers.” (Finest! LOL)
Updated: entire debate, including all questions, is online here.
Each side had 10 minutes per speaker. Each side was then invited to ask one question per speaker. General questions were then invited for 45 minutes, followed by closing arguments of 10 minutes maximum. Here’s what I said in my 10 minutes. Tomorrow I’ll post a few post-debate reflections.
Can there be good without God? My interest is ethical. How should we live if God is good; How would we live if good and God are separated?
It’s been said – by Churchill, Dostoyevsky, Ghandi, – that we judge a society by how it treats it’s weakest.
So if good and God are separated, how do we treat the vulnerable? I’d hope to hear a response to that from our interstate guests this afternoon.
Let me start by saying that I’m choosing to define God as Christian. This is not because I desire to privilege Christianity. It’s simply because the creation of a category called “theism” sounds great in theory but it doesn’t work in reality.
It’s like baby food. Take a bit of carrot and pea and potato – a bit of Christianity or Islam or Hinduism. Mash them all together. Offer them as theism. Which simply destroys the particularity of each religion.
So, can there be good without the Christian God?
The Christian God has a script. God is good. That a good God creates an earth, and that in this earth all of creation, including all humans are made in the image of a good God.
That this goodness is most clearly seen in Jesus. Thus goodness is not a theistic abstraction. Rather it’s defined by do unto others, better to give than to receive; whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me, by Love your enemies. Nonviolence is the Jesus trademark.
Which is interesting to then place alongside some atheist attempts at goodness. “Do unto others alongside the “Darwinian” survival of the fittest of a Daniel Dennett. “Love your enemies” alongside Fran De Waal’s animal “empathy”. ”Greater love has no-one” alongside Sam Harris objective moral “wellbeing.”
This Christian script has had an enormous impact on how then should we live, on making this world a more humane and charitable place.
It’s easy to take this for granted. To forget that when Christianity emerged, critics were astonished by it’s goodness. To quote “[O]ne finds nothing in [Roman] society remotely comparable in magnitude to the Christian willingness to provide continuously for persons in need, male and female, young and old.” (Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 163)
This was not pie in the sky when you die. This was steak on the plate while you wait!
That Christians created “a miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services” (Johnson, History of Christianity, 75)
That when plagues struck Roman empire in 251 AD most fled. Even the doctors. In contrast, Christians stayed to nurse the dying. To quote from Emperor Julian, “[Christians] support not only their poor, but ours as well.”
Goodness needs the Christian God.
Consider a world without the music of Bach or Michelangelo’s Pieta, Mother Teresa, or the Truth and Reconcilation Commission in South Africa, all inspired by the Christian script of goodness.
The word script is important. A script expects a performance. That we don’t simply debate, but that our ideas becomes embodied action. It allows me to make three caveats.
First, I’m not arguing that all Christians performances are good. Quite the opposite – there are forms of Christian belief and practice which I consider to be good-less.
Hence script and performance – with the logic that a bad performance doesn’t automatically mean a bad script. My local theatre group might maul Shakespeare, but that doesn’t invalidate his significance in Western culture.
Having made this first caveat, let me plead for truthfulness, for “factually reliable evidence” when we talk about history.
To the Myth: religion is violent – Let me reply that if you’re a Christian and you support violence, you need to find a new name for yourself. And ask what evidence is there that secular, atheistic society is any less violent than religious societies, especially given the track record of something like the 20th century eugenics movement?
To the myth of religious intolerance (Crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts) – Let me reply that in the history of witch hunts, it was the church that introduced courts to channel mob hysteria.
that the Spanish Inquisition was an office of the state, not the church. That the Crusades are, to quote Bentley Hart “more truly the last gaudy flourish of Western barbarian culture.” (Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 89)
My first caveat. Not all Christian performances are good.
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.
My third caveat, that in order to perform a script, we must read it in context. This is important when we read Old Testament texts. Does the “good” Christian God, legitimate the slaughter of innocent Canaanites?
Such Bible passage have always disturbed Christians. In 140 AD a person named Marcion decided that the good teachings of Jesus were at odds with the God of the OT and he simply cut the Bible in two.
More recently, more constructively, an Australian scholar, Mark Brett, has looked at archaeology and when Deuteronomy was written and how it sits alongside other Ancient Near Eastern literature. To quote “There is actually no evidence [of] … mass killings … What appears… as … genocide is actually part of an internal social and religious reform.” (Decolonizing God: The Bible in the Tides of Empire, 90)
In sum, my interest has been ethical. How might we live when God is good; How would we live if goodness and God are separated? I’ve looked for answers, on behalf of society’s weakest. I’ve used the notion of script and performance to argue that goodness needs the Christian God.