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.

Posted by steve at 11:33 AM


  1. Such a good baptist, beginning with ethics 🙂

    Well done – I would be interested in hearing about their response to what you said specifically.

    Comment by Paul — June 8, 2011 @ 11:52 am

  2. LOL. Don’t Baptist start with the Bible, not ethics?

    Their responses in future posts my friend ….


    Comment by steve — June 8, 2011 @ 12:03 pm

  3. pfff, I said baptists not Baptists 😉

    Comment by Paul — June 8, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

  4. Just from a debating point of view Steve, in your opening statement you asked how would we live if God and Good were separated. I can see where you said Good goes with God but not where you said anything about how you would live or be Good if there was not God, which is the other half of the argument. This makes it, in debating terms, just an assumption because you never argued it. Was that up to another speaker or was it a problem in the debate?

    Comment by Vladimir — June 8, 2011 @ 6:42 pm

  5. Hi Vladimir, I was arguing against the topic – Can there be good without God and so was expecting the opposition, a group of atheists, to seek to advance the argument that good and God can be separated.

    Hope that answers the question, do please try again,


    Comment by steve — June 8, 2011 @ 8:31 pm

  6. Hello Steve
    Matt from the atheist team here.
    I think you are making some assumptions that, whebn examined, let down your case. Gibbon states that the Roman Empire(to drastically paraphrase “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”) was destroyed by barbarians from without and christianity within. By converting to christianity, the systems that had made the empire strong (and highly morally dubious, but no more so than many christian theocracies that followed) were removed and the whole thing collapsed like a poorly cooked souffle.
    If Bach didn’t exist, someone else would be our greatest composer. Perhaps Simon Dunghill took over his father’s forge because he lived in Buboe Nowhere and never encountered a musical instrument, robbing the world of someone whose music could have been even more moving. We’ll never know. We have Bach’s music and it is wonderful, but to pretend that it’s something miraculous is begging the question. As I stated last night, if you’re going to count all the good things (and I wouldn’t count Mother Teresa among them) christianity has brought about, please be honest in your accounting and tot up all the bad things too. The world would be far better off without Joseph Kony’s army of murdering rapists, but you don’t hear many christians bringing him up. They play the ‘no true scotsman’ game, pointing to schisms and differences in articles of faith in order to deny their faith has any responsibility for deaths in central Africa stemming from Kony’s mission to ensure the ten commandments are upheld. Fine. If you can distance yourself from them, do so, but don’t become all interfaith inclusive when you seek evidence of merit in your religion.
    I was pleased that the argumentum ad Hitlerum didn’t come up last night, but because I didn’t need to use my atheist despot debunk module in my presentation, I also missed the opportunity to examine Boenhoffer. While he does shine as a diamond of religiously inspired compassion and courage, taking him in isolation is a disingenuous tactic I have encountered on several occasions in several formats. For every Boenhoffer there were many, many more collaborators and silent cowards in the body that was the Catholic Church under the Nazis, and Dietrich Boenhoffer shines all the brighter for being set atop a huge pile of manure. Again, I call on you to be honest in your accounting.

    I’m short on time to respond to anything else in your post, but I would like to follow up my question to you: If you received a message from god, every bit as compelling as the personal revelation that makes you certain he exists, instructing you to kill me, what would you do?

    And the supplementary question stemming from your response: if you would assume the instruction was you hearing voices and in need of mental health help, why isn’t the same reaction pertinent in your initial revelation?

    I’ve come to your space. If you would like to carry this further, please come to mine. I frequent the AFA forum and will happily take this up in the debate area, where we can avoid getting dogpiled by enthusiastic atheists who couldn’t make it along last night.
    Many theists (sorry, but we’re equal opportunity critics and unless you can show your religion has greater credibility than others, I’m happy putting you under a catch all name) who turn up there complain that they have been unfairly treated by moderators, but the mods will kick out anyone who tries to make an unsupported case and many atheists have been given the boot for pushing black salve or buddhist reincarnation, god free or not. It is the only even handed forum I have come across in my internet travels, but I can’t guarantee you would enjoy debating me there where I have time to read up and prepare the wording of my arguments carefully.
    Besides the excellent moderation available in a peanut gallery free debate space, I would like to have our dialogue kept in as permanent a space as possible. I don’t want to impugn you, but blogs I have contributed to in the past have occasionally seen need to excise my contributions or shut up shop altogether. The AFA forum mods only delete posts that pose a safety threat to an individual, and so as long as they have a server, what we write will be on record and available publicly.

    Comment by Matt — June 8, 2011 @ 9:29 pm

  7. Hi Steve
    Thanks for posting your thoughts here – and Matt – thanks for sharing yours too! I’m increasingly interested in Christianity as a ‘how you live’ rather than ‘what you believe’ approach to life. I won a slogan writing competition with the phrase “If I had a rational explanation for everything I’d be an atheist too” – which seemed to annoy both camps equally…

    Comment by Michelle — June 8, 2011 @ 9:40 pm

  8. Thanks Matt. It was nice to meet you on Tuesday and I really enjoyed the debate because it went some way toward constructing a space for potential dialogue.

    Sorry you’ve felt a bit unfairly treated by blogs in the past and so a bit wary. I feel a bit the same, I’ve had some pretty unhelpful dialogue with atheists in the past, so am reluctant to take your offer re AFA forum – seems like me against many.

    I’ve plenty to say in response to your comment, but out of respect for your wish not to continue it here, will refrain from making any further comment.

    Travel well, Steve

    Comment by steve — June 9, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

  9. Steve, so you are saying your question “How would we live if good and God are separated?” was not even rhetorical, only one for the atheists to answer? Would that not mean you conceded that ground, not opposing it?

    Comment by Vladimir — June 9, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

  10. Vlad, I picked up the question – “How would we live if good and God are separated?” – with the paragraph about a 1/3 of the way in …

    “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””


    Comment by steve — June 9, 2011 @ 10:00 pm

  11. Hello Steve
    I suggested the debate facility at the AFA forum because contributions to threads in that space are restricted to two posters and a fixed number of posts and a fixed number of characters per post. It’s modelled on other online debate spaces. You would not be dogpiled by other atheists and the dialogue would not be interrupted by comments from the peanut gallery, as tends to happen in blogspaces and on youtube.
    I think the question I asked you poses a significant dilemma to people who cite personal revelation as contributing to their beliefs and warrants further attention, but my original concerns about taking it further here remain. There are other online debate spaces we could explore, but I would request that any contributions to further dialogue be available for both parties to archive as they see fit.

    Comment by Matt — June 11, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

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