God as a Moral Signpost
There is an argument that ethical atheists and agnostics
should shut up, not because "there are some things man is not
meant to know", but because God is a convenient deterrent, a sort
of bogeyman preventing crime and immorality.
Though God may effectively have served this purpose in past
centuries (especially in the Middle Ages, when most people
believed in a fierce, interventive personal God), God has faded
too much to be effective in this manner today.
Most of the people I meet who insist that they believe in God
seem to need a benign presence in the background and
never relate any nof the daily conundrums and decisions
of their life to him. This is the God of courtrooms ("In
God we rust", reads the memorable inscription in one New York
City courtroom) and coins, as comforting and meaningless
to us as "E Pluribus Unum."
My evidence is only anecdotal. I don't know any fundamentalists,
Christian or Islamic; millenarians; snake handlers; Branch
Davidians or Seventh Day Adventists. But in general, I think there
are a number of reasons why God is not needed--or effective--
as a moral stopsign in our society.
- People who love God are not the ones we are worried
about. Calm and charity may be conducive to a love of God,
rather than the other way around. Is there a would-be Ted
Bundy out there who would have murdered fifty people by now, but for
the fear of God?
- God has served about as often as a catalyst for immoral acts
as a deterrent to them. During the Middle Ages--the last period
when God may have been at all effective as a moral deterrent--there
was nonetheless immense bloodshed carried out in his name. Today,
numerous factions continue to involve God in their violence (including
American priests calling for the murder of abortion doctors.)
A signpost is only effective when it always faces the same way;
a sign which can swing like a weathervane--now calling for
peace, now for violence--doesn't stand for anything. If we
could all agree on the rules, God might be an effective signpost;
but, if we could all agree on the rules, we might not need God.
- Without God,
all is not permitted. Since the Bible's "render unto Caesar"
and "Do unto others", since the first formulation of "God helps those who
help themselves," we have recognized that God is no substitute for
human compassion and justice. The two systems, God's and man's,
have always coexisted. Since, as the Prisoner's Dilemma proves, the most effective
deterrent is prompt retaliation, more of us refrain from stealing
or killing due to the fear of imprisonment or execution than the fear of
God. If you could pick just one of the two systems to live under,
in the complete absence of the other, you would do well to pick human
justice. It's imperfect but at least it's tangible, and faster
and more apparent than God's justice.
As I address in the final essay, human morality exists,
and exists without God, for other reasons than the fear of
punishment. It is safe to say that ethical atheists and agnostics
do not have a duty to shut up; influencing people away from God
does not need to influence them away from morality.