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.

  1. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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.