Goodness with or without God? Epstein’s surrender plan to religious faith.

November 23, 2009

So I’ve been reading this book titled Good without God . Maybe you’ve seen it too.  I was struck by this passage, on the first page:

"the time has come for it [rationalism] to be aggressive, and not only to declare that men can be good without God, but to boldly maintain that no one can be truly good who believes in God." 

Now that’s a bold rationalism: to say to the world, "be even better without God." Many rationalists, freethinkers, and atheist humanists have been proclaiming as much for over a hundred years. This one book, Good without God, from which I quote, was published in 1902. Yes, 1902 — by Robert Chamblet Adams. 

There was a time, not so long ago, when non-religious humanists imagined tearing down the wall of separation between science and faith. That Enlightenment wall assigned to science the discovery of facts and the natural world, and assigned to religion the defense of values and the human spirit. These non-religious humanists saw how religion’s grasp on ethics had grown weak and undeserving, and how viewing humans as natural creatures was a sounder basis for ethical advancement. Naturalistic humanism could explain why us humans have moralities and get into moral difficulties, and how we could improve our ethics using only our own natural cognitive skills. They dreamed of a world in which people would see how a meaningful life didn’t have to depend on a god, and how ethics should not be motivated by faith alone. 

But it is really hard tearing down a big wall. It is far easier to pretend it isn’t there, or to perch up on top so you can shout down on everyone. 

And then I was reading another book, also titled Good without God , that reminded me about that big wall. In this 2009 book, by the Harvard humanist Greg Epstein, I read this passage:

"What is so wrong with the idea of God as a motivation, as the way for us to understand our purpose in life? Well, if it really, truly does motivate you to be good, then nothing. I have no quarrel with you." (p. 65)

How different from the 1902 book of the same name! 

Epstein’s passage can be read in two very different ways. Does Epstein mean that the faithful can be good with God, where "good" means "good according to one’s own religion"? Or does he mean that the faithful can be good with God, where "good" means "good according to the list of Humanist principles" like those mentioned in Epstein’s book? Epstein’s entire book depends on this ambiguity.

Epstein’s brand of ethical humanism tries to unite the faithful and the faithless under an umbrella of vague humanist platitudes. There’s a good reason why these platitudes (keep striving, foster social growth, save the planet, inclusiveness and justice for everyone) are so vague. It’s because there is little agreement among the faithful, and among the faithless too, about priorities and methods. The faithless disagree on everything from abortion to poverty to global warming. The faithful have their denominations, and each denomination sets its own moral priorities somewhat differently, with the additional warning of "and God wants things that way." The faithful already have their God’s Word on ethics — they don’t need humanism. And what with Epstein saying that cold science and the new atheism has no comfort or care to give us, the faithful don’t need science either. The Enlightenment wall stands firm.

Most of the faithful like their faith because God delivers firm moral absolutes — and ethical humanism can’t, or won’t. Maybe ethical humanism is broad and vague enough to include some religious people. So what? Who will join Epstein up on top of the wall? Only those among very liberal denominations already comfortable with religious pluralism, moral vagueness, and ecumenical cooperation. Which is precisely where ethical humanism was three generations ago. The naturalistic humanists were tired of waiting for the faithful to deliver their verdict on whether humanistic ethics was satisfactory enough. The verdict is surely in: the faithful really want to be reassured that their belief in God isn’t dumb or unethical. Countless religious leaders are providing that very reassurance, filling rows of shelves at the bookstores, and it’s working pretty well. None of them need Epstein or ethical humanism, since they remain convinced that they are ethical religious people. And if Epstein is quite comfortable with them all believing that they are ethical religious people, then Epstein isn’t even asking them to be "good according to the list of Humanist principles." Epstein only asks, "Be good" regardless of any faith — humanism’s version of "don’t ask, don’t tell." Religions can easily reabsorb such an ethical humanism.

Ethical humanists want people to become better people, and they do have a few ideas about how to accomplish that worthy aim. If advancing this aim means criticizing people’s faith in God’s Word, then be prepared to criticize their God and their faith in that God. Be prepared to tell them that they should not base their morality on such a God, and that they should look elsewhere for figuring out ethics. Be prepared to tell people that other religions and non-religious philosophies have valuable wisdom about life too. Be prepared to tell people that they should take science and naturalism more seriously. Be prepared to ask them to really think .

But if your humanism depends on not criticizing peoples’ faiths, don’t be surprised when the faithful realize they have nothing to learn from you. The faithful already believe that the world will be saved by God with or without humanism.