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A Critical Review of Is Goodness without God Good Enough?

Editor’s note:  “Sloan Lee has been one of my [David Baggett] dearest friends since we attended graduate school together at Wayne State in the 90s. He’s as passionate as he’s brilliant when it comes to philosophy and we’re thrilled to welcome him to as a contributor.”

by Robert Sloan Lee

book coverIn 2001 William Lane Craig and the late Paul Kurtz met at Marshall College (in Huntington, West Virginia) to debate the question: Is goodness without God good enough?  Craig argues “no” and Kurtz argues “yes.”  The transcript of that debate serves as a jumping off point for scholars of various persuasions to weigh in on the issues and offer some analysis of the original exchange between Kurtz and Craig.  The outcome is a book edited by Nathan L. King and Robert K. Garcia entitled Is Goodness without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers: Lanham, Maryland, 2008).

While we will not deal with every issue raised in the debate, we will address some of the critical points – and other issues will be explored further when examining the responses to the debate by the other authors.

Chapter One: Paul Kurtz and William Lane Craig, “The Kurtz-Craig Debate”

Opening Statements

kurtzPaul Kurtz interprets the question of the debate as asking: Can someone without belief in God behave morally?  Can they be a moral person?  He mentions a number of historical individuals who rejected belief in the existence of God, but who were nevertheless moral.  Unfortunately, he gets some of his facts wrong.  As it turns out (despite what Kurtz says) Hume, Kant, and Socrates all believe in the existence of God (and Immanuel Kant even makes the supposition that God’s existence is a requirement for the rationality of ethics).  Further, the founders were not all deists as Kurtz suggests (though a few of them were), given that most of them were devout Anglicans.  He says that while a great many non-believers have lived moral lives, we are told by propagandists for religion that atheist and skeptics must be immoral (but he doesn’t say who these propagandists are).  He then turns from a defensive strategy to an offensive strategy by raising a number of questions and objections to the idea that belief in God is needed to be a good person.  He says that people who believe in God disagree as to what things should be considered moral and what things should be considered immoral (e.g., on the issues of divorce, polygamy, contraception, and abortion).  Further, he suggests that basing morality on an unchanging and inflexible religious authority is not well suited for a world that is rapidly changing and creating new moral problems and dilemmas.  He adds that secular humanists are aware of their moral responsibilities and that the best way of solving moral problems is the method of ethical intelligence – and that we should not rely on ancient religious books to help us think about moral issues.  Unfortunately, he neither says anything about this method in the debate (not that one expects a full exposition of the method in a debate format) nor why one cannot learn moral truths from a book just because it happens to be ancient.

craigWilliam Lane Craig begins by agreeing with Kurtz.  He says that those skeptical of God’s existence can (and often are) impressively moral people – but that the question of importance is not whether one has to believe in God’s existence in order to be moral, but whether there is such a thing as goodness without God.  In short, he is saying that non-believers are moral, and that their morality counts as evidence for the existence of God (because there would be no foundation for morality if God did not exist).  More specifically, Craig advances two central claims.  Craig’s first central claim is laid out in the following proposition:

[A] If theism is true, then we have a sound foundation for morality – because:

  1. Theism gives us a basis for objective moral values (because God’s nature, he contends, is the source of objective moral values).
  2. Theism gives us a basis for objective duties (because God’s commands – stemming from God’s nature – constitute our duties).
  3. Theism gives us a basis for moral accountability (because God will ensure that evil is punished and that righteousness is vindicated).

Craig’s second central claim is expressed as follows:

[B] If theism is false, then we do not have a sound foundation for morality – because:

  1. Atheism gives us no reason to think that humans are the basis for objective moral values (because without God, there is nothing special about humans and no reason to think that humans are any more moral than other animals – and what we call “morality” is just a method adapted as a survival strategy and nothing more).
  2. Atheism undercuts the idea that there are objective moral duties (because mere animals attempting to survive have no obligations – and it doesn’t matter what you do for there is no objective right or wrong).
  3. Atheism undermines the notion of moral accountability (because, given the finality of death, harming or helping others will neither be punished nor rewarded).

Kurtz and Craig’s First Rebuttals

Kurtz highlights Craig’s concession of his first point – namely, that skeptics about God’s existence can (and often do) live moral lives.  He adds that such individuals have lives which they take to be personally satisfying and meaningful.  Unfortunately, while all this is correct, it misses Craig’s point – namely, that there are no objective grounds for living a moral life on those terms.  Therefore, while a person may choose to live a moral life, there is no objective obligation to do so.  Further, while a person might find their own life satisfying and meaningful, there is no objective sense in which their life is significant or meaningful.  Kurtz’s argument strikes closer to home when he points out that Craig has not explained how the theist is supposed to choose between the many different religions or between the many different conceptions of God.  Further, even if we determine which God is the right God, we still have the difficulty of trying to determine what that God commands.  The fact that God exists, says Kurtz, doesn’t solve the problem of moral disagreements – even where everyone involved in that moral dispute agrees that God exists.

Kurtz then turns his attention to the claim that God exists.   He claims that the problem of suffering is the “Achilles heel of the classical notion of an omnipotent and beneficent God” and that theism is riddled with “contradictions.”  More formally, Kurtz’s argument can be presented as follows:

  1. If God exists, then there would be no suffering in the world.
  2. There is suffering in the world (for example, the 3000 people that died in the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11).
  3. Therefore, God doesn’t exist. [from 1 and 2]

The problem with Kurtz’s argument against the existence of God here is that he did not keep up with the philosophical progress on this issue – specifically, Alvin Plantinga’s book, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974).  There, Plantinga shows that it is at least possible that God have a good justifying reason for permitting evil to occur.  So, instead of saying that God would permit no suffering in the world, the theist can say that God permits no unjustified suffering in the world.  Given this, the theist does not have any reason to think that premise (1) of Kurtz’s argument is true.  Those who want to know more about advances made on this issue should consult Daniel Howard-Snyder’s anthology, The Evidential Problem of Evil (Indiana University Press, 2008), or the more accessible work of Michael L. Peterson, God and Evil: An Introduction To The Issues (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998).

Kurtz concludes by returning to the theme that humanists have obligations in terms of their relationships to other people and that they can “abhor” inhumanity and refuse to treat others in degrading ways – and that, further, Craig is wrong to say that humans would act like “despots” without the existence of God.  However, this misses Craig’s view completely, because Craig neither said that people would act like despots without God nor did he say that people would treat each other in degrading and inhumane ways if God did not exist.  What Craig said was that we have no objective grounds for choosing to behave morally without God – given that wickedness can go unpunished and that righteousness can go unrewarded (and given that there are no obligations beyond what we arbitrarily choose).  Craig, again, did not say that we would lack “moral sensibilities” without God.  Instead, he holds that those sensibilities would have no objective grounding.

Craig’s rebuttal consists in reiterating just these points – namely, that Kurtz has apparently not given us any objective account of morality or moral obligations on humanism.  So, what we are left with is nihilism (that is, the view that there are no enduring and objective values upon which we can base our lives).  Craig also goes on to point out that they are not debating the existence of God.  So even if Kurtz is right (when he incorrectly suggests that suffering is logically incompatible with the existence of God), that will have no bearing on Craig’s claim that the nonexistence of God entails that there are no grounds for objective obligations.  In short, Craig is arguing that objective morality is simply an illusion (at best), if there is no God (and that this is true whether or not God exists).  Craig says much the same thing concerning the question of how one decides which conception of God is correct – namely, that this is a secondary issue to his central claim (and that one can try to figure out which view of God is correct at some later point).  He concludes that while there may be standards that are relative to human desires, on Kurtz’s view, there are no “unconditional, objective, categorical moral principles or standards…” – and just as evolutionary processes have produced no “guinea pig morality or horse morality,” those processes are incapable of producing an objective morality for humans.

Kurtz and Craig’s Second Rebuttals

In his second rebuttal, Kurtz claims that how we know what is right or wrong is a question that comes before the question of what the objective grounds of morality are.  In short, moral experience must precede moral ontology.  This is an interesting claim, but one would like to see it developed further and its impact on the debate made explicit.  Beyond this, Kurtz simply repeats the questions and claims of his first rebuttal when he asks Craig which version of theism should be endorsed.

Craig responds by saying that the question of which account of God is correct “is not the question of the debate.”  In short, it is off-topic.  He says that he is happy to come back to Marshall College again to face Kurtz in a debate on the existence of God but that this is not the debate they are currently conducting.  Unfortunately, Craig does not respond specifically to the claim that Kurtz makes concerning moral epistemology being prior to moral ontology. (Ed.–Craig could have replied that such epistemic priority does nothing to undermine the ontological primacy of God; this site has explored such issues before in explicating the way the order of being can be different from the order of knowing.)

Kurtz and Craig’s Concluding Statements

The concluding statements add nothing new – with Kurtz saying that many who deny the existence of God live exemplary moral lives, and Craig responding that this is not the point.  Instead, Craig says, atheistic humanism is a “noble lie” that helps those who hold it avoid the nihilism that unavoidably and undesirably follows from that view.

In the following installments, we will examine how various philosophers respond to the claims made by Kurtz and Craig.  Fortunately, both Craig and Kurtz were also provided with the opportunity to reply to these essays at the end of the book.  Joseph Joubert made a telling point: “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it” [Pensées of Joubert, edited by Henry Attwell (London: George Allen, 1896; page 35)].  Whether or not Craig, Kurtz, and the other authors settle the issues broached in the course of this discussion, they at least do us the service of engaging the debate.


Image: “Milk Way goodness” by Leo Vaha. CC License. 

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