Weover.me recently held an Oxford-styled debate on whether God needs to be a prerequisite for good. This is not to say that a person needs to believe in God to be good. Rather does good find its origins in God?
For lack of a better team title, I was on the God team. Below, I've written out my four-minute verbal argument.
There's two schools of thought being debated:
1) Good - People-driven. It's contextual, subjective, intuitive. It's relative to time and place, culture and social norms.
2) Good - God-driven. It requires a standard bearer, a categorical imperative, an absolute authority.
I stand for the latter.
To start, let me take you back to middle school. My 12-year-old son attends a Charter school which prides itself on democracy, meaning the kids have equal say as the teachers, particularly in adjudicating over other kids' transgressions. The students embrace their independence and the idea of controlling their own agenda. Ironically, they're having trouble controlling themselves. At a recent school meeting, some kids raised concerns that many other students weren't respectful to other students or school property. After trying to understand why and how to improve school spirit, one solution was posed - get a school mascot. Essentially, identify something other than the students to look up to. Identify something "other than" so students could rally around it and in effect, be good to each other.
It's a simple illustration/analogy of how society is inclined toward controlling their lives, and determining what's right and wrong, good and bad for themselves. But then the realization hits: it's quite hard to get everyone on the same page, and what's left is disrespect and disregard for each other's rights. What's needed is something "other" to guide us and keep us on the straight and narrow.
The God-less team, or those who support the former argument, would say that the kids and society in general is made up of a sophisticated species, with advanced and adapted neurons. We know how to collaborate and cooperate.
Indeed, animals - from mice to primates - have a basic sense of good. Babies, as young as three months, have shown an inclination toward self-preservation and protection of their own kind, or the familiar. These are generally good things.
But something else is at work. Some would call it a selfish gene. Others would call it a sinful nature.
So how do we account for altruism?
Socio-biologists and psychologists would say it's in our genes.
The reason we jump on a grenade to save our fellow soldier, or sacrifice our lives for our children, or allign with a former enemy to fight a new common foe, is because we want our genes to propagate.
The challenge I have with this idea of good being relative to our own self-interest, is that if good is just a meme we construct on our own ant hill to serve our own gene pool, then we better have the biggest, tallest ant hill. Our own self-interest better beat out other self-interests.
We could never hope for an unified and objective self-interest. The god-less team has ruled that out.
What about atrocities like the genocidal acts during the Bosnian War and Rwanda?
Even if those who carried out the genocide were disefranchised, threatened or oppressed, is killing massive numbers of people ever a good thing? Is rape ever a good thing?
If you feel a sense of injustice or feel that humans rights were violated, then you are basically dismissing someone's cultural biases and subjective view of good. And, you're, at the least hoping, there is some overarching universal good that trumps that subjective view.
The question therefore is: Where does this overarching, universal, common standard of good come from?
It was suggested (on the god-less team) that the earth was a good "great other" that we could look to as the universal standard.
I'd agree that the rage and depths of the ocean, or a mountain peak, instill a sense of humility and awe in us. And, humility is a great driver of good. It wipes away pride and arrogance.
Unfortunately, the earth doesn't tell us how to be good. As far we I know, there's no such thing as a Lorax, the fictional Dr. Seuss character that speaks for the trees.
But God has a message. And, even the staunchest of atheists can't deny having heard or been influenced by these stories, such as The Good Samaritan.
Now, God may not always be with us at every second, holding our hand to tell us what is good and bad. He gave us free will. (As my mom always says, we're not robots, after all.)
Animals, however, also have free will. Without a great other, without something beyond ourselves, then good for me, makes me no more better than an animal.
A famous ethologist, Frans de Waal, said this: "What sets human morality apart is a move towards universal standard... We scientists are good at finding out why things are, or how they work. But to go from there to offering moral guidance is a stretch."
To aspire to a "good for we" - a good for the collective we, a good that requires us to think abstractly, a good that allows us to rise to become supreme court justices who make wise decisions about complex moral issues - Oh, then we can't do this alone.
Socrates said: There's more to the sun-lit world of the senses to be good.
I agree. Good for we requires something so much greather than ourselves.
Those on the god-less team are shaking their heads saying, "Don't be naive." "Don't be intellectually dishonest." "Look at the facts."
The facts are that the reality of this world greatly exceeds science's ability to explain it.
Believing we are a product of selfish genes takes as much belief as believing we are a product of an intelligent designer.