There has long been a debate in the community of moral philosophers and thinkers about the idea of being “good without God”. In the advent of a neo-atheistic culture in the United States and other post-modern, post-WWII Western societies, people have increasingly felt the need and interest to establish a moral framework that is devoid of the divine, arguing that humans can derive their own moral precepts intuitively or empirically and that there’s no need to rely on some higher power for inspiration. They cite the idea that it would be irrational to believe in a God who advised things we would not otherwise consider moral and that atheists empirically seem to be just as good as believers.
It’s this last part that I want to take issue with today, especially since it tends to be the one most closely guarded and obviously apparent to those defending the idea. This issue is further complicated by it often being played out in a heated conversation between a believer (me) and an atheist (not me) and their accusatory glare at whether I’m accusing them of innately being a worse person or less moral because they happen to not derive their moral standards from a divine or higher being. It is challenging, to say the least, under the white-hot spotlight of the cornered debater, to look them in the eye and explain to them why they actually may be less moral without drawing a diatribe of vitriol or disregard in response.
The better question to ask is not whether people are more or less moral, in part because this question is incoherent without context. It’s also ridiculous to try to conclude globally, since there are of course hypocrites on both sides and plenty of people who fail to act in accordance with their own stated beliefs, goals, and ideals. The question that I find interesting and salient to this issue is which approach to life tends to bring out the more moral behavior and why. And I’ve been coming to some interesting conclusions about how this question relates to the idea of privacy vs. publicity and what that has to do with what people think they can get away with and how that informs moral choices.
To start off with, I find it to be trivially true that someone can be good without God. We can imagine a believer and an atheist each making the exact same choices in all places at all times and the difference between one person believing and one person not is in no way a meaningful tipping point between whether one or the other is good or not. To me, the God question is more an issue of fact globally. We can imagine a perfectly moral actor who happens to believe that New Jersey is south of Florida. The fact that they are incorrect about this fact in no way affects or impairs their moral judgment – at worst, it may lead to a poorly informed choice that could still probably be forgiven in light of the fact that they were misinformed. One can argue, as I sometimes do, that the illogical clinging to atheism in the face of the legion evidence against it becomes tantamount to willful denial, but this still seems like something short of actual moral breach. The goodness of an action ought be determined by its innate morality, not by its happenstance in relation to a correct set of factual beliefs about the universe.
What becomes problematic, though, is when we descend out of the thought experiment structure. Yes, if we imagine two people making the same actions and reactions and choices, then the lone fact of belief or not isn’t a tipping point. But no two people act the same way, and the way they believe and even the facts they understand impact the choices they make almost entirely. At that point, how does belief meaningfully change the way someone interacts with their environment as opposed to non-belief?
Clearly, there are lots of ways. There’s prioritization of values over mere survival in life. Faith in an afterlife gives someone more perspective about the temporal and physical reality of life on Earth. There’s a certain humility in not believing one belongs to the highest order intelligence that exists in the universe. There’s acquiescence to not controlling one’s fate or destiny. But none of these have such a clear impact on behavior as the idea that one can keep secrets and only need be accountable to oneself. The notion that what’s private is permanently private (unless admitted or exposed) is perhaps the most damning (pun intended) part of non-belief.
Those who believe in God believe they are living a life in public. Maybe not a public of seven-billion people, maybe not a public they will be exposed to for all-time, but that there’s an audience of some kind for every single action and choice they make, no matter how small or internal or invisible. At all times and in all actions, they must hold themselves accountable to the standard of not just what they claim or hope to believe, but what they actually believe, for someone is watching them and observing. They are likely to be less concerned with the optics of their actions to mortal observers because they know there are immortal observers as well and that eventually their actions will be assessed by that entity in a much more meaningful way than any temporal judge. They fundamentally can’t believe in privacy in its truest sense, for nothing they do is truly private.
Meanwhile, the non-believer believes that walls and secrets truly cloak their true selves. They may aspire to higher-order moral action, may attempt to be their own top-drawer accountant, but at the end of the day, whatever they can get away with doing is fine for themselves, because they have no one to own up to at the end of it all. The only person holding the person accountable is that person themselves, once they’ve navigated whatever court of public opinion is necessary to traverse. These people thus tend to put a great deal more stock in the perspective of others, for convincing those people or not is all that matters to their ultimate worth. Public actions cast a much longer shadow on their lives than those they believe to be private. And those actions that are private that might inspire shame or discomfort or regret become much more susceptible to the murky cloud of denial, revision, and editing. The person who does something wrong and convinces themselves it was right has actually erased the wrong that was done if there’s no accountability at the end of life. The person who does something wrong and has to account for it is less likely to worry what they themselves think of it, for they know there’s an objective arbiter at the end of the show.
Which line of belief tends toward inspiring the more moral actions? Empirically, we see that people tend to be better people in front of others. They are more likely to pick up trash, offer generosity, be kind, help someone, disregard selfishness if someone is looking. When that extra impetus of judgment is removed, people tend to devolve toward their baser selves, prioritizing self over others and ignoring moral obligations. This impact is clearly flattened for those who believe they are always being watched, especially by the most important judge of character. And where do things that even devout atheists believe to be dubious take place? In secret, in the shadows, behind closed doors. Stealing, cheating (on tests, spouses, or contests), individual violence – these things are all shielded from public scrutiny and almost none would take place without the veil of privacy. Those who believe or imagine that someone is always over their shoulder observing and taking notes are far less able to take such actions.
Obviously it would be ideal if everyone were motivated and inspired to act perfectly even without the notion that someone is watching them. Moral action should be taken for its own sake and ideally not merely for the sake of avoiding punishment. (Although I must note that my own theology believes there is accountability and expectation without direct punishment or reward.) However, it seems highly unrealistic that this developmental stage of humans in this backwards and tempting world is capable of expecting most of its denizens to act rightly without someone watching. More importantly, it’s not even clear to me why we would want privacy or to feel like someone isn’t watching our moves. If we are to be good and inspiring people, shouldn’t we be trying to live more publicly, more openly, more clearly in order to interact, communicate, synergize, and motivate?
Privacy is not your friend. Publicity is not your enemy. Even if you don’t believe, imagining yourself taking actions before your best friend or your worst enemy is most helpful to checking your own temptation to act poorly. Even if you believe firmly that there is no evidence for the existence of God, that such a belief is irrational, it seems fairly clear that convincing yourself to act as though there were a God will make you more likely to be a good person and act morally. Forget Pascal’s wager – that’s just trying to game the system for a reward. This is Pascal’s wager for everyone else – they will derive more benefit from you if you don’t believe there are shadows where you can skulkingly give in to your baser instincts. And if we all agreed to this, then we might actually start getting somewhere on this thus far increasingly hopeless rock sphere.