Since the beginning of time, there has been an ongoing debate about morality. Religious people say you need God because God gives us morals. No God, no morals. On the other hand, atheists say you don’t need God for morality for two reasons. Reason one, virtue is its own reward. As you mature and become wiser, you realize that being good makes you happy. This is natural maturity and requires no God. The second reason the atheist says you need no God for morality is evolution.
As societies evolve, they learn that cooperation is an effective adaptation and cooperation requires moral behavior. Therefore, morality evolves as societies evolve. This evolution, atheists claim, is evidence that God is not required for morality.
My maternal grandfather is a good example of the moral atheist. He was nice, compassionate, considerate, civil, and he lived in accordance with his principles. He was also a devout socialist and he remained devoted to his ideology to his final breath.
I broke his heart because in spite of his best efforts I never drank his socialist Kool-Aid. I never believed that people were good enough, Christian enough, to be true socialists. Ironically, I thought the Christian view of man was more realistic: We’re too greedy and too selfish to live in a sharing, socialist society. The only way we could become socialists, as I saw it, wasn’t through atheism but by converting to Christianity to the point that we lost our desires for the material things of this world, and I always doubted that such a mass conversion could really take place.
Do I believe morality can exist without a belief in God and possibility of God’s punishment? Part of me does because I’ve seen I’ve seen atheists who are moral and appear to live full, loving lives, but then there’s me. I don’t know about you, but I’m hard-wired to be selfish, self-involved and self-indulgent. Selfishness is my default setting. Selfishness and morality don’t mix. Selfish people tend to be afflicted with addictions. I stand guilty as charged.
But I do have a conscience. I’m not a sociopath. I don’t steal, and I try to avoid hurting others in my pursuit of my wants, but is that morality? I doubt it. My guess is that most people are like me. We avoid hurting others, we don’t steal, but at the end of the day we’re selfish. The world evolves around ME. For people like us, I wonder if we need to fear God. Because without a fear of God’s punishment and the pestilential self-destructiveness and self-induced hell of our own selfish nature, we’ll go down a rabbit hole of addiction and debauchery.
In other words, perhaps most of us are so entrenched in our selfishness that we need a fear of God to unshackle ourselves from our extreme self-centered existence. On the other hand, fearing God and God’s hell can be an impossible pill to swallow with hell’s implication of unrelenting cruelty and sadism.
But here’s the problem: If you convinced me there is no hell, could I be a good person, a less selfish person or would I fall back on my selfish default setting? Would my Id, my Inner Narcissist, my Inner Addict take over Jeff McMahon and devour me as I lie on the rock and watch my addictions eat me alive like the Prometheus watching the eagle eat his liver? Without a fear of God and without a fear of my own self-destructive selfishness would I be like a little kid who’s always pushing the boundaries to see what he can get away with until he burns his house down? I fear that without religion my default setting is selfishness. And I’m also depressed that I’m so selfish I need a motivation like fear to become virtuous. What does that say about my maturity level? I’m not saying religion, with its fear of God and threat of hell, guarantees that we’ll be good people.
My wife went to a Christian college and one of her friends pointed at some guy who had ascended student government, and my wife’s friend said, “See that guy. Before he found the Lord, he was a jackass, and how he’s a raging Christian, and he’s still a jackass.”
Then there’s my student from Vietnam, a nursing student and a self-proclaimed atheist, who told me she hated Christianity because her four brothers and sisters were all rich Christians who ignored their mother when she had cancer back in Vietnam. Only my student, the atheist of the 5 siblings, returned to care for her mother till her mother died of cancer. Could I be as moral as my atheist student? I doubt it. I’m too immature. I’m so selfish I need fear to motivate me toward the good. That depresses the hell out of me, but I’d rather be depressed and know the truth than delude myself.