Well, the Atheists are back. Yes, they are heading out on another publicity campaign. This time we can expect a billboard telling us, as far as I can understand it, that we don’t need God in order to be good. What are the sound bytes this time around?
“Praying won’t help. Doing will.”
“Without God. We’re all good.”
I’d like to consider this billboard from a few perspectives. First, I want to meander through the philosophical issues surrounding the relationship between moral realism and the Theism / Atheism debate (because I assume that’s what the ad is touching on) and then I want to consider it from the perspective of effective communication and public relations (because I’m not exactly sure what the ad is touching on). One overarching theme of these reflections will be a simple question that immediately popped into my mind when I saw the ad; what is their target market? Who are they reaching out to? What are they “selling?”
Can we be good without believing in God?
Ok, that was easy.
Atheists like to remind us that it just as possible for an Atheist to be morally good as it is for a Theist to be morally good. I suspect part of the inspiration behind reminding us of that fact is in part because a lot of Christians misunderstand the moral argument for God’s existence. C.S. Lewis wrote a very accessible explanation of the moral argument in the first few chapters of his book “Mere Christianity” if you would like to look it up, and I recommend you do. The argument basically says that Theism gives us a much better explanation of moral realism (more in a minute) than does Atheism. Without a God it is quite difficult to explain why reality would have any moral dimension to it at all, much less the particular moral laws we have.
First of all, what is moral realism? Briefly, it is the observation that when we perceive moral right and wrong we are perceiving something just as real with our conscience as what our eyes perceive when they see and what our ears perceive when they hear. The very concept of “right for me” and “wrong for me” is just as meaningless as the idea that there is a blue sky “for me” or that the sound of a whisper is quieter than the sound of thunder “for me.” Right and wrong are just as much a part of the fabric of reality as are colours, sounds and even mathematics. Atheists, by and large, are beginning to re-affirm the fact of moral realism; a point on which Theists and Atheists emphatically agree, interestingly. How we are to explain this fact of reality is where we part company.
Back to part of the cause of the rift. How Christians misunderstand the argument is by concluding that a rejection of God entails a rejection of the morality that rests on God, and inevitably results in lawless living. Philosophically, at least, this is not necessarily the case. It is theoretically possible to disbelieve in God at the same time as affirming moral realism and living accordingly. But many Christians miss this point and that error on our part (among a wide range of factors) has contributed to a long-standing rift between Theists and Atheists. This is part of the reason, I believe, why Atheists never get tired of reminding us that they can, theoretically, be just as moral as we can be.
The moral argument does not say that a person needs to believe in God in order to know these laws, or abide by them. It merely says that God is the best explanation of the moral law. That’s all. The fact that the moral law exists, and a general understanding of that law, is accessibly to Theist and Atheist alike, just like mathematics may have originated in the mind of God, but one need not believe in God in order to do math correctly.
Can we explain morals without reference to God?
If we accept that Atheists are just as capable of moral clarity and behaviour as are Theists, then we should still wonder whether Atheism, as a belief system, is capable of explaining the moral laws.
Morals are particularly difficult to explain in a purely Atheist worldview. But they try. Usually they try to reduce morality to some basic, simple, principle that all the moral laws are supposed to rest on. Some Atheists pick “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Others might choose, “whatever maximizes human flourishing.” The list of options is long and varied. It is assumed, then, that if you just agree with them about this starting point then all the moral laws just fall into place without God.
Viola. Like magic.
But there’s a problem. Suppose we are able to reduce the moral laws down to a single, basic, law upon which all other laws rest. Even if there is only one moral law, and it is “to maximize human flourishing” where in the world did that law come from? If reality is truly just matter and energy mindlessly swirling through the cosmos, and our existence is a bizarre accident in some tiny corner of an impersonal universe, then the entire concept of “ought” or “duty” – whether it takes the form of an encyclopedia of rules, or a single, universally applicable rule – is difficult to explain. Can F=MA produce “Thou shalt not murder?” Can a collection of rocks, a gas cloud, or electrical energy produce, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?”
The underlying assumption behind any moral system is that something of value exists that needs to be protected. That could be “human flourishing” or “greatest good” or whatever other defining system one chooses. But how can any purely physical system have value? Who decided that the particular physical systems we can “human beings” are valuable? If we define ourselves as valuable, well, isn’t that just a little self-serving? The only way value can be assigned is by some authority outside of the thing being valued (can gold define its own worth?) and without a God there is nobody outside of humanity qualified to assign value to our happiness, our well-being or our flourishing. Without some value that objectively exists independent of our opinions there is no basis for any moral law, regardless of whether or not it can be reduced to a single “golden rule.”
For a quick, scholarly, take on the connection between moral realism and Theism / Atheism, here’s a video to whet your appetite.
Thoughts on Prayer
So here’s a second perspective on the billboard; that of effective communication. I’m not exactly a specialist when it comes to written communication, but I have written a self-published book and a significant part of my day job is writing technical reports. I’ve also been around long enough to have been exposed to a plethora of advertising, so I know a thing or two about communicating effectively. How effective is this billboard?
I would suggest it is not terribly effective. And it is the ineffectiveness at communication which is probably its greatest flaw. First, the claim is made that “Praying won’t help. Doing will.” Anybody with even a basic knowledge of logic will see this as a false dichotomy. It would be like saying “stop exercising to lose weight; just eat less,” or if I told my son as we were on a road trip to “take those headphones out of your ears and enjoy the scenery.” In all cases it is possible to do both. One can listen to their music and enjoy the scenery. One can eat less and exercise more. One can pray and do.
As well as being philosophically fallacious, that false dichotomy raises an interesting sociological question. Is there a correlation between prayer and action? Are those who pray more likely to actually do something, or will they just throw the responsibility on God and excuse themselves of their duty to help others? The numbers suggest prayer and action go hand in hand.
Twice as many atheists and agnostics (40%) donated a relatively small amount (under $100), compared to all donating adults (20%). Evangelical Christians are among the faith groups that donate the most: they are much more likely than average … to have contributed either $2,500-$5,000, or more than $10,000 (6% compared to 1%) last year. – Barna
Last summer, Statistics Canada released a survey on Canadians and their charitable habits. While less than one in five attend church regularly, those who do are far more likely to give to charities, and are substantially more liberal in the size of their gifts to both religious and non-religious organizations. The average annual donation from a churchgoer is $1,038. For the rest of the population, $295.
With respect to volunteer effort, two-thirds of churchgoers give their time to non-profit causes while only 43 per cent of non-attendees do likewise. And churchgoers put in twice as many hours volunteering. – MacCleans
If the billboard is intended to motivate people to action, I cannot help but circle back to the question I asked at the beginning, who is this ad intended for? If the target audience is those who pray then it seems somewhat pointless to tell them to “do” because they already are doing. In fact, they do a lot. They do more than their non-praying counterparts. If the passion behind the ad is to get people involved in making the world a better place it would seem the target audience ought to be those who are less prone to opening the wallet, and their daytimer, to those in need. In other words, the billboard should target those who do not pray; there is significant room for growth in that sociological demographic. But the billboard seems to be worded with the pray-ers in mind. Very strange.
But there is a second facet of that discussion worth considering. Prayer is often found at the end of all that can be done. The parent who watches their child throw their life away to drugs and squandered living, knowing full well the child will reject any attempt at correction. The mother who’s son has shipped out to the front lines of battle. The child who has lost their pet cat and has already put up signs around the community. When there is nothing more we can do, prayer takes a more central role.
Or, to draw this a little closer to personal experience, when a loved one is in a medically induced coma from which they may never emerge, you have no medical expertise and the doctors have done all that they can. When all human “doing” has been exhausted, who does one turn to? To say we should “do” instead of “pray” just sounds calloused to those for whom all has been done and prayer is the only hope left. Again, not a good sales pitch if you are trying to reach out to those who pray. A little market research would have gone a long way in this case.
We’re all good?
What about the second part of the ad? They claim, “Without God. We’re all good.” The problem with this part of the ad is, frankly, what the heck does that even mean?
First, I have to rant about a minor pet peeve with our present cultural tendency to butcher the English language. Since when did it become acceptable to start putting punctuation marks where they don’t belong? But I see this All. The. Time. Honestly, bad punctuation doesn’t make your point any stronger, it just makes you look linguistically incompetent. And this isn’t a criticism specifically against Atheists; all kinds of people do this.
All. The. Time.
“Without God.” That’s not even a complete sentence. On its own it means nothing. When taken with the second incomplete and meaningless sentence – and if we adjust the punctuation to something more meaningful – we get one of the following possibilities.
- Without God we’re all good.
- Without God, we’re all good.
- Without God; we’re all good.
Ok, the rant is over.
Each of these carries subtly different meanings. Which one are they trying to convey?
Perhaps it is speaking from a metaphysical perspective. If our universe lacks a God then all humans are, by definition, morally good. Is that what the billboard is claiming? This seems absurd on more than one level, but I’ll just pick the most obvious absurdity; we’re not all good. 9/11. Hitler. Stalin. The list goes on and endlessly on.
Or perhaps it could be making a sociological statement. Perhaps it means that those who disbelieve in God are all good. The moment one becomes an Atheist is the moment of a certain kind of “salvation experience” whereby all one’s past sins are forgiven and one is no longer capable of moral infraction. Atheists: the only morally perfect people among us. That is an equally bizarre way to interpret this; a quick glance through history reveals some pretty horrible Atheists. Not all Atheists are horrible people, obviously, but an acceptance of Atheism certainly does not carry with it an immunity to moral error.
[UPDATE: I thought of yet another way that this could be interpreted. Sometimes we use the phrase “it’s all good” or “I’m all good” or “we’re all good” or some variation on that theme to express the idea that there are no problems. For instance, if I trip on something, somebody else might ask if I’m alright and I might reply, “I’m good, I’m good” to let them know I didn’t break anything. Well, are we to believe that there are no problems with the world? Or, are we to believe Atheists don’t have any problems? This interpretation just adds to the list of possible interpretations that simply don’t make sense.]
We as a human race are not “all” good, and even the sub-culture of Atheists in our midst is by no means “all” good. What in the world could that phrase possibly mean? It’s the kind of phrase that comes across as far more absurd than it could possibly be insightful; it is not even coherent enough to be debated.
I’m certain a visit to the website referenced on the billboard would explain the message on the billboard, but it is a well known reality that most of the people who see your hook aren’t going to bite. It’s a basic fact of advertising. There needs to be enough clarity in the initial presentation to impact the way the audience thinks even if they never visit your store or website. Some forms of advertising strive to leave the audience intrigued, but it is never a good idea to leave them dazed and confused.
The billboard’s communication problem is frankly its biggest downfall. Those who drive by are more likely to end up scratching their head than to be persuaded to… um… whatever it is the billboard is supposed to persuade us about. Are we supposed to stop praying? Are we supposed to reject God because then we somehow magically become “good?” Are we supposed to visit their website so we can donate some money to their worthy cause (whatever that cause is)?
At least the bus ads from several years back (“There probably is not God, so…”) gave us something comprehensible to discuss. I disagreed with them, of course, but they at least gave us something comprehensible to discuss. These ads do little more than leave the impression that somebody in the Ministry of Propaganda at the Centre for Inquiry needs to find a pink slip in their mailbox.