By August Berkshire

august headOn October 20, 2013, I debated Rev. Scott McMurray on the topic of “Can We Be Good without God?” at the University of Wisconsin in La Crosse. The debate was sponsored by the La Crosse Secular Student Society and the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

Following is my fifteen-minute opening statement. As I always do in debates like this, I open with a “prebuttal.” I argue what is wrong with the religious point of view before I say what’s better about the atheist point of view. I do this for three reasons:

First, in rebuttals a person is only supposed to address what the other person raised in their opening statement. There are often anti-religion points I want to make but I can’t count on my opponent raising these issues in their opening statements, so I do so myself in my opening statement. Second, the default in this country is religious belief, so if I can discredit religion right away it should make people more open to the atheist viewpoint, if only out of curiosity. Third, I like to put my opponent on the defensive right away. On to my opening statement:

We are all concerned with morality. Without it, we might not even be here. And I understand the fears of some religious people that, without a god to create or enforce morality, we would degenerate into a lawless species, torturing and murdering each other with nothing to hold us back. But we don’t get our morality from the gods, we create it ourselves, and then ascribe it to the gods as sort of an invisible policeman. But the thing is, you don’t need the gods to justify good behavior, you only need the gods to justify bad behavior.


When we’re talking about gods we can start with one simple question: “How do you tell the difference between a revelation and a hallucination?” For thousands of years, we have had all kinds of people who have claimed to speak for all kinds of gods: loving gods, petty gods, jealous gods, intolerant gods, vengeful gods, forgiving gods and unforgiving gods. We have created all of these gods in our own image, and, just like we humans, these gods can be loving one moment and spiteful the next moment.

In addition, the various gods we have created can’t seem to agree on the morality of the following things: the use of alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine; eating pork; eating any type of meat; gambling; dancing; the prosperity gospel; masturbation; premarital sex; contraception; abortion; artificial insemination; in vitro fertilization; embryonic stem cell research; polygamy; divorce; voluntary euthanasia; the death penalty; the equality of women and gays with straight men; honor killings; female genital mutilation; slavery; suicide bombings; the use of force; and when and if we should go to war. How can we follow the moral plan of a god when the gods themselves can’t seem to make up their minds? By the way, if you believe your god knows the future then there’s no free will and Christian and Muslim moralities collapse. 

I don’t have time tonight to examine all the gods, so let’s pick a popular god: the god of the Bible. In the Bible it states in three different places that God creates calamities: Isaiah 45:6-7: “I am the LORD...causing well-being and creating calamity.” Lamentations 3:38: “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High That both good and ill go forth?” And Amos 3:6: “If a calamity occurs in a city has not the LORD done it?” Clearly, we are dealing with an immoral god. Have you ever noticed that in insurance policies “Acts of God” are always disasters?

The Bible opens with a huge act of injustice that becomes the basis for Christianity: the entire human race is condemned by God because of the actions of two people. Later, in the New Testament, God sacrifices himself to himself to save us from himself.

Now let’s take a look at something we would all agree is immoral: the killing of innocent children. The Biblical god engages in the mass murder of innocent children at least three times: a Worldwide Flood, the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Killing of the Firstborn Children of Egypt. In fact, the Biblical god has quite a hit list of people that we’re supposed to kill: people who curse or blaspheme the Lord, people who worship another god, witches and wizards, non-virgin brides, gay men, disobedient sons, people who curse their father or mother, and people who work on the Sabbath.

I have heard Christians say that Jesus is different than Yahweh. But if Christianity is a monotheistic religion, then there must be some sense in which Jesus is the same god as Yahweh. Furthermore, we are told that God is unchanging. The fact that any god at any time committed and ordered these immoral acts means that he is an immoral god. And, if God keeps changing his mind, how are we supposed to keep track of whom we’re supposed to kill?

By the way—for fans of the Ten Commandments—most of them would be unconstitutional if we tried to enact them into law. They violate such things as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom of assembly. So you can have the First Amendment or you can have the Bible, but you can’t have both.

As Jules Renard said: “I don’t know if god exists, but it would be better for his reputation if he didn’t.” As Susan B. Anthony said, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” Indeed, the six most frightening words in the English language may well be: “God told me to do it.”

If you’re a religious person that follows the Bible or the Qur’an then you’re probably following the good parts and ignoring the bad parts. But since both parts are supposedly the word of a god, then on what basis are you deciding what is acceptable and what is not acceptable? It’s because you’re bringing your own outside-of-the-Bible, outside-of-the-Qur’an, sense of human decency to bear upon your holy book: picking the good God parts and ignoring the bad God parts.

God-belief doesn’t even work very well as a placebo. The countries of the world and the states in the United States that are the least religious also tend to have the least crime. As Richard Dawkins wrote in The God Delusion: “If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would commit robbery, rape, and murder, you reveal yourself as an immoral person, and we would be well advised to steer a wide course around you. If, on the other hand, you admit that you would continue to be a good person even when not under divine surveillance, you have fatally undermined your claim that God is necessary for us to be good.”

So where does our sense of human decency really come from? The following example gives us our first clue: Imagine a mother with two children, a girl and a boy. Now, imagine that the girl starts hitting the boy. Does the mother say “Stop hitting your brother because it says not to in the Bible, the Qur’an, or the Vedas?” No. At that point god and religion are the furthest things from her mind. Instead, doesn’t the mother say something like: “Stop hitting your brother, you’re hurting him.”? That’s consequences. Or, she might also say: “Stop hitting your brother; how would you like it if someone hit you.”? That’s empathy. Consequences and empathy are the beginning of where our ethics really come from.

Let’s focus first on consequences. Instead of talking about “moral” vs. “immoral” or “ethical” vs. “unethical” or “right” vs. “wrong” it makes more sense to talk about “helpful” vs. “harmful” because we can often objectively say whether an action is helpful or harmful. An action can be helpful or harmful to yourself, to the person or people directly affected by your actions, or to society as a whole. Sometimes an action is helpful or harmful on all three levels, and then we have no problem saying it’s ethical or unethical. When an action might be helpful to you, but harmful to someone else and harmful to society, such as theft, we almost always say it’s unethical. Disputes arise depending upon how we define helpful and harmful and how we prioritize self, immediate others, and society as a whole.

Now let’s talk about empathy. Why do we care about each other? After all, doesn’t evolution reward selfishness? Well, yes it does. But it turns out that in a social species like humans, it benefits us as individuals to cooperate with each other. As E.O. Wilson points out in his book The Social Conquest of Earth: “Colonies of cheaters lose to colonies of cooperators.” In their book Wild Justice Bekoff & Pierce state: “In cooperative groups, deception is always a successful strategy, but it is less successful, on the whole, than cooperation.”

When we help someone, we’re rewarded by feeling good; we get a good reputation, and people are more likely to help us in return. When we don’t cooperate, people tend to ignore us. And when we’re anti-social, we get shunned. And when we harm another person or society, we get arrested and put in jail to protect society from us. It’s really that simple. It’s all about empathy, cooperation, and consequences.

Humans and some other animals have evolved empathy circuits in our brains. Probably the most well-known feature is mirror neurons. If you bang your elbow and hurt it, there’s a part of your brain that will become active and generate pain signals. This will cause you to wince, cry out in pain, and to clutch your elbow so you do no further damage and to start the healing process. If I observe all of this happening to you, the same parts of your brain that caused you to feel pain will also become active in my brain, though not as strongly, allowing me to “feel your pain” This is the beginning of empathy, and it motivates me to come to your aid. Notice that your wincing and crying out in pain do nothing directly to protect your elbow or to help it to heal. Those actions are only helpful to you as signals to me to motivate me to come to your aid. If you doubt that we’re all connected to each other, see what happens when you yawn. Even the very word can cause us to yawn.

As we all know, empathy works with other species as well. If our pet is in pain, we will do what we can to help it. Other animals also help each other, not only within a species but between species. Other animals also possess a sense of justice. Let me give you some examples: A female bat helped another female bat who was trying to give birth by showing her the proper way to hang. A rat in a cage refused to push a lever for food when it saw that another rat in another cage received an electric shock as a result. A cat led her elderly, deaf, and blind dog friend away from obstacles and towards food. A group of elephants rescued a group of caged antelopes by undoing all the latches on a gate. And a group of chimpanzees in a zoo punished a chimp who arrived late for dinner because the rules were that no one eats until everyone is present.

A final problem with basing morality on god-belief is that if you lose your belief in a god then you’ve lost your basis for morality. But we notice that atheists are easily able to be “good without god.” That’s because morality is really based on evolution—empathy, cooperation, and consequences, using the standards of helpfulness and harmfulness. I hope that our debate tonight has been helpful.

August Berkshire is a former president of Minnesota Atheists and currently serves as a director-at-large.