Michael Shermer’s The Science of Good and Evil: Summary of Chapter 5

Chap 5 – Can We Be Good Without God?: Science, Religion, and Morality

141-147 – Did bowling cause the Columbine shootings? Social commentators suggested the computer game Doom, fatherless homes, and a myriad of other causes. American politicians—whose ethics Woody Allen once described as “one notch below child molesters,” offered various reasons. Republican Senator Shurden said a lack of physical punishment was the cause. He introduced and helped pass a bill in Oklahoma that encourages parents to spank, paddle, or whip their children. (It was passed easily.) [This would work because you could theoretically whip someone to death in which case they couldn’t kill people!] Former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer encourages teachers to break the arms of their students. [This would definitely work since it is hard to fire assault rifles with broken arms.] Noted conservative Newt Gingrich accused newspapers, academics, and politicians who disagree with his politics. [However, he doesn’t advocate any whipping or arm breaking so I’m not sure what he would say we should do to college professors who played a large role in the Columbine shootings.] President Clinton accused Hollywood. [Somehow I have the feeling that this was politically motivated. I doubt that he really believed this.] But the best explanation comes from a pillar of moral virtue, former Republican House Speaker Tom Delay. He says the shooting was the result of teaching biological evolution.

147-148 – But S admits that many believe “a scientific and secular worldview” is inconsistent with morality. In short, without a belief in the gods there can be no morality. [It is curious nonetheless that murder, rape, and other violent crimes (which I assume are immoral) are so rare in cultures with little or no religious belief (Europe, Japan, Scandinavia) while they are so high in cultures with high religious belief (USA, Middle East)] So again, can we be good without god?

148-152 [S mentions Dostoyevsky’s work. If possible, before you die, read the chapter from The Brothers Karamozov, entitled “The Grand Inquisitor.” It can be read separately from the novel. If everyone in America today read this chapter the world would be a better place.] S begins by summarizing his view of the origin and justification for morality without positing supernatural entities. But he admits that most don’t share his view, believing that without gods there is no morality, all is relative. [Isn’t morality with the gods, theologically relative? In other words, relative to which gods, which holy book, which interpretation, etc.?] Many believe that we are generally bad and will try to not get caught, but since gods can “see through concrete,” we will try to be good. S summarizes this position as: “you’ll be busted by Mr. Big if you sin, so don’t. So without the gods to anchor religion we’ll collapse into relativism and immorality.

153-54 The problem with all this is that history is filled with counter-examples. [It would be mistaken for an honest student of history to claim that religion doesn’t perpetrate much evil. Hitler and the Nazi’s speeches constantly invoked the Christian god as blessing their behaviors and military adventures. [It’s interesting to actually read the Catholic Hitler’s speeches, which typically end with “gott mit uns.” You’d be surprised how similar they are to certain political speeches you hear today.] In fact both of the 20th centuries world wars were fought primarily between god-fearing Christians and Jews. S’s own view is: “what if religion is not the solution but actually part of the problem?”

154-55 This leads to another question “what would you do if there were no god?” As S points out, if you would then commit all sorts of dastardly deeds you are not to be trusted because you might lose your belief. And if you would still be moral, then “apparently you can be good without god.” [in your own experience, have you found religious believers in general to be more moral or trustworthy than non-believers? I doubt it.]

155- Of course one could say that the non-believers are good because the goodness of all the believers around them rubs off on the non-believers. So Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein opposed nuclear proliferation and world war because of the effect that religious individuals of their day. But S thinks the reason most non-believers are good is the same reason most believers are good—it was evolutionarily adaptive to have moral sentiments. He claims that without religion society wouldn’t collapse into moral chaos. [Again the non-religious societies of Europe, Japan, Scandinavia  support his claim.] As S points out, one can even found a society on secular principles. [The word god is not mentioned even once in the US constitution, twice in the entire Federalist Papers, but both times in the “oh god” way, did not appear on coins until the civil war, and in the pledge of allegiance until 1954. For more see Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.

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