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This is part 10 of my “Think! Of God and Government” debate series with Christian author Andrew Murtagh. Read my latest post and Andrew’s reply.

Hi Andrew,

Well, this little conversation of ours is titled “Of God and Government”, after all, and so far we’ve focused more on the God part than on the government part. I’m glad to get into the other side of things, but I want to return briefly to something you said in the last installment that will be relevant to our new topic.

Last time, I asked you how you can be certain that God is good and not evil, given that you don’t claim to understand his goals or motivations. You said this:

My particular conception of God is the classical Aristotelian one of which God is the final and ultimate cause of which goodness cannot be separated from His nature… To Aristotle, Aquinas, and classical theists, God is pure act, the necessary Being of which all contingent things depend, the infinite source of goodness, knowledge, and love, inseparable from His nature. The necessary truths of God’s nature are similar to other necessary truths such as the nature of a triangle. Trying to separate goodness from God, in the classical conception, is like trying to ask “what if 2+2=5?”.

You can say that a triangle axiomatically has three sides or that 2 + 2 axiomatically equals 4, and I won’t argue. But goodness is nothing like this. It’s neither a logical axiom nor a mathematical necessity, but a complex and contingent judgment derived from reasoned evaluation of a person’s actions. In other words, it is – and must be – a posteriori rather than a priori.

Logicians and theologians can slap together whatever axioms they choose, but claiming that God (or anyone) is “necessarily” good is just playing games with words. It’s another way of saying that you’ve decided to suspend your moral faculties and not exercise independent judgment. Like trying to tell the time from a broken clock, you’ll always get the same answer.

If you start down this road, you’re treading a very slippery slope indeed. If you start with the belief that God is necessarily good and should be obeyed and trusted no matter what, you’ll shortly arrive at the corollary that people who speak for God are partaking of God’s necessarily good nature, and should also be obeyed and trusted, even when their actions run contrary to what we would otherwise understand as morality. And anyone who’s familiar with history knows what kind of horrors that way of thinking will have you defending.

Slavery, which is condoned and approved in the Bible, is just one example of many I could give. The slaveholders of the American antebellum endlessly quoted the Bible as proof that God, who is “necessarily good”, was supporting them and approved of their actions. The medieval Catholic church also got in on the act with the papal bull Dum diversas, which gave Christian kings the right to enslave nonbelievers defeated in battle. How can you persuade someone otherwise when they start with premises like these?

The quote you gave from Barack Obama, which I like very much, is a clear illustration of this point. If you organize society such that one sect’s interpretation of God’s will is allowed to reign supreme, morality becomes arbitrary. Debate and persuasion become impossible impossible, and force is the only resort for dealing with dissent. But if society is based on secular reasoning – if you can’t use “God is necessarily good and he told me he wants us to do X” as the basis for law-making, but must make your arguments on the basis of evidence that others can examine – then we human beings can reason together and reach a democratic consensus on how to proceed.

And I’ll let that be my segue, as I turn to the topic of justice in society:

What is “justice”, in a universal sense, and how do we move towards such a Republic?

I think a useful starting point for this question is John Rawls’ classic thought experiment. Imagine designing a society – its laws and its institutions – from behind a “veil of ignorance”. When you’ve completed your blueprint, you’ll be born into the society you designed, but without knowing in advance who you’ll be or where you’ll end up. If you might be the poorest, most disadvantaged member of your society, then it pays to make sure that even the poorest and most disadvantaged member of your society isn’t treated too badly. A civilization that embodies this principle, I think, is one that upholds what we call justice.

Obviously, there’s no veil of ignorance in the real world, except in this sense: None of us can choose the time or place of our birth. Some of us are born into privilege, others into poverty. Now, if a society is truly based on merit, then accidents of birth won’t matter, because we’ll each rise or fall according to our inherent talents, skills, and determination. Everyone will wind up in the place they earned for themselves by their own effort, which is what we can call justice.

But I’d argue that our society is far from this ideal. The time, place and circumstances of your birth matter a great deal, both in tangible aspects like the quality of your education or your ability to get health care, as well as less concrete factors, like whether you happen to be born into a religion that’s socially dominant and that controls the levers of power and influence in your society.

I believe this state of affairs needs to change. Even if we never reach the ideal of perfect justice and fairness, we can approach it as closely as possible. And to do that, we’ll use the tool you described, democratic persuasion based on secular reasoning. By showing people the extent of injustice in our society, awakening their conscience to evils they’ve overlooked, we can persuade them to support the eradication of those evils through legal change and cultural pressure.

And I think that religion is and will always be an obstacle to this process, for the reasons I’ve laid out: because religious morality isn’t based on evidence, it encourages people to dig in their heels against democratic persuasion, and to treat evils tolerated in their culture as the immutable will of God, who only commands what is good even if we can’t see how that’s so.

How does this position match up with yours? What do you think we can do to persuade people who use religion to justify evil?

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...