Overview:

A closer look at the 3 components of the meager moral fruits argument.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

“If this conversion you speak about is truly supernatural, then why is it not more evident in the lives of so many Christians that I know?”

A Hindu acquaintance to the late Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias

Philosophical arguments can take on several forms: deductive, inductive, and abductive. I am becoming more of a fan of arguments that form a cumulative case for atheism. These are generally abductive arguments: inferences to the best explanation. Rather than seek to disprove the existence of God (like a deductive argument would do), these approaches look to lower the probability of God existing so the worldview becomes one that is highly unlikely to be true.

When you take all of these probabilistic arguments together, they amount to a vanishingly small probability for the existence of God being a reality.

Even at a glance, the Racism Index reveals a clear distinction. Compared to nonreligious whites, white Christians register higher median scores on the Racism Index, and the differences among white Christian subgroups are largely differences of degree rather than kind.

There are generally three premises to the meager moral fruits argument (MMF), as counter-apologist Emerson Green points out:

The Theological Premise, roughly speaking, is the claim that Christianity should bear moral fruit. (For example, “Christianity should be an aid to the pursuit of the good for oneself and for others, not an obstacle.”)

The Empirical Premise is meant to establish some relevant fact about the world. (For example, “Christianity has historically been an obstacle to LGBT equality.”)

The Moral Premise affirms a moral fact or normative judgment. (For example, “LGBT equality would be a moral good.”)

Emerson Green in “The Meager Moral Fruits Argument

There are several ways of looking at the argument, which is one that necessarily takes on the analysis of actual hard data, rather than being merely theological or philosophical. That is to say, if theism were true (and one particular blend of theism, to be more accurate, let’s say X), then we would expect there to be more people in religion/sect X to be moral than outside of that religion/sect.

In other words, Xists would be better moral agents, as we look at sociological data, than non-Xists.

Moreover, we can also make the claim that being an Xist should not provide any barrier to being more moral. Now, there are several different iterations of the MMF, and I am basically shunting them all together for this article. As Green goes on to say:

Not all versions of the MMF argument will follow the pattern of defending a theological, empirical, and moral premise. I think a theological and empirical premise are both essential to the MMF argument, but the moral premise isn’t always there. For instance, one might defend a theological premise along the lines of “Christianity does not predict that Christians would be indistinguishable from non-Christians,” and an empirical premise like “Christians and non-Christians are not appreciably different in their conduct and character.” So there’s no moral premise in that argument, even though it’s still recognizably a meager moral fruits argument. However, every MMF argument will involve a theological and empirical claim, explicitly or implicitly. Pushback against the argument will typically involve a rejection of the theological, empirical, or (if it has one) moral premise.

The moral premise is, by my lights, where the most trouble is liable to occur. I think the theological claim, properly stated, is the least controversial. The empirical claim can cause difficulty as well, depending on what sort of empirical claim you’re making. But I think the biggest potential difficulty lies with the moral premise.

Emerson Green in “The Meager Moral Fruits Argument

Of course, one might predict the problems that could occur. Looking at the data, it is uncontroversial to say that the nonreligious are the most progressive “religious group,” with generally much more universally moral positions on all sorts of social justice domains (gay, trans, racial, etc.).

But many of these positions (being anti-gay, for example) are seen as morally good as according to a given religion. So when a nonreligious person states that they are objectively more morally good (as a generalization) toward gay people, certain religious types might retort that homosexuality is itself morally bad. So it might mean we need to remove ourselves from the controversy of the particulars and revert to the generals: kindness, prosocial behavior, and so on.

But before we do, it is worth dwelling on racism. We know, empirically speaking, that white Christians in the U.S. are more racist than nonreligious people. Is this what we would expect given the counterfactual premise that Christianity is the correct, true religion? In other words, if Christianity was true, would we expect to see a higher propensity for racism among (white) Christians?

Or does the data better support atheism and the thesis that there is no god?

As Robert P. Jones, author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity states:

A close read of history reveals that we white Christians have not just been complacent or complicit; rather, as the nation’s dominant cultural power, we have constructed and sustained a project of perpetuating white supremacy that has framed the entire American story. The legacy of this unholy union still lives in the DNA of white Christianity today — and not just among white evangelical Protestants in the South, but also among white mainline Protestants in the Midwest and white Catholics in the Northeast.

For more than two decades, I’ve studied the attitudes of religiously affiliated Americans across the country. And year over year, in question after question in public opinion polls, a clear pattern has emerged: White Christians are consistently more likely than whites who are religiously unaffiliated to deny the existence of structural racism….

Even at a glance, the Racism Index reveals a clear distinction. Compared to nonreligious whites, white Christians register higher median scores on the Racism Index, and the differences among white Christian subgroups are largely differences of degree rather than kind.

Robert P.Jones in “Racism among white Christians is higher than among the nonreligious. That’s no coincidence.Think

One of the interesting conclusions is that the data refutes the argument that attending church makes people less racist: “Among white evangelicals, in fact, the opposite is true: The relationship between holding racist views and white Christian identity is actually stronger among more frequent church attenders than among less frequent church attenders.”

Is this what you would expect given the truth of their church?

As for the general principles—kindness, prosocial behavior, etc.—I have shown elsewhere that the data does not support the theist here. In terms of wellbeing, which also factors in general prosocial behavior, the least religious countries score the highest. See my recent piece on the World Happiness Report: “Are you happy? Because THEY certainly seem to be.”

Furthermore, it turns out that the higher your religiosity is, the less likely you are to be more universally moral. Higher religiosity favors in-group prosocial behavior—you end up being nicer to people like you—but correlates with being morally aggressive to people in the out-group. See my extensive piece “Christians, Their Morality and Their Ironic Intolerance.”

I have recently interviewed sociologist of religion Phil Zuckerman and written several pieces using his latest book as stimuli, and I bring him into play because two of his books, The Nonreligious and What It Means To Be Moral, provide ample evidence for the argument that I am setting out.

In fact, I chatted with him about it recently on my YouTube channel.

The vast array of data that Zuckerman and his colleagues have provided shows that this argument holds from an empirical point of view.

In a broader sense, and if we were to be charitable to the theist, people are people and you get nice ones and nasty ones in every group.

So whether we talk about the particulars or the general, the data either outright defies the theistic thesis, or it is simply neutral and does not support it as one would expect. This is where you would need to have a close read of Phil Zuckerman’s aforementioned The Nonreligious, which shows fairly conclusively that the nonreligious are generally moral, and the religious don’t hold the moral high ground.

In other words, if Christianity was true, would we expect to see a higher propensity for racism among (white) Christians? Or does the data better support atheism and the thesis that there is no god?

As Green goes on to say:

“Theism should be an aid, not an obstacle to the pursuit of the good for oneself and for others.” Christianity should not impair your ability to live a moral life. If Christianity is true, we should expect it to have the opposite effect. Couple that with an empirical claim like “Christians have by and large been an obstacle to equality for the LGBT community” and a moral claim like “Equality for the LGBT community would be a moral good” and you’ve got an argument from meager moral fruits.

Emerson Green in “The Meager Moral Fruits Argument

But, say many Christians, we are depraved. Born broken.

Still, if we are all born broken, you wouldn’t expect non-Christians to be better at fixing themselves than Christians, surely?

There is not the expectation here that Christians should be perfect, but that they should at least be morally better than non-Christians who don’t have access to the right god, or to any god.

These moral fruits are meager for the chosen ones, for the right ones, for the ones supposedly in some kind of union with actual God. The fruit trees are bare, which is odd, given that Adam and Eve actually ate from exactly that tree.

If it is not just about believing in God as some abstract ideal only, but following God and taking example from God/Jesus, then how do Christians (or any other exemplified religious sect) get it wrong? Or, don’t get it any more right than non-Christians?

You can’t argue that God is more interested in religious ritual so that as long as you accept communion on Sunday, you can be as morally bastardy as you like the rest of the week. No, this has to be about rounded moral behavior. Surely, theism—and a particular brand of theism at that—is supposed to bear moral fruit.

What we would expect from the naturalism thesis is exactly what we see. Sometimes religion is a hindrance to accessing moral fruits, and sometimes it is not. And rational moral reasoning does a better job of getting us to prosocial societal behavior than, say, divine command theory. At worst for the atheist, it’s a mixed bag, and that’s what we would expect.

This is the family of arguments that I really appreciate at the moment—the abductive ones—because we can look at each and every phenomenon in the world and as “what thesis better explains this data point?”

The list is long: pain and suffering (from subbing my toe to 240,000 people and millions of animals dying in a tsunami), black holes, a whole range of religions vying for my belief, religious harm, non-resistant nonbelievers (such as Amazonian tribespeople from 2000 BCE who might well have wanted to believe in, say, Christianity, but never had the chance), divine hiddenness, the inefficacy of prayer, and more.

In conclusion, then, God very probably does not exist.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...