Ya Gotta Believe

There was a news item a day or two ago about some advertising put up in several cities by an association of Godless heathens. The ads suggested that folks should reconsider their belief in a supernatural deity; one went so far as to make the direct assertion that there is no God at all. The ads have aroused considerable indignation, it seems, which I suppose shouldn’t be terribly surprising, given the strength and durability of the social shield that protects religion from criticism.

The ads call for a greater reliance upon reason — the need for which is demonstrated, however unintentionally, by this reaction from “American Family Association” president Tim Wildmon:

“It’s a stupid ad,” he said. “How do we define ‘good’ if we don’t believe in God? God in his word, the Bible, tells us what’s good and bad and right and wrong. If we are each ourselves defining what’s good, it’s going to be a crazy world.”

We can assume, I suppose, that Mr. Wildmon, having read the rulebook, will now be arranging to have the blasphemers stoned to death.

Another critic thought it was all in awfully poor taste:

Also on Tuesday, the Orlando, Fla.-based Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian legal group, launched its sixth annual “Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign.” Liberty Counsel has intervened in disputes over nativity scenes and government bans on Christmas decorations, among other things.

“It’s the ultimate grinch to say there is no God at a time when millions of people around the world celebrate the birth of Christ,” said Mathew Staver, the group’s chairman and dean of the Liberty University School of Law. “Certainly, they have the right to believe what they want but this is insulting.”

Once again we see a familiar pattern: take out an ad, or write an essay, questioning a political viewpoint, or anything else, and it is simply a difference of opinion — but do the same for religion, and it is “insulting”; a personal affront. This is an entirely different category of psychological response, and, I think it is important to note, it is so entirely by design — it is part of the impressive emotional and cognitive armamentarium by which religion defends itself. Differences of opinion are grounds for debate and discussion, while insults are not. Insults, rather, are simply ignored, or if considered offensive enough, become, instead, grounds for retaliatory violence.

Even though the ads will probably annoy more people than they provoke to any re-examination of their beliefs, I must nod to the effort — though there is a long way to go. Over 90 percent of Americans believe in God — or, at least, they believe strongly enough that one ought to believe in God that they say they do even if they don’t.

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  1. Kevin Kim says

    “How do we define ‘good’ if we don’t believe in God?”

    Yikes. He walks right into the divine command problem.


    Posted December 6, 2008 at 10:13 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Yep, that he does. I have the feeling he hasn’t really thought the whole thing through.

    Posted December 6, 2008 at 10:43 pm | Permalink
  3. JW says

    Yes but he has a respectable point to make in saying it may be a crazy world without belief in a supernatural source for morality?

    I would rather not argue the point since I’m thoroughly incapable of doing so but I do remember Dostoevsky saying something similar along the lines of “If there was no God, anything is possible”

    Posted December 7, 2008 at 6:05 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Well, JW, the problem is that supernatural sources of morality don’t hold up under close examination anyway, as Kevin points out. You might look at what is sometimes called “divine command theory”, or the “Euthyphro dilemma“; I’ve written a bit about it all myself, here and here, and elsewhere.

    Also, if we rely on supernatural sources, we still have a problem, because if we disagree, whose imaginary source do we consult — yours or mine? After all, it’s not like there is any shortage of believers in supernatural powers out there as matters stand, but it’s still a crazy world anyway.

    Finally, I like to think that we nonbelievers are walking proof that you can be a decent person without needing to be told what to do by the gods.

    Posted December 7, 2008 at 6:22 pm | Permalink
  5. JW says

    Yes, I do remember reading about that problem, and so in a purely dialectical framework, I guess we are left with, “how do we deal with a world that in fact does not believe in a single provider of supernatural moral law”?

    Which of course is the world that we’re living in now, and I think we’d agree that it’s pretty crazy out there. So the solution seems to be, however we can arrive at it – whether through philosophy or science — and regardless of whether any of our moral and metaphysical beliefs are true, let us first of all somehow get to a point where we all believe in a single value system where fanatical acts of intolerance is minimized.

    I think I would lean in favor of this solution, but I don’t think most people would agree.

    Posted December 7, 2008 at 7:35 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    I’d lean in favor of that one too. Don’t hold your breath, though.

    Posted December 7, 2008 at 7:44 pm | Permalink
  7. pdg says

    I can not prove what I believe about metaphysical matters. Who can? Yet, I do know there are many troubles in every life. I don’t believe in heaven and hell per se, but if they do exist as a here-after, what criteria can be used for entry, when each faith has conflicting proscribed behaviors, such as a belief in another faith prohibits entry into heaven? And what good would heaven be if it isn’t possible for everyone to get there?
    It seems to me it is how we bring our selves through duress that takes our measure, or it may be that how much troublesome grief we cause, is weighed against how much joy we perpetrate…I actually hope that if such planes of being exist, that it all comes down to how diligently we cultivate our sense of humor. It would be divine justice if history’s most fearless humorists guard the gates of heaven. Lenny Bruce and W.C. Fields have already trained Buddy Hackett, and more recently, George Carlin to guard the happy realm of heaven from any intrusive grumpy-Gus. Robin Williams may yet offer indulgences, allowing us to commune with the spirit of Groucho; or Sarah Silverman may evoke Lucy Ball to invoke Buster Keaton to forgive us our lack of good humor …This may be too complicated a system. How would someone like G. W. Bush fare? Just his astounding record of executions while Gov of Texas could keep him out of heaven; but the fodder of his malapropos produced enough fuel for comics to perhaps allow a few moments in purgatory before his much deserved sojourn in hell, maybe. There is just too much natural irony and slap-stick mayhem for divinity not to maintain a sense of humor. Tough as it may be, it is surely a funny world that we are blessed with.

    Posted December 9, 2008 at 6:42 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    And what good would heaven be if it isn’t possible for everyone to get there?

    What good, you ask??? Why, it keeps those bloody infidels out! Let them feel God’s wrath, and burn in hell.

    Posted December 9, 2008 at 6:55 pm | Permalink
  9. pdg says

    ah a plan is hatching…fire -good!

    but those nasty infidels still get a much better deal in their heaven…so not getting into Christianity’s is a gyp for us… we dont even get to let our devils poke them if they should choose another heaven its just not Fair!

    I think we need an equal oportunity heaven… one for all or not at all- you athiests would win that one fer sure- I have a notion that all hells are more crowded than all heavens –
    anyway I’ll send a link to a good joke ’bout same asap-

    Posted December 11, 2008 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  10. pdg says


    The first joke is what I reference above -but the rest are pretty good too- enjoy!!

    Posted December 11, 2008 at 12:12 pm | Permalink