“In fact, if a Christian became an atheist his or her behavior wouldn't change much either, which is another reason why it's not the Bible that forms our ethics. Michael Shermer asks the Christian one simple question. ‘What would you do if there were no God? Would you commit robbery, rape, and murder, or would you continue being a good and moral person? Either way the question is a debate stopper. If the answer is that you would soon turn to robbery, rape, or murder, then this is a moral indictment of your character, indicating you are not to be trusted because if, for any reason, you were to turn away from your belief in God, your true immoral nature would emerge…If the answer is that you would continue being good and moral, then apparently you can be good without God. QED.’ [Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil, pp. 154-155].”
This is becoming a popular tactic among militant atheists. Dawkins uses the same tactic in his new book.
There are several problems with this “debate-stopper”:
1.It is attempting to shame the opponent rather than reason with him. The “debate-stopper” is only a moral indictment of Shermer, Dawkins, et al., who—having lost the argument—resort to emotional extortion.
2.It begs the question. The question at issue is not whether I would still be a virtuous person if I lost my faith in God.
Rather, the question at issue is whether it would even be meaningful to be a virtuous person if I lost my faith in God.
Suppose my behavior didn’t change at all. This wouldn’t indicate that I was just as virtuous after having lost my faith as I was beforehand.
Rather, it would simply mean I was doing the same things. But doing the same things now that I was doing before doesn’t imply that what I was doing beforehand was ethical
Rather, the argument is that, absent God, whatever I do is amoral, whether I change me behavior or continue with business as usual.
3.The question assumes that rape, robbery, and murder are immoral, so that it would be immoral of an apostate to commit rape, robbery, or murder.
But if moral norms depend on God, and God did not exist, then it would not be a moral indictment on the apostate to commit rape, robbery, or murder.
4.The question is also misleading, for the absence of an external deterrent doesn’t mean that we will automatically do what we had hitherto refrained from doing.
I, as an apostate, might refrain from rape, robbery, or murder, not because I think they’re evil, but because I have no particular desire to indulge in rape, robbery, or murder.
5.Apropos (4), as long as rape, robbery, and murder are illegal, the average apostate will still refrain from these activities, even if he has no moral compunction about committing them, due to the risk of legal reprisal. But if he could do it with impunity, and if he had the desire to do so (4), why not?
BTW, ever notice that as Christian morality declines, security cameras proliferate? Along with metal detectors, prepaid gasoline, random drug testing, random roadblocks, &c.
6.Historically, a certain percentage of the male population will commit rape if there is no social stigma or social sanction to the contrary. Before the modern laws of warfare, that was commonplace among invading armies.
And there are cultures in which gang-rape is actually part of the honor-code or rite of initiation.
7.Another reason that many apostates still behave much like Christians is because they retain the remnants of a Christian conscience.
It’s quite different with someone who has no Christian background, such as the Samurai, Viet Cong, or Khmer Rouge, &c.
8.Although most apostates aren’t dumb enough to commit rape, robbery, and murder as long as these are criminal activities, one thing unbelievers do is to change the law so that certain forms of rape, robbery, and murder are decriminalized—or even attain the status of civil rights.
i) For example, homosexuals often lobby to lower or abolish the age of consent. The result is legalized child rape.
ii) Liberals enact various forms of homicide into law, such as abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.
iii) Liberals also codify robbery. They garnish your wages (income tax). They treat you as a serf or tenant farmer who lives in a company town, shops at the company store (sales tax), and rents his home (property tax, the estate tax). You never own anything outright. You’re always paying the government for the privilege of having a roof over your head and food on the table.
In communism, the state owns everything. Socialism is communism in kid gloves.
Recently, a leading secular philosopher dropped all the euphemisms and made it clear that we are all public employees. All housing is public housing:
Cf. T. Nagel, The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice (Oxford 2002).
So, yes, Mr. Shermer, left to our own devices it’s only a matter of time before rape, robbery, and murder would become public policy. Indeed, that prospect has played out to one degree or another whenever an unchristian regime has been in power for long.
There is, indeed, a truly immoral nature just waiting to emerge.