Christian Smith is Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame.  In his book he is rehashing worn out Christian objections to atheism.  He claims that we see that atheists can do good but argues that they have no real compelling reason to be.  This is presented as "nice" but is it?  A person doing good but who wrecks the reasons for it is not good. He thinks atheists are not sticking to what they know but isn't that what he is doing himself?  It depends on what a person reads and he clearly has not read well.

And his Jesus went on about evil generation and evil people and did not pretend to think that the evil in a person does not define them.  Smith rejects the idea that you can tell if a person's life is good or bad for that is over-simplifying.  But he knows nobody really does that.  We mean a person is bad when they do say one terrible thing such as a doctor killing a child patient on purpose or generally bad.  He explains that good is complicated and you can do great harm in getting it wrong.  So like atheists then his Christian theology struggles with good too.  So why is he pretending any different?  Why is he saying atheism is too vague and weak on good to be commendable or acceptable?

QUOTE: By my account, then, a good reason for being “good without God” must entail both an explanation and a motivation for why people should be so. On this point I part ways with rationalist Kantian ethics, which insists that warranting explanations always contain their own justifying motivations, so that all any person needs is a reasoned account for why an action is right or wrong, and that ought automatically to motivate any rational person to conform to her duty of obeying the moral law. I believe Kantians are misguided, and I maintain that a truly good reason for moral actions requires both a warranting explanation and a motivational justification.

COMMENT: Kant held that you can justify moral action without needing God for it justifies itself.  Smith is saying that Kantianism is not giving you a desire based motive to be good like belief in God might.  But religion says God is very different from us.  He has all knowledge and does not even need to deliberate.  To make it as personal as Smith wants then do we need superhuman Gods like the Mormon God or Thor?  Yes.  The atheist simply switches this fellow feeling from gods to men.  Gods are made in the image of men anyway.  These gods are just men with extra abilities. 

By moral Kant meant that which is right in all times and places and is the opposite of what is wrong in all times and places.  He said what is immoral is what stops the world functioning if everybody were to commit that action.  But enough people do find the philosophy helpful even if not perfect.  Are we talking preferences here? Clearly we are.  We don't want a world where everybody lies.  It is not true that Kant advocated a purely cognitive cold morality.  The emotion is there underneath it all.

Morality and preferences are different things.  Trying to mix both together and calling it morality will not work.

QUOTE SAYING THAT NO ATHEIST MORALIST IS CLEAR ON WHAT GOOD MEANS: A few are muddled and unclear. Sometimes they describe moral goodness with vague phrases like “behaving ethically,” our “deepest values,” and helping others to “be more of a person.”

COMMENT: Some say say, "We don't need definitional clarity. We know good when we see it. We know that good is a default for even if there were nothing at all it is good at least that we don't exist to suffer. It is bad in other ways but that is not the point. Good is there still."

I'd put light grey where the word good is.  Anything else is just sophistry.  It is not just atheists who have a problem with how muddled and hazy good is.


Rebecca Goldstein’s reference to the philosopher Thomas Nagel, who argues in his book The Possibility of Altruism that “logic commits us to universalize . . . certain natural attitudes that already commit us to valuing our own lives.” That is, we can reason that “we all know for ourselves that there is a right or wrong . . . so from there only radical selfishness could prevent us from understanding that these concepts are universal.” (Here we appear to return to the Kantian view of having a “good reason” for acting morally...) And, Epstein says, since selfishness leads to unhappiness (which shifts back to a consequentialist ethics), that is not an option. Hence universalism. “Ethics really isn’t that complicated,” Epstein concludes. Neither Kitcher’s nor Epstein’s arguments for universalism is remotely persuasive. They may “convince” people who, for other (good or bad) reasons, already want to believe in inclusive moral universalism without thinking too hard about it. But convincing people who are already or mostly convinced is not the challenge. The challenge is to convince reasonable skeptics.

COMMENT: The most important argument in the book is that atheists cannot come up with a reason why moral rules apply to everybody regardless of what they believe and think.  In fact saying God has spoken and commands it, is not a reason for there is no evidence.

The book accuses Kitcher and Epstein of trying to make out we should simply assume on the basis of trust in their philosophy and what they say that ethics applies to everybody. Epstein tries to force you to agree with him by saying you are radically selfish if you do not. So our author says that atheist moralities just have to resort to bullying to get you to agree that morality applies to all people.  In fact we could say most moralists bully for even if say most Christians should have reasons for you, they never do.

QUOTE - ATHEISTS HAVE TO HIDE HOW ACTUALLY HUMAN AND GUESSED THEIR MORAL RULES ARE: Yet if atheism is correct, human practices of ethics will function more effectively if the general public remains in obfuscated darkness about morality’s mere human origins and sheer functional purposes. People who believe that their moral norms reflect objective standards of moral truth—what philosophers call “moral facts”—will be more likely to uphold them than people who see that they are mere human constructions that evolved to reduce social conflicts and enhance general human well-being. The Great and Terrible Oz of morality, so to speak, was only revered and obeyed.

COMMENT: True but it ignores the fact that we are forced to have an objective morality anyway.  It is not the atheists who are forcing. Even if you say no moral rule is valid you are saying moral rules are immoral.  If you say for example that justice is just a lie you are saying it is unfair to say anything else so you have a sense of justice after all even if warped. See the point? Conscience and objective morality force you to hear them. Even God has to live with that!  You cannot dump objective morality without replacing it with another one.  This is what matters.  Not God.  God cannot help the problem and it is just unfair to say he can.

QUOTE REGARDING ATHEIST SAM HARRIS THAT BEING GOOD IS MORE NATURAL THAN WE REALISE: Harris writes: “our selfish and selfless interest do not always conflict.” True, but sometimes they do, and that is the problem at stake. Bayer and Figdor claim that “pursuing [one’s own] happiness . . . can and do[es] lead to ‘typical’ moral behavior” in part because “enlightened self-interest [means that] prioritizing your own concerns can lead you to behave in a way that is moral and beneficial for society.”True again. But just because it can lead to that does not mean that it always will or should. They also write: “we choose to act morally because our personal preferences are to act in that way."

COMMENT: Harris by encouraging one to match the two up and getting enough people to do it could actually cause things overall to be for the best.

If we are very selfish but still unselfish most of the time, then the morality that governs us may be imperfect rather than non-functional! Or we are what is imperfect or non-functional. What then of the argument: "We can be selfish or unselfish.  The latter will bring real world results on us that destroy us.  Morality may not matter for nature forces things on us anyway that would remind of what morality is like"? It has a point but does not prove nature and morality are friends or not friends.

QUOTE: Officially, science is only methodologically naturalistic, not metaphysically so, meaning that scientific methods and explanations only appeal to natural causes but science makes no judgments about the nature of ultimate reality.

COMMENT:  Officially your blood test showing too much iron is only methodologically naturalistic, not metaphysically so.  Science makes no judgement about whether the iron is the problem or some spiritual and undetectable force in it.  Really? 

Smith assumes there could be a spirit God or force that is outside of nature and that can exist independently of it. Science does treat the natural as ultimate reality - period!  If you say you have something transcendent that agrees that some tests be done or that it says something other-worldly skewed an experiment's outcomes, science will run from your door.  You will not be entertained.

QUOTE: Evolution provides no moral orientation whatsoever. For many years evolutionists believed that they could squeeze the doctrine of Progress out of evolution. But it did not take long to realize that evolution is simply an account of change, not progress or advance. Organisms do tend to “want” to survive. But on evolutionary grounds per se we cannot say that it was morally good or bad that the dinosaurs lived or died, for instance. It simply happened.

COMMENT: Evolution has no direct moral orientation. It is not about morality. But morality is about changing yourself so evolution being about change is accidentally moral.

QUOTE: I can imagine some saying “yes, but the time has come to extend our cooperative capacities to the entire human race. We must learn global cooperation if we as humans are to survive.” As an empirical fact, that may be so (or it may not be—it is an empirical question). But even if it is empirically true, still left unexplained in the claim are the reasons justifying the words “entire” in the first sentence and “must” in the second sentence. Once again, this claim presupposes what we actually need to explain and vindicate, namely, the warranted moral force of a universalistic obligation.

COMMENT: There is no evidence that anybody who preaches we must make a better world for all really means it. In reality everybody is selective.  Actions speak loudest.

Some might say you cannot call presupposing bad for we have to presuppose anyway so we can just assume all people should be helped as far as possible.

And what kind of goodness are we going to give to all those people? The modest goodness which the book says the atheist has, or a stronger more intense goodness?

Modest goodness is a relative term.  Doing good for strangers impresses people but only you know if you are cutting corners.  You can always do better and do more.  Thus the argument that Christians can do more than modest good and atheists would not be expected to is superficial.

QUOTE: If and when people come to see these “morals” as mere social conventions, the main thing that will then compel their conformity in action is the threat of greater harm for not conforming. And that is not a prescription for sustaining a robust culture of universal benevolence and human rights.

COMMENT: True.  But this happens under Christian and Atheist cultures alike. 

QUOTE: If reproductive fitness is enhanced by engaging in cooperative social life, then that is good; if reproductive fitness is enhanced by antisocial selfishness, then that is good too.

COMMENT: That is exactly what evolution and natural selection would say if they could speak. If we cannot help it that we have to be social or anti-social to reproduce, then reproducing is still good.

QUOTE: Utilitarianism is incapable on its own terms of explaining why anyone should actually be committed to the happiness of the greatest number. Why not—given utilitarianism’s assumption of hedonic individualism—simply be concerned with one’s own pleasure and happiness and perhaps those of the other people we care about?

COMMENT: We all benefit from people who think that way and always have.  Is that not enough? 

And does it need to explain why?  The idea is attractive and is that not enough?  Can we not say, "We should do it for we like it?"  It would be strange to say we should do it for we don't like it.  My happiness is threatened if others think Utilitarianism is wrong.  Nobody can even consider happiness important at all without considering the possibility of making most happy is practical.  It explains itself.  It does explain on its own terms.

QUOTE: Let us suppose that a version of Shafer-Landau’s case is correct in which in reality only two (and no more) kinds of properties and facts exist:

(1) scientifically discoverable natural facts, and

(2) self-evident ethical facts having no religious basis. That is, no divine, transcendent, or (quasi-)religious property like karma exists, even though moral facts exist. We would then have a version of Shafer-Landau’s self-evident moral realism that a nonnaturalist atheist could embrace, by accepting the reality of immaterial, nonnatural moral facts while still rejecting the existence of God or other religious entity related to those moral facts. Does that secure us universal benevolence and human rights? The answer is: not now and probably not ever. Shafer-Landau has not listed universal benevolence and human rights among the moral facts he believes are self-evident, and I doubt he would ever attempt it. Let us be clear: a vast distance separates “do not inflict pain on others for your own pleasure” from “actively practice benevolence toward and champion the human rights of all people everywhere, as you are able.” The first is prohibitive and narrow, the second is proscriptive and globally expansive ...

COMMENT: That is back to the discredited argument that there seems to be no reason to think we should do what we can with an eye to improving the whole world for everybody.  It is like arguing that if you chose lemon cake for your tea there was no reason to refuse the alternative, the pancake.


We cannot avoid being grey as in harming and helping.  All harm helps.  All help harms.  In that light there is nothing odd if an atheist says we should think of helping the whole world.  If rules are grey we can affirm that as just another grey rule.  Smith wants us to think it is stupid and flat out wrong if there is no God commanding universal love.

Good is a misleading term and riddled with notions of pure goodness and so on which are misleading.  This book is thinking of good as in something that is like a part of a perfectly loving God.  It is guilty of trying to prove that atheists cannot be very good based on its definition of good when it should be justifying that view of good in the first place.  This is not done.  No reasoning in circles please.

The last point is that saying the whole world should be helped has no practical value.  It is only words.  Look at what people do.  Let action speak.  Everybody is selective period.  For some, the best way to improve the world is not to permeate their loving action all over the globe but to choose carefully who they will help.  The world is improved if you help your bubble of five people even though they are not the whole world.  See the point? Things are still better even if it is only in one bit.  Being open to the whole world is not being open to the whole world.  You cannot help everybody.  So what you really have is a command that you must help all if you can. This is about intention.  Intention is very internal and in this case it is about trying to approve of yourself without putting in the work.

How useful is our morality of love and justice anyway?  The worst choices in life are nobody's to make but mine.  For example, even if abortion is immoral, it is still only the person carrying the pregnancy who can choose.  It is not for their god, their government, doctor or partner to choose.  Who says that doing the right thing means doing the nice or attractive thing? That is not how it works Mr Smith.    

Reviewed 18 Feb 2021 on Amazon


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