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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
40 pages
Apr 2007
Evangelical Press

Can We Be Good Without God?

by Dr. John Blanchard

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


Can we be good without God?

In December 2005 a film produced in Hollywood and shot mainly in New Zealand swept into Britain on a tidal wave of publicity. Costing $150 million to make, it had already attracted huge audiences in the United States. Now, as it reached the homeland of the author on whose book the screenplay was based, the response was phenomenal, not least from professional film critics. In the Daily Mail, Chris Tookey opened his review by saying, ‘Here is a wonderful, colossal, stupendous film… This is not just a “must see” but a “must see again and again”.’ He went on to call the acting quality ‘exceptional’, the special effects ‘breathtaking’ and the climax ‘truly amazing’.1 Other newspapers added their enthusiastic endorsements. The Daily Express called it ‘magical’; the Sunday Express said it was ‘enchanting’ and the Metro thought it was ‘sensational’.

Almost as remarkable as the chorus of commendations was the fact that the film had none of the elements often found in modern movies. Although it contained some lively battle scenes, there was no sleaze, no profanity, no salacious sex, no gore and no nudity. Instead, it championed faith and morality. As the Daily Mail’s Christopher Hart put it, it was ‘a story about loyalty through thick and thin, human weakness, looking out for each other,  courage, forgiveness, sacrifice and redemption’.

The film was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of an intended six films based on The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of books written by the universally respected British author C. S. Lewis some fifty years earlier. although not well reviewed at first, they steadily grew in popularity and over 100 million copies had been sold by the time the first live-action adaptation reached the cinema. In its opening weekend box office takings grossed $67.1 million and attracted rave reviews from coast to coast. The New York Daily News rated it ‘a thrilling success’,2 the San Francisco Chronicle said it was ‘a movie of intelligence and power, of beauty, universality and largeness of spirit’3 and the Baltimore Sun called it ‘downright ennobling’.4

Not everybody agreed. After the film’s British premiere the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee let fly. She found some of it ‘toe-curlingly, cringingly awful’, saw the whole thing as being ‘profoundly manipulative’ and ‘dark with emotional sadism’ and approvingly quoted author Philip Pullman’s condemnation of The Chronicles of Narnia as ‘one of the most ugly, poisonous things I have ever read’.5 The key to understanding Toynbee’s devastating outburst becomes clear at the end of her review, when she attacks the film’s central character as ‘an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion’. This lets a rather large cat out of the bag, as it tells us that she was writing not as an objective film critic, but as a hard-core atheist, convinced that, as we face the constant conflict between good and evil, there is no God to whom we can turn. In her own words, ‘No one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come… There is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves… We need no holy guide books, only a very human compass.’ This sets the scene perfectly for all that follows in this booklet.

The starting point

Polly Toynbee’s main point is that in the absence of God we are perfectly capable not only of redeeming ourselves from the harmful effects of evil, but of drawing a clear distinction between evil and good in the first place. All we need to make the all-important distinction is ‘a very human compass’. But is this the case? Unless God exists, can we even discuss whether anything is ‘good’ or ‘evil’? Do these words have any real meaning unless God is central to our world view? This is the real starting point.

Everyone has a world view, as it simply means the way you look at anything at all — including history, the natural world, your own life and the lives of others. It governs your basic beliefs about all reality, including your total outlook on the universe and your own place in it. Put even more succinctly, a world view is how you view the world. To use a simple illustration, different world views are like people looking at the same scene through differently tinted sunglasses. Your world view influences everything you think, say or do, because it is what you assume to be true before you claim that anything else is true — and it is easy to see that this radically affects your view of ethics and morality.

The word ‘ethics’ is defined in the Oxford Dictionary of English as ‘moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity’,6 while the same dictionary defines ‘morals’ as ‘standards of behaviour; principles of right and wrong’.7 The two words are obviously closely related, though their meaning is not strictly identical. In very simple terms, ‘morals’ define what a person believes to be right or wrong, while ‘ethics’ is the study of what a person believes to be right or wrong — and both ethics and morals depend fundamentally on an individual’s world view. For example, Polly Toynbee saw exactly the same images and heard exactly the same soundtrack as the critics who praised The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to the skies, yet, as the final flourish of her review makes clear, her withering attack was not triggered by a difference in intellect, nationality or cultural prejudice, but by her world view.

For our present purposes we can divide world views into three categories. Firstly, there are those that assume a world without God — such as humanism (man is at the centre of everything), materialism (nature is all there is), existentialism (there are no universal values) and nihilism (nothing is of any ultimate significance). Secondly, there are those tied in to one of the countless religious systems man has invented over the centuries. These range from Hinduism (which offers over thirty million gods) to Zoroastrianism (which says there are two) and include a bewildering cascade of concepts in which God is seen as a force of nature, cosmic energy, a spirit living in all material elements or (as in the case of Islam) as an austere and remote Ruler ‘so far above man in every way that he is not personally knowable’.8 Thirdly, there is the one which sees the God who reveals himself in the Bible not only as the Creator of all reality outside of himself and the sole and sovereign Ruler of all his creation, but as one who created human beings as moral agents, who is passionately concerned for our moral well-being and who calls us into a living relationship with himself. This is the God I have in mind in writing this booklet, and the question we need to ask and answer is this: can we even talk sensibly about good and evil unless this world view governs our thinking?

Kant’s wall

Many of the world’s greatest thinkers have wrestled with our question. One of the real heavyweights was the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. His ‘big idea’ was that all knowledge could be divided into two ‘worlds’. One comprised the things recognized by our five senses — sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch — while in the other Kant placed God and anything that could not be recognized by our senses or scientifically demonstrated. He then in effect put a ‘wall’ between these two worlds and said that as human beings we did not have the ability to climb over this wall and get to grips with the second ‘world’. It is ironic that whereas his first name — ‘Immanuel’ — is a Hebrew word meaning ‘God with us’, Kant’s teaching has led millions to believe that, far from being ‘with us’, God is walled up in a world we are unable to reach!

As Kant placed morality on the far side of his ‘wall’, he was saying that judgements about right and wrong were matters of personal opinion and it is easy to see that Polly Toynbee’s ‘very human compass’ ties in with this idea. Kant’s fingerprints are all over the now outdated idea that while science deals only with facts, religion is purely a matter of faith and speculation. Yet even he admitted that there was one area of human experience that demanded the existence of God, and an inscription on his tombstone tells us what this was: ‘Two things fill my mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the reflection dwells on them, the starry heavens above and the moral law within’ (emphasis added).

In the course of his writings Kant argued that, as this universal moral law was not something man had invented, it must come from what he called a ‘Supreme Being’, who gave us freedom to obey or disobey and who would eventually dispense perfect justice beyond the grave. Although his idea of God (an impersonal deity that brought the universe into being and then abandoned it) falls far short of the Bible’s teaching, he nevertheless came to the conclusion that ‘We must live as though there were a God.’ Even this towering sceptic found that he could not build a model of morality without somehow smuggling God into it, as without God the concept of ethics would be meaningless and leave human life without any moral anchor.

The extra dimension

None of the above is to suggest that people who doubt or deny God’s existence are incapable of doing things commonly accepted as being ‘good’. This would be a ludicrous idea. As we have already stated, the question we are considering goes much deeper than that and asks what basis we have for describing any thought, word or action as being ‘good’ or ‘evil’ in the first place. For example, in a world without God, can we have any solid reason for calling such things as purity, honesty and humility ‘good’, or their opposites ‘evil’?

The Polish-born British mathematician and humanist Jacob Bronowski once wrote, ‘Man is not different in kind from any other forms of life … living matter is not different in kind from dead matter… It seems self-evident to say that man is part of nature, in the same sense that a stone is, or a cactus, or a camel.’9 This is typical of the views expressed by hard-line atheists, but all the evidence is against it. There are many ways in which human life is fundamentally different not only from the natural world, but from every other form of life on earth. We have vastly superior intelligence; we are historical beings, conscious of our past and concerned about our future; we have a deep-rooted instinct that we are more than atomic accidents; we make unique use of language; we are capable of complex reasoning and lateral thinking; we have mathematical skills; and we have an aesthetic dimension, enabling us to speak of things as being beautiful or ugly.

But humankind has another distinguishing mark, one so universal and entrenched that nobody can honestly or sensibly deny it: we have a moral dimension. For thousands of years it has been universally accepted that there is a radical difference between right and wrong, and it seems difficult to deny that a moral law appears to be programmed into our psychological ‘software’.