You state that there is no way that this commonly held belief about right and wrong could have come about unless it was given to us by a supernatural agency - that it could not have evolved. This is demonstrably not true. A society in which such values as honesty, the sanctity of property and of human life are not held to be important cannot survive. As you pointed out, the thief does not want to be robbed himself. The liar does not want to lose his credibility with others and the murderer does not want to be murdered in revenge. Besides this strictly utilitarian explanation, we also have the quality of empathy (at any rate some of us do). Although you can look on this also as being "from above", my own examination of my own feelings reveals this to be a natural consequence of the human imagination. We imagine ourselves to be in another's place and feel compassion thereby (if anything points to the possibility for the existence of a God, I think it is the imagination).
You also argue that the possibility of an afterlife is as much a threat as it is a promise. In most Christian belief systems, this is not true, at least for the believing Christian. The same religion that introduces the idea of heaven and hell offers the believer a clear path to the former, under the "carrot-and-stick" principle. The devout worshipper can be reasonably assured of going to the "good place". For the non-believer, death remains frightening and depressing. First of all, our healthy, innate sense of self-preservation instills the fear of death in us. Second, the implication that our lives are meaningless in the greater scheme of things cannot be faced without a certain courage. No one would come to this conclusion without being forced to it when a more desirable alternative belief exists (several of them, in fact).
Although I found your essay personally unconvincing, I would like to compliment you on its eloquence and intelligence. It is a welcome antidote to those who claim that atheists "really believe in God, but reject him because this allows them to sin with impunity". I think we must all have the courtesy of treating others' beliefs as sincere, unless it is proven otherwise. There can be no dialogue of any kind if we start from the assumption that those who hold an opposing viewpoint are doing so out of willfull perversity.
Thanks for writing--and for your complementary words. You seem very bright and probably know more about the scientific aspect of evolutionary theories than I. Of course God could have used an evolutionary process to instill in us the sense of morality we have.
But before talking about those things it is important to say something about "irrational motives for belief." I appreciate you saying that I do not impute them to atheists. However, I must admit that I was doing that in the Carl Sagan essay as a response to what he said in the opening quote:
This is a common way of arguing.* If we can expose an irrational motive behind someone's belief we have discredited it and no further argument is necessary. "You only say that because you are a man." Or white, or straight, or middle class...or tied to your parents or because you are an escapist or have a hidden vice.
You were arguing that way in what you said about the "carrot and stick" principle. I'm not saying you are being unfair, Mark. It's important for us to examine hidden motives which might lead us to believe something irrational. In the Carl Sagan essay I was trying to help an atheist appreciate that some of his motive for belief in naturalism might be unreasonable.
It would be easy for me to make a statement similar to Sagan's:
I don't know how to resolve this issue of possible irrational motives except that each person examine his own self. But as far as answering whether God exists or not, it seems to me that at least the two accusations cancel each other out. What do you think?
Fr. Phil Bloom
*Regarding Christians it is an easy argument to make since we often talk about the "comfort" we receive from our faith. However, true comfort can only come after (and along with) a terrifying awareness of what it means to be a creature--and a sinner. I admit I have not advanced very far myself in that awareness, but I do sometimes tremble when I read what the great saints say about it. And when they talk about comfort it is not some pie in the sky, but standing before Jesus on the cross.
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Accident and Design
Dilemma of the Moral Atheist
See also: An Eternally Unbridgeable Chasm
The Fiery Furnace
Jesus Teaching Concerning Heaven
Some Good News on Teen Pregnancy and Abortion
Hitler's Pope: Comic Book Approach to Church History
He Approached the Victim: "It's much more likely one of your relatives will lose his life by surgical abortion than by heart attack."
Germaine Greer on Birth Control
Human Cloning: A Catholic Perspective (How the Unthinkable Became Inevitable)
Boston Globe's Misleading Article on Catholic Church
Deflating Darwin's Dangerous Idea
Stephen Jay Gould: Gorbachev of Darwinism?
Test Tube Offspring Want to Know Father
Erickson vs. Bartell Drugs
Call No Man Father
What is Original Sin of Sex?
Bicentennial Man (Hidden Assumptions)
Bogus Knights of Columbus Oath
Ossuary of James, Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus