Thursday, February 26, 2009

can we be good without god?

a couple hundred people turned out last night to see the 'can you be good without god' debate at smu. eric beresford, head of the atlantic school of theology, debated with justin trottier, head of the free thought association of canada.

the spark for the debate was of course the proposed bus ads. the event lasted 2 hours, but here are my highlights:

neither eric nor justin carry coins. to decide who got to speak first, they had to borrow a quarter. eric won the toss; make of that what you will.

eric noted that the fta's proposed ad, there's probably no god, so relax and enjoy your life, is amusing and pleasant in fine neighbourhoods, but wondered how it would play in slums. his general thesis was that when we start dissecting ethics, when we try and categorize it and make it into a set of practices, we lose the heart of ethics. instead, he said, we should focus on relationships. he quoted the story of jesus and the samaritan woman at the well, where jesus takes water from an arch rival of the jews of the day, an unclean untouchable sort.

this is of course the heart of jesus' teaching - don't follow the letter of the law, but its spirit.

eric, i think, was saying that goodness comes from one's relationship with god, and this can be then passed on to others.

he also mentioned desmond tutu's peace and reconciliation in south africa. that, he said, was a spiritually inspired effort to heal relationships when people have badly failed. he was unaware of a similar, atheist solution to the problem of healing badly broken relationships.

in short, you can be good without god, but goodness comes from god, whether you believe in god or not. i think - it was a complex, 20-minute argument.

justin started with the story of isaac, and god asking abraham to murder his son. could there have been any other outcome, he asked. if yes - if god could have had father murder son - then who would take ethics from such a being. if no, then you're using independent thought to develop your ethics, and god is again removed from the equation.

in short, the old riddle: is something good because god says so (in which case nothing is intrinsically good and can change on a dime) or because it is good in itself (in which case, why bother asking god?)?

he noted that how religions interpret scripture/ethics changes over time and in different places. this too points to an independent criteria for what's good and what's not.

as sartre said, man is condemned to be free - we must chose our ethics.

a chap called al chaddock got the biggest round of applause when he spoke in the q&a period. this is the city of joe howe, he said, the great defender of free thought and public debate. how great would it be, he said, if ads on our buses were promoting discussions like this in our city, rather than just selling us crap. people wouldn't want to get off the bus!

the real treat of the evening was to see eric in full intellectual glory. i've interviewed him a few times, but had no idea how deep and wide his knowledge went. his first degree is in genetics and he is a canon. his vast knowledge - and his ability to help others understand it - was a pleasure to watch.

it's an ancient, intractable debate. both sides could cite sources thousands of years old and from today. people have been aware of this problem for a long time, and it's solution is as close as the horizon.


  1. Hmmm - The number one error people make is in thinking that what MAN calls good - God also calls good. This is because we live in a humanist age where even religious people forget God should be the focus and not man. More here:

    I'm against the message but because of this reason but hey - we all have freedom of speech so as if that's the message some wish to proclaim it's up to them...

  2. But if we can't understand what God means by 'good', then we have a communication problem. If we can't understand God, what's the purpose of divine revelation?