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Can We Be Good without God?

Last night, Dinesh D’Souza ‘83 returned to campus to debate philosophy professor and well known atheist Walter Sinnott-Armstrong on the question “Can We Be Good without God”. Speaking to about 400 students and community members packed into Alumni Hall, the debate followed a string of exemplary efforts on the part of Mr. D’Souza. Sinnott-Armstrong and D’Souza spent much of the evening debating whether atheism should be blamed for the notable atheists who committed mass slaughters during the 20th century. D’Souza argued that Christians are still held responsible for the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials (though he pointed out that recent studies showed that the death toll for those events was grossly overestimated), and that atheism was a central tenet to the doctrines of Marx, Stalin, Mao, and Hitler. He said that “the removal of God and search for a Godless society has led to an ocean of blood”. Referring to Pol Pot as a “mid-level atheist” who only managed to kill two million people, he proceeded to list the impressive string of well known atheists in our lifetimes who slaughtered their citizens.

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While D’Souza easily proves that being without God can produce morally corrupt individuals, it is more difficult to prove that we cannot be good without God. In answering the charge that there are certainly atheists who are “good people”, D’Souza argued that even without an explicit belief in God, their moral systems have been shaped by Christianity which has so deeply stamped America and Europe. With this point, there can be no argument. While people often argue that the separation of church and state is a central tenet of the American political system, I disagree. I find it to be the complete opposite. References to God have been present since the beginning of our nation. God was a visibly present theme in our Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the future third president of the United States. The words “Under God” are added by each new president as he is sworn into office despite no formal requirement. Our money is printed with the words “In God we Trust”. Even our Constitution relies on Christian principles of equality for all men as a result of their divine creation. I look to the First Amendment to limit the role religion should play in our society, but I have always found the claim that the U.S. should have a complete separation of church and state a bit absurd. Perhaps this explains the fervor of atheists who are in the minority- except on college campuses that is. While the rejection of traditional religions has increased over the past few years, the Pope remains the most notable religious figure in the world whose visit to the United States ignites months of press and excitement from the devout. Christianity is far from dead in the United States and continues to exert tremendous control over the morality of our government.

Last night’s debate was an interesting opportunity to showcase the secular views that pervade classrooms on the Dartmouth campus. Sinnott-Armstrong may be one of the most well known, but many more of his colleagues share and in fact endorse these views. A few months ago, Dartblog reported on the extreme religious intolerance demonstrated in an opinion piece published by the local campus newspaper. It seems that these days on campus, one can be many things, but religious or conservative are not among them. While I took a course with Sinnott-Armstrong and never found him to be as righteous in his non belief as several of his esteemed colleagues, the general campus record still leaves much to be desired.

On the note of Dartmouth secularism, I will leave you with the most notable moment of the debate. Sinnott-Armstrong turned to Dartmouth as proof that one can be moral without God saying, “Only 43 percent of Dartmouth students believe in God and yet I don’t see any rampant immorality on campus [laughter]….well”. It was the biggest laugh from the audience of the evening and certainly failed to buttress his argument the way he intended.

JOE adds: A professor solicited my thoughts on the event this morn. Here is what I wrote:

Well, I have had the good fortune to hear Walter’s rhapsody on the subject of God before. And Dinesh’s, as he gave it to an audience at King’s College in Manhattan six months ago. Neither has updated his discourse, alas, and so the debate was more a duel of soliloquists. One could not expect a humble meeting in Alumni Hall to resolve ancient questions; perhaps the best we could have hoped for was entertainment, which was provided. The finest moment was when Walter, evaluating various atheistic populations to observe their morality or immorality — a fundamentally flawed method of argument, you’ll agree; but all that be done in an environment obsessed with empiricism — suggested that one could of course possess morals without God, because after all 55% of Dartmouth students, according to the latest senior survey, do not believe in God, and one cannot observe any pervasive iniquity here. A beat passed before the audience, 500 or thereabouts, howled its incredulity.

The essential disappointment was that Dinesh did not thoroughly enough parry Walter’s mode of argument. The question “Can we be good without God?” cannot be evaluated by observing whether today’s God-fearer is more good than today’s atheist. It is a question of the provenance of goodness. Walter gave a weak Darwinian explanation for the success of good (i.e., non-deadly) values, and Dinesh a slightly stronger refutation of same. But that was it; quickly the debate returned to the question of empirical evaluation.

Unfortunately, it is more entertaining to see Dinesh and Walter trade sallies about whether more dictators were Christians or whether more were atheists, so that is what is delivered.

ZAK adds: The poorly taken photo inserted above, and couple scattered thoughts. One of my favorite (and perhaps most telling) moments was, like Jenn mentioned, when Professor Armstrong mentioned that only 43% of Dartmouth students are believers and joked about the lack of rampant immorality to universal laughter. D’Souza’s point was well-taken that at least most of the people he encounters are not skeptical agnostic, but evangelical atheists, not people committed to the separation of church and state, but rather the destruction of the church. One of Armstrong’s best point, I thought, was that G-d’s commandments should be considered arbitrary or superfluous, because if there is a good reason for doing or not doing something we would follow that reason anyway, and if there is no good reason than the commandment is ‘arbitrary’ (and we probably do not follow it anyway).

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