The following is my opening statement that I read in my debate with Mr. Dan Barker on "Is there reason to be good without God?" held on Sept. 26, 2009, at Newberg Christian Church in Newberg, Oregon. I read it word for word with just a few slight changes here and there since the flow of speaking is often different from the written word.
Mr. Barker was a good opponent. We had good conversations before, during breaks, and after the debate. I found him to be likeable.
In order for anyone to say that we can be good without God, a standard of what is good must first be established. But, that standard cannot be an opinion, developed from society, or the product of evolution. It has to be better than those options, and there needs to be an "ought" associated with it, otherwise, who cares? In my opinion, Mr. Barker could not rationally defend his definition that "good is what reduces harm in the world" as being a cogent standard by which good and bad are judged. Nevertheless, I will leave it to the listener to judge who won the debate once you have heard it (audio link to be provided).
I believe the first half of the debate was clear, and things went well. I wish I had done better on the second half during the Cross Examination period and the 30-minute Q&A session. Dan Barker tried to shift the focus from him--demonstrating his position to me--demonstrating mine. But that was not the debate--read the opening to find out why. I'll need practice in both areas and hope to improve with upcoming debates.
The information that follows is a shortened version of a slightly longer paper I had written as my opening. It had to fit into 15 minutes.
Thank you everyone for coming to this debate. I also want to thank Newberg Christian Church for hosting this discussion, and I hope that it turns out to be informative and enlightening for everyone. I also want to thank my opponent Dan Barker for debating this worthwhile topic.
The Debate topic: As I begin, I would like to point out two very important things: First, the debate topic is not, “Is the God of the Bible good or bad.” It isn’t “Can we be good only with God?” Nor is it “Does God exist?” Instead, it is “Is there reason to be good without God?” Mr. Barker is arguing in the affirmative. He is saying you can be good without God.
Must have a standard: The second thing I want to point out is crucial in this debate. If there is no standard to judge by, then it can never be known if anything is good or bad, and it cannot be argued that we can be good without God. Let me say this again. If there is no standard to judge by, then it can never be known if anything is good or bad, and it cannot be argued that we can be good without God. If Mr. Barker cannot establish an objective standard of good by which comparisons can be made, then he can’t defend his position. It’s simple. You can’t say something is good if you don’t know what good is. Otherwise, the debate would be “Is there reason to be 'what?' without God?” Mr. Barker can complain about the God of the Bible. He can take verses out of context, commit verbal carpet bombing with alleged atrocities, and he can appeal to your emotions. But, it doesn’t help him in a rational, logical defense of his position. He must define and rationally defend what good is before he can then attempt to argue that we can be good without God.
Mr. Barker’s standard of good: So, this leads us to Mr. Barker’s standard of what is good. In his Lecture to the Campus Atheists and Secular Humanists at the University of Minnesota, October of 2006, 49:00, he said, “How to be good without God is not only just to abandon the idea of a God and authority but to think for yourself what are the consequences of these actions and how do these competing actions compare and how can I make a decision that results in the minimal amount of harm in the world.” So, Mr. Barker has said that the way to be good without God is to abandon the idea of God, think for yourself, and figure out how to minimize harm in the world. I have read in his books and articles and heard him in his debates mention that being ethical, being moral, to be good is to intend to reduce harm in the world. He said in his debate with Peter Payne at the University of Wisconsin, in March of 2005, 35:50, “We naturalists know that we can be good by following a simple principle of trying to act in a way that minimizes harm in the world.”
Win by definition: So, according to Mr. Barker, good is what reduces harm in the world. Now, if this is the definition we go by, then Mr. Barker automatically wins the debate because his definition of what is good excludes God, therefore, by his definition we can be good without God. Now, if his definition sounds reasonable to you, then let’s put the shoe on the other foot. What if the debate topic was “Does true goodness require God?” and I argued in the affirmative and defined good as “morals that are established by God.” By my definition, I would win the debate because the definition includes God. Do you see the problem? You don’t just define something in a convenient way and say your definition is right.
Burden of Proof: Now, Mr. Barker said in his book, Godless, on page 92, that "The burden of proof in any argument is on the shoulders of the one who makes the affirmative claim, not the one who doubts it." Mr. Barker is making the affirmative claim that we can be good without God. So, according to his own standard, he must prove his assertion that there is reason to be good without God. He also said in his book, Godless, on page 101, that “If something is true, we don't invoke faith. Instead we use reason to prove it.” Therefore, according to Mr. Barker’s own words, he needs to use reason to prove that good is what he says it is before he can try to argue that we can be good without God. Remember, the burden of proof is on him. Let’s not have faith that what is good is what Mr. Barker says it is. Let’s not rest in his opinion that it is true. Let’s not say that most people agree that it is true. Let’s have the reasoned proof he professes is necessary for both his standard and application of his standard by which we can see if it is possible to be good without God. After all, first things first: A standard comes first. Comparisons to that standard come second.
Scientific Method: Now, Mr. Barker says in his book, Losing Faith in Faith, on page 133 in the article, “What is a Freethinker,” that "The scientific method is the only trustworthy means of obtaining knowledge. For a statement to be considered true it must be testable (what repeatable experiments or methods confirm it?), falsifiable (what, in theory, would disconfirm it, and have all attempts to disprove it failed?), parsimonious (is it the simplest explanation, requiring the fewest assumptions?), and logical (is it free of contradictions or non sequiturs?)."
The problem here is that scientific method measures mass, motion, energy, etc. It does not weigh morality. It does not test to see if goodness expands when frozen or rises when heated. Mr. Barker has painted himself into a philosophical corner. According to his own words, he must use the scientific method to validate what is morally good. I hope he doesn’t strap people down, electrocute them, see how loud and long their screams are, and then conclude “it is good not to harm people.” That could get messy.
Is and Ought: But, we must not confuse “is” with “ought." It might be true that most people don’t like being harmed and he could verify that scientifically. That would be an “is." But it doesn’t mean that we “ought” not harm people. After all, Mr. Barker said in his debate with Peter Payne at the University of Wisconsin, in March of 2005, 45:00, “There is no universal ought.” Therefore, Mr. Barker cannot justify universalizing the idea of not harming people as a moral anything. He can say it is a principle. But why should we follow the principle? The fact that most people don’t like being harmed is just a helpful tidbit of information with the same moral value as “most people prefer chocolate over vanilla.” Where is the moral imperative in that? Where is the ought? Where is the action that “should” follow the knowledge? If there were an action that should follow the principle, then that would be a universal “ought," but Mr. Barker has already denied that possibility. So, his principle is a recommendation, a nice tidbit of information and nothing more. Thus, it cannot be an objective standard of goodness that we should accept and follow.
Let’s look at six possible explanations that Mr. Barker might raise in support of his understanding of what is good with my rebuttals to each. Remember, if he can’t establish an objective standard of good, then he is left with one that is relative. But that would mean he can’t rationally defend his position that we can be good without God.
Definition is just true: The first possible explanation I want to examine is if Mr. Barker says that his assertion of what is good is just true and that he doesn’t need to give a reason. This, of course, would be begging the question. He would be saying his definition is true, and that’s the way it is. I hope he wouldn’t resort to that. But he said in Losing Faith in Faith on page 131 that truth is “the degree to which a statement corresponds with reality and logic.” Remember, he said in his book, Godless, on page 92, that "The burden of proof in any argument is on the shoulders of the one who makes the affirmative claim, not the one who doubts it." So, he must prove his argument is right, and he must do it with an objective standard of good.
Argument from reason: The second thing I want to look at is the argument from reason. In other words, if he tells us that reason is what leads to his definition, then let’s see the set of propositions and conclusions by which he would arrive at the necessary truth of his definition. Can he prove that what is good is what causes the least amount of harm to people? Remember, he can’t just define it as such. He has to justify his definition as the standard. Also, just because most people don’t like being harmed, doesn’t mean that it is a standard of morality any more than saying most people prefer chocolate over vanilla means chocolate is the standard of flavor.
Self-Evident: Let’s look at a third option. If Mr. Barker says that his definition is self-evident, then his definition must have an inherent quality that necessitates its truth. But this would imply that goodness is something that has some inherent quality--some form of existence to which Mr. Barker must then appeal. However, he cannot do this because in his lecture to the Campus Atheists and Secular Humanists in Oct. of 2006, he said, "Moral values are not real." So, if moral values are not real, then how can that which isn’t real have the quality of being self-evident? This would mean there is no moral value in his proclamation of what is good.
Argumentum ad populum: A fourth option he might raise is that a majority of people agree with his definition because most people don’t like harm. That would be all fine and dandy, but the problem is that saying something is good because a majority of people say it is good is known as the fallacy of Argumentum Ad Populum or the majority says it is right, so it is right. Of course the majority can be wrong about things, so that is not a valid and sound argument that proves his assertion about what is good. If he were to appeal to what society has worked out as being good, then he is again committing the fallacy of Argumentum Ad Populum.
Also, think about this. If society determines moral norms, then by what right does Mr. Barker complain against the Ancient Jews in the Old Testament who lived in a different time, different culture, and different location? Does he have the moral right to impose his moral values on another society and judge it to be bad? This is all the more reason for Mr. Barker to establish a valid and sound argument justifying his standard of goodness, and only after he does this, can he attempt to offer a cogent argument against another society’s behavior or if it is even possible to be good without God.
Argument from evolution: The fifth thing I’d like to examine is the evolutionary angle. If Mr. Barker tells us that goodness is derived from the evolutionary process and we decide what is good based on what works for society as society evolves, then he would be saying there really isn’t any good other than whatever works in society at the time that aids in its survival. But this would be a problem for Mr. Barker since he complains about the Ancient Jewish society, which was obviously acting in a way to enhance its own survival at that time. Therefore, it must have been good in the evolution of that society to minimize harm to the majority of its own people by wiping out opposing people groups. But this isn’t ethics. This is evolution. The evolutionary theory isn’t about what “ought” to be. It is about what “is” and which produces survivability. Don’t confuse “is” with “ought." The theory of evolution and the Scientific Method are about what “is" not what “ought to be morally."
Morality from Mind: The sixth thing I’d like to look at deals with the Mind. If Mr. Barker wants to tell us that morality and goodness are functions of the brain the way digestion is a function of the stomach, that wouldn’t work because he would be making a category mistake. You see, digestion is a chemical reaction that breaks down nutrients that are already there. The brain produces and assembles concepts that are not already there. Digestion disorganizes material for use in the body where the brain organizes concepts for use in thought.
Now, if Mr. Barker wants to say that the chemical reactions in the brain produce moral concepts, then what do you do when one person’s biochemical brain processes says it is morally wrong for a dentist to molest a women who is unconscious under anesthesia and another person says it is right. Think about it. If she has absolutely no idea it’s happened and no one ever finds out, is it wrong? What harm is done? How do chemical reactions produce moral right and wrong?
Conclusion: So, Mr. Barker has yet to prove his assertion that we can be good without God. Sure, he can raise complaints about God, and he is entitled to his opinions. But complaints and opinions don’t fit under the category of proof nor the scientific method to which Mr. Barker both ascribes and proscribes. Mr. Barker has a tough road ahead of him. Let me remind you of what he said in his book, Godless, on page 92, "The burden of proof in any argument is on the shoulders of the one who makes the affirmative claim, not the one who doubts it." Well, Mr. Barker, I doubt your claim. But it is you who must prove that your standard of what is good is the right one to use before you can argue that anyone can pass or fail in your goodness test. If you can’t do that, then there is no standard against which to compare, and you have failed to demonstrate that it is possible to be good without God.