By Ryan McFadden
Can there be “good,” without “God?”
East Stroudsburg University’s global week debate last Thursday explored this question, trying to find common ground between atheists and theists.
Fernando Alcantar, director of Student Engagement for ESU’s Student Activity Association hosted the event and explained what these debates mean to him.
“I am not anti-religion. I am anti-suicide,” said Alcantar. “I know we have disagreements, but we have to move forward. We can engage with one another instead of hating each other.”
Dan Barker, author and President of the Freedom from Religion Foundation held an atheistic stance. Mark Fodale, leader of the ESU Christian fellowship supported a theistic point of view.
Dr. Tim Connolly, Department Chair of Philosophy and Religious studies served as moderator for the debate. The speakers were given 10 minutes to introduce themselves and their philosophies.
In that time, Barker proposed a naturalistic view of morality while Fodale used the Bible to describe his moral philosophy.
Barker went first. He began by telling a story of how he saved a baby’s life.
While waiting in the airport one day many years ago, Barker happened to notice a baby carrier sitting close to a high edge near his seat.
From the corner of his eye Barker saw it fall.
Acting without thinking, he reached over and caught the baby before it hit the floor, moving on pure impulse.
The atheist believes instinct guided his hand to the rescue.
“Of course, you can be good without God,” Baker said, “that’s just one example.”
In Barker’s eyes, the Bible is to blame for infecting the world with a phony morality that he considers childish.
“The way to be good in the Bible is to obey the father,” Baker said.
“What if the child is more moral than the parent?”
Barker described his moral philosophy as naturalistic and proposed a model for making moral decisions: on one shoulder a person has instinct. On the other shoulder a person has law.
In the middle is reason. Reason, Barker believes, can be used to minimize harm for a moral person, and maximize it for an immoral one.
“If you’re acting with the intention of minimizing harm in the real world you are a good person,” Baker said.
“If you’re acting with the intention of maximizing harm in the real world you are by definition not a good person.”
Fodale went second, beginning his speech with an ultimatum. He said that people can be good without believing in God, but people can’t be good without God.
If God had not granted people the ability to make convictions between right and wrong, Fodale believes people would see no difference between the two.
“Goodness is not some abstract object,” Fodale said. “Rather goodness must be in a person, residing in his very character like an aspect of his being.”
The theist said that moral law must transcend the community, and the only real candidate for moral transcendence is God, not evolution.
Quoting Charles Darwin Fodale asked, “would anyone trust the convictions in a monkey’s mind, if there were convictions in a monkey’s mind?”
After the introductions, Connolly asked the speakers how their morals are held accountable to others.
Baker claimed moral accountability is an emergent property, and for that reason it has no set standard.
That’s because, Barker believes, accountability is relative to the community in question, and that it is found within the gaps of any society.
Fodale challenged Barker’s claim that there is no absolute standard of moral accountability.
He brought up ancient cultures that sacrificed children to gods and said that even within the gaps of those societies true moral accountability was not found.
Connolly jumped in to ask, “Why should we have one objective standard of goodness?”
Fodale responded that a community offering religious freedom such as ours, still has one standard of morality, even if the people do not follow it, or know it.
Barker argued against this point.
“I think standard is a dangerous word,” Baker said.
“We are moral by principles not standards.”
Barker said a problem with one standard of morality is that good people can be on both sides of political issues such as abortion, regardless of any standard morality set in place.
He claimed the bible does not give us moral guidance like principles do, it just says “obey.”
Questions from the crowd were taken to break the stalemate.
An atheist from the audience asked Fodale why God is forgiving in this world while sending people to Hell in the next, and how he resolves those two seeming contradictions for himself.
“I don’t like the concept of Hell, but it’s clear in the bible,” Fodale said.
“Therefore, it has to fit within the concept of God’s goodness, and you can’t have goodness without punishment for evil.”
Barker argued against Fodale’s point.
“If any system of thought has violence as part of the equation, that is a morally bankrupt system,” Barker said.
“What if I reject this God out of moral principles? I’d rather suffer in Hell than pretend to worship the God that created Hell.”
Barker claimed the Bible is filled with blood and punishment and that fear is built into the morality that Christians follow.
Fodale disagreed that every other page of the Bible is sprinkled with blood.
He continued by claiming that Barker is wrong to say punishment for evil is morally bankrupt because that is what every justice system in the world is based on.
“I don’t clean the house because I’m afraid of going to Hell,” Fodale said.
“It’s because it’s dirty right? Because the house is dirty you clean it?” Asked Barker.
“No, I clean the house because God and Christ clean me of all of my sin, and so now I get to live that out a little bit in my life. That’s my moral principle,” Fodale said.
“Really and so atheists have dirty houses?” Barker said.
“I have not been to your house,” Fodale said.
The audience broke into laughter.
Even with conflicting views, both speakers held leveled voices and respected each other.
ESU’s global week celebrates cultures around the world and conversations of diversity, social justice, equality and service.
Although it has passed, global week will return to ESU next year.
Debates over moral philosophy are expected to continue indefinitely, at college campuses all over the world.
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