The Godly, the Godless, and the question of ethics

Monday September 20, 2010

Yesterday Pope Benedict arrived in the UK, and almost immediately caused a stir in his speech up in Scotland that seemed to ally Godlessness with Nazism. Here is a section of the transcript:

Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a reductive vision of the person and his destiny…

On the one hand, this is clearly an attempt to stake out a claim for the centrality of religion for any possibility of ethics. But more than this, and more controversially, it has been read as an attempt to tar contemporary atheism with the crimes of Nazism. It all depends, of course, on how you read the rhetoric of the speech. There are, however, two things worth pointing out here. The first and most obvious is that to brand Nazism as “atheist” is itself a dubious move, albeit one that is made far too frequently by the champions of religion. For example, here is Hitler speaking in 1933: “Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith.” The ideology of Nazism was a weird, profoundly unwholesome and fervid thing, but to call it atheist is as hopelessly simplistic as calling it Christian or theist. It does absolutely nothing to help our understanding of the roots and causes of this particular kind of madness. And like all weird and profoundly unwholesome ideologies, it is not as if the ideologies of Nazism are unconcerned with ethics: in fact, ethical claims run right through them. Ethics, as I have noted before, is often not just the solution, but also the problem.

Let us come back the Pope for a moment, however. Benedict is here standing in a long tradition as he advances what could be called the Dostoyevskean objection to atheism. This is an idea that is expressed most famously in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, where the Russian writer claims that the absence of God and a life to come, “would mean that now all things are lawful, that one may do anything one likes.” Dostoevsky was, of course, far from being the first to make such an argument. In fact, he is reprising a long Christian tradition of equating atheism with moral decline. If we go back as far as the second century CE, we find the Christian writer Athenagoras writing as follows:

[I]f no judgement whatever were to be passed on the actions of men… a life after the manner of brutes would be the best, virtue would be absurd, the threat of judgement a matter for broad laughter, indulgence in every kind of pleasure the highest good, and the common resolve of all these [materialists] and their one law would be that maxim, so dear to the intemperate and lewd, ‘let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.’

Many of the early Church Fathers had a enormous amount of fun pinning the worst vices they could imagine – amongst them “swinish gluttony, drunkenness, fornications, adultery, homosexuality, sodomy, incest” – on atheist philosophers such as the Epicureans; and this tendency to treat godlessness with a moral suspicion has continued down to the present.

But the evidence that a belief in transcendent values is necessary for ethics, and that without this belief all things are lawful, is far from conclusive. Indeed there is growing evidence that there is no direct connection between ethical behaviour and belief in such values (See, for example, the work by Pyysiäinen and Hauser, 2010). The sad fact is that there have been a great many atheist reprobates in the history of humankind; but at the same time, as an authority as great as Saint Augustine pointed out long ago, there have also been Godly reprobates aplenty. The dragnet of the church, Augustine wrote, pulls in all kinds of fish – the wholesome and the unwholesome.

Ethics is of concern to us because of the kinds of evolved beings that we are. In this sense, it comes prior to questions of godlessness or godliness. Yet at the same time it is true that for all of us that this evolved tendency to concern ourselves with ethics is expressed in terms of the various cultural frameworks in which we operate (and here I include religious frameworks), which give shape to our ethical intuitions and to the questions about how we are to conduct ourselves in the world: both for better and for worse. And so when we come to think about ethics, we cannot but do so within these frameworks. But just because a particular framework seems vital for me to live well – for example, imagine that I am a Confucian, and my whole understanding of the world and of ethics is wrapped up in my studies of the Confucian classics; or imagine that I am a utilitarian and I rigorously examine my conduct according to the best utilitarian principles that I can formulate – it does not mean that it is essential to all possible forms of the ethical life, or that those things we might call virtues – kindness, compassion, wisdom – are closed to those who do not share this framework.

Ultimately, there is nothing less edifying than the on-going spectacle of the Godly laying the blame for the Pol Pot, Stalin and Nazism at the door of the Ungodly, and the Ungodly laying the blame for the Crusades, the Inquisition and – once again – Nazism at the door of the Godly. Such debates are generally weak on any understanding of history or human motivation, and are intemperate in tone, with either side exhibiting a lamentable tendency towards selecting only the facts that support their position whilst ignoring the underlying complexities. The debate about the relationship between systems of belief and the ethical consequences of these beliefs is often as heated as it is lacking in the kind of careful, empirical enquiry that is needed to explore an issue as complex as this.

# · David Chapman

Hi Will. As so often, I agree with almost all of this, and think it important. Saying so in any detail would be repetitive and dull, though!

Instead, let me quibble with a small point in your piece, which leads in a related interesting direction. You wrote “Ethics is of concern to us because of the kinds of evolved beings that we are. In this sense, it comes prior to questions of godlessness or godliness.”

There is much emerging evidence that ethics is an evolved biological function — or rather, collection of functions — that has varying cultural expressions. But there is also emerging evidence that godliness is an evolved biological function. If so, neither is prior. Almost everyone everywhere believes in god(s) of some sort, and almost always god(s) are mixed up with ethical questions, and used to justify ethical answers.

It would seem that we cannot understand other people’s ethical responses without understanding their involvement with god(s) — even if we are atheists ourselves. And if the tendency to posit gods is innate, understanding and observing the operation of that biological function in ourselves is helpful in gaining ethical clarity. Because it does continue to operate, no matter how rigorously we reject god(s) intellectually.



# · Bodhipaksa

Hi David,

We may have evolved both a sense of ethics and a tendency to believe in a god or gods, but it seems highly unlikely that both arose simultaneously. If we look at Franz de Waal’s work with chimps, for example, we see that primates have a sense of ethics. But while it’s impossible to know of any beliefs that chimps may hold, I don’t think it’s likely that they believe in a god or gods. It seems reasonable to assume that a sense of ethics evolved before any belief in deities.

All the best,

# · Zaidi Baraka

If we had not developed the will to at least treat each other well, we would not have had the time to develop a belief system, which encourages us to destroy our neighbor if they don’t share in our belief system. Indeed, it is religion that is playing catch up to our ethics. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your essay.


# · Kamalashila

Hello Will,
you don’t state where you think Buddhism stands with all this, but it looks as though there is an assumption somewhere that Buddhism is atheistic. However, though there is no Supreme Deity in Buddhism I don’t think Buddhists reject the experience of Christianity etc. What they critique is the attribution to the experience of God of such qualities as permanent and independent existence. In this special sense there is a place for God with a big G in Buddhism even though it would be highly problematic to use that language. And it is a very important place indeed, given the tendencies to nihilism entailed by the doctrine of sunyata. Lumping Buddhism along with other atheists is comfier for most Buddhists at present, but it doesn’t fully hold water.

Another perhaps allied consideration, following Bodhipaksa and David, is that a developing sense of ethics is likely to bring forth a tendency to believe in god or gods, since it entails looking up to exemplars of good behaviour. Sure, this can lead to absurd speculative abstractions such as He must be ‘a good greater than can be imagined’ etc., but it can also deify living human beings – very reasonably accord them high status because of their unusual goodness – and lead to methods of spiritual practice that help others emulate their ethical attainments. If this point is taken along with the difficult issues (for atheists) of continued existence after death, and the potential for higher life forms outside the visible human spectrum, there is a space in Buddhism for god with a small ‘g’ as well.

# · Will

Absolutely, David. And although as Bodhipaksha notes (glad to see folks quoting Frans de Waal!), it may be that there is a kind of evolutionary priority to ethics over belief, priority is not the issue. So this was probably badly phrased.

Instead, I think the issue is that religion in the sense of belief in God or gods, is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for ethics. The Epicureans, for example, although not entirely without gods (the gods hang out, if I remember rightly, in the interstices between worlds), did not see the gods as having anything to do with ethics. Ethics and religion are both complex things, and they both play out in human minds and human societies, so there are going to be all kinds of overlaps; but the idea that religion is necessary for ethics is one that is the product of a very specific set of traditions, a set of traditions in which the moral law is set, at the outset, by one particular God…

I’m not really talking about Buddhism here, Kamalasila or the place of god in Buddhism. Is Buddhism atheist? Well, it depends what kind of Buddhism and what you mean by atheist. I am puzzled by your talk of higher life forms outside of the visible human spectrum. I don’t know what this means. We’re not talking about the electromagnetic spectrum, I assume.

The question of whether ethics gives rise to a tendency to believe in god or gods is an interesting one. It probably is the case that a collective concern with ethics gives rise to stories of ethical exemplars – although this exemplification is not always a good thing (the Nazis, after all, had their ethical exemplars…). And some of these stories about ethical exemplars may be about gods. But not all stories of gods are stories of ethical exemplification. For example, one of my favourite gods, Ubila’a from the Tanimbar islands, is sometimes just a low-down, sneaky stealer of palm-wine (by the way, if you find a god stealing your palm-wine, don’t panic. Just tie his beard to a stake and hold him to ransom).

# · Kamalashila

Hello again Wil…
Given the overall topic of your blog you are inevitably referencing Buddhism, even if the reference is indirect. And the Buddhist take on ethics is pretty relevant here, isn’t it? Traditionally, ethical action results in transitions to realms of greater and more ethical awareness (whether in this or other lives) and the devas, the gods with a small g, are generally (with many ignoble exceptions) considered highly ethical. There is also the fact that people observably change ethically as a result of spiritual experiences, the kind of thing Christians would associate with the big G.

In this current debate it’s certainly the case that Buddhists will tend to get lumped with the godless atheists, if they don’t even more ignorantly get lumped with the creationistic theists… but they could perhaps be wisely lumped with the theists by thinking deeply and openly about the nature of Buddhist realisation. Big G is a Christian concept for a reality that can be far better expressed.

I do agree that religion is not neccessary for ethics. And that ones beliefs do not necessarily influence one’s actions. And yes, exemplification can clearly cut both ways. But without positive exemplification I can’t imagine there being much in the way of ethics.

Then positive exemplification implies a hierarchy of some kind, even if it’s simply one of experience (eg mother to child). This is how Buddhism gets to call people gods with a small ‘g’, gods who may be ‘real’ human beings as well as beings living “in some way imperceptible to the (‘ordinary’ human) mind”. But either way I don’t think they live in another world, or in some interstice. It depends what is meant by another world – presumably not the moon or mars. It depends on what is meant by this world, too.

# · Will

True, Kamalasila… the clue is partly in the name of the site. But my main argument here is that there is theism is not necessary for ethics, rather than the question of Buddhism’s relation to theism or atheism. The latter is an interesting question in your own right; and I do think that the enthusiasm for too closely identifying traditional forms of Buddhism with contemporary atheism is mistakeny. But I also suspect that the polarity theism/atheism is one that is perhaps not entirely useful when thinking about forms of belief and practice within Buddhism.

I think I’d agree that without positive exemplification of some kind, there cannot be much in the way of ethics.

# · Kamalashila

I think I may be more on-topic than you think, by taking the example of Buddhism whose theism, to use that word, is important for its ethics. The fact that Buddhist ethics are inspired by ‘God’ (big scarequotes, ie spiritual experiences that theists would interpret as God) doesn’t mean that that’s the only way they can arise, certainly in Buddhism, but they are an important source of value. I am saying, paraphrasing you, that though a belief in transcendent values is undoubtedly unnecessary for ethics, some kind of experience of them (however expressed in language, and it is irrelevant whether or not they use theistic language) is precisely what makes people ethical. I think the example of the hierarchy of exemplification indicates this, too.

I hope it’s clear I’m not talking about religion, necessarily (you describe the Pope’s speech as ‘an attempt to stake out a claim for the centrality of religion for any possibility of ethics’). Buddhism is essentially something else, even though it certainly has a religious aspect.

# · Kamalashila

Hi Will, did something happen to my more recent posts? Though I see they are visible when I do a preview.

love KS

# · Will

Hello again, Kamalasila,
Should be OK, I think. I’ve just checked, and all comments are set to published (sometimes the spam filter shows a regrettable tendency to over-zealousness). If they are still not showing, try clearing your cache and reloading the page.
All the best,

# · Jack O'Sullivan

It is indeed very strange that Pope Benedict likened atheism to Nazism in the speech you have quoted. Particularly considering the fact that, as you yourself have pointed out, we have no reason to believe Hitler was in any way secular. I would have thought that Pope Benedict would have better knowledge of this. It is certainly not something I would expect from a German professor of theology.

It is a real shame that he has addressed atheists in this manner. To me, it indicates a lack of respect for the beliefs of others; perhaps even darkly hinting at a similar disregard for other religions of the world.

# · Robert Ellis

I think the debate above about whether ethics is prior to God or godlessness needs to be turned on its head, as does Kamalashila’s idea that ethics is based on an experience of the transcendent even if you don’t believe in it. What’s more I’d want it to be turned on its head in a way which is more in harmony with the Buddha’s non-dualism than any of the dualistically opposed comments that have been made so far.

Far from being based on God, or based on godlessness, or prior to or post either of them, ethics consists in transcending both God and godlessness! It is getting dragged into that metaphysical debate at all that gives rise to polarised patterns of belief and action. Ethics is not “transcendental”, nor is it “natural”, because both these ways of understanding it tend to drag us into assertions that lie beyond all possible experience, defensible only through dogmatic assertion. It’s contradictory to claim as Kamalashila does (in words, whilst discussing beliefs) that we have an experience that somehow validates ethics even though we can’t talk about it or make it the basis of justifiable belief – just a roundabout way back to dogma via mysticism. On the other hand the idea that anyone can observe ethics in chimps is equally absurd (pace Bodhipaksa) because it reduces ethics to observable behaviour, and bleeds it dry of all content that can inspire or justify ethical attitudes. If ethics was just transcendence it would have no justification, and if it was just exemplification and socialisation it would have no objectivity.

Instead, it is the very movement beyond adherence to these dualistic attitudes that inspires ethics. One becomes more moral by moving away from adherence either to theism or to atheism, thus abandoning the dualistic delusions that both these metaphysical positions embody and enabling a less prejudiced approach to interpreting experience. Without such metaphysical assumptions, ethics is there in our experience and can be developed further. But anyone who claims to be inspired by the Buddha’s central insights should not get sucked into the Pope’s dualistic game by associating themselves with atheism.

# · Will

Apologies Robert – that over-zealous spam filter again seems to have swallowed your comment. Anyway, it is now restored!

Is it really that absurd to talk about chimpanzee ethics? Of course, chimpanzee ethics is not the same as human ethics, and what we call “ethics” in human beings is a whole bundle of concerns and behaviours, some of which we share with our rather hairier cousins, and some of which we don’t. But we can surely say that chimpanzee a) is kind and generous that chimpanzee b) is, well, a bit of a bastard, and so on. And this is not just anthropomorphising chimpanzees, but is saying something about the ethos of this or that individual. Human ethics is continuous with these concerns and behaviours that we see in other social primates. It is also massively more complex. Chimpanzees, after all, don’t read Kant.

A thought also on dualism. I’m sure that getting lodged to deeply in the atheism/theism debate is the kind of dualism that one might do better avoiding. And Aristotelian gods or philosophical gods are crafty buggers, and manage to define themselves in such a way as to be – as you put it – outside of all possible experience. But the claims that are made for gods are often far more far-reaching – that by means of saintly individuals, alive or dead, they can effect cures, that they spend their days in decidedly un-Aristotelian smiting and so on – and these are claims that really are testable, and that are very often found wanting. One of the oddnesses of the defences of god is that the arguments in favour all take god as an Aristotelian kind of being, but what is being defended is a whole body of belief and practice that is predicated upon a decidedly un-Aristotelian kind of being – the God of the Bible. And this I find peculiar.

Is theism/naturalism really a dualistic pair in this way, anyway? Chinese thought is interesting, because much of it works according to a kind of naturalism, but this naturalism is not dualistically opposed to theism.

Anyway, it’s far to early for this kind of thing. I’ve not even had breakfast…

All the best,


# · Robert Ellis

Hi Will,
To clarify what I said about chimpanzees. I wouldn’t want to claim that one couldn’t be a better or worse chimpanzee, or act better or worse as a chimpanzee. What I meant to criticise is the idea that we can observe what we take to be chimpanzee ethics and use these observations to support the idea that human ethics is “natural”. Whatever ethics may or may not be for chimpanzees, we cannot learn anything about how ethics is justified for us by doing this.

Just because some religious claims about gods can be tested and found wanting, doesn’t mean that the non-existence of those gods has been proved, only that those religions shouldn’t depend on such claims. Theologians do often have a nasty habit of switching between empirical and metaphysical claims and trying to use the former to prove the latter, but their assertions wouldn’t do the job they want them to do if they weren’t metaphysical and thus immune from evidence.

I don’t know much about Chinese naturalism, but the kind I was talking about is Western scientific naturalism, which is certainly dependent on atheism and the assertion that science could potentially explain everything in material terms. That version of naturalism, at least, is dogmatic metaphysics in my view.

# · Jessi

To me it sounds like he’s trying to piggy-back on the Holocaust backlash and redirect the focus to building support for Catholicism.

# · Joseph Siemion

Robert wrote:
“One becomes more moral by moving away from adherence either to theism or to atheism, thus abandoning the dualistic delusions that both these metaphysical positions embody and enabling a less prejudiced approach to interpreting experience. Without such metaphysical assumptions, ethics is there in our experience and can be developed further.”

Human beings living without dualism, assumptions, beliefs, and metaphysics… wow, what a Utopian world! A world of Krishnamurtis not believing anything, or as non-nondual guru Steve Harrison maintains “I don’t believe in belief.”

Unfortunately, this is impossible. People do have beliefs. Beliefs do immensely influence actions. They don’t guarantee a specific course of action, but they have a significant influence. This is fairly obvious to anyone who has studied religion.

Whether you view the world as created by a deity who loves and is love itself, who came down, took human form, and suffered the worst kind of humiliation, torture, and death possible to imagine for the sake of “salvation for all men” — or, on the other hand, you believe all of life arose haphazardly, without inherent meaning, and without a human-interested goal — will certainly, affect your view of everything. In this sense, Ratzinger is correct.

Will, your quote from Hitler was from 1933, way before he rose to power. I don’t know much about Hitler, but I can imagine that the quote didn’t reflect his true view of things, esp. once the Reich got going. It was most likely a soundbite to shore up popularity.

Despite what Hitchen,s et al promulgate in their simplistic and historically inaccurate polemics, the worst atrocities ever committed in the history of humanity have been under atheistic regimes. Hitler was NOT a christian. Even if he claimed to believe. If one claims to be a Buddhist and is a butcher who prays five times a day and attends a mosque — surely, that one won’t be recognized by other Buddhists.

# · Will

Hi, Joesph,

I’ll leave Robert to respond your comment on utopianism, if he feels moved to do so; but let me say a little more about the other questions you raise.

My main contention here is twofold. Firstly that we cannot easily dub Nazism as “atheist” (incidentally, Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, so this quote comes just after his rise to power). Nor, I think, can we responsibly dub Nazism as Catholic or theist. We have to ask why people are so keen to reduce the complex ideological and political thing that is Nazism to these labels that somewhat lack in subtlety. I don’t think that this kind of reduction helps us see things clearly.

But secondly, whilst beliefs do affect the way that we act, they do so in complex ways. We can’t draw a straight line from one to the other. What troubled me about the Pope’s speech was that there is a lack of appreciation of this kind of subtlety.

All the best,


# · Robert Ellis

Hi Joseph,

I don’t think that the avoidance of dualism implies not believing anything – that would indeed be absurd and impractical. Rather I think that our beliefs should be provisional. The evidence that supports our beliefs is limited, even if we have consistently experienced things a certain way, so that only justifies us in provisional assertions. The problem with metaphysical beliefs is that they cannot be provisional, but can only be asserted or not asserted regardless of experience.

Far from being utopian, I think this is a far more practical approach to belief than asserting that we are stuck in metaphysical dualities. We can – and do – think differently on a daily basis whenever we use evidence, examine our beliefs and justify them critically. The pessimistic belief that we cannot escape dualism is a major component of dualism, and it is a belief that has to be dogmatically imposed on an experience that does not justify it!

Metaphysical beliefs (whether religious or not) and their denial, do influence our actions, but unfortunately in a negative way, because they discourage us from really examining the world around us as we experience it. Religious beliefs do not have to be purely metaphysical, because they can also include provisional conclusions drawn from experience (e.g. the value of spiritual experience, the value of kindness, or the need for an optimistic orientation), but unfortunately they are too often assumed to be purely metaphysical and discussed in those terms, whether they are being asserted by the Pope as the basis of all value, or condemned by Christopher Hitchens et al.

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