Kamau wa Kibe does not believe in God. In fact, He doesn’t believe there is such a thing as a god. He is an atheist and
he believes he can do good all by himself. Mary Wangari is a Christian and she believes human beings can only do bad by themselves. She believes that you need God to be good. I was once privy to a brief exchange between these two poles:
Mary: You need God to be good.
Kamau: I do plenty of good in my life without God, no thank you.
Mary: But you have no basis for morality or any reason to be good, or to be kind and loving.
Kamau: As a matter of fact, I do have a basis. I prefer pleasure to pain, and I prefer what helps people to what hurts them, because that’s what I would want other people to do for me.
Mary: You see? You have just borrowed from the golden rule: Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you. Jesus came up with that.
Kamau: That’s not true, the so-called “golden rule” has existed in many major philosophies centuries before Jesus was even born. Confucius taught the golden rule in 500 BC, Egyptians taught the golden rule from as far back as 600 BC. This stuff is recorded, just Google it. Jesus definitely didn’t come up with the golden rule.
Mary: You’ve obviously read a lot of historical books. But those are fabrications. You don’t know if that’s what they taught.
Kamau: The Bible is a fabrication.
Mary: I still think you can’t have a basis for morality without God. The Bible says no one can be good without God. God is good and without Him, we would all be savages having no reason to be good or peaceful or loving.
Kamau: I guess we just have to agree to disagree on that one.
I have attended a fairly good number of Atheist versus Christian debates and the one feeling has been consistent in all those episodes is mild amusement. The conversation above is fictional, but it is generic of the many exchanges that happen between a theist and an atheist. The question of morality is a perennial topic in these exchanges.
Many people who abandoned God did so because of the problem of evil — they put the morality of God on trial and found God guilty. Christians on the other hand maintain that because of the fall in Eden, it is impossible to promote any goodness without appealing to religion or a theistic worldview. Theists argue that you lose any basis for asking people to be decent or hold to any positive values if you remove God out of the picture. Atheists disagree. Repeat.
But what if both groups are right on this issue of morality? What if it is true that “you don’t need God to be good” and also true that “you need God to be Good”? What if these two claims are not contradictory and only seem so? What if they are complementary — two sides of the same coin? I believe that the Christian is right when he says you need God to be moral and I also believe the atheist is right when she says you don’t need God to be moral. I hope this short illustration will help clarify what I mean.
Do you need water to live? Kamau says no. Mary says yes. Kamau argues that he can go for weeks without ever taking water and he will not die. He takes fruit juices, soda, milk and many other “liquids”. He doesn’t need to take “pure” water to survive. Mary on the other hand believes that water is essential to survival. You must drink water if you want to survive. Mary believes you need “pure” water to survive. Both of them are obviously right. Water is essential to life. There is water in fruit juice and in soda and milk. In the end, both Kamau and Mary do take water, just in different forms.
However, if you listen closely to their arguments, they are not actually talking about the same thing. Look at these two sentences:
- Kamau doesn’t need TO TAKE pure water to survive.
- Mary needs pure water to survive.
Do you see the difference? Those two sentences are actually not opposites. Kamau does not need to carry out the act of drinking pure water to survive. The truth is that neither does Mary. She does not need to carry out the act of drinking pure water to survive. On the other hand, both Kamau and Mary need the chemical H2O to get into their bodies one way or another. Both need water, whether they actively take pure water or take it in a solution. The disagreement between the two statements is in the logic, not in the facts. It is a matter of epistemology. The two people, like many atheist-theist debaters, are speaking past each other.
When Kamau says he does not need God to be moral, he simply means that he doesn’t need to consciously acknowledge that the sense of good in him comes from God. He does not need to believe that “I am inclined to do what is good because I believe in a god.” On the other hand, when Mary says “you need God to be good”, the sad reality is that she, like many Christians, often does not know what she is talking about. She is saying the truth, but she most likely doesn’t know what she means.
What she means is that the Christian worldview teaches that all men are created by God. Therefore, any moral compass within them has been pre-installed by God. A person does not need to be conscious of a deity, or subscribe to any religion to make a moral choice. He is already hard-wired that way by God. Kamau doesn’t need to ACKNOWLEDGE God in order to be conscious of morality. The difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is not that the former has a basis for morality and the latter doesn’t. They both have a theoretical basis. The difference is that the Christian believes her moral compass was put there by God, while the atheist attributes it to whatever philosophy he subscribes to.
The fact remains that the compass is there. The contention is determining whose compass it is.
“What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” [Romans 1:19-20]
For the fame of His name,