Book Review: Do We Need God to be Good?

by Kenneth Francis (December 2017)


Do We Need God to be Good?
By C.R. Hallpike
233 pp. Castalia House.



Do We Need God to be Good? by anthropologist C.R. Hallpike, is a stimulating book on some of the biggest questions of our time. Dr. Hallpike’s broad range of sociological, anthropological knowledge is put to good use after spending decades studying, and living amongst, many world cultures, both tribal and Western. But in the area of biblical studies and the moral argument, I would find some things to disagree with in this distinguished academic’s findings.
The main chapter I have issues with (I have issues with most things in life!) is Chapter 2: Religion and Morality. In that chapter he writes:
Many religious believers, of various faiths, hold the simpleminded view that morality can only be based on God’s commandments: murder, stealing, lying, and adultery, for example, are wrong because God says they are in the Bible, or the Koran, or some other scripture so that without God there could be no moral rules at all. Protestants, in particular, have maintained this, although many others including Nietzsche and Sartre have also believed that if God disappears from the picture then it’s a free-for-all and all hell breaks loose, or that we each have to make up our own moral code as we go along, which comes to much the same thing. But this clearly won’t do because if murder, stealing, and lying are only wrong because God has forbidden them, they would automatically become good if He changed His mind about them.
The confusion in the above is that God might change His mind. God won't change His mind because He is an omniscient being and knows everything that will happen in the future regarding His own acts and that of finite, earthly creatures. The key word here is ‘omniscience’. God does not have any prior imperfections, thus an eternal, all-knowing entity having such an attribute as omniscience would not change His mind. However, although changing a mind would be rooted in ignorance for God, it could be beneficial and progressive for finite creatures, if virtuous and in line with God’s divine will. But aren’t there some passages in The Bible where it seems God’s omniscience is absent? That may be true but it’s due to the narrative biblical style of storytelling infused with metaphor and symbolism, not to mention the hermeneutical translations and interpretations of the original text. But that’s the topic of another epic essay, if not a series of academic books.

Dr. Hallpike continues:
Trying to base moral precepts on the authority of God alone therefore deprives them of any independent status, and calling God good also becomes meaningless, since whatever God might be or command would necessarily be goodmere power worship, in other words. Many believers, therefore, have always realised, at least since Plato, that God actually condemns murder, stealing, lying, and adultery because they are wrong independently of His will . . .
This is bad theology. Murder, stealing, lying and adultery (which are moral abominations if God exists) are not necessarily wrong independent of God’s will. On Naturalism, the murderer or lying adulterer’s actions are amoral in a Godless universe, as death ends at the grave, thus there is no Ultimate justice in an afterlife. Such vile acts on theism, would, on Naturalism, be nothing more than the ‘behaviour’ of vessels of chemicals in motion on a speck of solar muck orbiting a giant ball of fire called the sun. As for making a choice: How can a psychopath’s actions be morally significant if he or she doesn’t have free will? Is a hungry lion morally responsible for killing and eating a zebra?
Despite the great variability of values across cultures it is therefore the essential features of human nature and the requirements of social life that are the basis of ethics. This is why we find that murder and robbery are condemned in societies all over the world which have never heard of the Ten Commandments, and why ‘thief’ and ‘liar’ are insults in any language.
Whether we’ve heard of God or not, He has woven the moral order (Logos) into the universe and has written it on our hearts and souls and subconsciously the minds of those who never heard of Him. Even atheistic moral Platonism, ie a realm of ideas existing objectively independent of this material world, seems a cop out. How can such things that are part of God and the nature of human persons, such as compassion, love, justice or any other abstract objects just exist independently? Also, where do the moral duties lie in Platonism? Nowhere, it seems, as such duties would be commands to do or not to do certain things, which only God can command. And even if objective moral values existed under Platonism, there would be no moral duties, as moral accountability would be non-existent.
In the conclusion of his book, Dr. Hallpike writes:
We are now in the position to take up the claim that one does not need God to be good, and the challenge of the atheist journalist Christopher Hitchens: 'Name one moral action performed by a believer that could not have been done by a nonbeliever.'
Let me name two moral actions that could not be genuinely done by a non-believer:

1. Loving the Lord with all your heart, mind and soul. 2. Offering tithes with pure motive in the worship of the Body of Christ. I’m sure there are some more actions, but the above examples debunks Hitchens’ theologically challenged claims.

Dr. Hallpike continues in his book:
We can therefore agree with Hitchens that there is no reason to expect any special differences here between the conduct of believers and unbelievers, and the same would be true as well of many immoral actions that are also generally agreed to threaten the social order, such as theft, rape, and murder. To this extent it is clear that one does not need God to be good, and we also have to consider the influence of the traditional culture. So it is not particularly surprising that countries such as Scandinavia where religious believers are relatively few, but are still influenced by their Protestant cultural heritage, may nevertheless have low levels of crime.
Crime in Scandinavia, with Sweden being rape and domestic violence capital of the West, is actually quite high in many regions. And it’s not just because of the flood of immigration. Alcohol abuse and mental health issues are also hugely problematic. To say that there’s a spiritual crisis in Scandinavia would be an understatement. But back to the title of Dr. Hallpike’s book, Do We Need God to Be Good? Does Dr. Hallpike mean subjectively good or objectively good?; if the former, then we don’t need God, but the latter requires God. And here is why (see also my essay, Explaining Epiphenomenalism to a Dead Horse, October 2017 edition of NER):
1. Without God, objective moral values and duties do not exist
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist (some things are really evil)
3. Therefore, God exists
The key word in the above syllogism is objective. By objective, such morals and duties would still exist in the world even if no one believed in them. Without God, human beings are not special. We are accidental creatures sharing the planet with millions of other species, all heading for individual and collective annihilation, any minute, any day, any time. There would be no afterlife. What we think are moral principles, are nothing more than convenient rules and regulations to keep us in line with the herd. Without God, we would be animal organisms on a par with rats, cockroaches, elephants and ants. But deep down we know, or intuitively know, this to be untrue, despite there being some evil people in the world.

But it’s not just the moral argument that I believe Dr. Hallpike is either confused or uninformed about. Regarding The Bible, he writes:

But these ‘Creationists’ don’t seem to have noticed that while the Book of Genesis does say that God created Adam and Eve, it also (1.6-10) requires us to believe that the earth is flat, surrounded by the waters below the solid sky, or firmament (the standard theory in the ancient world).
How does the above passage render the earth flat? Maybe I’m missing something here and am open to correction by way of comment. For The Bible, there was never a flat earth. Isaiah 40:22 mentions "circle of the earth," and in Job 26:10, God inscribed a circle on the surface of the waters. And what supports the earth? According to The Bible, it’s not an infinite number of turtles all the way down, but space. God "hangs the earth on nothing" (Job 26:7).
Finally, regarding belief in the existence of God, the philosophical/theological issue of Truth and meaning should always trump the psychological condition of despair. Either God exists or He doesn’t, and any pretence that He exists due to the existential angst of the fear of existence is irrational and based on wishful thinking. However, despite my theological criticisms, I highly recommend this important book, as there are many valuable insights that Dr. Hallpike has highlighted, not forgetting to mention his clear, assessible prose. And although we may have some disagreements in the field of Darwinian evolution, he nonetheless exposes the folly of branches of atheism that simplify belief in God by crass caricature or unsophisticated rhetoric. Do We Need God to be Good would make a nice Christmas gift for an atheist friend or family member curious on such a monumental topic. It might even make them change their minds.


Kenneth Francis is a Contributing Editor at New English Review. For the past 20 years, he has worked as an editor in various publications, as well as a university lecturer in journalism. He also holds an MA in Theology and is the author of The Little Book of God, Mind, Cosmos and Truth (St Pauls Publishing).
More by Kenneth Francis here.
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3 Dec 2017
Eric MacDonald
I regret to say that this article is altogether so strikingly simplistic, whether theologically, philosophically or biblically, that I am surprised to see it published anywhere, let alone in the New English Review, which I had once held in some esteem. It would be unnecessarily laborious and perhaps even boring to go into this in great detail, but a few remarks are in order. First of all, the quick and nasty dismissal of the Eurthyphro dilemma, scarcely even scratches the surface of the problem. Answering with the claim that God cannot change his mind is quite mindless. First of all, the claim that Hallpike is confused because God is omniscient, and therefore must already know the future regarding his own acts, is itself a confusion in several respects. First, consider this. If God is, as most strictly metaphysical arguments insist, Being Itself, then God has no future. God exists in an eternal present. As the Anglican "39 Articles of Religion" put it in Article 1: "There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness ..." There is a fairly obvious contradiction in that statement. While Mr. Francis says that the stories in the Bible which depict God as changing his mind, as for example, in respect of the Flood, that he regretted that he had created humankind, are simply due to "the narrative biblical style of storytelling infused with metaphor and symbolism." The problem here is that there is no metaphor or symbolism involved in the story of the Flood. It is simply understood as an act of God which follows directly from God's regret, something which, of course, both Francis and the 39 Articles claim that God does not have (namely, "body, parts, or passions"). How could God regret something of which he had foreknowledge (since he is omniscient)? Thus, presumably, the whole "history of salvation" is something that God knew from the start, along with the disasters and failures attendant upon that history. While there is considerable controversy about this, if God knows, from the start, that humankind would be engaged in so many and so serious moral offences, is not God ultimately the most blameworthy of all, being the font and origin of so much evil? The truth is that we cannot know or understand what it would mean to be omniscient and the ground of being. We can only tell stories about it that cannot be true to something that we cannot even understand, and no amount of metaphor or symbolism will make a shred of difference to our understanding, because we're still stuck with the fact that, from out point of view, God does change his mind. In fact, the biggest change of mind took place, in Christian understanding, when Jesus arrived on the scene, taught, did mighty works, was crucified, died and buried; and then rose again from the dead for our salvation. If God doesn't change his mind, then what is the significance of those events? It's not even clear what omniscience means. Could a being who (or that) somehow subsists in an eternal present quite apart from what exists (that is, God not being an existent part of the things which he holds in being as the underlying cause of their continuing in being) know what happens next? And if he does know, does that not imply a determinism much more determinate than the stochastic determinism progressively discovered by science? These are questions that are necessarily raised by a theistic response to the Euthyphro dilemma which is given such short shrift in this article. This leads us to the next confusion in the article. Hallpike argues that "Many believers, therefore, have always realised, at least since Plato, that God actually condemns murder, stealing, lying, and adultery because they are wrong independently of His will . . ." This, says Francis, "is bad theology." This is so, he says, because "Murder, stealing, lying and adultery,are not necessarily wrong independent[ly] of God's will." He gives two reasons for this. First, there is no ultimate justice in an afterlife (for someone who disbelieves in God). Second, if naturalism is true, there is no such thing as an choice, since nature is deterministic. But these are simply confusions. The moral status of an action does not depend upon ultimate justice. That something is wrong remains wrong, even if there is no ultimate justice. It remains wrong even if the person gets away with it (because, for example, the offence is never discovered). Moreover, while physical naturalism may be deterministic, there is considerable doubt whether this reduces all human choice to mere causality (despite the minority philosophical view that it does). As for Francis' example: "As for making a choice: How can a psychopath’s actions be morally significant if he or she doesn’t have free will?" The appropriate answer to this is that, due to the pathology (which is, after all, part of the reference of the word 'psychopath'), the psychopath's choice is not necessarily free, and therefore is not likely to be an appropriate object of moral (or legal) assessment.

5 Dec 2017
Kenneth Francis
Regarding the so-called Euthyphro Dilemma, it's only a dilemma for those who don't keep up to date on the latest philosophical arguments. For those unfamiliar with the old, Euthyphro argument: 1. Something is pleasing to God because it is good. 2 Something is good because it is pleasing to God. The correct answer?: It's God's own nature which determines what is God. God is the good; He is the source of all moral values and duties. As for God's relationship to time and eternity: this is by far the most complex question in theology. Finally, I don't normally respond to comments that are emotional and insult a fine publication because its review isn't in line with their way of thinking. Also, I praised Dr Hallpike's fine, important book and highly recommended it.

7 Dec 2017
Eric MacDonald
Thank you for your response, despite your claim that my comment was emotional and an insult to a fine publication. It would be helpful if you had said why you consider my response emotional, since it was written with some care to make sure that it did not carry an emotional undertone. I merely presented disagreements expressed in a fairly rational way. However, answering my point about the Euthyphro dilemma scarcely scratches the surface of what I said, even if (which I believe is false), it is "only a dilemma for those who don't keep up to date on the latest philosophical arguments." There is enough contemporary dispute about Socrates' question to falsify that claim immediately. And claiming that the answer to the dilemma is to be found in the fact that "It is God's own nature what [that?] is God." And you add, the nature of God is to be good, and – Hey! Presto! – Socrates is soundly defeated. I am familiar with the Aquinian arguments that seek to demonstrate that God is necessarily the sum of the essence of all goodness, though it does not seem to me that the arguments are convincing. God's nature or essence is, doubtless, what God's nature is (that being tautologous), but whether that nature is knowable (or even whether it exists) is a question that has never been satisfactorily answered. But my main point was that if we can determine by rational means what goodness is as it applies to God, then it seems that, in any case, goodness (and hence badness) is conceivable independently of our knowledge of God. So it is not the case that murder and various other morally bad actions turn out to be morally indeterminate when thought of independently of God's will (supposing that is something that can be known, which is a hazardous supposition). Nor is it obvious that morality depends upon ultimate justice. But there's an even more serious problem with your Divine Command theory. It tends to anthropomorphise God, as though God's approach to moral issues is like ours. There is a rule, or law, and then penalties for disobeying the law, and only God, presumably, is able to provide the lynch pin for morality, which is to provide an ultimate penalty for those who live lawlessly. But simply on a Christian basis this seems to be unlike the God described by Jesus. If we are to be endlessly forgiving (as Jesus said), then God must be infinitely forgiving, so there is no ultimate penalty, so far as we know. Universalism may be a Christian heresy, but it has pretty firm Christological roots. That was my point when I asked about our knowledge of God's goodness, and what we can know, if anything, about it. As for the relationship of God to time and eternity. This is, as you say, a vexed issue; but it is at least reasonable to suppose that a being in whom there is not the least shadow of turning cannot know what will happen in time. We may certainly change our minds about what is good and evil. Suicide was once thought to be the unforgivable sin, but is now no longer thought to be so of necessity, even by many theologians. We might suppose that God has changed his mind, as when Jeremiah, as well as Ezekiel, say, contrary to a quite different view expressed elsewhere, that the person who sins will die, and the sin will not be held over that person's descendants to the third and fourth generation. But this shows that even our moral thought develops quite independently of any apparent change in God. I think your claim that those who do not believe in God cannot have a morality is false, and we should be glad that that is so, especially as different religions have very different conceptions of the good.

8 Dec 2017
kenneth francis
Many people, who do not believe in God, certainly can act more morally than many who do believe in God. My argument is, without God, there are no objective moral values or duties. And the world's greatest atheists have, and still do, recognise this, from Nietzsche to Dawkins, despite their contradictions. However, without God, subjective situation ethics could exist, but not objective morality. If Naturalism is true, then there is no such thing as the self, free will or ULTIMATE meaning in life (there's only transient meaning). A Godless universe on Naturalism would be determined; and finite creatures would be at the mercy of environment and electro-brain/body chemistry. <> Regarding Universalism: I'll leave the last words to C.S. Lewis, writing about hell in his 1940 work, The Problem of Pain: "There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture, and, specially, of Our Lord's own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason. If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of the creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully 'All will be saved.' But my reason retorts, 'Without their will, or with it?' If I say 'Without their will' I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say 'With their will,' my reason replies "How if they will not give in?'"

9 Dec 2017
Eric MacDonald
Kenneth Francis, thus: ¶ "If Naturalism is true, then there is no such thing as the self, free will or ULTIMATE meaning in life (there's only transient meaning). A Godless universe on Naturalism would be determined; and finite creatures would be at the mercy of environment and electro-brain/body chemistry." ¶ So what? If you interpret naturalism in a familiar way, a la strict physico-chemical determinism – that is, as a view from nowhere, in Nagel's terms – then no doubt there is no free will. However, this interpretation of the natural world simply ignores questions of mind and intentionality, as you must know. Of course, for Nietzsche, the denial of God does consume the sea and erase the horizon, but there is no reason that the denial of God should have that consequence, since there is still the perspectival view of the world of the mental (and possibly spiritual) left. The question of how to reconcile scientific naturalism (Sellars' "scientific image") and the "manifest image" (or human perspectival view) of the world remains. It is simply not the case that we can reduce the world to a strict dichotomy of scientific versus religious ways of looking at reality. ¶ While I disagree with her, there is obviously no reason to suppose that, without God, something like Philippa Foot's "natural goodness" is still out of our reach. If it is transient, and limited to the lifetime of our species, or even more transient than that, and to some degree culturally relative (something that Foot does not seem to recognise), there is no reason for holding that it does not share in the kind of objectivity appropriate for a being as changeable as the human is. If you are looking for absolute moral principles, then I think you will look in vain. Indeed, you must look in vain, since the circumstances under which we understand reasons for action undergo historical change. You may dismiss that as subjective as you like, but it is as objective as morality is ever likely to get. Supposing that moral principles must be equivalent to scientific laws (which, as you must know, are themselves changeable as we learn more about nature), in a Kantian sense, is simply misleading regarding morality as it is regarding natural law. So the different formulations of the Categorical Imperative, which in one way or another depend upon universal laws of nature, are doomed from the start. Even the scientific image is not static. ¶ Of course, whatever we want to say, we are always "at the mercy of environment and electro-brain/body chemistry," which undoubtedly limits the scope of free will, but a free will which was not so constrained would not be free, but chaotic. As Daniel Dennett (several books on free will) and Owen Flanagan (cf. <i>The Problem of the Soul</i>) point out clearly why only a will that is so constrained is one that is worth having. As for C.S. Lewis and the issue of universal salvation (whether or not voluntary), this does not even scratch the surface of the problem of the outcomes imagined – whether eternal bliss or eternal torment. In finite terms, if we play a game, then there must be a loser. But in infinite terms for a finite being, that there must be a loser is less obvious. Paul suggests in Romans that God has abandoned the Jewish Covenant for now, so that in the end all can be saved. This only makes sense if you are thinking in finite terms. In infinite terms the logic changes, and the contradiction that Lewis claims to identify is not so obvious after all. ¶ Since I find blocks of text a bit unnverving I have added a paragraph marker between lines of text or paragraphs.

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