Atheist magician Penn Jillette recently spoke at a Barnes and Noble about his beliefs regarding secularism as reported in an article by The Blaze. To start with a note of commendation, Jillette does believe that Christians should be out spreading their belief system. He does not support the idea that Christians should keep their beliefs private and even goes after fellow atheists for promoting that. We can certainly agree with Jillette and would hope that this would mean that he would be open to dialogue.
Unfortunately, there is more that Jillette got wrong than he got right.
Jillette is asked by The Blaze about what he thinks of the Christian idea that someone cannot be good without God. For starters I would like to know exactly which Christian is saying this. One can read through the works of many a Christian apologist and never once find this argument. Here the atheist might respond “Don't you all believe you need God to have goodness?”
Yes, but anyone can be a “good” person in a sense.
I agreed that if there is no God, there is no good or evil and so if God does not exist, no one can truly be a good person or even an evil person. The argument is that most of us do believe that there are good people and there are evil people. Mother Teresa would normally be seen as a good person. Few people have to sit down and discuss “Was Adolf Hitler really an evil person?”
It's because we believe in the existence of goodness we have to ask what goodness is and then what is the basis for that goodness. The Christian argument is that without God, there is no basis by which to differentiate good from evil. This can take many different forms. Personally, I first define what goodness is and then determine its relation to God. Others approach it differently.
Jillette also indicates that when an evangelical says that God is good, they are including atheists in that good. How so? He does not elaborate. It could be that God is good and that every atheist out there is just evil. I am certainly not claiming that, but just because one believes God is good, how does that translate to the idea that atheists are good? Jillette does not make the connection and I frankly don't see it.
Jillette says that many people believe God is the source of good but for those who don't believe in God, morality is more universal.
It's as if you can't believe God is the source of universal goodness, which is what Christians have held to for thousands of years. Many Christians, self included, hold that this is part of general revelation and one does not need the Bible in order to know good and evil, although the Bible does contain much wisdom on how to be a good person.
Jillette wishes to argue, at least provocatively, that one can't be moral with God, but does he believe that all theists are immoral persons? It doesn't appear so. However, Jillette argues that Christians do good simply because they fear that they will be punished. He doesn't want his son to avoid hitting his daughter not to get a reward or not for fear of punishment, but because hitting one's sister is wrong.
I see nothing wrong with that and think it's an excellent point, but this gives rise to the question of what Jillette will do if his son does hit his daughter one day? Will he just say “That's wrong” and leave it at that. Or would there be consequences? Jillette has a great ideal on why good should be done (for its own sake), but does he not consider that the punishment and reward system can help us get there?
In fact, we often do those things for some reward or to avoid some punishment anyway. It could be that we want to feel good about ourselves or we want to look good for society or we don't want our conscience troubling us. If we are told to be good for goodness' sake, we have to ask what is it that goodness cares about us being good?
With God in the picture, one should see the reason that they live. They are to do good not for their benefit, but to further enhance the goodness of God revealed to the world. I would argue that this is a far nobler reason for doing good as it's doing good for the sake of another, and that other is in fact the One who is Goodness Itself.
It's noteworthy in all of this that, sadly, Jillette never defines good. Good is treated as a concept that we all understand, but the reality is that most of us don't. Just try asking someone what good means.
Jillette also spoke about the under-representation of atheists in prisons. This is partially because atheists are a minority and because if one lists oneself as a Christian in a prison, one can get perks, such as being excused from the regular prison routine to go to a chapel where there is better air conditioning. Of course, there are real Christians in prison, some who became such in prison, but this whole argument does not answer the question of which view is true. It just says some people are good and some are evil, something Christianity affirms.
And there is plenty of evil done in the name of theism. I would offer one difference however. One can go on a mass murder rampage as an atheist and not violate one tenet of atheism proper. No doubt, most atheists would condemn such behavior, but if all atheism is about is the non-existence of God, then how does mass murder go against that? When a Christian does it, he is acting in contradiction to his belief system, an important difference.
In conclusion, Jillette might be good at pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but he really needs to pull out a definition of goodness and an ontological basis for it as well as learning to cite his opponents' arguments correctly.