Gillard, God and the good
The Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, yesterday confirmed that she doesn’t believe in God. Whilst acknowledging respect for religion she admits she ‘is not religious’. This admission caused some media attention and notably the Channel 7 Sunrise program which asked the question, ‘Is Australia now an atheist country?’.
The majority of the Australian population profess allegiance to a Christian denomination, but this doesn’t automatically make these people Christian and it certainly doesn’t make Australia a Christian country. I think the very discussion of a ‘Christian’ country is ambiguous, as Christianity makes no political pretensions. Jesus says in John 18:36, ‘my kingdom is not of this world’. So I don’t think any country can be genuinely ‘Christian’.
At the crux of this issue is the discussion surrounding ‘values’ and ‘the good’. Given that Gillard is without God, critics have suggested she is now without morals – you can’t be good without God. There is a supposition that atheism should automatically lead to immorality.
Yet I think there is a confusion here. Atheists can be moral people, there is no question about that. Further, I don’t think simple belief in God necessarily leads to moral improvement, consider the Pharisees in the Gospels. These people firmly believed in God, yet they were decried as hypocrites (Matt 23), they loved money, insulted people (e.g. Jn 9:28) and were content to murder an innocent man. Simple belief in God’s existence doesn’t necessarily lead to moral improvement.
The key difficulty for atheists is not over the link between atheism and immorality but in determining exactly what is good? The atheist doesn’t have any rational or reasonable way of determining ‘good’. Consequentialism is a common atheist ethical position where ethical decisions are determined as ‘good’ by the outcome – i.e. an outcome which generates the most good for the most people ( Dr Spock’s philosophy: ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’). This may be Gillard’s approach in government – ‘whatever is best for the national interest’. Yet determining this ‘good’ or ‘national interest’ can be ambiguous, shallow and sometimes unjust.
So the real challenge for atheists is to explain what is good and on what basis we should be good. I think these may be harder questions to do without reference to God.