The answer to the headline’s question is no, at least according to the late Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus in a podcast in the Socrates in the City series (Sept. 22, 2004; I came across it as one of the chapters in the 2012 book from the podcast, Life, God, and Other Small Topics. Neuhaus’ talk was actually based on a 1991 piece he wrote.) To which response I must respond: codswallop.
Not that I expect religious employees like Neuhaus to defend atheism, but to suggest people can only be good under the influence of the supernatural — and even then only their particular version of the supernatural — is an arrogant, ideological statement, not one of fact. It’s been debunked by much better minds than mine (Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Robert Buckman come to mind).
Interestingly, the Catholic League weighs in on the debate, Can We Be Good Without God, without entirely refuting Neuhaus, but rather by expanding on several points of the argument. However, the conclusion the author of that piece reaches is that “Ultimately, yes, one individual here, another individual there could be really sweet and fine without God, but a system that obliterates the religious basis of morality will ultimately consume itself.” To which, I again say, codswallop.
Neuhaus’s perspective is regrettably narrow: Christian, Catholic, and American. He takes pot shots at Protestants, especially recent ones, doesn’t comment on other world religions at all (as if they were invisible), ignores non-theistic philosophies, doesn’t talk about levels of governance aside from the US federal, rambles about the American founders, and ignores the experience in other countries. Even in context of his American perspective, he blithely sidesteps the vexing Constitutional separation of church and state by not raising it at all. For such a big issue, his answer is a peashooter response that misses the target entirely.
Yet for all my disagreement, this is the sort of philosophical debate I love to read about and engage in (not that there’s a lot of opportunity to actually debate these days; Facebook is just a noisy echo chamber). So my participation is mostly limited to reading the works of others and blogging about my own perspective. So here goes.