Austin Cline at “About Atheism/Agnosticism” has written about J. Federer’s alleged secular arguments as to why civil governments must be founded on a belief in God and that the country as a whole owes this God its gratitude.
He presents three standard clichés for theology. One of those arguments was:
[O]ur government was designed to govern people who could govern themselves. We could get by with few laws if people had an internal law . . . . But if that person did not believe in God and in a future state of rewards and punishments, when presented with the same temptation to do wrong and not get caught, tthey would give in.
Let’s see . . . nobody here has heard this argument before, right? Perfectly original? The fact that Federer was so brilliant to come up with an argument nobody else has ever used explains why we can forgive the fact that he failed to consider answers to this (or his other) arguments. There has not been enough time for atheists to consider the argument and try to come up with a response.
Okay, the paragraph above was sarcastic. The problem has been answered. The argument itself contains the seeds of its own dismissal. Everybody who wants to live in a society where they and those they care about might be murdered, raped, lied to, swindled, or otherwise harmed at any moment raise their hands?
With the exception of a few psychotics in the studio audience, our reason to form a society of people who do not wish to go around harming each other is because we do not want to live our life in this world in fear of being harmed.
An agent acts so as to fulfill his desires, given his beliefs. Certainly, one of our options is to give people false beliefs that his desires will be thwarted in some afterlife if he does evil. This is one way to prevent people from doing evil.
Another is to make the types of things that a person will likely try to do if there is no God looking over his shoulders acts that tend to fulfill other desires, including a the desires of other people. We typically do not have to fear a person putting his hand in a bed of hot coals even when there is no God threatening punishment for doing so. We do not need to fear a person sneaking food that he absolutely hates even when left alone with a large bowl of the stuff – simply because he does not like it.
So, if we give people aversions to murder, rape, theft, sophistry, and lying, then we create people who will not murder, rape, steal, con, or lie even when there is no God looking over his shoulder.
Why do we do this?
It might have something to do with the fact that very few of us have any interest in being, or having somebody close to us be, murdered, raped, robbed, lied to, conned. The same reasons that the theist gives for us to fear a society that does not believe in a God or punishment in an afterlife, are the reasons we have to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.
How do we do this?
Through judicious applications of the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. We praise and reward those who exhibit desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and condemn and punish those who exhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. This is particularly effective when applied to young children.
Unfortunately, people such as Federer apparently did not have parents who were particularly good at teaching them the difference between right and wrong. If they had, he would know that it is wrong to denigrate others without good reason, and that one has an obligation to see if one’s reasons are good before expressing them. It seems he was taught to denigrate others on a whim, without thought as to whether his claims made sense.
This source of true morality and incentive to do the right thing that Federer claims to have gotten from his religion . . . well, he is not exhibiting those qualities at all in this essay.
As for secular arguments to obey God's law, I would argue that the claim that God will cause natural disasters such as hurricanes and plagues of locust to also be particularly compelling secular arguments. Even those who do not believe in God have reason to avoid hurricanes and plagues. But . . . you know . . . people who want to avoid hurricanes and plagues would be well advised to study the phenomena scientifically and learn how to predict and explain their behavior through natural laws. Because, as it turns out, people who use this system, actually do come up with solutions that save lives.