Erik Strandness looks at where virtue comes from, exploring an Unbelievable show on the topic with atheist philosopher Julian Baggini and Christian author Dominic Done

Dominic Done is the author of Your Longing Has a Name, in which he explores the seven virtues listed in 2 Peter 1:5-7: goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, Godliness, mutual affection and love. He engaged with atheist philosopher Julian Baggini, author of The Godless Gospel, on the differences between a Christian and secular approach to developing character and virtue in the challenging time in which we find ourselves. You can watch the whole show here.


Running on fumes

It’s no secret that people are struggling emotionally, physically and spiritually. Done, reflecting on this cultural moment and tragedies in his own life, asked if the Bible had anything to offer as a remedy. What he discovered was that scripture offered a seven-step virtue program designed to transform our cultural languishing into human flourishing. He described his motivations for writing the book this way:

“Our souls, right now, are struggling. You look at the stats and they’re absolutely devastating. 75 percent of people say that they are overwhelmed by stress, 72  percent felt exhausted and the one that’s really heartbreaking is that 48 percent say they’re hopeless. I wrote this book to really engage some of those longings, the languish, and to ask the question: ‘How can our souls thrive in the midst of these difficult times?’”

Baggini similarly acknowledged the fragile state of our cultural mental health but suggested that God was an unnecessary add-on to the human flourishing project and could just as easily be accomplished by employing the tenets of humanism. 

Interestingly, the disturbing rise in levels of anxiety, depression and hopelessness has been accompanied by an exodus from traditional Christianity. This disenfranchised cadre of primarily young people has been labelled the “nones”, a group which continues to be spiritual but practises it in unorthodox ways. 

Is it possible that when you become a “none” you have nothing left in the tank? And if this is true, does humanism offer a viable refuelling strategy? 

Christians aren’t afraid to lament the fact that they often run on fumes because they know that spiritual fuel is always available and is free because the price has already been paid. Atheism, on the other hand, has no need for a fuel gauge because its survival-of-the-fittest operators manual clearly stipulates that the flashing lights on your dashboard warning of impending anxiety, depression and suffering indicate that your life is operating well within evolutionary factory specifications. 

Virtue signalling

Baggini and Done both believe that we can transform difficult circumstances into opportunities to flourish by developing virtue. Baggini defined virtue, based on the thoughts of Confucius and Aristotle, as:“The habits and dispositions of character which enable us to flourish.” 

He acknowledged that the pursuit of virtue was something that united both believers and non-believers: “I think that’s a commonality that I kind of appreciate with people of faith…We may have different beliefs about what the goal of that is or what’s guiding it but we both take that very seriously.” 

While they agreed on the benefits of pursuing a virtuous life, they disagreed as to its source and whether it was associated with a transcendent purpose. Baggini implied that the virtues contributed to evolutionary fitness and later became tools to construct human meaning. 

Done, on the other hand, said that virtue has its basis in the character of God and that pursuing it draws one into a closer relationship with the divine. 

It seems to me that virtue without a source or purpose is just a case of cosmic virtue signalling, where transcendent qualities are appropriated by atheists to give themselves human street cred while simultaneously allowing them to deny that those qualities are actually transcendent. 

Take a deep breath

The point of conflict between Done and Baggini can be boiled down to whether the virtue project is a ground up or top-down affair. Does virtue represent heaven coming to Earth or Earth reaching for the stars?

Baggini believes the soil of naturalism is all that is needed for virtue to grow while Done believes that our human dust needed to first take a deep divine breath. I would argue that a culture that denies God’s inspiration will always hunger for air and hyperventilate with anxiety until it undergoes a divine resuscitation.

Done describes this idea in his book:

“Your soul began as the breath of God. The implications are astonishing. First of all, it means the only way an unhealthy soul can be revived is through intimacy with him. When David wrote, ‘He restores my soul’ (Psalm 23:3 NKJV), the original language meant ‘He will return my breath to me’. That’s what we long for, isn’t it? Our truest self is screaming for air, desperate to break through the surface of a shallow, hurried life and breathe deeply of God himself. To exhale failure and inhale grace. To come alive again.” 


Done uses 2 Peter 1:5-7 as his scriptural starting point. 

“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” (2 Peter 1:5-7)

The seven virtues necessary for a flourishing life are, therefore, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection and love. 

Do these virtues transcend the natural world? Do we find anything remotely similar in the animal kingdom? Are these virtues attributes of image bearing or evolutionary tools designed to hone our survival skills?

Merriam Webster defines transcendence as extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience and then goes on to explain: “The Latin verb scandere means ‘to climb’, so transcend has the basic meaning of climbing so high that you cross some boundary. A transcendent experience is one that takes you out of yourself and convinces you of a larger life or existence; in this sense, it means something close to ‘spiritual’.”

If, as the evolutionist declares, we share our personality traits with the animal kingdom and the differences we see are just matters of degree, why is there such a vast chasm between the behaviour of humans and animals? GK Chesterton was correct when he said: “Man is not merely an evolution but rather a revolution.” 

While the atheist can point to morphological similarities to our nearest ancestors that argument does nothing to explain the vast differences in intellect. 

The atheist has a problem because they must use an animal palette to paint a human portrait and when we assess their work we scratch our heads, because every time we gaze in the mirror we look less like a monkey’s uncle and more like the “spitting image” of our Father. 

The good news is that despite the loud atheist voices proclaiming that we are just animals, most humans behave as if they are special. As it turns out, human value is not determined by survival portfolios but by divine dossiers. Our worth is not measured by survival skills but rather by a divine stamp of approval. 

Baggini recognises that there is “something deeper within human nature” and admits that human virtue cannot simply be explained by atoms and molecules, so he offers increasing biological complexity as the source of our mysteriously unique characteristics:

“You’ve got to believe if you’re a consistent atheist that everything about us is rooted in nature and in evolution, but what that has given rise to is something far more complex than something that can be just reduced to survival of the genes passing on. Complexity has generated a whole other way of being.” 

Virtue, for the atheist, becomes an emergent phenomenon, which sounds hauntingly like a cipher for an inconvenient ghost in the biological machine. 


I think we can clarify some of this debate by turning to a branch of mathematics I like to call anthromatics. It’s a form of maths we engage in on a regular basis as we feed our dogs, clean up cat sick and water our gardens. Anthromatics consists of one very simple equation. 

Human – Animal = ?

Generally, there are only three possible solutions to this equation; the answer is either greater than zero, equal to zero, or less than zero. We are either greater than animals, the same as animals, or less than animals. 

I think, except for perhaps a very small minority, most people would opt for one of the first two options because we all agree that humankind is at least equal to other species in the animal kingdom. If you are a materialist, the answer is slightly positive due to gradations in traits already found in animals. 

Human – Animal = Emergence

If, however, you are a Christian, the answer is significantly positive because humans bear a divine image.

Human – Animal = Image of God

If you catalogue all the traits that make humans unique, your list will include such things as creativity, morality, purpose, love, spirituality and compassion. The problem for the materialist is that it is incredibly difficult to find similar traits in animals which should lead any anthromathematician worth their salt to conclude that the answer to the equation is significantly positive.

This calculation, however, is a threat to a godless, materialistic view of the Universe. What can a materialist/naturalist do? They have only one choice; invent new maths! 

The new maths

Those who deny the existence of God recognise this equation has been a thorn in their flesh for thousands of years. Unable to avoid the calculation, they find that their only option is to manipulate the equation to make it equal zero. They must either decrease the value of humans or increase the value of animals. 

Human – Animal = 0

However, despite the astounding displays of human stupidity celebrated by the Darwin Awards and the trend of outfitting poodles with fashionable sweaters to make them look more sophisticated, the gulf between animals and humans remains. 

So, if we can’t find altruistic fruit on the evolutionary tree of life, maybe we need to look in another orchard? Thankfully, on the horizon we see a garden full of trees ripe with spiritual fruit, and it is in that grove that we must look.

Arboreal analogy

Both men like the image of a growing tree as a metaphor for human flourishing. Baggini likes it because it suggests that flourishing is rooted in a biological reality, while Done embraces it as a proper metaphor where, “Flourishing is a bountiful garden, Eden, with a Tree of Life in its centre, blooming with goodness and beauty.” (From Done’s book)

Michael Denton, in an article quoting the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, offered a more accurate description of the atheist tree metaphor:

“As Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould put it, we are merely ‘the embodiment of contingency’, our species but ‘a tiny twig on an improbable branch of a contingent limb on a fortunate tree…we are a detail, not a purpose…in a vast universe, a wildly improbable evolutionary event’.” 

Personally, I find Done’s metaphor more appealing.

Bittersweet symphony

Baggini described a Japanese holiday where they celebrate the beauty of the Cherry blossoms at the very time of year when they will be blown away and uses it as a beautiful description of the bittersweet nature of life. Done notes that while Baggini’s conception of bittersweetness rings true, his naturalistic view of the Universe is ultimately a bitter pill to swallow. Karl Rahner expresses this conundrum quite eloquently:

“In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we come to understand that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.”

Is life just a bittersweet symphony, a collection of major and minor keys that ultimately stops playing when our concert hall shuts down, or is it a concerto begun in this life which finds its completion in the afterlife? Is cultivating virtue the process of inking the final score to a life symphony we’ve already heard bits and pieces of, a musical composition God is always willing to hum a few more bars of if we are willing to sit quietly and listen for his still small voice?. Done summarises his thoughts like this:

“There is a bitter sweetness to life…I do believe that these signposts that we experience in these moments, these sweet fleeting moments of joy and mirth and happiness and love and wonder and beauty longing are pointing to an ultimate fulfilment.”

The long and winding road

Both men agreed that building virtue is a long and winding road of toil, testing and triumph. Sadly, Baggini’s road ultimately dead ends. Done’s, however, merges onto a heavenly highway leading to the New Jerusalem. 

I appreciate Baggini’s thoughtful and gracious approach to the issue of virtue and flourishing but wonder if his “Godless Gospel” has anything to offer. Does a via dolorosa without a resurrection make for a fulfilling road trip or do we need to hope that one day we will commute on streets of gold?


Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.