Jul26 2010

Can We Be Good Without God?


The sign on a New York City subway read, “A million New Yorkers are good without God.”   In Boston, there were signs on the city buses and subways that read, “Good without God?  Millions of Americans are.”  Billboards in Chicago carried the same message.  During the Christmas season, buses in Washington D.C. carried posters that featured someone dressed as Santa Claus with the message, “Why believe in a god?  Just be good for goodness’ sake.”  These were all part of a bold advertising campaign in 56 cities and 29 states that was launched back in 2007 by organizations such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation.  Their campaign included many other slogans such as, “Imagine No Religion,”   suggesting that America would be much better off if we could somehow remove religion (Christianity in particular) from our culture.

For my purposes here, I want to focus specifically on their message that it’s not necessary to believe in God in order to be a good person.  In fact, I’m finding that more and more people in the public square are proudly proclaiming that, as an atheist, they can be good without God.  When I engage someone in conversation and they tell me that they can be a good person without believing in God, they are usually surprised to hear me say that I agree with them!  I realize that it’s not necessary to believe in God in order to be a good person.  In fact, I know of some people who do not believe in God who I would consider to be more moral than many so-called “Christians”.   So, what’s the problem?  The problem is that the person who denies God’s existence cannot make sense out of morality.  It’s important to keep in mind that the question is NOT whether one can be good without believing in God, but rather, can we be good if, in fact, there is no God.

A friend of mine who teaches Philosophy and World Religions in a local community college had invited me and a pastor from my church to come answer some questions regarding Christianity.  One of the students was a lady who identified herself as a practicing Buddhist.  Keep in mind that Buddhists do not necessarily believe that God exists.  During the Q&A, she had commented in a somewhat sarcastic tone of voice, “Look, I am a good person who does good for my community, and I don’t have to believe in your God in order to be a good person!”  In response, I said, “May I ask you a question?  You just used the word ‘good’ three times.  I need to point out to you  that as soon as you did that, you immediately introduced into this conversation some standard by which to measure what ‘good’ is and what it isn’t.  In order for that standard to make any sense, it must be an objective standard.  That is, it must exist outside both of us, and both of us must be accountable to that standard.  Since you’re the one who brought this standard into the conversation, I have to ask you: 1) What is that standard? and 2) Where did it come from-  what is it based on?”

After a long, awkward silence, she replied, “I don’t know.”  A student sitting behind her attempted to help her out.  This gentleman had leaned forward and whispered something in her ear, after which she confidently smiled and said, “I get my morality from Buddhism.”  As I was attempting to reply, another student began to speak, so I’m not sure if she (the Buddhist) could hear my next comment.  I had said to her that I’m pretty sure that if I were to ask her if Buddhist morality is better than Nazi mortality, she would most likely say, “Yes.”  But to say that one is “better” than the other is to measure both of them by some “higher” standard that exists outside both of them.  To compare the two and to say that one is better than the other is to say that one comes closer to meeting that standard than does the other. But to acknowledge some “Ultimate Standard” is to say that there exists a supreme moral law-  this requires a supreme Lawgiver.

Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason makes an insightful observation about this.  He points out that when someone says that they don’t have to believe in God in order to be a good person, it’s like saying that they don’t have to believe in authors in order to read books.  While that may be true, they certainly cannot make sense of books existing apart from authors, nor can they make sense of an objective moral law existing apart from a moral Lawgiver.



107 Responses to “Can We Be Good Without God?”

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  4. Dave W. says:

    Much to my surprise, I find I must generally agree with your argument, though I do not agree with your conclusion. For a moral compass we can start by identifying what's good for us and through observation see if that works for others. Mothers do this all the time. Don't touch the fire, you'll get burnt (Not a moral as such but a good simply analogy nonetheless). From these observations we can generalise a bit and thereby expand the 'what's good for us is good for others' paradigm out a bit. From this you'll get things like don't steal, murder, lie, cheat, etc, for societal mores that are good for both a family and a society at large. I have to make the point though, that stealing, say, might not be good for society, but could be very good for the thief! Until he gets caught, that is.
    To invert this, and using the slave example, initially slavery was very good for a portion of society, but very bad for another (arguments to the contrary aside). However, once it became a point for a war it became very bad for that portion of society (et al).
    From this we can easily see that morals, and mores in general, have a benefit that is inherent in our own survival – don't steal the food from others or they will steal it back from us, and perhaps we'll stave to death in the winter. Murder is obvious, lying and cheating less so, but it can be seen that anything we do that disadvantages others, that they can and DO reciprocate with, is a bad thing for me, and a good candidate for becoming "moral", whether personal, societal, or otherwise.

  5. Dave W. says:

    And forgot to say …

    No god necessary.

    Cheers

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