Can You Be Good Without God?

Out of curiosity I subscribed (a few months ago) to a daily Google alert for “question for atheist”, just to see what people are wondering about atheists. Aside from the occasional “why do you hate god?” and “how did something come from nothing?” the overwhelming majority of questions that have made it into my inbox has been some variation of “how can you be good without god?” or “where do you get your morals?”.

Usually when these types of questions are posed the result is a long discussion on how we decide what is good or evil, whether or not there’s such thing as an objective morality or if morals are subjective, whether we need to be accountable to a higher power in order to keep ourselves in check, whether we could have evolved a sense of right and wrong, and so on.

But Susan Jacoby criticizes that approach in this article, called “Atheism and the silly goodness competition”

She writes:

The objection most frequently raised by defenders of faith to atheism and atheists is that there can be no morality without religion. One of the more disturbing recent secularist trends is a compulsion to answer that silly argument, in an effort to prove to the world of faith that we are as capable of goodness as everyone else. This strikes me as the moral and intellectual equivalent of gays feeling obliged to prove that they can be faithful lovers or African-Americans knocking themselves out to show that they are not anti-white racists. Who gave straights, or whites, the right to set themselves up as arbiters of behavior and morality? Why should atheists assign a similar power to religious believers?

I was stunned the first time I was asked, by a right-wing radio talk show host attacking my Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (2004), what would prevent me from committing murder if I did not believe in God. I answered truthfully, because I had never been asked such a question before, that it had never even occurred to me to murder anyone. I will never respond to such an insulting question again.

It really is an insulting question. Why should non-belief in a higher power immediately put a person in the position of having to defend their character?

She continues…

I certainly see ample evidence that humans–at least as soon as they become aware of the existence of other humans–manifest a kind of empathy that predates maxims like the Golden Rule, which appear in one form or another in all decent ethical systems. Darwin called this the “instinct of sympathy,” which he described as something that cannot be checked “even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.”

But it is equally true that humans are subject to selfish impulses capable of inflicting great evil. And history offers ample evidence that neither religious nor civil law has proved particularly effective at quelling the worst of these impulses. A Hitler, to use another unambiguous example, is unhindered by the laws of God or man and, at some point, has to be removed from the human landscape by brute force. And here is where someone will contend that Hitler did what he did because he was an atheist, and where I could respond that Torquemada did what he did during the Inquisition because he was a Christian. (In fact, the latter’s Christianity is much more certain than the former’s atheism. Every member of the Wehrmacht wore a belt buckle with the motto, “God With Us.”) There are people in every society, subscribing to every sort of belief system, who turn out to be monsters.

Asking whether atheists are good is not the right question, neither is asking whether people of faith are good. An individual’s behaviour should be the determining factor in whether or not they are a good person, and the real question should be “what leads people within both groups to choose one path over another.”

Questions of ethics are interesting on their own, and do not need to be discussed within the framework of the god debate:

It is time for atheists to stop trying to prove what there is no need to prove: that they are as good as people whose religion began with a father’s willingness to kill his only son at God’s behest or with the crucifixion of a man-God. For goodness sake, let us look to the only real evidence of good and evil in the world–our behavior and its consequences.


What do you think?


3 Responses to “Can You Be Good Without God?”

  1. 1 kevinbbg February 25, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    I think that is a question that should be answered because it is a key one to a Christian. They need an absolute, objective morality created by God or else there is only subjective morality, which can only lead to chaos and evil, which is the only way they can see it. We need to give them a different vision.

    Usually it’s easy to show that atheists are moral. One of my favorite examples is a friend of mine who, after coming home from the market and discovering the clerk had given her change for a $20 bill instead of the $10 bill she had given him, turned around and drove the 10 minutes back to the store in order to give back the extra change.

    This is extremely effective because the Christian listening to this or reading it has very likely had the same thing happen to them and kept the money – and even done so with glee, feeling like they got away with something. Then the realization that what they did was almost like stealing and that an atheist would go far beyond anything they would really makes them stop and think and see atheists in a different light.

    As to what I would do under the circumstance, if it happened in front of me and I was aware of it I would correct the clerk and give back the extra money. But if I’d already made it home before realizing it I would just keep it 😉

  2. 2 Sharmin February 25, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    Thanks for writing this! Susan Jacoby is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. Her book Freethinkers is really great.

    I think she makes a great point about how insulting it is when people of one group ask people how they can be moral without believing in a certain God. She is, of course, correct that we should definitely judge people by their actions. It is amazing that she even has to make that point; I thought we’d all realized that, but apparently some people think that affiliation to a certain faith automatically makes them more moral.

    I think it’s just a question of asking ourselves how we would like to be treated by others and how we would feel if someone else behaved a certain way towards us. Even someone who is not religious can understand and follow the Golden Rule.

    @kevinbbg: I had a similar experience. I was buying bookmarks from the bookstore. I was going to buy two, but accidently picked up three, since two of them were stuck together. The clerk did not notice that there were three, either, and only rang up two. I drove back and gave back one of them.

    Thanks again for writing this!


  3. 3 Gary B March 10, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    I have a friend who often describes me as “the most moral athiest” he’s ever met. This is at least partly in jest I think but I do, invariably, find myself trying to explain myself in that regard. I came to identify myself as an athiest a little at a time from the age of 12 or so until I was 15. That was my last time attending church for religous purposes. My parents were not particularly religous but sent me to church because that was just what you did as parents at that time (1960’s). As I began to see what was, for me, the fallacy of religion I still clung to the morality taught to me by my parents. The argument could be made that I have this moral view because of the religous views of perhaps my parents and my grandparents but at no time in my life have I ever had one of those ‘god will get you for that’ moments. I treat people as I would like to be treated and I am not an evangalistic athiest but I do defend my position as the need occurs often explaining that the laws guaranteeing freedom to practice religeon also let me have the freedom to not practice it. My view regarding religeon versus science is that religeon is constantly trying to prove itself right and science is constantly trying to proove itself wrong. Thanks for letting me vent a little.

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