Can You Be Good Without (Belief in) God? October 29, 2009

Can You Be Good Without (Belief in) God?

The On Faith blog asked panelists to comment on the questions:

Is there good without God? Can people be good without God? How can people be good, in the moral and ethical sense, without being grounded in some sort of belief in a being which is greater than they are? Where do concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, come from if not from religion? From where do you get your sense of good and evil, right and wrong?

A few excerpts stand out.

Herb Silverman points out the flaw in the question itself:

I think it’s meaningless to ask whether people can be good without God. As an atheist, I believe we are all without any gods. The question is really about whether people can be good without a belief in God. And by just about any measure, the answer has to be yes. The Scandinavian countries, for example, are the least religious and have low crime rates, as well as good social programs and a high quality of life.

You also have to love Herb’s retort to a radio show’s caller:

I was once a guest on a talk-radio show when a caller said to me: “Since you don’t believe in God, I suppose you can go out and rape and murder and do anything else you think you can get away with.” My response was, “With an attitude like that, I hope you continue to believe in God.”

Susan Jacoby turns the question back around to anyone who thinks you can only be good with a god.

Why would I derive my values, for example, from a religious tradition that insists it is wrong for a menstruating woman to touch her husband? Or from another religious tradition that tells me it’s wrong to use contraception? These are nothing more than superstitions that defy both common sense and science. I believe it’s good for people to express sexual love and desire without producing a dozen babies in the course of a lifetime–partly because that has been my experience and partly because the benefits of population control are obvious at a larger social level. Why should I listen to what old men sworn to celibacy have to say about this?

Philosopher Austin Dacey proposes a new questions we ought to be asking:

Today we should ask, what is the proper context of the current conversation about atheism and religion? What is the larger cultural project within which it should be seen? As Charles Taylor has observed, ours is a secular age, an age in which belief is no longer axiomatic but optional. We educated peoples of the rich, industrialized democracies inhabit a disenchanted universe, a world unperturbed by occult powers. It doesn’t get to cheat and bring things about by magic, but must resort to some natural, causal mechanism. The remaining anti-secular, anti-naturalistic messages of some contemporary Christians, whether from Saddleback or Vatican City, are not the dictates of a triumphant force but the cries of an animal grown more desperate because it is cornered. After five centuries of surrendering to non-religious institutions the dominion over cosmology, biology, medicine, education, entertainment, the arts, and civil society, they are desperate to retain some sliver of continued relevance.

(Thanks to Angie for the link!)

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  • Atheists being underrepresented in prison populations is a good point too.

  • Eric

    One of my favorite quotes along these lines:

    “What good does it do to suppose something beyond? Why should we pay more attention to that beyond thing, than we pay to our existence as humans? How does it alter your personal responsibility, to say that you were only following the orders of the beyond thing?”

    From here.

  • Cary

    Such a ridiculous question. There’s no objectivity in religion, so how could you possibly derive an objective moral system from it? You necessarily have to appeal to an external source to sort through the various theistic moral precepts.

  • That last quote is deliciously brutal. I’m stealing it.

  • Polly

    How about:
    “I don’t feel like raping and killing innocent people. If YOU need some rationale external to your own nature in order to abstain from hurting people, maybe you should question whether that spirit possessing you doesn’t need to be exorcised.”

  • TJ

    Morality is simply a case of harm. Beliefs, speech and actions can be considerred immoral by the amount of pain, suffering and harm they cause.

    There is therefore a very clear moral guideline that exists within humans without the need for recourse to a supernatural, imaginery being or a faulty, antiquated book. If we consider every action or statement against the potential to hurt or harm (and in more difficult cases, which does the least harm)we can be moral without religion.

    In fact, using this scale, religions themselves are guilty of seriously immoral activities and beliefs. The real question is, how can you be moral when you believe in a God?

  • keddaw

    All these answers, while valid in most ways, miss the point at heart of the question which is: “Is there good without God?”

    If you are religious you believe all goodness comes from god. You believe in an objective moral system that exists outside of the human and that we should strive for it.

    From that view you get only one possible outcome when you remove God, there is no goodness, no morality, we are our own Gods. (I’m liking this view more and more!)

    It is easy to see their point, misguided as it is. When I see an act that is ‘good’ it is only good within my personal moral belief system. Another person may disagree and say the act is wicked. Eating meat would be a perfect example. I like a nice steak and think it’s good, a vegetarian thinks meat is murder and I can understand that view.

    So if all acts are open to personal interpretation as good or evil to an individual then why wouldn’t eating babies be acceptable to some? And even if you personally found it wrong, who are you to stop someone else from doing it, whence do you claim your authority to tell people something is right or wrong?

    At which point you say society agrees on a common standard of right and wrong and they bring up Nazis and Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot etc. etc.

    So to answer my own quetion, is there good without god? No, there is no objective ‘good’ and therefore it is impossible for people to be good without god.

  • Christophe Thill

    The question is rigged. We all believe in a being that is greater than ourselves. It’s called humankind.

  • bronwynm23

    I usually tell people that my actions are dictated by my adherence to the “social contract.” Simplified and for these purposes, I say that I want the benefits of an organized and lawful society, so I voluntarily give up some of my “natural” rights to join said society.

  • That, I think, is the core of what Plato was surfacing in his often misunderstood Euthyphro Dilemma. The answer to the question…if you are philosophically honest…is no. No empirical statements of ultimate value can be meaningfully asserted in a non-theistic system of belief. You can make contingent claims, sure, so long as you recognize that those claims are derived from a social or cultural ethos that may be functionally meaningless to someone who operates out of a different normative paradigm.

  • Polly

    So to answer my own quetion, is there good without god? No, there is no objective ‘good’ and therefore it is impossible for people to be good without god.

    It’s also impossible for them to be bad without g0d.

    Certain moral regimes tend to produce results that benefit everyone, while others produce misery for the vast majority.

    From a completely rational point of view you could look at the end results of any set of ethical principles and then decide which particular set to adopt or reject.

    Most reasonable people will agree within a narrow range of variation. Reasonable meaning they aren’t stricken with the need to submit to an irrational and imaginary dictator or beholden to some -ism that forces them to turn a blind eye to reality.

    So, yeah it’s arbitrary. But, then again, so what? If it’ll help you and people you care about, why not go along?

    Re: Hitler, Stalin, Mao…
    Who cares what we call their actions? In the end, Power won out like it always does. And no amount of hand-wringing about right and wrong will ever change that. Like gun-control, only those who are already law-abiding will stop buying them. Those who don’t care about law will still posess them. Bad people will do bad things regardless of what you call it.
    My conclusion (for today): This whole conversation about “objective good” is irrelevant. A red herring thrown out there by the religious. Maybe we shouldn’t take the bait. It puts us on the defensive.

    “We’re amoral participants in the social contract, We’re atheist, Get used to it!”
    Doesn’t quite have a ring to it, does it?

  • keddaw

    Polly:

    From a completely rational point of view you could look at the end results of any set of ethical principles and then decide which particular set to adopt or reject.

    Most reasonable people will agree within a narrow range of variation. Reasonable meaning they aren’t stricken with the need to submit to an irrational and imaginary dictator or beholden to some -ism that forces them to turn a blind eye to reality.

    I can’t agree with this, I can’t even begin to agree with this.

    Have you ever looked at a map? See all those different countries with their different systems?

    Try talling a liberal American that his form of government and economic freedom are extravagances he has to give up for the good of his countrymen in a Scandanavian style socialist welfare state. Tell a Brit that the immigration system is prejudiced and it is for the betterment of mankind that all immigrants be allowed into the UK should they so desire. Tell the Dutch that drugs cause harm and so for the good of everyone alcohol, hashish and tobacco are all to be banned.

    There is categorically NOT a narrow range of variation. I stand aghast at the level of intrusion the governments of free countries make into the private lives of their citizens, but some people say it’s worth it for the increase in the chance of stopping a terrorist attrocity. I think the government operates too many public services which places an unfair burden onto higher earners, but a lot of people disagree and say there should be more services for the poor provided by the rich.

    These are not just political differences, these are fundamental issues of good and bad, right and wrong.

    Certain moral regimes tend to produce results that benefit everyone, while others produce misery for the vast majority.

    From a completely rational point of view you could look at the end results of any set of ethical principles and then decide which particular set to adopt or reject.

    Well… I am a libertarian and think that people should be free to do whatsoever they wish as long as it harms no-one else. If people wish to make what I consider to be decisions that are bad for them (smoke crystal meth) then that’s their choice. However, most people would actually want crystal meth banned because of the undoubted harm it will cause most users. This is a moral decision, both views are entirely rational. But if you decide to go down the avoidance of harm road you end up with an authoritarian nanny state and I certainly don’t want to live under that.

  • pete

    keddaw Says:“Is there good without God?”

    And then concludes with:”So to answer my own quetion, is there good without god? No, there is no objective ‘good’ and therefore it is impossible for people to be good without god”

    But in my opinion the whole argument misses the point that morals still having absolutely nothing to do with any god anyway.

    Because.

    God/s are often suggested to be the same yesterday,today and tomorrow,which we should actually expect if they actually are the all knowing! and all powerful! etc etc.And so if that was the true,in the case of the christian god in the bible for instance then we would not likely see any morals change since “god/s” always supposedly know whats moral or not .In which case even to this very day any good christian would still be stoning folks to death, along with many other things that were once said to be morals of god/s and if actually being morals of god/s then we should not be likely to ever see said “morals of god/s” ever have need to change.

    In my opinion even morals are but a part of evolution.And the fact that morals can often be seen to have changed even within religious books,proves that said morals are evolving and are always only of human descent.They are often based on our emotions etc and decided on mostly by consensus etc.This does not mean we cannot achieve objective morals,objective morals can still be finally achieved through use of the trial and error process.

    This trial and error process was in my opinion the very reason for why there was once a time when humans thought stoning folks was good.But realising it was a error we humans no longer see it as moral.

  • RG

    it’s easy for christians to say atheists can’t be good without god because they are defining what good is based on their religion. Many of them would say us wanting to give homosexuals and women equal rights is not “being good”, or having pre-marital sex = not good, etc.

  • keddaw

    @pete
    Who said god was all powerful and all knowing? God? Well, who doesn’t like to blow their own trumpet a bit. The religious, they’re in a marketplace for believers, if one says “my god knows some stuff” and someone else says “my god knows everything” it ends up with the most extreme claims winning most followers.

    Morals obviously have nothing to do wit god, since there is no god, but where do you get the idea that morality is objective? Read my post to Polly and you’ll see loads of examples of moral positions that people believe in whole-heartedly that are completely at odds with each other.

    Grown up morality comes from philosophy, it comes from your outlook on life and your idea how people should treat others. To imagine that this could in any way be objective is the variety of ideas that humans can have. Is there an objectively right political party? Is there an objectively right level of taxation or government spending? Is there an objectively right level of punishment for each crime? These are all moral decisions that different people will have different answers for. Trial and error will not, indeed, cannot decide these answers.

    If you look at the Abrahimic books, it does seem that Yahweh changes quite a lot over time. He starts out as a petulant child, jealous and cruel. In the New Testament he mellows out, has a kid and is generally a bit less interventionalist, then in the Qu’ran he’s justa grumpy old man with mixture of lucid periods and bitter rants.

    @RG: plenty of atheists want ot keep women down and are ridiculously homophobic. You’re almost falling into their trap of saying we’re better than you.

  • Polly

    @keddaw,

    Compare the countries you listed to any country in the middle east. Then you’ll get what I mean by “narrow.” These differences are tweaks of similar systems. True, stable Democracy isn’t even on the horizon for most nations, today. Remember, I said “reasonable.” None of those countries are culturally theocracies or sold out to some kind of ideology that flies in the face of human nature.

    But, while there is overlap with politics, I was talking about ethical principles, not politics. There won’t be one single answer, but most people-groups, given enough information to mae a decision will settle on a plan including:
    No murder
    no stealing
    some kind of marriage
    government of law and order
    representative government

    Private property within some overarching structure of communal contribution (as you are probably painfully aware)

    unbiased courts

    no substitutive justice (no whipping boys to take punishments on behalf of someone else)

    There are other organizing principles. It’s just that the current alternatives to liberal democracies aren’t producing attractive results.
    But, in theory, maybe there’s some set of ethics that would produce better results than individualism. I don’t believe so, but if it turns out to be the case, we’d be fools not to at least consider it.

  • pete

    @keddaw im guessing and hoping even you think killing folks for no good reason is immoral .Im picking most folks these days think so.

    Id say not killing folks for no good reason is pretty close to being a objective moral.Im guessing that mostly a majority would agree today in that instance.

    However dont fret to much !!,im not saying you need agree.

  • keddaw

    @Polly
    Most of the moral principles you laid out are in the countries of the Middle East:
    no murder
    no theft
    limited types of marriage
    some kind of law and order
    (partially) unbiased courts
    (almost) no substitutive justice

    Strange that the differences are political rather than strictly ethical.

    As for your view on marriage – I would have to vehemently disagree with you. It is morally wrong, imo, to not allow three or more people to be married (or siblings etc.) Who are you (or society) to determine the living arrangements of consenting adults?

    I would put it to you that my views on government are more at odds with my current government (UK) than the UK is at odds with Iran. Both favour massive government spying and intrusion into private life. Both have large public sectors (compared to the coutry’s GDP). Both have laws based on morality that I don’t share. Both have prohibition of substances based on morals. Both have morality based legislation rather than science based. Both lie to the public to further their own agenda.

    All of which is slightly off the topic of the fact (as far as I can tell) that morality is subjective. Therefore even though I not only can, but pretty much must, be good – according to my own morality – you may think I am being bad.

  • CJ

    I think the entire good with or without a god of some kind question rests on the definition of “good”. Most people would say: killing someone is bad, saving someone’s life is good. Fairly simple right? But what if killing that one particular someone saves two lives or a thousand or an entire planet’s worth of lives? Then what’s the answer. I don’t know, do you?

    Good is generally based on the rules of the given society you adhere to, but you may not agree with another society’s rules, so I don’t think gods have anything to do with it.

  • Polly

    keddaw,

    Have you ever read any fiction by L. Neil Smith? If not, I recommend “The “Probability Broach.” I think you’d like it.

  • Matt

    When someone tells me that they derive their system of morality from a god, I reply with, “Which god? Allah? Zeus? Any other member of the Greek Pantheon? Why do you insist that there is only one deity with the correct system for morality?”

    As humans, we generally want the optimal conditions in our social environment for progress, peaceful living, etc. Think about it: some of the most non-religious countries on an international scale are not chaotic battlefields. They have decreased crime rates and more desirable living conditions than the United States. Prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins and PZ Meyers are hardly anarchists.

    Religious systems and ideals are not shielded from abuse. When a theist tries to sway me with an example of an “atheist dictatorship” (which is almost always a simplification of the actual history), I remind them of how many churches have abused their authority with events like the Inquisition. Furthermore, we can’t ignore the reality of a brutal theocracy.

  • The Old Testament moral system is based on obedience to rules, a covenant between man and his god. The New Testament, at least by common interpretation, adds a divine punishment and reward system to a rules based system. The Bible, in short, espouses a pre-conventional moral reasoning. The sort of moral reasoning found in children.

    Jesus teachings touch on social contracts with messages like love thy neighbour and do unto others… but I think this is largely lost in the mythology.

    Can you be good without gods? I find it difficult to understand how you can be good with gods. God belief has an emphasis on rules based morality and self interest. This must be difficult to shake off when it is constantly reinforced by authority figures and the peer group.

    Religiously based morality has been attacked thoroughly over the centuries. Karl Marx critiqued Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in the famous essay that compared religion to opium, an illusion that holds back the moral development of the people. Despite his politics I think he was right on target on this issue.

    On the other hand atheism makes no claims to morality and offers no advice or structure for living a moral life. Atheism is entirely neutral on questions of morality. Anything moral decisions that come from a lack of belief are a byproduct of shaking off the superstitions of faith rather than a direct result of disbelief.

    Are you a better person because you believe that you are being watched by a being who will reward or punish you after you die or are you a better person because you believe that this life is the only chance you get? I’m biased but I would more trust those who don’t claim to hear voices or have conversations with gods than those who do.

  • solon

    The cowardice of most people parading as atheists is always interesting.

    The question must be, “Can you have ‘Good’ without (belief in) God?”

    If you really are an atheist, have the courage to examine your definition of “good” and how that came to be what “good” is.

    Atheists unwittingly hiding Christian mythology behind their beliefs are not atheists.

    (If confused, “being nice” is not “good” unless you proclaim it so. And why would you do that?)

  • keddaw

    Atheism is entirely neutral on questions of morality.

    And that is the religious’ problem with atheism.

    They don’t realise that while atheists do not derive their morality from atheism there is a vast library of great, and not so great, thinkers from which to pick and choose our morality.

    Their problem is that becasue they define their morality in terms of their god they think those without gods must be without morality. They don’t realise that we get to pick and choose our morality from the greatest minds of history while they get to re-interpret the musings of some bronze age authors.

  • solon

    >>we get to pick and choose our morality from the greatest minds of history

    …who in turn found their systems upon various gods, or god-like assumptions.

    There is no easy way out if you actually are an atheist.

  • Matt D

    Solon said:

    If you really are an atheist, have the courage to examine your definition of “good” and how that came to be what “good” is.

    Solon’s logic confuses me.

    I think he/she is saying that any Athiest who adheres to a “Golden Rule” or “10 commandments” view of what is “good” is not really an athiest.

    Let’s flip the argument. I would conjecture that Biblical morality has its roots in a set of phenotypical behaviours, preferentially selected in our evolution as a herd animal.

    Any gene (or set of genes) that said “kill everything you see with no regard to kinship or in-group status” has clearly been selected against.

    I’m no zoologist, but I suspect many (most) mammalian species have some kind of “morality” that loosely follows some basic rules like “dont kill anyone in your in-group unless these is a good reason”

  • Solon

    …who in turn found their systems upon various gods, or god-like assumptions.

    Who in turn founded their systems on the accepted social systems of their culture.

    Honestly it sometimes seems that Christians think that time began with their religion rather than it being a relatively recent addition.

  • solon

    >>I suspect many (most) mammalian species have some kind of “morality” that loosely follows some basic rules like “dont kill anyone in your in-group unless these is a good reason”

    You’re confusing morality with economics and self-interest. We also like to hump and eat other animals; it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Good and morality. These are cardinally different spheres.

    >>Who in turn founded their systems on the accepted social systems of their culture.

    See above. “What we (or they) do around here” has nothing whatsoever to do with Good and morality. (It is also highly contradictory after only 2 minutes comparison of our own and various “accepted social systems” in history: human sacrifice, slaves, hatred of Jews and others, etc., etc.)

    >>It sometimes seems that Christians think that time began with their religion

    Who are you calling a Christian? You seem to be amongst those preaching morality here, not me. Why are you, like a good Christian, so desperate for morality to be true???