Is it possible to be good without God?

Is it possible to be good without God?  Well, it depends on what you mean...

In what follows, I will identify 11 different possible meanings to the question.  I have answered them with 5 Yeses and 6 Noes.  Of the six No answers, half apply equally to religious and nonreligious folk alike, while the other half distinguish those who believe from those who do not.

At the most basic metaphysical level, a Christian might start out with the following answers:

  1. No, because God is the Creator of all things.  Apart from God, nothing would exist.  Therefore, it would be impossible for there to be any good (or bad) human beings.
  2. No, because God is the grounding of all morality.  He is Goodness itself.  All other things are good by participating in his goodness (or are bad by failing to do so in some respect).

Note, however, that although #1 and #2 are true in the real world, they are deductions from the Christian worldview.  They make sense, but are not strictly required given human existence.  Although in my view the evidence strongly supports Theism, it is not a logical contradiction to imagine that Atheism is true (in which case, the things which exist would obviously not depend on God).

Some Atheists, especially those of a scientistic bent, think it's obvious that morality is nothing more than a set of primate instinctual behaviors which have been refined by human cultures, that differences in evolution or culture could have produced quite different kinds of "ethics", and that there is no way to compare these as being better or worse in any kind of absolute way.  If so, there is no such thing as good and evil, objectively speaking.

Other Atheists may say that this doesn't do justice to our beliefs about right and wrong, and that there must exist some objectively defined notion of goodness, that Hitler must really be worse than Ghandi according to some rationally compelling measuring stick.  Such Atheists may differ in their account of what this consists of.

The first kind of Atheist might say to the second: "Wait, that's really weird!  If there's such a thing as an objective right and wrong, that's like saying that the universe cares whether you are good or bad.  But caring is the sort of thing that persons do.  So your view is suspiciously similar to Theism."  This is the Argument from Ethics, normally employed by Theists as an argument for the existence of God.  It says that if Ethics corresponds to an objectively real property in the world, then it must somehow be an aspect of the Ultimate Nature of Reality (whatever that is).  But if there is an Ultimate Reality which discriminates between good and evil, it's only a short hop-and-a-step from there to Theism.

However, this Argument from Ethics can only be a successful argument for Theism if Atheists have some valid reason to accept its premise (that ethics is objective).  So if Theists expect to deploy this argument, they are actually conceding the following point (which may superficially seem to contradict #2):

  1. Yes, in that there are reasons to believe that morality is objective, which can be known to an Atheist, prior to realizing that God exists.  Therefore an Atheist can believe in objective moral standards.

This, however, leads us to a completely different question.  Before we were asking whether Ethics depends on God actually existing.  This is completely different from asking if ethical behavior depends on some person believing in God's existence.  (In my experience, when a Theist and Atheist get into an argument about whether Ethics requires God, usually the Theist is talking about something like #2, while the Atheist often means something more like #5 below.)

Let's continue on the thread of this new question:

  1. Yes, in that God has placed in each human heart a conscience, which no one can completely ignore.  This is true for everyone, regardless of their philosophical beliefs about Ethics, and regardless of whether they know about the Bible, or have any other specific divine revelation.  This gives to all people an opportunity to do what is right.  As St. Paul says:

 God does not show favoritism.   All who sin apart from the law [i.e. pagans, who either don't know, or don't accept the "Torah" or Jewish Bible] will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law [Jews who know about God's revelation] will be judged by the law.   For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.

Indeed, when Gentiles [i.e. non-Jews], who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.  (Romans 2:11-15)

           In this way, every kind of person can do what is good, at least sometimes.

  1. Yes, in that fear of divine punishment is not necessary to be virtuous.  Nor is it the best reason.  Many Atheists would argue that one should be ethical for its own sake, not because of fear.  And Christianity agrees.  "Perfect love casts out fear," says St. John, "because fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love" (1 John 4:18).  Perfect means complete, so the meaning is that the most ethically advanced person does good out of love for others, not out of fear of being judged (either by men, or by God).
    However, although obeying out of fear of divine judgment is a lower stage of moral development, I would argue that it still has some value.  "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Prov. 9:10, Psalm 111:10).  And of course, deep reverence and awe for God and his commands is appropriate at every stage of moral development, in light of his holiness.
    Note that hoping to be rewarded by God is not in the same category as fearing punishment.  It would be, if one were looking for an arbitrary incentive which has nothing to do with being virtuous.  But there also exists a natural reward for virtue, which is due to obtaining what one was seeking.

But can a nonreligious person be a good person in the sense of actually fulfilling their most basic moral duties?

  1. No, because according to Jesus, the first of the two most important commandments is "The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" (Deuteronomy 6:5; Mark 12:30).  If God exists, then there is a morally prescribed right relation to him, as well as to human beings.  Although there were monotheistic pagans, clearly it is impossible for an Atheist to obey this commandment.
    Related to this, Christians regard holiness as an essential aspect of good character, but most Atheists aren't even trying to be holy.
  2. Yes, in that Atheists can obey the second commandment singled out by Jesus: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:30).  Clearly it is possible for a nonreligious person to do particular things which are consonant with loving other people.  I'm not going to belabor this point, but only because I don't think it should be controversial.
  3. No, in that Christians regard these two commandments as a unity, so that it is impossible to fully obey the one without obeying the other.  We cannot love God and hate men, nor do we understand what real love is until we know God's love.  As St. John says,

Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love.  God’s love was revealed among us in this way:  God sent his One and Only Son into the world so that we might live through him.   Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation [or atonement] for our sins.  Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another.  No one has ever seen God.  If we love one another, God remains in us and his love is perfected in us....

If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar.  For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen.  And we have this command from him: The one who loves God must also love his brother.  (1 John 4:7-12, 20)

  1. No, in that all human beings are sinners, so that no one—religious or not—in fact succeeds in being ethical.  For most of us, we fall short even of the standard which we rightly expect of other people.  How much more when judged by God's perfect standard!  In Genesis, even as God promises not to wipe out the human race, he kvetches that "every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood" (Genesis 8:21).  And St. Paul, after making it clear that sin is a problem even for people who know God's law, gives us this montage of Old Testament passages about the human race:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
     there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
 All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
     “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18)

I was reminded of this passage when the scandal broke about Penn State coach Joe Paterno failing to report a child molestor.  People were amazed that such a righteous-seeming person screwed up that badly.  But if they really knew how to examine their own hearts and conduct, they shouldn't have been surprised.  He wasn't a hypocrite; his virtues were real, but they also weren't enough.   That is how God views all of us.  And apart from God's protection, each of us would be similarly unreliable in situations of power—I don't say that we would all make the exact same mistake he did (although many of us would have!) but that we are all capable of similar treachery against our own best ideals.

Fortunately, although we are all wicked, God has provided a way for us to be forgiven, cleansed, and healed through the death of Jesus.  This is the Atonement, one of the core doctrines of Christianity.  Through Jesus, God offers his grace to all of us.  His offer is to purify us from sin, not because we deserve it, but because we need it.  (And this is why, in accordance the canonization policy of this blog, I still ought to have said Saint Joe Paterno in the previous paragraph.)

However, the offer requires that we accept it, trusting him for this forgiveness.  And this is where faith comes in:

  1. No, in that in order to receive this forgiveness from Jesus, you must put your trust in Jesus as the Savior sent by God.  Now obviously it's hard to do that if you don't believe in God at all.  For "without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists, and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him" (Hebrews 11:6).
    Leaving aside the apparent unfairness for a moment, this is just common sense—if you don't believe in God, you don't have any incentive to hand your life over to him, and so you probably won't.  Of course, it's not enough to believe in God, since you can perfectly well think he exists without deciding to trust him.  As Jesus' brother said: " You believe that there is one God. You do well.  Even the demons believe—and tremble!" (James 2:19).  So Theism isn't enough.  No, you have to believe that it's worth your while to trust him, that he "rewards those who earnestly seek him".  That requires faith.
    This isn't something completely different from the rest of life.  If you can't enter the water without panicking about drowning, you'll never learn how to swim.  If you don't trust anyone enough to say "I do", you will never be married.  It's just how things are.
    I was just at the dentist to get my teeth cleaned.  This is essential for good hygiene, because no matter how well one might think one has brushed and flossed, there are always places that one misses.  Plus, once cavities start to develop, there's no way to fill them on your own.  If you "try to be good on your own, apart from God", then your teeth will rot away and fall out.  Metaphorically speaking, that is.
    Only a tiny fraction of our mind is accessible to our conscious inspection at any one time.  And even in that small conscious part, we find that we are frequently unable to completely control our own passions, desires, and will.  We need someone else to cleanse us, someone who knows us inside and outside, and can reach into the parts of ourselves that we can't.  The good news is that God has offered to do this for us, for free, if we will trust ourselves entirely to him.  Only a fool would decline this offer—if they know about it, that is.
  2. Yes, in that God will judge the world with perfect justice: "He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity" (Psalm 98:9).  This means actual justice, not some religious-affiliation test which has nothing to do with reality.  Therefore, if an Atheist was truly seeking what is good and true, and disbelieved in God through no fault of his own, then it must necessarily be that God will not condemn him in the Final Judgment.  If.  I do not make any judgment about how common this situation is.
    Some caveats are called for here.  First, no one really does seek truth with their whole heart, see #9.  But God knows about about human nature, "for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust" (Psalm 103:14), nor has he "forgotten to be merciful" (Psalm 77:9).  If religious people cannot earn their salvation through works, then neither can the nonreligious.  Everyone who is saved is saved by God's grace, given through the Spirit by the work of Jesus.
    Secondly, no one is saved apart from a relationship with Jesus.  But it may be that certain people can welcome Jesus without explicilty knowing that this is what they are doing.  The Parable of the Sheep and Goats seems to suggest this, anyway.  Alternatively, one could imagine people coming to faith after death, as suggested by St. Peter in a highly controversial passage, which is frequently mistranslated, because most theologians don't agree with what it really says!

In any case my hope is that you, Dear Reader, will come to know the inexpressible riches of God's salvation in this life, and that he will make you holy all the way through, so that you may love others sacrificially, just as he first loved us.

About Aron Wall

I am a postdoctoral researcher studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my first postdoc at UC Santa Barbara.
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7 Responses to Is it possible to be good without God?

  1. Andrew says:

    I don't agree with the reasoning in 7 (Love your neighbour) and 8 (Love God). If 7 is a yes, then 8 is a yes too, because whoever loves knows God (somewhere in 1 John).

  2. Aron Wall says:

    Hi Andrew. Welcome to my blog. The passage in 1 John is the one I quoted, right?

    Can you clarify whether you think both 7 & 8 should be yes, or both of them should be no? Note that in 7 I said "do particular things which are consonant with loving other people" while in 8 I said "fully obey". I think this distinction is important.

    If both are no, do we really want to say that no Atheist ever loves another human being? That seems wildly contrary to the facts.

    If both are yes, what do you do about Hebrews 11:6? Would you say that every human being who loves at all is born of God and knows him? Even murderous idolaters, so long as there is anyone whom they care about? What do you think John really means by "love" here?

    By the way, 6 is Love God, 7 is Love your neighbor, and 8 is about the unity of the two commandments. The comments at the end of 11 are perhaps also related to the point you want to make...

  3. Andrew says:

    Yes, it's the passage from 1 John you quoted. I thought 7 and 8 should be yes, my understanding of the passage from 1 John being that Christianity, like physics is an "experimental" science. We don't know what anything means unless it connects to experiment or actions. Love God is meaningless, unless it translates to actions - obey his commandments. What are the commandments? Love your neighbour. So loving one's neighbour is the operationalization of loving God. I think similar ideas are found in Matthew 21:28-31 and 25:37-40. There must be more to knowing God than this, but I think it's not a bad effective theory or interpretation, like Copenhagen.

    Regarding Hebrews 11:6, I think both Christians and non-Christians are imperfect, but not left without grace, of which the ability to love is a sign. Maybe Romans 11:32 and 1 Corinthians 13:9?

  4. Andrew says:

    I think should have better said "shut up and calculate" instead of "Copenhagen" :)

  5. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for your comments, Andrew.

    When we call a science "experimental", we mean that it is learned through experiments (my area of physics, quantum gravity, alas is not!). But it is still possible to know about the results of the experiments without participating oneself. So the theological statement John is making seems to be stronger than that.

    I am hopeful for the eventual eternal salvation of some of those who die without religion, and I agree that it is possible that some people may have a relationship with Jesus without knowing it. However, there is way too much in the New Testament about faith to say that the distinction between belief and disbelief in God is unimportant. An Atheist qua Atheist cannot fully please God, since the complete renewal of God's image requires that we consciously know that we are serving God in our neighbor. Not to know is a defect in one's sonship (what kind of son does not know their father?), and therefore a defect in one's salvation, or at least maturity of salvation. Although this may seem exclusivist, in fact it follows directly from God's universal benevolence. As St. Paul says:

    God wants all men to be saved, and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:4)

    and as Jesus says in his prayer for believers:

    Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3)

    Even if we imagine that the particular Atheist will be saved on the Last Day due to an unconscious relationship with Jesus (which we aren't likely to know from external observation, if they do not even know it from internal observation), they are still not fully saved in the present. They have not yet consented to being adopted by the Father, they do not know the price Jesus paid for them, they have not asked for the Holy Spirit nor received the outpouring of Pentecost.

    I also think it is important not to interpret the idea of "love means you are saved" in a way which would apply to practically every person under the sun. We are talking about a supernatural love here, not ordinary human affection. If ordinary human affection were good enough, what need is there for the scandal of the Cross?

    I can respect a Universalist who says that everyone will eventually be saved (although one can hardly extract this teaching from the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats) but not one which says that everyone or nearly everyone is already saved. That would make the Gospel no gospel at all.

  6. Andrew says:

    Yes, I think I largely agree.

  7. Larry Duncan says:

    I sat and read this question and answer several times, first being transfixed at the question itself; since I, like most Christians, I think, have out of necessity "have had the discussion." But now, unlike the other times, I see the question in written form and it strikes me somehow differently. How, I ask myself, will Aron answer to God this most important question.

    I confront myself with 1 John 4, first, to brace myself for my own self-examination but my heart leads me to 1 John 2:27. From there I resisted the urge to answer the question myself to myself--after all, I know my answer--what I don't know is if Aron's will re-affirm or take me somewhere else.

    I start to read and find myself mesmerized. It's a very comfortable feeling I'm enjoying (similar to when I read Dante or Milton or Homer or Virgil or certain works of Kierkegaard). Now I find myself finished with the analysis. There, I muse, enough said and well done at that! I myself am not so eloquent. But I sure am gratified Aron has taken the time to pose and answer the question with such thoughtfulness and grace and meekness. For myself, I cannot find a single fault with the reasoning and I felt it incumbent to try.

    On the other hand I could not understand a single word he was saying in the writing about physics (ha ha).

    I also appreciated Andrew's input.

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