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:
- 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.
- 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):
- 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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.