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Can We Be Good Without God?

Updated on December 31, 2017
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Bill has advanced degrees in education and political science. He has been a political science teacher for over 28 years.

If a woman loves a child, what makes that action "good"?
If a woman loves a child, what makes that action "good"?


Can We Be Good Without God?

From my youth, I associated God with the word “good.” After all, the Bible says that God is good. But, what does it mean to be “good”? Webster’s 1828 Dictionary provided as part of its definition of the “good” as “Moral works; actions which are just and in conformity to the moral law or divine precepts.” The “good,” then, is that which conforms to an existing law, a law that is prior to the good.

Today there are two major questions about goodness and God that are debated regularly:
1. Can we be good without God?
2. Is goodness possible without God?

As for #1, I think the answer is “yes,” we can be good without God. Both the atheist and the theist can be giving, sacrificial, and loving to their families. Both can give up their lives for the safety and security of others. But the rub is that while it’s possible for both theists and atheists to act in a good way, goodness itself is not possible without God.

That brings me to #2...

We have to ask “what makes a thing good”? Is a thing good (like loving an infant) because we agree it is? It’s an absurd example, but it illustrates the point well enough: what if we all agreed that abuse is good and generosity is bad? Would that make abuse “good” and generosity “bad”? I think we all know the answer to this question…


And this leads to the conclusion that, no matter how important agreement is to us, it cannot establish what is good and what is evil. We can agree that we are going to do the good. And we can agree that we will do something evil. But we didn’t make those actions good or evil by our agreement. Whether it be loving a child or something that we would all find contemptible (like torturing a person to derive pleasure from it), such actions have been judged to be meritorious or contemptible prior to our agreement. And if these actions have been so judged, someone had to make them so.

Philosopher William Lane Craig has framed the argument this way……
P(1) “If God does not exist, objective morality does not exist.
P(2) Objective morals exist.
Therefore, God exists.”

As for P(1), this is universally agreed upon by atheists and theists alike.

As for P(2), I’ve already suggested that we know that actions are right or wrong apart from our agreement. We intuit the rightness of loving a child and the wrongness of theft just as we intuit our awareness of the external world. I cannot “prove” to you that the external world exists, because whatever arguments I use would have to appeal to the external world and your sense of it. We cannot get outside ourselves to prove such things. Rather, you simply “know” that the world exists, that is, you have an awareness of the world around you. Now the “way” in which you view the world maybe very different from the “way” I view it. But there is no disagreement about its existence. If we can't agree on this, then rationality breaks down, and the hope of sensible discourse is over.

Similarly, we all intuit an awareness of morals. The Bible refers to this awareness as the “moral law written in our hearts.” We have a heart (the soul) and that heart knows that some actions are good and some actions are evil. In the words of political philosopher Jay Budziszewski, there are some things that we cannot “not” know.

Is the Foundation for Morality Natural or Supernatural? Sam Harris v. William L. Craig


And, yes, I hear the objections....

Objection #1. “Well, is the good “good” because God says it is or is God good because he does what is good”? Sometimes referred to as the Euthyphro Dilemma, if it’s the first, then goodness appears to be arbitrary; if it’s the second, then God is conforming to some good external to himself. He might embody the good, but He's not the standard of good; something else is. Hence that “Good” is superior to God, which would seem to suggest that God is not the originator of all that is good.

Objection #2. Good and evil are simply part of what nature provides in our struggle for survival. “Good” is that which works toward our survival and “evil” is that which decreases our capacity for survival. So, nurturing children is good because that increases the chances of our species’ preservation; acts of violence decrease those odds.

Now, even though much has been made of #1 (often referred to as the Euthyphro Dilemma), this is not really a dilemma at all. Rather whatever apparent dilemma can be resolved if we consider that goodness is simply an attribute of the character of God and that God is always true to his own character. So God can be the standard of goodness, a standard to which He is always faithful.

But, someone might ask, "couldn’t God have decreed that rape be good and charity be bad”? No, because that would be inconsistent with his character. And His character, His will, and His decrees are in harmony with one another. In a way, it would be like asking "why are all bachelors unmarried"?

“But, can’t God do anything he wants”? No, God cannot make a married bachelor, or a square circle. He can’t make a world where he did not exist. That is, he cannot “unexist” Himself. When we say that God is “omnipotent” we’re not saying that God can do anything. But rather “God can do anything He wants to do” or “God can do anything that is possible to do.” Similarly, we would say that God cannot be untrue to Himself. God is always faithful to His own character, which constitutes the summum bonum, the supreme good.

How about objection #2? I think #2 has more problems than #1. The problem is that even the adherent to #2 has to concede that all nature can tell us is what would help us to survive. Nature could never tell us what is “good” but only what is “useful” to our preservation. We make distinctions about what is “useful” and what is “good” and if we’re going to maintain that distinction, then we have to equally acknowledge that we cannot collapse the “good” into a mere discussion of what is “useful.”

In a letter to her son, John Quincy, Abagail Adams told him, "Adhere to those religious sentiments and principles which were early instilled into your mind, and remember, that you are accountable to your Maker for all your words and actions."
In a letter to her son, John Quincy, Abagail Adams told him, "Adhere to those religious sentiments and principles which were early instilled into your mind, and remember, that you are accountable to your Maker for all your words and actions." | Source


The fact that God is the foundation of goodness is also a fact that is denied to children in our nation’s schools. It should not surprise us that the events like those at Columbine or Sandy Hook occur because our children are not taught the basic principle that there is a right and wrong and such things are determined by our Creator.

Think about it, even with all of our technology, and all of our knowledge about the history of education, our schools continue to fail us. No matter how much money and attention we give them, the schools just get worse, not better. The problem with our schools is not one of the head, it’s one of the heart. While teachers may instruct students on how to properly act, they are missing the boat, because they only ever address "what" (the good) and "how" (the behavior). However, they have failed in addressing "why"?

Abagail Adams wrote her son, John Quincy, four months after he left home and went abroad to France with his father. In her letter dated June 1778, a part of her instruction to her son was to tell him…

Great learning and superior abilities, should you ever possess them, will be of little value and small estimation, unless virtue, honor, truth, and integrity are added to them. Adhere to those religious sentiments and principles which were early instilled into your mind, and remember, that you are accountable to your Maker for all your words and actions.

Our education has little to commend it if we simply instruct students in how to make a living, but not in how to live. A part of providing them the good life is to teach them "why." The removal of God from our schools was a great mistake and has been a colossal failure. Bringing God back into the schools is not a panacea; it will not resolve all our problems. But what it will do is lay the proper foundation for morals, which are essential to any good society.

Why should children be good? For that matter, why should you and I be good? In the end, it is because that we are all accountable to our Maker for all our words and deeds.

© 2013 William R Bowen Jr


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