Just How Good Can We Be Without God?

It is all rather common – almost to the point of being monotonous – for atheists to throw out the old chestnut, “Can we be good without God?” They argue, “Of course we can. We are just as moral as any religious person. We don’t need God to live an ethical life.”

I have dealt with this issue often in the past. See for example:
billmuehlenberg.com/2008/11/13/god-and-goodness/
billmuehlenberg.com/2010/03/30/on-progress-and-human-goodness/

But I want to take this a bit further. Another common objection thrown out by the atheists and secularists concerns how ethics can be any different for believers and non-believers. As one secularist challenged me just hours ago: “Name me an ethical statement or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non believer.”

This too is a common objection, but let me address here in more detail. There are various ways a theist can respond. One is to say that we are all made in God’s image. Even though we are now all fallen, we still live in a moral world, and have moral awareness because we live in God’s moral universe.

So yes, we all have moral motions, and make moral statement and claims. This is all fully explainable under the theistic worldview, but not at all explicable under the atheistic and evolutionary worldview. Selfish genes are not moral, they just are. Genetic determinism says nothing about genuine morality.

But as to the specific challenge of what a non-believer can or cannot do, the answer is quite clear on theistic terms. Consider the First Commandment for starters. Most atheists may not know of this one. Sure, most secularists and atheists know about some of the Commandments, such as ‘Do not kill’ or ‘Do not steal’.

But there are a few problems here. First, Jesus made it quite clear that simply not doing certain outward actions does not make one morally upstanding, or right with God. He said it is our inward attitudes and dispositions that really count in terms of our moral makeup.

Thus he said that if a person lusts after another person in his heart, he has already committed adultery. He said that if a person hates another, he has already committed murder. That not only makes every single atheist guilty of falling short of a holy God’s ethical standards, but every single one of us.

We are all guilty. We all fail to meet his just and perfect standards. So in that sense none of us measure up. But there is another important element to all this. I noted that most secularists would not even know what the First Commandment is. Well, let me share it with you:

“You shall have no other gods before me.” This is the first and foremost commandment, and it is obviously one which the atheist breaks every single day – indeed, every single moment. The atheist, who claims there is no God, in fact sets himself up as God, as the centre of the universe.

He seeks to usurp God’s place. He is guilty of gross idolatry (thus breaking the Second Commandment) and is breaking continuously the First Commandment. This is clearly one ethical action which a non-believer cannot perform. Of course, none of us can, until we come to Christ in repentance and faith.

Thus the believer is a former rebel who once regularly violated the First Commandment, but now is finally able to start keeping it – with God’s help of course. The non-believer not only does not want to keep this Commandment, but is unable to as well.

And things do not get any better for the atheist or secularist in the New Testament. Consider what Jesus said when he was asked about what is the greatest commandment. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength. It is obvious that an atheist would have a bit of difficulty keeping that particular ethical injunction.

But a somewhat more observant atheist might object and say that Jesus went on to discuss the second great commandment: to love one’s neighbour as one’s self. “See,” he will chortle, “we atheists can do that!” But can they? Really?

Notice that just as in the Ten Commandments, there is a clear order delineated here: God first, then man. The first four Commandments are all God-ward, while the remaining six are man-ward. This is the same with the reply Jesus gave. God must come first, then mankind.

Indeed, this is not just some rhetorical device, but a fundamental ethical reality. The point of both lists is this: without loving God and being in right relationship with him, we cannot really love others. Being a moral person in this life, in other words, is predicated upon, and impossible without, being in right relationship with our maker.

We cannot be in right relationship with each other until we are first in right relationship with God. This is the major sticking point of Christian thinking about morality – a point which always trips up secularists and atheists. They think they can be good without God.

But they really can’t. Sure, we can all do certain moral acts, since as I said, we are all moral agents living in God’s moral universe. But genuine goodness, as exemplified in the great commandments announced by Jesus, is impossible while we try to paddle under our own steam.

Indeed, that is part of the reason why Jesus talked about the lust/adultery connection in the Sermon on the Mount. It was to show us clearly and decisively that all of us fail to measure up to the absolutely pure and holy standards of God, based as they are on his perfectly pure character.

We all fall short, and only with God’s help as we repent of our sin and accept what Christ has done for us, and receive the gift of his Holy Spirit, can we finally begin to live real ethical lives, lives which really are pleasing to a holy and just God.

So the short answer to my atheist buddies is that on the one hand, yes you can be moral and do moral things – to an extent. But there is plenty an atheist simply cannot do, including the most important thing of all: giving God his just and due devotion and allegiance.

[1053 words]

16 Replies to “Just How Good Can We Be Without God?”

  1. Good points Bill, the Bible teaches that good works have to be in a state of grace, or else they contribute nothing to salvation, that is, after we’ve accepted Jesus as our lord and saviour (From a Catholic perspective at least). So if the Atheist tries to argue that good works are the only thing Jesus preached then he would be extremely mistaken, and would show his lack of biblical knowledge.

    To those that claim Jesus was nothing more than a good moral teacher (as some Atheists have claimed) one can give the classic “Lord, liar or lunatic” response that C.S Lewis popularized:

    “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic…or else he would be the devil of Hell.”[1]

    He goes on:
    “Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently…I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”[2]

    [1] C. S. Lewis, ‘Mere Christianity’, London, Harper Collins Publishers, 2002, p. 52
    [2] Ibid, p. 53

    Richard Lyons

  2. Your atheist friend is perhaps being a bit disingenuous Bill.

    Yes he can ‘make’ an ethical statement, but in his entirely meaningless, relative worldview – can he defend it Bill?

    That is the real question to ask him. then let him try to defend his ethical statement with a ‘why!’

    Rob Robertson

  3. Do we as Christians give off the wrong impression of having the absolute moral highground at times? At the very least, I know that I used to (and perhaps still do), give off the unattractive scent of self righteous pride!

    Perhaps, unlike Paul, who referred to himself as “the worst of all sinners” – we sometimes lack a semblance of humility?

    Do we need to temper our understanding of Gods extravagant gifts of sonship, righteousness, grace and sanctification with an acute awareness of how fallen we really are?

    Thoughts Bill?

    Blessings
    Adam Elovalis

  4. Thanks Adam

    All Christians would agree that we can always be more Christlike, more loving, more humble, etc. That goes without saying.

    But given that this article is really about Christian apologetics and worldview, we can also say that we likewise need to vigorously and boldly defend truth, as Paul did. He had a Holy Ghost boldness to stand up for the gospel, and take on all challengers. Thus he could admonish us to “speak the truth in love”. Clearly we need to affirm and engage in both.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. The behavior of Atheists is subject to the same rules of sociology, psychology, and neurophysiology that govern the behavior of all members of our species, religionists included.

    This should not surprise us when we consider that among the societies of our nearest primate cousins, the great apes, social behavior is not chaotic, even if gorillas do lack the Ten Commandments! The young chimpanzee does not need an oracle to tell it to honor its mother and to refrain from killing its brothers and sisters. Of course, family squabbles and even murder have been observed in ape societies, but such behaviors are exceptions, not the norm. So too it is in human societies, everywhere and at all times.

    Plato showed long ago, in his dialogue Euthyphro, that we cannot depend upon the moral fiats of a deity. Plato asked if the commandments of a god were “good” simply because a god had commanded them or because the god recognized what was good and commanded the action accordingly. If something is good simply because a god has commanded it, anything could be considered good. There would be no way of predicting what in particular the god might desire next, and it would be entirely meaningless to assert that “God is good.” Bashing babies with rocks would be just as likely to be “good” as would the principle “Love your enemies.” (It would appear that the “goodness” of the god of the Old Testament is entirely of this sort.)

    On the other hand, if a god’s commandments are based on a knowledge of the inherent goodness of an act, we are faced with the realization that there is a standard of goodness independent of the god and we must admit that he cannot be the source of morality. In our quest for the good, we can bypass the god and go to his source!

    Ironically, atheists get divorced at lower rates than born again christians and represent less than 1% of the prison population. Mighty strange for such a sinning group of people.

    Jeff Dixon

  6. Thanks Jeff

    But the ideological straitjacket of fundamentalist atheism always results in a rather laughable reductionism. Atheists tend to dig themselves further in the hole the more they pontificate on issues that their worldview really cannot adequately deal with.

    So I am afraid I find nothing convincing in your rather worn arguments. As to animal ethics, there is of course a mega difference between genuine human ethical behaviour and mere animal reciprocity. That a chimp will scratch another’s back if the other will scratch its back has nothing to do with actual moral behaviour.

    It is when a human person engages in genuine altruistic behaviour, all the while with nothing to gain in terms of evolutionary advantage, that we see the differences so clearly showing up. Sorry, but I am not buying your reductionism here. No one can actually live in the moral universe you atheists seek to generate. Even the more honest atheists admit to the paucity of their worldview when it comes to ethical theory.

    And with all due respect, you will need to go well beyond Philosophy 101 in your Euthyphro discussion. Plato simply offers us here the logical fallacy known as the false dilemma. If these were indeed the only two options open to the theist, then we would be stuck with either an arbitrary God or one subject to moral laws greater than himself.

    But of course the theist – and Christian – rejects this false dilemma, and argues that there is a third position: what is good or right is based on God’s unchanging nature – God wills what is in accord with his own nature. God’s character determines what goodness is. God is good, and he orders actions to be in conformity with who he is, his being and character. Morality or goodness is grounded in God’s character. So Plato misses the real answer to the issue of God and goodness. Actually if your Philosophy 101 class was worth its salt, this third option should have been presented.

    And of course we must call your bluff on your last paragraph. So they do religious tests now for both divorce and prison sentencing? And even if it were true, it is simply another logical fallacy on your part, known as the non sequitur. It has nothing to do with the argument at hand, which is the existence of God and the ontological basis for morality.

    And it would not be surprising that atheists represent one percent of the prison population. Given that fundamentalist atheists probably make up around one percent of the general population, we can also say that atheists make up one percent of gum chewers and baseball players, So what?, in other words.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Yes and as you pointed out Bill, no matter what ethical standards men may arbitrarily decide are binding, they will inevitably fail to live up to them. Then the question becomes, where do we find forgiveness?
    Thank God for the cross.
    Glenn Christopherson

  8. Thank you Mr Muehlenberg for taking my comment and writing a whole post about it, i’m a little chuffed.

    However you didn’t answer the question- what is one moral statement that I can’t make or ethical act I can’t perform because I don’t believe? Not a religious one such as adhering to Christian commandments- I can’t submit myself to the order of one God because I simply do not believe in God, much like you don’t believe in Zeuss, or Pan, or the Mayan God of rain- i’m an atheist like you in that regard, but I go one better.

    I have another couple of things I would like your Christian viewpoint if you will, I ask as a critical friend, Did humans go for hundreds of years not knowing killing was bad, and stealing was bad, until they come to a burning bush, and Moses walks down from Sinai and says “these things are now forbidden?”

    Thou shalt not kill- I understand your viewpoint on abortion, but what about the death penalty? You’ve advocated for that- is that not a contradiction of the highest order.

    Finally

    I quote” Thus he said that if a person lusts after another person in his heart, he has already committed adultery. He said that if a person hates another, he has already committed murder”

    Is this not thought crime? Taking that argument is Jesus an all knowing, all thinking dictator that punishes your thoughts, without actions.

    Thank you Mr Muehlenberg.

    Deryn Jane Plathley

  9. Thanks Deryn

    But of course I have answered your question. Just because you don’t want to believe that God exists does not make it so. You can say you don’t believe in the law of gravity as well, but you will still have to abide by it. And sorry, but you have been reading too many juvenile atheist tracts, such as those by Dawkins, to throw up the rather tired objection about Pan, etc., which has been answered so many times. You will have to try harder I am afraid.

    And I also made it clear in this article that in one sense all the ethical imperatives we encounter, we are not able to fully live up to, without God’s help. Some secularists may complain at this point that faith is just a crutch. But if you are lame, a crutch is a very handy thing to have indeed. And given that we are all spiritually and morally lame, we certainly do need a crutch. Indeed, the Bible says we are dead in our sin and selfishness. So we don’t need a moral make-over; we need a resurrection, which is just what Jesus offers to those who humble themselves and admit that they are not the centre of the universe, but are instead fallen and finite creatures who need to get right with their creator.

    And again, you are way out of your depth when you seek to be theologically cute here. As I said in my article, we are all moral beings who live in a moral universe, and we have God’s moral obligations implanted in our hearts. So those living before Moses were also fully moral beings who understood moral duties. Yes we are fallen, so our moral clarity is quite blunted, but we still have enough of God’s law within us to know that killing is wrong, and so on.

    And you don’t even have to be a Christian to subscribe to such things as natural law theory.

    And there is no contradiction whatsoever in being anti-abortion and pro-capital punishment. I write this up here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2007/10/11/on-capital-punishment-part-1/

    As to your last objection, you are still way out of your theological depth. Sin and crime are two different things, although they may well often overlap. Jesus zeros in on our real problem: our sinful inner man, which results in outward sinful actions. In God’s eyes, both are sinful. But in the eyes of the state (which God has ordained), usually only outward actions are criminal offences (such as murder) while inner thoughts and dispositions are not or should not necessarily be (such as hate). (Motivations for a crime are however sometimes taken into account.) Thus both lust and adultery are sinful, but usually only the latter has been seen as a crime, not the former.

    I am afraid you have yet to present a cogent case here. Perhaps you need to go beyond mere cheap atheist websites and tracts for some genuine objections. But keep trying. And more importantly, keep seeking truth. If you are really open about truth, it may one day surprise you.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. Again Deryn, the issue is not whether you can make a moral statement, but whether you are able to actually justify it and give it real meaning.

    ‘Making a moral statement’ can either be a simple opinion expressed, or it can be an ‘absolute’ if you will, grounded deep in a meaningful worldview such as Bill proposes, one given meaning by a creator.

    If you are proposing a universe which has no progenitor or creator, you need to either admit the ‘moral statement’ you are making is purely a feeling (a la Bertrand Russell’s admission as to how he chose on such issues) or give it more rigour.

    Rob Robertson

  11. Secularists go to extreme lengths to prove that it is possible to be good without a belief in God. By doing so they display their appalling ignorance of etymology. Where, in heavens name, do they think the word ‘good’ came from? From God of course.
    Dunstan Hartley

  12. As a corollary to my previous statement may I state the obvious and say: “What is the purpose of being good if there is no God?
    Dunstan Hartley

  13. Thankyou Bill for this discussion about atheists and goodness. The very last line you wrote is also what I say to nominal ‘Christians’. I would describe them as good, decent people who, when asked, would CLAIM they were Christians. However they never express that belief in prayer, meditation, Bible reading or Church going. They usually get warm and fuzzy about Christmas. They might argue something like this – “There is no need for me to go to Church to lead a Christian life. I don’t harm anyone, I help people where I can and I think I am as good as any Churchgoer.” I always reply to this by saying something similar to your last line. “I go to Mass every Sunday purely to give God the Honour and Glory He deserves. Not because I think I am better than people who don’t go because I often think my prayers and praise will never do Him justice no matter how hard I try to concentrate on them.” In some ways this indifference is worse than atheism because these people want a foot in both camps. They also want a foot in both camps who think they can praise God on Sundays and forget about Him for the rest of the week in the way they live. Since there isn’t the social pressure for Church attendance on Sundays I often wonder how many of those Christians there are left. I would say most people who are there these days really want to be there for the right reasons. They eventually fall away if they are there for the wrong reasons. At least atheists are being honest when they say they don’t believe. The fact that they don’t is due to their own pride a condition we all suffer from to some degree. Also the fact that they think they can be good without God’s help is also due to pride because nothing can be accomplished without God. He oversees and guides everything for the greater good.
    Patricia Halligan

  14. Deryn,

    Christopher Hitchens has already answered this question, that he has possed so many times:

    ‘Here is my attempt to win my own prize. When Lech Walesa was starting his work in the Polish shipyards and the Polish Militia and the outer ring of the Polish Army were closing in on Gdansk, he was interviewed with his then fairly small group, and he was asked: “Aren’t you frightened, aren’t you afraid? You’ve taken on a whole powerful state and army – aren’t you scared?” And he said: “I’m not frightened of anything but God or anyone but God.”

    ‘This came back to me, I thought, well, this meets my two criteria. It’s certainly a noble thing to have said, a distinguished thing to have said, and I certainly couldn’t have said it. So it does meet both my criteria.’

    You can read the transcirpt yourself:
    http://pewforum.org/Belief-in-God/Can-Civilization-Survive-Without-God-.aspx

    His brother Peter, points out that it was hardly made a fuss of:
    http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2010/11/rather-interesting-but-they-all-missed-it.html

    I hope this is useful for you.

    Paul Armstead

  15. It is true that people can be morally good without knowing God; however this is according to their worldview. I know many people who do not believe in God that are morally and ethically good. They don’t kill, steal, they don’t lie, or cheat on their wives. Although this looks good to someone with the same worldview, most of these people have struggles. They may struggle with pornography, swearing, or they may not get along with their neighbours. From a Christian worldview this is not good. We are asked to love our neighbours as ourselves, and it states in the Bible that if we look at another woman it is as if we have already cheated.

    There is a difference between being morally and ethically good in the eyes of a theist. In the Bible in Romans 3:23 it says; “Everyone has sinned. No one measures up to God’s glory. The free gift of God’s grace makes all of us right with him. Christ Jesus paid the price to set us free. God gave him as a sacrifice to pay for our sins. So he forgives the sins of those who have faith in his blood”. In the same chapter it continues to speak about Jesus coming to die for our sins so that we can be made right only if we believe in him. In verse 27 it says “Are people saved by obeying the law? Not at all”. The only way people can be saved is by faith. We can try and be good but we are all sinners.

    It is good and well to say you are a good person and that you follow most of the Ten Commandments but it is clear that atheists cannot keep all commandments. As Bill already stated; atheists amongst others find impossible to obey the first commandment which is “you shall have no other God’s before me” Many people whether they are Christian or atheist put many things before God. It may be our job, football team, money, car etc. We all need something in our lives to help us. Bill you said that faith could be seen as a crutch. Yes it can; but like you said it is a good crutch to have. We all come to God lame and we are useless without him. Some of us think that we can do it alone but really without God’s help we are like cripples.

    It has been awesome to see God help people change their lives around. When we walk with God daily although we still make mistakes we have God with us to help us, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

    Christina Brett

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