Can You Be Good Without God?

As Dostoevsky said, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.”

 (c) Can Stock Photo
(c) Can Stock Photo

Theists claim that people could not do good without God. But, people do good things all the time, even without believing in God. Atheists, agnostics and people of all stripes can do good things and they do good things.

Obviously, believing in God is not a prerequisite to doing good things. A better question, is whether good can exist without God?

If God does not exist, what basis exists for determining good or bad? Right or wrong?

Without an objective reference point, we have no way of determining what is up or down, near or far, good or bad. It’s all a matter of perspective, personal opinion or preference if there is no objective standard for morality.

What are the possibilities of objective reference points for morality without God?

The most plausible answer seems to be people, but people don’t agree on much. Just look at your Facebook feed! We all have our own notions of what is good and bad, right and wrong, and we all disagree.

Some people might say that society determines what is good or bad. But which society and in what time period?

We only need to review the laws of the various countries around the world today to see that different countries have very different ideas of what is good and bad, right and wrong. Morality in China, dominated by an atheist, secular regime, looks very different than morality in Saudi Arabia, dominated by a government based on Sharia law.

We in the United Stated tend to think our notions of good and bad, right and wrong, are superior to other countries, but we really don’t even agree on those values in this country. Take a look at your Facebook feed again.

Similar differences are observed in different societies and cultures past and present. Different cultures and different societies demonstrate different values. Even the same societies and cultures demonstrate different values at different times in history.

Slavery in the US was once viewed as acceptable. Abortion was once illegal. Now slavery is abolished and abortion is legal, though people still disagree on whether it is right or wrong. Sexual mores in ancient Rome were very different than sexual mores today in some ways (valuing male dominance) but not in other ways (almost anything goes), but fifty years ago sexual mores in the US were different than they are today, just 50 years later.

Western society, generally, has viewed itself as progressively becoming more civil, more enlightened, as time as gone on. Ancient Greeks thought the same thing. But how do we know that? What is our basis for determining whether we are more enlightened, morally superior, to societies of the past?

Some might say that whoever is in power gets to determine what is right and wrong, and it simply changes over time. But, such a statement concedes that there is no objective morality. Whether a person or a government or a society determines the standards under this view, it is all subjective in the end.

Businessman pondering over a decision.So, maybe that’s it: maybe there is no objective morality!?

Atheists like Richard Dawkins actually agree with that statement. Dawkins says that only “blind pitiless indifference” can exist in a world that is limited to natural causes and explanations.

Yet, even Richard Dawkins acts as if objective morality exists. He gives the lack of objective morality lip service, but he betrays his thinking in books like The God Delusion where he makes moral claims, like religion is bad and atheism is good. He even proposes a list of “the atheist ten commandments”.

All people of good will agree that Hitler was wrong, that he was evil. All people would agree that raping a child is bad. In fact, nearly everyone but a sociopath acts as if anobjective moral standard exists, though we may not all agree on the details.

Any time people protest about fairness or justice they are acting as if morality is objective and universal and that people ought to recognize it. Even atheists, like Richard Dawkins, act this way (though they deny the very basis of objective morality and, therefore, deny that objective morality exists).

Without God, however, no objective reference point exists to ground morality. As Dostoevsky said, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” All we are left with is someone’s viewpoint, which is no more valuable than someone else’s viewpoint.

Even if we reference societies and cultures and governments, the viewpoints on morality change with each society, culture and government, and viewpoints on morality change within every society, culture and government over time. No objective basis to judge people, societies, cultures or governments without God.

The world religions claim that a God or gods do exist, and that God (or gods) establish the standards by which everything in the world can be judged. The world religions, of course, agree on some things, but do not agree on everything. Whether people understand or agree on the details of the standard, however, is not the issue; if God exists, God is the standard of morality. Though our understanding of that standard of morality may be incomplete or inaccurate, our failings do not negate the standard.

The fact that some universal standard exists that can even be observed to some primitive extent in the animal world, though we may only know it and understand it incompletely, suggests a moral stand bearer.

The Judeo-Christian concept of God includes commandments that reveal a moral standard that is rooted in the characteristics of God. For instance, God’s attribute of love is revealed in the command to love your neighbor as yourself.

This command to love your neighbor provides a foundation on which we can affirm the objective goodness of things like generosity, kindness, self-sacrifice and equality. It also affirms the objective evil of things like greed, abuse and discrimination. The command to do unto others as you would have them to unto you describes what is objectively good and objectively bad.

As a side note, good is not good because God has determined it to be good. God also does not will things because they are good. These seemingly competing possibilities are known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma, and they pose a false dichotomy. Neither is true. Rather, God is the reference point! God is good. Good is good because good is defined by God’s nature.

God is the standard for morality just as high fidelity is the standard for a musical recording. The more a recording sounds like the original, the “better” (more true to the original) it is. The standard is the live performance. High fidelity means the standard of the original performance to which the recording is compared.

In a similar way, the more closely an action conforms to God’s nature, the better it is.

canstockphoto23998496If atheism is true, there is no ultimate standard of good. For atheists, humans are just accidents of nature, justly highly evolved animals. Animals have no moral obligations to one another, though we often project morality onto them. When a cat kills a mouse, the cat hasn’t done anything morally wrong; the cat is just being a cat.

It’s telling that we don’t view ourselves that way. We all believe that killing a fellow human being is wrong. We don’t say that we are just being human. Ironically, many people suggest that killing is aberrant human behavior, but then why is killing so prevalent, even today?

If God doesn’t exist, we should view human behavior the same way as animals. When Pol Pot killed millions of intellectuals or the terrorists fly  planes into the Twin Towers, they were not acting immorally on a naturalistic, atheistic view. According to people like Dawkins, they were merely “dancing to their DNA“. But no one sees things that way.

Good and bad, right and wrong do exist. All but the sociopaths among us agree. We all act as if morality is an objective standard. Just as our sensory experience convinces us that the physical world is objectively real, our moral experience convinces us that moral values are objectively real.

Every time we react, “Hey! That’s not fair! That’s not right!” we affirm our belief in objective morality.

We may disagree about the details of moral goodness, but not because God doesn’t exist. We disagree because we use ourselves, our experiences, our culture and other things as our reference points. Our reference points are all slightly different, so we have differences in what we consider to be morally good.

If we could know the mind of God, we would have no disagreement over what is good or bad, right or wrong.

Morality is not just personal preference or opinion. According to Michael Ruse, a Philosopher of Science at Florida State University, and an atheist, “The man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says 2+2=5.”

In the end, the fact that objective morality exists is proof that God exists. If a Supreme Being did not exist who sets the standard of what is good and bad, right and wrong, no objective morality would exist. The fact that we all agree in our experience that objective morality does exist suggests that God exists.

Atheism does not provide a solid basis for the reality that all of us experience every day. The existence of objective morality that suggests the existence of God.

6 thoughts on “Can You Be Good Without God?

  1. I liked your statement, “God is the standard for morality just as high fidelity is the standard for a musical recording.”

    In His Word, He tells us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith YHVH.” (Isaiah 55:8) He revealed that truth to me in a stunning manner years ago:

    He ran a ‘video’ of my life through my brain and showed me flashes of my words and actions and what HE thought of them. I had always been a “Goody Two Shoes”, so I thought I qualified for high praise. NOT!!

    He showed me that things that I thought were ‘good’ (visiting orphans, helping old people, etc) were, in His view, ABHORRENT, because they had not been done from genuine love for Him or for others, but because I wanted to think well of myself and get approval from others. Those ‘good deeds’ were, in effect, a form of self-idolatry!

    Then He went on to show me things I had said or done that I thought were completely neutral, neither good nor bad. From His perspective, they were thoughtless, destructive (because they were not creative), unloving (because they were not based in His Love), and sometimes even cruel, but always SELF-oriented and idolatrous. Quite an eye-opener….

    My thoughts are truly NOT His thoughts, nor are my ways His ways. That’s one of the reasons I am so grateful for His Torah commands – as I follow them with the desire to please HIM (rather than myself), I am permitted to demonstrate HIS character into the world, rather than my own. May He continue to refine me and conform me to the image of His incredible Son!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmmm, sounds like a rehash of C.S. Lewis’s arguments. I’m going to propose a counter-apologetic thought. Why? Because external frameworks of “objective” morality are also a tremendously effective means of controlling people.

    I: You have the right to judge your own behavior, thoughts, and emotions, and to take the responsibility for their initiation and consequences upon yourself.
    II: You have the right to offer no reasons or excuses for justifying your behavior.
    III: You have the right to judge if you are responsible for finding solutions to other people’s problems.
    IV: You have the right to change your mind.
    V: You have the right to make mistakes—and be responsible for them.
    VI: You have the right to say, “I don’t know.”
    VII: You have the right to be independent of the goodwill of others before coping with them.
    VIII: You have the right to be illogical in making decisions.
    IX: You have the right to say, “I don’t understand.”
    X: You have the right to say, “I don’t care.”

    ― Manuel J. Smith, When I Say No, I Feel Guilty: How to Cope – Using the Skills of Systematic Assertive Therapy

    Why? Because in my experience religion is all to easily corrupted into violating the fundamental tenets of those rights. And, when one considers the fundamental principle in the Gospels, “Love thy neighbor as thou love thyself” those rights align rather well.

    Faith is one of those things that I prefer to consider a person’s individual right to determine. If it works for you, great. If it is consistent with those ideas I’ve presented, awesome. If you can do those things without getting caught in the trap of imposing your will upon others, then I’d say you get it.

    On the other hand, if your “faith” leads you to forcing change on my behaviors that violates or contradicts those ideas, I’m not going to buy it. Faith is fundamentally a choice. I’ve read through the Bible & Gospels enough to get the message that pretty much it was about choosing, not being forced or intimidated or reasoned into a choice.

    Apologetics, which is what C.S. Lewis was writing about and what you appear to be saying is fine to the extent it works for you. It is not when it is used as a tool of manipulation or control of others. My understanding of Jesus is that he did a lot of acceptance, a lot of example and a lot of practical application of allowing people to freely choose for themselves.

    “Love thy neighbor as thou love thyself”. That is strong enough to stand on it’s own, and it’s worthy of a lot of considering the full meaning.


    1. Religion and knowing God are not necessarily the same thing. Jesus had more issues with religious leaders than he did with other leaders. But following Jesus, and the idea of asserting one’s individual rights do not align very well. To follow would mean to put others above yourself, to die to yourself. But really, the point of the article is that a moral standard does exist, and that standard is not something people make up or impose on others. It flows from who God is. We get clues of that nature of God in the Bible, but I agree with you that we don’t always understand it as it we should.


      1. I disagree that health self-assertion is an anti pattern to Christianity. “Love thy self” is in there. That part speaks to social interactions between humans. The faith is still first.

        There is a balance between taking proper care of oneself and sacrifice. We are not called to always sacrifice without due deliberation and care…the road to hell being paved with the best intentions, eh?

        Agreed that the anchor to some kind of morality flows from the relation of humans to the divine. However the divine reveals itself in faith, including atheism.

        All of those points well covered by various theologians. In fact, I may have to review the Screwtape letters as I think most of them are covered there quite nicely.


        1. I agree that loving ourselves is implicit in loving God and loving our neighbors, but you won’t find a Bible verse instructing us to love ourselves. If you can find one, please post it, and I will recant what I said. Paul talks about judging ourselves appropriately, which suggests that we should see ourselves as God sees us – God who created us in His image and who loves us so much that He gave His only son that we might have life.


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