Friday, December 14, 2012

Good Without God

The other day I had a Christian ask me “How can you be good without god?”  I asked him what he meant by the question.  His response was “Without god, what keeps you from going out on a killing spree?”  To be honest, I get questions of this nature often.  I get them on Twitter daily (@logicalbeing if you’re into that sort of thing).  More surprising to me is when I get them from friends and family.  

 I want to address questions of this nature without getting too much into the larger debate on the source of morality.  The reason I don’t want to discuss the origins of morality or the objective/subjective nature of morality is really quite simple.  I don’t think we need to do so to illustrate that they do not come from any divine being.

If it is belief in god that is supposedly keeping us from going on killing sprees, I think we can assume a few things.  We can assume that the person posing the question believes in the concepts of heaven and hell.  I think it fair to say that the idea of eternal reward and fear of eternal damnation plays a role in their morality.  

I say this because of the way the question is phrased, “how can you be good without god?”  This implies that it is the belief in god that is necessary for morality.  In order to be moral, one must believe that god exists, that this god has decreed what is moral and immoral, and is keeping tabs on what humans are doing.  The last part is important.  If god is not keeping tabs, when why would he be a factor in what a believer does?  If there is no reward or consequence, then what does it matter what god thinks of our actions?

If the person assumed that god was simply the source of all morality and was not keeping tabs on what I am doing, and the reward/punishment for my actions was not real, then my being with or without god would be irrelevant. I would argue that the system described above is not morality at all.  What see is a human being behaving like one of Pavlov’s dogs or as a young child would view morality.  We can break it down simply this way:

If person X does action A, they will get reward Y.

If person X does action not A, they will get punishment Z.

This is nothing more than making choices to get what you want out of the deal.  If the only motivation a person has for not going on a killing spree is to get into heaven, is this truly moral, or is it a self-serving action?  If the only reason a person has for not going on a killing spree is a fear of going to hell, is this truly moral, or is it a self-serving action?  I would argue that it is the latter in both cases.  Further, the reward for doing the good deed is only for the person in question.  This person is not acting with any sort of altruism in mind.  It is similar to a young child doing something so that he or she will earn a cookie or not get punished.  It is similar to my dog sitting when I ask her to do so in the hopes of getting a treat.  Neither of these things is true adult morality.  Rather they are simply making choices to fulfill one’s own needs.  In essence, they are gaming the system to get what they want, and not acting morally at all.  (More on the self-serving nature of morality later).

Christian morality often falls into this category.  Good deeds are done to please god and to seek a reward.  Bad deeds are not carried out so as not to displease god and earn eternal damnation.  Like a young child, this is not morality at all.  At best, it is following directions that a deity laid out, at worst, it is acting dishonestly to get a reward. 

So what keeps me from going on a killing spree when I do not believe a heaven or hell exists?  The answer is really rather simple.  I think that every human life has value.  I believe that killing another human being is the wrong thing to do, except in extreme circumstances, like self-defense, and even then would certainly prefer to avoid it.  Why do I feel this way?  I believe that much of morality is self-serving.  I believe that our society will be most productive and produce the most happiness for the largest amount of people if we do not go around killing people.  

This will most certainly benefit me, as a member of society.  In this sense, my morality is also self-serving.  However, unlike Christian morality, the reasoning for my choice does not solely benefit me.  It benefits all of society.  I do not fail to go on a killing spree so that I may be rewarded.  Nor do I fail to go on a killing spree out of fear of jail time/execution…it never even enters my though process.

Furthermore, my moral actions often take place without others noticing.  Morality, I think is best judged by looking at what a person does when no one is looking.  Here is a simple example.  Most of us would agree that it is usually wrong to lie.  There are numerous times each day, where I could lie, no one would ever know that I lied, and ….I tell the truth.  To me, this type of thing is true morality.  This cannot happen with Christian morality---ever.  God is always there.  His omniscience and omnipresence demands it.  So let me ask you, who is the more moral person, the person who chooses to do the right thing knowing that no one else will ever know or the person who chooses to do the right thing knowing that god is watching? 

In short, how can I be “good without god”?  Because I care about other people, I care about this planet, I want to see my community do well.  All of this is much more easily facilitated when we behave morally for completely natural and secular reasons.  I want to you leave with a quote of mine:

"Any of you who do the same good work and the same good deeds, without a hope for eternal reward or fear of punishment, without seeking recognition from your fellow humans, you are a better and more moral person than anyone doing so for religious reasons.”

Thanks for Reading,
 ---   John

Guest poster John Richards is the author of the popular atheist blog Reason Being, post written by him, images added by me. Follow his blog, and as he mentioned, he's also on Twitter, Twitter handle @logicalbeing. 


  1. Great post! Have friends and family actually asked you what's to prevent you from going on a killing spree? My answer to that would be: "Uh, the fact that I'm not a sociopath?"

    By the way, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, Greg Epstein, wrote a book "Good Without God." I've been meaning to read it - you might want to check it out.

    1. I've never had that question myself, lol.


No spam, proselytizing, or personal attacks, such comments will never see the light of day around here.

Disagreeing with me is fine (I encourage it), but have some decency when writing your comment