Can we be good without God?

Or, better put, can we live ethical lives without a faith in God? Lots of people do, so the answer is ‘Yes’.

Andy Hamilton looks at the issue in his usual insightful way in today’s Eureka St. The emphases are mine:

Christopher Hitchens does get you thinking. In today’s contributions toEureka Street, my colleague Herman Roborgh wrestles with the relevance of his argument for Islam. Here I would like to take up one of the issues which he often raises: whether ethical thinking needs to include God.

Before discussing the reasons for this assertion, I would like to despatch arguments that are untenable. It has long been argued that if people do not believe in a God who will judge and sentence them to hell for bad actions, they will feel free to act outrageously. The large number of people who believe neither in God nor in hell but act ethically argue against this claim.

The same evidence tells against the claim that individuals will not act or think ethically unless they believe in God. Most theists have friends with no religious belief whose delicacy of conscience and integrity we can only admire. Furthermore, the seriousness with which organisations and people from different backgrounds reflect on the ethical dimensions of research and governance argue that worthwhile ethical reflection does not depend on belief in God.

It would also be unjust to dismiss as worthless any ethical system that does not include reference to God. The slogans used to summarise the central claims of most ethical systems offer a good guide to behaviour. If we regularly sought the greatest good of the greatest number, weighed the consequences of different courses of action, did our duty and asked what would make us truly happy, we would be following substantially reliable ethical guides. The question at issue is how well-grounded are the ethical systems that underlie such good ethical advice.

The argument that ethical thinking needs to include God has partly to do with the need for a firm logical grounding of ethics, and partly comes from reflection on culture. It picks up Nietzche’s insights into the climactic character of the death of God in Western society. He saw the disappearance of God from culture as a given, but he associated it with terror and not equanimity. His world without God was a world for heroes, not for the complacent.

The difference made by including God in ethical thinking can best be seen reflecting on the claim that other people and the world make on me. We can answer that question in two broad ways. One is to say that when we respond to others and to our world, we respond to values that are already given in them. We recognise their value and respond to what we recognise. For theists who see things in this way, God is the source of value in our world, and so gives space for the ethical quest. God also gives continuity in our own human journeys. We have a history of response to value, and not simply a series of disconnected actions.

Without God it is difficult to find space for values that precede our judgment. It is more reasonable to say that individuals choose their own values, and that we make ourselves by the choices we make. We decide to give value to people and the world. This is the second way of dealing with the claim that other people make on me. To an outsider, it has some difficulties. It is hard to see why we should prefer other values when they conflict with our own self interest. It also seems difficult to establish common values except by majority opinion and to impose them except by legislation. Finally, the freedom that is given by the emphasis on individual choice will tend to become a burden if we have no sense of a significant human journey that can give meaning to our choices.

The God whom this argument claims is needed in ethics is not another character within our world. God is seen as the condition of the space necessary for an ethical life to have significance.

What are we to make of this argument? Its strength lies in its description of the character of Christian morality, and its commendation of the space that it offers for depth in recognising value, in finding common moral ground with others, and in allowing a dramatic sense of human life as a moral journey.

But the argument is not conclusive in dismissing the value of ethical frameworks that make no mention of God. It is the first step in a conversation that invites other large views of the ethical life to describe in their own terms how they find the deep human qualities that Christians preserve by grounding ethics in God.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Can we be good without God?

  1. I would argue that Christians whose morality hinges on the threat of eternal punishment–the idea of there being a Cosmic Cop–end up with a much retarded sense of morality.

    I’ve actually written an entire book on this topic–“Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There’s No Such Place As Hell,” (for anyone interested, you can get a free Ecopy of my book at my website: http://www.ricklannoye.com), but if I may, let me share just one of the many points I make in my book on this point.

    The problem with the threat-of-Hell-based morality is that it’s just barely one step above the criminal mentality. Because the threat of punishment is all that keeps them moral, all that’s need to unravel their good behavior is a lapse in faith or, worse, an interpretation of God’s will that sets aside any normal ideas about right and wrong.

    Far better is a morality that is actually a lot easier for those of us who believe this life is a one-time precious gift, by learning that we can all live a much happier life if only we all agree to some reasonable limits on how we behave.

    It’s really a simple concept: I don’t want to worry all the time that someone is going to hit me in face, even if they don’t like me for some reason, so I agree not to hit others just because I may not like them. Expand this concept of MUTUAL SELF INTEREST to all the ways we interact, and there you have it. Our mutual best interest is the best foundation for morality, one we can truly believe in, one that we happily internalize, one that keeps working no matter who or Who is watching or not.

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