October 2017

Good Without God?

Is it possible to be good without God? That was the question that I discussed last spring with the former Evangelical leader Bart Campolo, now an atheist. It was a cordial but pointed discussion between us. About 100 USC students, both believers and atheists, and friends of the Institute, listened carefully and posed thoughtful questions. When a year earlier I heard that Bart had joined  USC’s campus ministry staff part-time to help the growing number of students who describe themselves as atheists, I invited him to lunch and suggested that we have a public dialogue about atheism and belief. He graciously agreed.

For some, the answer to the question, “Can we be good without God?” is obvious. Of course you can. There are a lot of atheists who are moral, even exemplary, in their ethical practices. What’s more, some religious people who attend religious services every week behave badly. There should be little doubt, then, that there are moral atheists and immoral religious people.

That said, the question remains: can we be good without God? For the rabbis, the greatest sin is idolatry. That is why the very first of the ten commandments condemns it. Why? Because lots of people worship false gods: money, power, fame, security, control, and pleasure. I think most people who follow false gods do not think that they worship idols. However, I do think people who worship such idols hurt themselves and others. A person obsessed with power abuses others. When money is everything, people become commodities. Narcissistic persons feel good only when others worship them.

So, what should they worship? A true God? The true God? Who has the authority, the hutzpah, to say who God is truly? I don’t think that the answer is blind acceptance of authority, biblical or papal. But suppose for a moment that the god a person believes in expects people to live simply, serve others, be humble, and be mindful of the less fortunate. Such a god calls for a different version of ethics. In other words, if people believe that God wants justice, then we have an understanding of God that should call us beyond living only for ourselves. Believing in such a god would help us be not just good, but even better than if we worshiped an idol.

Second, it is not just a question of who God is. There is also the related question of what it means to be good. For some people, being good means looking good, being liked, never getting into trouble.  But Jesus got into trouble often. He regularly wrote outside the lines of religious expectations. He confronted hypocrisy and defended the poor, befriended prostitutes and tax collectors. He loved everyone, even his enemies. Like the prophets before him, he spoke truth to power. He was killed as a criminal. Seen in this way, being a Christian gets a little scary. The late Dominican theologian, Herbert McCabe, put it succinctly: “If you do not love, you will die; if you love, you will die.” Is McCabe right? Is being good not the same thing as being safe?

Could people who don’t believe in God lay down their lives for others, speak truth to power and dedicate themselves to the poor? Of course. But in all honesty, left to my own devices, I am not that good. I need all the help I can get. My understanding of God helps me to be a bit more courageous than I think I would be otherwise. Jesus sets the bar pretty high. I still have a long way to go. I’m not confident that I could be good in this way without a God who pushes me beyond my comfort zone.

Recent Oxford Publications

The True Wealth of Nations

“An invaluable contribution at the intersection of contemporary economic, ethical, and religious thought”
— David Hollenbach, Georgetown University