One of the major contentions of modern atheism/agnosticism is that it is possible to be good without needing to believe in God. There are plenty of people, atheists will say, who belive in God who are not good. And of course I agree. Simply believing in God does not suddenly change a person into a good person. But is the opposite true? Is it possible to be good without believing in God?
If we are simply talking about a person’s actions, then the answer is “yes”. There certainly are atheists who do good things. There are all kinds of people all over the range of “religiosity” that donate time and money to good, worthy causes. Of course agnostics and atheists do good things.
But it is with the next question that everyone tends to get nervous: Does it make sense for atheists to do good things?
I would have to answer “no”.
So, am I saying that we need some Big Guy in the sky cracking a whip over us in order to get us to do what is good? Nope. That’s not what I am saying. I don’t think people need to see God as a Task-Master beating us into submission before they will do good. I have already acknowledged that atheists do good things. They presumably aren’t doing good things because they are afraid of the Angry Task-Master, or else they aren’t really atheists.
The reason it doesn’t make sense for atheists to do good things is because it is impossible to define what is good without talking about God. Without some type of god, it is impossible to talk about good and bad. There is no way to define “good” or “bad” without appealing to something outside of oneself to for a definition.
A common argument against what I am saying is put forth by Richard Dawkins, and many others. In his The God Delusion, Dawkins proposes the idea that morality is determined by “the selfish gene”. Basically the idea is that what is beneficial for survival is moral. What extends our life is good and those things that benefit the evolutionary process are good, and the opposites are bad.
But why should this be the case? For the Christian, we believe life is good because the Creator created us and loves us and is Life Himself. But for someone who doesn’t believe in God, why should life be any “better” than death? Why is life any more moral than death? The problem with atheism is, if I was holding a gun to an atheist’s head (which I would never do), there is no logical argument that atheist could give me to not shoot him.
Without a standard of morality, “good” and “bad” lose their meaning. Without a standard of morality, why is democracy any better than tyranny? Love better than hate? Freedom better than slavery? Without a standard of morality, we are left with only moral relativism, which is to say, no morality at all.
And yet I said at the beginning that I believe that atheists do good things. Why is that? It’s not because it makes sense in their worldview. It is because deep down, even atheists believe there is right and wrong, there is good and bad. Deep down, even atheists can’t get away from the need for morality. And this need for morality must ultimately point to a standard of good and bad outside of themselves. Perhaps a moral atheist is closer to believing in God than he or she might think.