A basic question I wrestle with (not in an angry way) is: Can non-religious people be good without believing in God? That’s a tricky question because it seems that religion and belief have been around as long as people have, and that goes back thousands of years. Careful study and long books going into the ether or our past are everywhere, but I have always been more concerned with the practical end of things. So my question is more like, “In our age, now, can people be good without believing in God.” That clears up the miles of tape we would have to unravel, and keeps the conversation on a playing field that anyone can jump into.
Also – to have answer this question, we also have to somehow define what it means to be “Good”. Read Plato, and you will see this is also a very well studied area going back beyond even the ancient Greeks, and so there are lots of books and careful studies into what is Good. For our sake, Good is the best state of something, so in the moral universe, Good means being most moral or “righteous” taking a word from the dictionary, especially in consideration of one’s relationship with others, and how one treats other people. For example, if one takes care of oneself, and in the abundance of their health, work to help others live happy healthy lives, they are a Good person. In contrast, one who only takes care of oneself, and uses their health to harm others or themselves, could be considered a Bad person. I like focusing on the good however.
One last qualification before I talk, people have varied view of what religion is. My simple definition of religion is “What people do in response to their belief in something spiritual”. Ex. God
The other day I read a tweet from the Dalai Lama that read, “I am convinced that everyone can develop a good heart and a sense of universal responsibility with or without religion.” So again, we have the question, “Can people be good without religion?” (@dalailama on Twitter, also check my favorites for this specific tweet @dannonhill) I believe, like the Dalai Lama, that it is true, that living completely without religion, a person can temper themselves, and seek what is good. These righteous ones will have triumphant times, seeking to do what is best, and succeeding likely to be celebrated by their community if the community is also good. They will also have times of failure, where even when they tried to do what is good, they failed, and by oversight, or by a moment of selfishness, the good was not accomplished, and they either live with a bit of shame, or are chastised by the community (again, if that community is good). Individually there is no problem.
Practically I do see an issue, and it involves the big picture. Not all people seek to do what is good, and it is a fact that many people only do what is good when other, more powerful people impose a code that imposes punishments for doing evil. For a society to flourish, every person has the right to property and the good use of that property to make a living. If someone steals that property by force or treachery, it is a crime and is punishable in some way. Thief’s are generally not considered Good people because they take what is not theirs, harming someone else, for their or anther’s gain. There are usually officials appointed to punish such crimes. Considering that a thief is not likely to walk into the courthouse on one’s own honor, a force greater than that of the criminal’s power has to be on hand to go and get the thief, and hold them until the authority can enact a judgment and punishment.
A problem arises, practically, when culture goes bad, and there are more bad people (or the bad people are stronger) than good people in a society, and things go downhill. This is the superman/batman/superhero story. The police are overwhelmed, the cities have few resources, there is alot of crime, and they feel powerless to stop it. So somehow a stronger force has to be developed to push back and restore order. Superman is the ultimate in this genre, because he is practically impenetrable. He has an Achilles heel (Kryptonite) for drama purposes, but all in all, he beats the bad guys, upholds the good, and the Good (Justice) is restored. Thank God for Superman, but in real life, its ordinary people who pool resources to overthrow the Bad who want to destroy and bring about chaos for their own selfish gain or entertainment (I’m thinking of the Joker in The Dark Knight – pure evil). Basically, to sum all this up, Men and Women must become like Gods, and wield great powers to overcome the non-good.
I’m still stuck a bit about why religious folk (like me) have the audacity to claim that religion, or belief in God is a requirement to be a good person. Putting aside the proselytizing impetus, it sticks in the minds of many, that religion somehow makes good people. Is that true? Of course there have been many people who have used religion to do evil, and people who continue to use the guise of faith to use the bonds of trust as a sort of club of power to destroy those of true belief. Reading about the Crusades, you see a major military struggle posed in terms of a Holy and Religious struggle, which was as much about power and control of regions and the wealth as it was about reclaiming Holy Land. People who run faiths can be bad people. That’s certainly true.
But what about the many people who have started out in bad circumstances, who developed a bad lifestyle, who have turned to religion for personal reform. Its easy to discount God because some of God’s followers have misused the keys to God’s Kingdom, but its plain demonizing to generalize every religious person as a potential Hitler. So many Christian folk in the Methodist tradition, whose commitment to social justice would shame many, have committed their lives to righting wrongs in society because they have read about God’s desire for Justice and mercy and love. So their faith has made a positive difference, and they would be discouraged to listen to a cynic stating that their faith leads them to do evil. Many in all faiths, have not wielded God’s power in vain, and have fought even the injustices within their own faith. Christians fought Christians to end slavery in England, and it was the moral activists who lit the flame for the fight that would end it it in the states as well.
Lets return to the individual stories of redemption and turning from a lifestyle of wronging others and oneself. It is not uncommon for someone desiring to do good, but who is habitually harming others, to turn to a religious community to find a way to end the evils that destroy what good they are holding onto. I once listened to a trucker in Georgia, who talked about how his life was falling apart, and who sincerely desired to spend time with his daughter. He was on the road frequently, and it was clear that he was a womanizer on the road. His wife was divorcing him, and he wanted to find a way to rebuild a bit. Somehow he sensed I was a Christian, and he changed his tone of voice and talked about how he needed to get God. He needed a fresh start, and wanted it so badly. I listened and ended up encouraging him to give the Bible I had in my sidebag to his daughter, encouraged him to stop womanizing in a delicate way, and to get his own Bible to begin a strong relationship with God. I haven’t been able to follow up with him, but I’ve seen the tail end of stories like his in churches as I grew up. Christians give testimonies of how they became believers, and the stories often start off with stories of doing wrong, doing terrible wrong, and how God put them on their knees and they walk with God on their shoulders teaching them the right path – a righteous way. Some may see these people as weak, because they could not do good on their own, but without God, these people would be stuck in addictions, continually destroying their own life and the lives of others to satisfy their lifestyle whether with drugs, sex addiction, mean nature, violence, manipulation, etc. Something about God helps some people do good.
Why is that? (1) God is considered ultimately powerful. If one believes in the notion of God, they are more likely to feel accountable to someone for their actions and would likely want to make things right before they meet Him face to face for Judgment. Those who do evil, but wish to be good, may turn themselves in – which would save society lots of money in apprehending them. Proper punishments assure that they are reprimanded. That would be seen as a partnership between God and civil authorities. God holds all ultimately accountable and has the power to bring anyone to justice ultimately, and civil authorities in the human realm are temporarily given the authority to bring about Justice until that time so that people can live in peace. If human societies become unjust, God has the power to bring whole cultures to account, and the Old Testament in the Bible speaks of whole nations being judged and dismantled. (2) God is a good conversationalist. If human identity is found through talking and processing the story of who we are, then talking with God and believing that there is supernatural help is a way to build a new identity not centered on self, but on God and the community. While God is the judge of the universe, He also would be considered to have unlimited capacity for relationships with His people and if God made you, then who would know you better? Big change is possible in this type of back and forth – especially if God actually exists.
God is actually an extremely advanced thought for a society, and the accountability that faith in God brings, is something that streamlines morality. In a society that believes in nothing, or many Gods, there are many moralities – as many as you can think of. If a superpower other than yourself gives you a code, and everyone is encouraged to follow it, we are all made accountable and authorities are empowered to cooperate with God to bring about the Good in society. A universal God can bring about a universal good more efficiently because he doesn’t have to spend billions to train up a force that could be decimated by an army of evil. If God exists, then a force that no human evil could ever conquer is in control, and we can partner with it and try to do all the good we can.
It would be easy to say that religious people only do good because they are afraid of God, or that they need a psychological Teddy Bear to help the weak cope. I think that is mostly untrue, since people know that most religious writings talk about a God who is good to those who “do good to others” and love other people. I think that religious people are more likely to do good because they believe God is good, and the ultimate role model for living a good life.
Is is possible for one to develop a heart for doing good without religion or a belief in God? It is possible. Will they ever be perfect and always do good? No. We know that everyone makes mistakes despite their intentions, including religious folk whose errors are magnified by their high calling. This is a messy conversation because its so personal, like the cab rider said in Tolstoy’s story called Youth, people want you to keep your thoughts on religion to yourself. But for those who believe, what is good is tied to belief and life is wound in the possibility of a better world. F
or those who don’t believe, I feel there is a huge responsibility that may be unbearable for most, and that tragedy may be more common for those who try to bring about good in a world bent on moral relativity, with as many moral codes as there are persons. You truly will need to have the strength of a god, like Superman, to continually police the world if individuals aren’t able to police themselves.
This is a good conversation though, and we need to be able to speak about it more without the fear of mocking, or sensitivity. Lets speak about it as it is, and works towards something good no matter how hard it is. Though imperfectly, we are all trying to figure out what Good we are meant to do.