Can you be good without God? This question is once again making the rounds with the recent publication of Greg Epstein’s new book, Good Without God. As Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, Chaplain Epstein’s book is a thoughtful and positive assessment of the fact that of course people can be good without God.
To me this is the wrong question. To me the question is what is good and how do we know it is good? That is to say is something good because it is good (which begs the question “What is good?”) or is it good because God says it is good (which begs the question “Which God are we taking about?)?
The Jewish God said it was good to commit genocide against many of ancient Israel’s enemies, and continues to sanction violence against those inconvenient people who refuse to recognize God’s Chosen’s right to God’s Promised Land. The Christian God said it was good to slaughter Jews, burn witches, go on Crusades, and condemn differently believing persons to eternal torment in Hell. The Muslim God says it is good to murder those considered the enemies of Islam (even if they are fellow Muslims). So saying we need God to be good doesn’t tell us much about either God or goodness.
Of course you might say to yourself, “My God doesn’t sanction those things at all.” And that is my point. Your God might not, but another’s God might. Which God is the real God? Which good is the real good?
And being an atheist is no guarantee of goodness either. While I don’t know a single atheist who would kill or oppress in the name of God, there is no doubt that they can do so for other reasons.
The fact is, believing or not believing in this or that God is irrelevant to defining what is good. And the question of belief distracts us from the question, What is good?
If I had to point to a single text to define my sense of global goodness I would point to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I like this document not because it is divinely revealed (it isn’t), or because it is reasoned flawlessly, but because it agrees with my sense of right and wrong. When it comes down to it, I have to define good for myself.
This doesn’t make me happy. I would rather rely on God or at least on people smarter than me. But I can’t. Much of what God says in the world’s religions I find insane and immoral. The only time I find God on the right side of an issue is when God agrees with me. The same is true of what smart people say. I like what they say if what they say agrees with what I say; otherwise, I reject it.
Does it all come down to us as individuals? Is there nothing but our own opinion? How do you define what’s good?