Good Without God? What Many Atheists Get Wrong

Can human beings be good without God?  This is, of course, an old but still hotly contested debate.  Moreover, the debate has been plagued by misunderstandings about what it means to be “good.” 

In my recent critique of Good Without God by Greg Epstein, I try to clear up the confusion and give a definitive answer to the question, ‘Can we be good without God?’.  I have included a truncated version of that piece below for your consideration.

Summary, Good Without God:

How can we be good without God? Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplin of Harvard and MIT believes he has the answer.  Humanism, he claims, provides us with a guide to moral goodness apart from the existence of God.  In fact, he argues, often passionately, that Humanism can provide a better foundation for meaning and moral accountability than theistic religions.

Indeed, he harshly critiques theistic accounts of a moral foundation and attempts to show that belief in a deity actually serves as the basis for persistent moral evil.  Ethical beliefs based on traditional Christianity, he says, produce an old and distorted view of human sexuality, justifies the domination of women, and has even inspired such tyrannical dictators as Adolf Hitler.  He then informs his readers that belief in God is a biproduct of evolution that we would be wise to overcome. Moreover, he considers the Euthyphro Dilemma to be a “knock-out punch” against the notion that moral values and duties can be grounded in a theistic God. [1]

It is obvious to Epstein, therefore, that ethics are based on human needs rather than any transcendent moral standard.  In fact, he says that merely asking the question ‘can we be good without God?’ is “prejudiced” and possibly “discriminatory.” [2] So rather than defending that we can be good without God, he attempts to show how we can be good without God. 

To the benefit of his readers, here Epstein is forthright about the positive claims of his worldview, distinguishing himself from most modern atheists. Based on his ‘human needs’ standard, Epstein offers an elaborate system of Humanist values and the duties they entail. He even goes so far as to produce a Humanist version of the ten commandments which he believes compares favorably with the biblical version. Interestingly, he concedes that all values and duties prescribed by Humanism are underwritten by self-interest.  What are often called objective moral values (which he also refers to as ‘absolute moral values’) do not exist according to Epstein.

Good Without God is a relevant work because of the pervasiveness of its ideas generally and the growing influence of secular Humanism at elite academic institutions in particular. 

It will by my contention that the central claims of Good Without God are false and that Humanism is ultimately self-defeating.

Can We be Good Without God?

Clearly the answer to this question depends on what we mean by “good.”  The lack of a clear definition has caused significant misunderstanding in the modern literature on the subject and Good Without God, at times, has the same issue.  Let us avoid this mistake, then. 

What does it mean to be “good?”

When I say that something is “good”, unless otherwise noted, I will mean that the moral content of a thing is good independent of human opinion.  Such that, if a thing is “good”, its goodness is an objective feature of reality and even if everyone in the world considered it to be bad, that thing would still be good.  Likewise, if a thing is “evil,” it is evil regardless of human opinion.  For example, even if Hitler had won WWII and convinced everyone in the world that killing Jews was good, the Holocaust would still have been a great moral evil.  This is what is known as “objective moral values” and it is what most people mean when they think of “good” and “evil.” 

The language with which Epstein regularly extols the virtues of Humanism, especially when compared with Christianity, suggests that he shares this view of morality.  Human dignity, he seems to think, is good for its own sake.  Incredibly, in the same paragraph he acknowledges the non-existence of objective moral values on atheism, while simultaneously insisting that “some social [moral] contracts are better than others!” [3] One wonders just what he means by “better!”  Epstein makes clear that when he claims Humanism provides a better moral standard, he does not mean that he merely prefers it.  He means that it truly is morally superior.  To deny the existence of objective moral values while insisting that one relative standard is clearly “better” than another is to have it both ways in the most extravagant fashion.

Thus, he severely and frequently misunderstands “objective” moral values.  An objective moral value, he seems to think, is when a particular action is right or wrong in all circumstances, in all places, and at all times.  But this is not an accurate understanding.  That is, we can all think of a situation where killing may be morally permissible.  Drawing on our previous illustration, we may be able to argue that killing Hitler would be morally praiseworthy.  Thus, Epstein might say, killing is not objectively wrong. Yet this is not what is meant by objective moral values.  For example, if “protecting innocent life” is the value, that value may be upheld in a variety of ways.  In the present case, it may be upheld by killing a murderous dictator who is himself not innocent. 

However, he objects that values clearly change over time because slavery used to be considered morally permissible, even in the opinion of most religious people.  [4] Of course this is, again, not the objection that is leveled at his atheism and so, as so many do, Epstein misses the point.  The moral argument is not that we perfectly apprehend objective moral values, or that we can discover them from the Bible.  Our discovering something (epistemology) is not determinative of that thing’s existence (ontology).  And, therefore, changing cultural norms is irrelevant to the question of the reality of moral values.  All the proponent of objective moral values would need to show is that at least one thing is objectively good or evil or, if he prefers, that one moral system is better than another:  An assertion that he explicitly endorses!  Nevertheless, Epstein concludes that objective moral values do not exist. 

Why we cannot be good without God

Having clarified the meaning of objectively good, we can revisit the question with which we began.  Can we be good without God?  No. Simply put, if God does not exist, we cannot be good.  As far as I can tell, Epstein would, at different points, both agree with this notion and deride me for my bigotry.

Putting that contradiction aside, I realize that I am breaking, in style, with the vast majority of apologists who have written on this subject.  For good reason, most apologists reflexively and emphatically clarify that atheists can be, and often are, good people.  But rather than emphasize my obvious agreement with this sentiment, I will skip to the part about how spectacularly it misses the point.

When someone raises the question ‘can we be good without God?’ what they usually mean is ‘can we be good without believing in God?’  But for my purposes here, I prefer to answer the question in the way it is asked in Good Without God.  There has been too much confusion and, at times obfuscation, about the moral argument advanced by theists and we have seen that Epstein is a marvelous example of this problem.  Thus, I will reiterate that if God does not exist, we are not, and cannot be, “good.” 

The atheist need not be offended, however.  This is not a moral judgement that I am pronouncing over the unbeliever.  Rather I am pronouncing over us both that no one is “good,”or “bad,” if God does not exist.  This is, I think, the logical consequence of an atheistic worldview.  The question then is not whether belief in God produces moral character.  Rather, the question is, if there is no God, what reason do we have to believe that moral character exists?

My first objective is to demonstrate that there is no reason to believe that objective moral values exist if God does not exist.  Secondly, if God does exist, then there are good reasons to believe that objective moral values exist. 

If there is no God, everything is permitted

The point, once again, is not that belief in God necessarily produces moral goodness.  The point is that moral goodness has no ontological foundation if there is no transcendent standard that establishes what “good” is.  That is, if there is no moral standard beyond human opinion, then morality just is human opinion!  This seems trivially obvious, but Epstein is only one in a long line of atheistic thinkers who fail to realize the distinction.  At multiple points in Good Without God he considers the question “what is good?” and he even introduces readers to a quote from C.S. Lewis on the foundation of morality in the absence of God.  As such, I was hopeful for a head-on response, but in each case, he abruptly interrupts himself to attack the perceived moral failing of theistic systems.  Arguing explicitly that his relative standard is objectively better than relative theistic standards. [5] Cognitive dissonance abounds!  By the time Epstein revisits the question, he appears more dismissive, framing what he calls ‘good’ in terms of what supports human needs, clearly dodging the challenge before him. 

Why is it good to meet human needs or to secure ‘human dignity’ (as he says elsewhere)?  Indeed, some people believe that the greatest good human beings could pursue is voluntary extinction.  Humans, they point out, are consuming the planet’s natural resources, hunting other species to extinction, causing environmental disasters, and more”. On atheism, what makes Greg Epstein right and these fringe environmentalists wrong?  According to whom, or what, is it good to promote human dignity?  Epstein does not say.  What is clear is that the “goodness” of our well-being cannot be inferred from an atheistic worldview.  The existence of objective moral values without the existence of a transcendent moral standard is a contradiction in terms.

But there is yet another problem with Epstein’s standard.  Since he defines “good” as “whatever supports the needs of humans,” questions of value are to Epstein, questions about human needs and ‘human dignity.’ Therefore, it makes no sense to ask why supporting the needs of humans is good, because this is how he has defined “good!” Thus he argues, essentially, that ‘supporting the needs of humans is good because it supports the needs of humans!’  This is a tautology at best. 

This felt eerily similar to an exchange I witnessed years ago between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris. Harris made a similar argument to Epstein in his book, The Moral Landscape.  Harris held that good is defined as “maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures.” [6] Craig promptly pointed out that, like Epstein, Harris had argued that “questions of value are really questions about what contributes to the well-being of conscious creatures” and thus, Harris found himself in the same intellectual cul-de-sac.

So despite the refutations of Epstein, Harris, and others, morality, in the objective sense, cannot exist if there is no transcendent moral standard. 

It is as Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “if God does not exist, then everything is permitted. If there is no God, then there are no rules to live by, no moral law we must follow; we can do whatever we want.”

If God exists, objective moral values exist:

On the other hand, if God does exist, then it follows that we have a plausible standard of “good” that is beyond human opinion.  The claim is uncontroversial because, as everyone recognizes, any meaningful definition of God situates him above human beings.  However, I want to push this a bit further and argue that if God exists, “good” is necessarily grounded in his nature.

God, properly understood, is the greatest conceivable being.  That is, if we could think of something greater than our notion of “God”, that greater thing would be God and our notion of him a false one.  I do not have space to fully develop this idea here but, for now, let it suffice that the theist believes in a personal God whose nature embodies and defines what good is. And if God’s nature is the source of good, then nothing can logically surpass him in goodness.  Therefore, if your idea of God does not entail his perfect goodness, then you are thinking of a created God.

In The Morals of the Story, philosopher David Baggett affirms that, for the theist, God is personal and is the source of all value.  He argues that the value of personhood is grounded in the fact that the “metaphysical, axiologically, and explanatory ultimate being is personal”. [7] This necessary characteristic of a theistic God, and others such as moral perfection, omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, have been known to philosophers for a long time.  But perhaps most famously of all, Anselm argued in the 11th century that God is the greatest conceivable being and, therefore, the highest possible good.  But God, according to Anselm, is not merely perfectly good, he is the transcendent standard of good!

Let me be clear, I am not saying that the definition of God is equal to moral goodness, lest I make the same mistake as Epstein and Harris.  Rather, I am saying that if moral goodness exists, it is entailed by (and grounded in) the nature of a theistic God.

It seems clear then that, contra to Epstein, theism provides a better intellectual foundation for moral values than secular Humanism.

[1] Epstein, 2005, Good Without God, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., Page 32
[2] Ibid., Introduction, IV
[3] Ibid., Page 35
[4] Ibid., Page 35
[5] Ibid., Page 36
[6] Harris, 2010, The Moral Landscape, Free Press, Page 11
[7] Baggett, 2018, The Morals of the Story, InterVarsity Press, Page 129

What do you think? Do objective moral values exist? If they do, is that a problem for Secular Humanism? Let met know in the comments and click subscribe if you want to see new posts as soon as they’re published!

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3 responses to “Good Without God? What Many Atheists Get Wrong”

  1. “Having clarified the meaning of objectively good, we can revisit the question with which we began. Can we be good without God? No. Simply put, if God does not exist, we cannot be good. ”

    Hmmm, exactly what most if not all religions try to claim. Of course, you have no evidence your god exists. How do you propose to show that it exists? And do remember, most if not all religions use the same arguments you’ll try.

    We have your god described by the bible. You have to assume that *anything* this god does is by definition good. That’s nothing more than a sycophant’s words, accepting anything the tyrant does blindly.

    In this bible, this god supports slavery, genocide, kills children for no action of their own, works with evil by allowing it to kill a family so this god can show off, etc. Now, hopefully you would find such things abhorrent if a human did them.

    if you do, then we have you with a morality based on what something is rather than actions being inherently good or evil. This is a subjective morality, not objective. And in a Christian’s case, it is a morality based on might equals right. God is powerful so god can do what it wants.

    I’m quite happy to have a subjective morality that can get better and not be stuck with constantly inventing excuses about some god.

    You try to use the ontological argument, which also fails since every Christian thinks that their version is the “greatest” and you can’t even agree on what that is. “greatest” in this context is subjective.

    and this, this is hilarious “An objective moral value, he seems to think, is when a particular action is right or wrong in all circumstances, in all places, and at all times. ”

    yep, that’s exactly what objective means, and it would take a Christian to try to lie and claim that it isn’t. objective: of, relating to, or being an object, phenomenon, or condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers : having reality independent of the mind – merriam webster.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi clubschadenfreude –

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think there are a lot of problems with your analysis, however. Let’s take a look at a few of your comments –

    “In this bible, this god supports slavery, genocide, kills children for no action of their own, works with evil by allowing it to kill a family so this god can show off, etc. Now, hopefully you would find such things abhorrent if a human did them.”

    – Why, on your worldview, are these things abhorrent?

    “I’m quite happy to have a subjective morality that can get better…”

    – What do you mean by “better”?

    “and this, this is hilarious “An objective moral value, he seems to think, is when a particular action is right or wrong in all circumstances, in all places, and at all times. ” yep, that’s exactly what objective means, and it would take a Christian to try to lie and claim that it isn’t.”

    – If I could trouble you to read the rest of that paragraph, I think you’ll see that I’ve addressed the mistake you’re making here; it’s the same one as Epstein. I’m happy with that definition from Webster… But it’s the moral VALUE that is objective not the action (as I explicitly stated). Thus that value may be upheld in a variety of ways based on the circumstances.


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