Can We Be Good Without God? (Will We Be Good With Him?)

I’ve had this one in the queue for too long. It’s time to just push it out there.

Can we be good without God? I’ve recently had a very long discussion along these lines with a friend and former colleague of mine over on his blog and in private e-mail. He’s someone who I had come to respect very much in the time when we used to work together. Job changes and a geographical move have separated us for several years, but it’s easy to keep in contact over the internet. We see eye-to-eye on many things. I highly value his technical knowledge and skill and consider him to be one of the most gracious and helpful people I know in his attitude toward others. But we’re worlds apart when it comes to our most basic beliefs. He’s an outspoken and confident atheist. I’m a taciturn, often struggling, disciple of Jesus Christ. Challenges to my beliefs from others have often provoked me to self-examination and searching, especially when they come from friends. Our discussion was lively and passionate but also very civil and respectful. For me keeping those qualities in balance is a highly valued goal, but one that takes lots of patience and practice. It doesn’t come naturally. The particular problem of whether or not our moral reasoning has any adequate grounding unless it is in God as the authority who transcends human opinion and who is the moral architect of the universe has come up for me in personal discussion and in online forums for many years. I’ve touched on the issue in this blog before here, here and here. Two years ago I had the chance to write a short research paper on the subject. I want to leave a link to that paper here for those who might be interested in reading it. I value your thoughtful comments. But there’s also some personal reflection on this that I want to express.

Though these sorts of discussions might be categorized as apologetic, to me this one is more anti-apologetic. (Or, should I say unapologetic?) What I mean is that it’s not so much a defense of my own beliefs, as a critique of a belief system that sees nothing essential for us in belief in God. It’s always bothered me the way many modern atheists see religion as primarily responsible for all that is wrong in the world, who think that we’d all be much better off without it, and who seem to believe that their own position apart from any religious identification puts them on the moral high ground with respect to religion. In spite of all the wrong that has been done by people in the name of religion, I have a very hard time imagining much that is good about our world coming about without it. Will that stream of goodness continue to flow when its Source dries up or is cut off? So, in all fairness, I think atheists who make such claims against religion have some explaining of their own to do. There’s no shortcut to the moral high ground.

Since this particular issue has come up again for me, I’ve done some prayerful thinking about why it’s been so important to me for so long. A big reason that I think I had to write that paper was to get beyond the preoccupation with why life without God seems so unlivable and on to more fully living the kind of life that God intends for me. Trying to explain to some people (and to myself) “why I am not an atheist” isn’t enough. Where does that, by itself, leave me? It leaves me sitting on a very weak fence unless I am willing to follow and explore where the possibilities I am left with in seeking God lead me. Understanding that we can’t be good without God, doesn’t get me very far in becoming good with God. Attention to philosophical issues like this are important because it’s important for believers to honestly struggle with the same problems and questions that non-believers have with our beliefs. It can be very stressful, but it can also expand and strengthen our faith. It might even help some to see Christianity in a new and more compelling light if the dialogue is not undertaken in an adversarial manner (neither defensive nor offensive). But apologetics can never serve as an adequate basis for faith.  Dinesh D’Souza says, in a recent interview in Christianity Today, that

Apologetics is a very powerful tool, but it’s ultimately janitorial. Many people encounter obstacles to the faith. Think of the Christian, for example, who loses a relative and is assailed by the question, Why did God allow that? Even the believer can be haunted by difficulties that get in the way of building a relationship with God.

Apologetics can come in and help to make important distinctions and clarify some of the difficulties. You are doing no more than clearing away debris that blocks the door to faith, and ultimately it is God’s love that has to work its way into a heart. Conversion ultimately comes from that; apologetics only clears the driveway.

[[Added 2/19/2011] And, as Matthew Lee Anderson says over on Mere Orthodoxy: “What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.”]

Aside from this, to let apologetics serve as the basis for faith is to make an object out of our faith; making it something we have rather than something we live.If faith is only something we have, then it is in our possession, under our control. We become obsessed with protecting it, defending it, imposing its values blindly on others. If it’s something we live, it enlightens, guides, even compels us in certain ways. It becomes a power to transform us in accordance with values that we don’t entirely possess or control. It may show us things that we never would have thought to see without out it and take us places to which we never thought we would want to go. The Christian faith has suffered too much in the eyes of others at the hands of those who think if it as their own possession. The world sees to little of people who are truly possessed by Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:3-11).

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One Response to Can We Be Good Without God? (Will We Be Good With Him?)

  1. David Henne says:

    Hi, Paul.
    When I first saw the title of this article on your blog, I didn’t have time to read it but I tucked it away in my mind. Then in a couple of days I saw the article “Good Without God” somewhere. (Or was it a book and I saw a review of it?) So I was all set when I got back to your blog.
    I think you do well in showing faith as a living force instead of an object or possession that we have to defend. It doesn’t lead to a final answer, but as D’Souza says, it clears the way toward understanding the correct relation between our faith and our actions. And, as you say, those who don’t see any connection need to show why there isn’t.

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