The question of whether humans can be good without God comes up from time to time. Sometimes it arises as an accusation: “How can you Christians look at all the good people in the world, some of whom do not even believe in God, or who believe in some other God than you do, and judge that people cannot be good without God?” Other times the question arises more theoretically. “If humans can be good without God, why do we need God? What role does God play in human goodness?” My answer to the question, “Can we be good without God” is that it depends on what we mean by “be good” and “without God.”
In the first place, it seems obvious that humans have long said of people, regardless of whether they believe in God or not, something like “this person is good.” If we are considering merely human standards of goodness, even if these be high standards, it sure looks like at least some people can achieve those standards.
Secondly – and relatedly – if “be good” is tied to a current ethical theory, then it would seem that one could be good according to the standards of that theory even if one did not believe in God. For example, if Utilitarianism (of whatever sort) gives us the criteria for identifying a person as a “good human,” it would seem likely that at least some people can be adequate practitioners of any given brand of Utilitarianism to count as good within that system.
Thirdly, we might also bring in the problem of degree. Must a person be perfectly good, with no admixture of non-good, to be counted as good in the realm of this inquiry? Some people, moral rigorists in particular (at least some of whom are Christians), will say that to ascribe goodness to a person is a totalizing concept. One is either good, totally good, or one is not good. For my purposes here, I see no reason to go that far. I’m currently content to admit that on at least some of our theories about what it means to say of a person, “this person is good,” that goodness need not necessarily exclude all non-goodness. It is possible for a person who is mostly good to be reckoned as a good person. Now this “mostly good” status would usually not apply if we saw the person for whom it was suggested performing certain evils. A single evil act can make us unwilling to call a person good; numerous small acts (or non-acts) might merely lead us to say that a particular person is good, but “not perfect.” Since we don’t usually (at least in theory) expect people to be perfect, we can imagine that a non-perfect person can still be good. In this case “is good” will mean something like “is mostly good” or “is generally good.”
Finally on this clause of the claim, it is possible that we might be thinking merely in personal terms. It might be that we take ourselves to be generally good people (though given our beliefs about humility may not claim that status for ourselves unless we find ourselves provoked to do so), and, comparing others to ourselves, take them to have roughly the same amount of goodness that we do. Since we are good, by our own assessment, it seems only fair to reckon others who have (as far as we can tell) an equal amount of goodness as good also.
We also need to consider what we mean by “with God.” If we say that a person can be good without God, are we saying that a person can be good without belief in God, without a theory about God, without a the work of God in one’s life, or without a theory of God that defines the good with relation to God?
Again, if we are defining “is good” in relation to non-theistic moral categories, Utilitarianism for example, then as long as Utilitarianism is a non-theistic moral system, ascription of goodness without God would seem entirely unproblematic. Utilitarianism, as a moral theory, tells us to choose actions (or rules/practices) which produce the greatest good (whatever that may be) for the greatest number. There is no necessary belief about God in Utilitarianism so it is certainly possible to be good on Utilitarian standards without God.
It may be, of course, that a person is a Utilitarian and a believer in God, and that this person’s understanding of the “greatest good” includes some kind of relationship with God. If this is so, then such a Utilitarian would likely conclude that if a person wanted to be reckoned good, that person would need to act in such a way as to bring about the good associated with God. Possibly one could do this without belief in God.
Utilitarianism aside, what if our theory of the good specifies some kind of relationship to God? It might be that goodness refers to any of these possibilities:
- Obeys God
- Pleases God
- Takes God’s commands as the proper standards for life
- Loves God
If human goodness is defined in any of these ways, then it would seem that human goodness is impossible without at least belief in God or some theory of God. Again, we might modify this claim if goodness need not be total or perfect. Perhaps complete human goodness does require some particular stance toward God, but that partial human goodness, even to the point that we would be happy calling a person mostly good, would be possible when ones stance toward God is wrong or inappropriate in some way.