Can You Be Good Without God? By Greg Epstein

Posted on January 18th, 2010 | Filed under In Print: New Books, InterViews

Introduction to Good Without God excerpted with the permission of the author.

It is not easy to live a good life or be a good person—with or without a god. The fact is that life is hard. Living well and being a good person are difficult to do. But that doesn’t mean we should give ourselves permission to judge an entire group of people as incapable of goodness unless they’re being good the majority’s way.

Tolerant, fair-minded people of all religions or none do not dwell on the question of whether we can be good without God. The answer is yes. Period. Millions and millions of people are, every day. However, the question why we can be good without God is much more relevant and interesting. And the question of how we can be good without God is absolutely crucial....

We Humanists take one look at a world in which the lives of thousands of innocent children are ripped away every year by hurricanes, earthquakes, and other “acts of God,” not to mention the thousand other fundamental injustices of life, and we conclude that if the universe we live in does not have competent moral management, then so be it: we must become the superintendents of our own lives. Humanism means taking charge of the often lousy world around us and working to shape it into a better place, though we know we cannot ever finish the task....

More formally, the American Humanist Association defines Humanism as a progressive lifestance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment, aspiring to the greater good of humanity....

How Is Humanism Different from the New Atheism?

So much has been written about the religious people and traditions of the world. Thousands of anthropologists and sociologists have devoted their lives to studying religious traditions and their adherents. Millions and millions of pages have been written about theology—about what religious people believe. But try to go to your local bookstore or library and ask for a book about nonreligious people or what we believe. The choices have always been scant indeed. So it’s no wonder the recent spate of best-selling books by atheists attacking religion has caused such a stir.

Today, those who believe that the good life ought to be defined as obedience to God and tradition feel under siege by the forces of modernity. In their minds, certain outward signs of this modernity—whether gay pride paraders all done up in leather and fuchsia, a woman rearing a child on her own, or simply people like me who can publicly deny a belief in God and live respectable lives—are all declarations of war against the old ways. And so both fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity, among other religious forces, have declared war on secularism and Humanism. In turn, a group of bold new atheist intellectuals and leaders has arisen to declare war right back, proclaiming “God is not great!” “God is a delusion!” and “This is the end of faith!”

I admire today’s “new atheists” because they seek to right the very real and very many religious wrongs of our time. …… But atheism goes astray when it adopts a certain posture, one best captured by a cover story in Wired magazine in November 2006: “The New Atheism: No Heaven. No Hell. Just Science.”

It is true and important that Humanists don’t adhere to the idea of a heaven or a hell, and it is also true that we value science as the best tool humans have for understanding the world around us. But “Just Science”? Such language raises concern that the new atheism is cut off from emotion, from intuition, and from a spirit of generosity toward those who see the world differently. While nonreligious people often value science highly, many deeply religious people value and study it as well. So surely valuing science cannot be a way to distinguish religious people from nonreligious people. Besides, books on science, though often containing much useful information about the world around us, can less often say important things about what we ought to value most in life, or why. Science can teach us a great deal, like what medicine to give to patients in a hospital. But science won’t come and visit us in the hospital..…

Humanism traces its story back not only to the European Enlightenment and to ancient Greece, as many assume, but also touches cultures from India, China, and the Middle East. It is a belief held by American Revolutionary patriots like Thomas Jefferson, leading women’s suffragists of the nineteenth century, civil rights leaders of the twentieth, and on to the original new atheists—not only Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris but Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, and Darwin....

Religion is a profound source of meaning and purpose for many people—…… But a Humanistic approach to life can provide nonreligious people with a profound and sustaining sense that, though there is no single, overarching purpose given to us from on high, we can and must live our lives for a purpose well beyond ourselves....

I want to offer an affirmative response to the question can you be good with God? I urge atheists and agnostics to strive for what Steven Prothero calls religious literacy, and I implore religious people and Humanists to enter into deeper dialogue and cooperation—because we live in a world that is flat, interconnected, interdependent, not to mention armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction—a world where we can no longer afford to misunderstand one another or to be ignorant about what makes each other tick.

I believe that community is the heart of Humanism. In the past century, God was supposed to be dead, but too often it has seemed that Humanism died instead. What will it take for a new Humanism to arise—one that is diverse, inclusive, inspiring, and a transformative force in the world today?


200708_sakakini_epstein6101b-1Greg M. Epstein serves as the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, and sits on the executive committee of the 36-member corps of Harvard Chaplains. In 2005 he received ordination as a Humanist Rabbi from the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, where he studied in Jerusalem and Michigan for five years. He holds a BA (Religion and Chinese) and an MA (Judaic Studies) from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a Masters of Theological Studies from the Harvard Divinity School.

2 Responses to “Can You Be Good Without God? By Greg Epstein”

  1. Merl says:

    I’ve come to understand why religious people give some credit to their deities if they thing that deity is responsible for their goodness. I have not come to understand why religious people, humanists, athiests, agnostics, or anybody else feel the need to pick fights with each other about how to be good. They, we, would all be better of if we spent our energies being good toward, and with, each other.

    That said, I think the questions of whether deities are required, and how goodness originates and is extended are very good academic pursuits. In practical reality however, it just doesn’t matter, as long as everybody can find the way of goodness which works for them. As far as I’m concerned, the more variety the better.

    I’m for more inclusion, and less exclusion, when it comes to promoting compassion, trust, and peace.

    Thank you 🙂

  2. this might be useful to people but it is to long to read so maybe you could makeit a bit sorter and the writing is to small so maybe you could make that a bit bigger