Are You Good Without God? Why this Atheist Billboard is Wrong

Are You Good without God?

While I was driving from Sacramento to the Bay Area, I saw a huge billboard that read, “Are you good without God? Millions Are.” I also noticed a theistic tagger added the words, “Also Lost?” at the end of the message. At first, I wondered if the original question could mean something like, “Do you feel comfortable without a belief in God? Millions feel the same way.” Kind of like if you offer someone a drink, and they say, “No, thanks. I’m good.” But I don’t think that’s what the message is all about.

Can’t People be Good Without God?

So, then it got me thinking, “Can’t people be good without God?” I mean, couldn’t an atheist do some really good things without God? I guess if we mean “doing the right thing while not believing in God,” then sure. An atheist could do the right thing. For example, they could honestly report their income to the government, be faithful their spouse and so forth. And why not? But maybe the better question is, “Why?” Why even care about being moral?

Why Do the Right Thing?

Think about it like this: If God’s not real, there’s no moral law giver and no such things as objective moral commands. If that’s true, then why not say, “I’ll do the right thing when it makes me feel good or gives me an advantage, and I’ll do the wrong thing when it makes me feel good or gives me an advantage.” Or why not say, “I hereby declare from this day forward that it’s always right to steal.”

If there’s no God and no objective moral standard, there’s no moral difference between abusing someone or taking care of them. Basically, good and evil are reduced to preference. All you could say is, “I don’t like terrorism,” or “I’m not into slavery.” “Human trafficking isn’t my thing.”  But who can really live like this? Some things are really wrong. For example, we all know by intuition that it’s better to give a little girl a loving hug than to hurt her for no reason.

Right, Wrong, and the Moral Law

Imagine my 6-year-old asked you who wrote this blog post. It’d be dumb to say “No one. And if you think I’m wrong, don’t forget I can read better than you!” The existence of this post implies an author. And it really doesn’t matter if you can read this post better than a kid. Here’s the point: Moral commands imply a moral lawgiver. They are a form of communication from one mind to another. And it doesn’t matter if a certain atheist happens to do more good deeds than a certain Christian.

So maybe people really can’t be good without God after all. I mean, if there’s no God, there’s no standard of goodness. On top of that, when we compare ourselves to God’s standard, it turns out no one is good—no one’s lived up to the standard. That’s what Jesus said in Mark 10:18. Keep in mind that niceness isn’t goodness. Don’t you think the Neo-Nazi moms bake cookies for their kids or hand out cupcakes at their birthday parties? Sure they do. Jesus also said it’s no big deal if we’re nice to the people we like (Matt. 5:46-47). How do we treat everyone else?

So I guess the real answer to the question, “Are you good without God?” is “No. None of us are.” That’s why we need forgiveness. That’s why we need God. Millions and millions do.

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This was adapted from my recent guest post on Christiana Szymanski’s blog, In Defense of Christian Faith.
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28 Responses to “Are You Good Without God? Why this Atheist Billboard is Wrong”

  1. Maryann Spikes February 1, 2011 4:20 PM
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    The “Good without God” billboard campaign is actually talking about moral goodness. Paul mentions that everyone (Jew and Gentile) has that capability (“knows the law”), though only God is perfect.

  2. Mikel February 1, 2011 5:30 PM
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    Hi, Maryann. Thanks for the clarification. Liked the article you wrote, too. I appreciate you dropping me a comment here.

  3. Cory Tucholski February 2, 2011 11:20 PM
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    I actually wrote a similar consideration in my recent blog post, “Can Atheists be Moral Without God?” Got quite a bit of negative feedback from atheists, too. And should I expect any less? After all, in his book Good Without God, Greg Epstein tells us that it is bigoted to even ask if a human being can be good without God (p. ix).

    What I think needs to be said is that there is a vast difference between someone who is moral and someone who is merely ethical. An ethical person doesn’t cheat on his wife, but he watches pornography every chance he gets, flirts with girls online, and many other similar behaviors. The moral person, however, not only remains faithful to his wife in deed, but in a mental capacity as well: avoiding pornography, singles chat pages, and doesn’t flirt with every female in a 100 yard radius.

    The problem is that few delineate morality and ethics, using the terms interchangeably, and (worse) applying the label “good” to either type of person. So the person who constantly fantasizes about raping innocent girls but doesn’t solely for fear of prison time is just as “good” as the person who wouldn’t do that because he wouldn’t be able to life with himself for doing that kind of psychological damage to another human being–whether he got jail or not doesn’t factor into his consideration.

    Millions are ethical without God, but how moral are they? They probably don’t lie, cheat, or steal, but they do that because society has conditioned them not to. They realize that it is more advantageous for us a social species to be honest and respect persons and property, but they don’t have a moral character from which a genuine concern for others flow.

    That’s where God comes in. When we place a genuine, authentic faith in Christ, God will re-make our fallen nature into a good one. Now, a real concern for other human beings will inform our outward actions, and we’ll go from a socially-conditioned system of ethics into a true morality empowered by God and flowing from the Holy Spirit.

    That’s something our atheist friends miss. Since atheists often believe we humans are nothing special, just intelligent animals, no action has moral significance. Thus, morality depends solely on personal preference and the context of the situation.

    You are absolutely correct in your formulation: no God, no absolute morality. This means that socially-conditioned systems of ethics are just preferences: we’d prefer not have murderers, so we’ll teach people that it’s wrong. Where this fails is that we don’t teach that it is wrong not out of mere preference, but because each person is made in the image of God and has an inherent dignity as a human being and thus possesses a right to life–from conception to natural death.

    I could go on and on, but it’s your blog, so I’ll wrap it up with this: Good entry!

  4. Alison Moore Smith February 6, 2011 11:37 AM
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    Love this post. I’ve been having this discussion for years and, in fact, just this week between perms on a very large religious blog I write on.

    There is another reason that atheists can NOT be “good without God.” That is because “good” is no longer defined. We can say that an atheist is a good person, but that is only trough the LENS of our Christianity. He’s “good” if he does things WE think are good based on Christian teaching. But s/he doesn’t believe those teachings have a valid source.

    To an atheist, “good” is only determined by other humans — with no person having any moral authority greater than any other. If one person wants to kill, to sacrifice, to be a suicide bomber, to _______, no other person has any grounds to deny them their desires without a higher power.

  5. Mikel February 12, 2011 10:51 PM
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    You’re right on, Alison. Without God, there’s no such things as objective “good” or “evil.” Seems atheists are aware of what’s wrong with the world, too. Things aren’t the way they “should be.” And if there’s an objective “should,” there’s evidence for a Creator, Designer and Moral Lawgiver of the universe. Thanks for leaving a comment!

  6. Mikel February 12, 2011 10:53 PM
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    Cory, thanks for taking the time to post your response to this. Enjoyed your article, too. Great distinction on “between someone who is moral and someone who is merely ethical.” I very much appreciate the interaction from someone like you. Thanks again for the comment, Cory!

  7. Talia February 14, 2011 4:12 PM
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    Can you be good without Zeus? Because honestly, without Zeus everyone would be running around killing, raping, and murdering. There’s just absolutely no way you or anyone else can have any moral compass without the guidance of Zeus.

  8. Mikel February 14, 2011 11:55 PM
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    Hi, Talia.

    What do you mean by that? People are “running around killing, raping, and murdering” right now. But how can we say that’s evil if right and wrong are just rules people made up based on preference?

    I’m saying morality wouldn’t be objective without a moral lawgiver whose jurisdiction is the created universe. This idea points to theism, and I’m not pretending that this in and of itself makes a case for Christianity.

    I appreciate the dialogue, but I’d like you to explain the Zeus thing a bit for me. Could you explain your view?

    -Mikel

  9. wildfire_emissary March 3, 2011 5:30 AM
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    Is an act moral because god said so? Or did god said so because it is moral?

  10. mike singer April 17, 2011 5:25 AM
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    Interesting post.

    I have personally seen plenty of actions that people are good without God and this is supported in the scriptures (Matt 25:31-46)

    In addition, I have personally seen a lot of people who claim to know Christ and act contrary to Christ. Again, this is supported by the scriptures ( Matt 7:21-26)

    Forgiveness is NOT the emphasis of the new covenant – that was present in the old covenant and accomplishes very little in terms of change. The new covenant is ongoing process of the writing of Gods law in our hearts and minds and involves the actual removal of sin from the individual (forgiveness is a component). Salvationis a process and requires constant obedience to Christ and the Holy Spirit (John 15) and endurance race ( he who endures to the end shall be saved NOT who professes Jesus and continues to live in sin).

    It is really of no use to argue with the world – they are going to hate us and crucify us. If they did it to Christ – they will do it anyone who follows Him ( long history of that).

    The lesson to be learned in all this is not to become bitter and hate them but to show a good example and pray for them in in the process we become more Christ like.

    • Mikel April 17, 2011 1:11 PM
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      Hey, Mike. Great emphasis on true discipleship. While I agree that we shouldn’t quarrel with people, we’ve got to follow the examples of Jesus, Jude, Luke, Peter and Paul, who believed in giving people reasons to believe. And yes, prayer is a must. I totally agree. Compassion, gentleness, respect, love, and self control are all key elements of being an ambassador of Jesus. Thanks for the comment!

  11. Allie M. July 28, 2011 9:39 PM
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    People are not good. Period. Without God, the definition of good has no foundation. Both the American Humanist Association and the British Humanist Association are promoting a delusional and illogical idea. Do we, Christians, monopolize on what is good. Absolutely not. If that was the case, there would be no need for the Messiah. We are corrupt.

    And to the nutwho made the comment on Zeus:
    Keep in mind that Greek mythology is intended to be mythological, not religious, whereas the Bible contains the truth. I make this conclusion based on it’s historical and archaeological reliability. Greek mythology was written for artistic purposes, not for theological ones.

  12. Apologetics Guy July 29, 2011 12:57 PM
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    Thanks for the comment, Allie. This is a great discussion, everyone. Let’s keep it going!

    BTW, Dr. Craig Hazen will be discussing this very issue on the Janet Mefferd syndicated radio show from 1-2pm PDT today. Tune in if you can. If not, check out his recent article in the Biola University magazine here: Can We Be Good Without God?

  13. Nathaniel December 13, 2011 9:11 AM
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    @Cory
    I’m glad you recognize the benefits of acting ethically, but you seem to miss a key point: empathy is a natural emotion/instinct for mammals. Millions of people are empathetic without god and not just people either, but other animals as well; do you think they have the mental capacity to know that they are actually helping themselves by caring about others?

    Let me ask you this: do you ever think of doing evil things? If you do, does that make you an immoral person? I’m sure everyone thinks of doing evil, regardless of whether or not they make a god or gods a part of their lives. I’m sure everyone also thinks of doing good, does that mean we all are good?

    @Alison
    “here is another reason that atheists can NOT be “good without God.” That is because “good” is no longer defined”

    Sure it is. Good can easily be defined as an act that is beneficial to oneself and society; obviously, that’s an oversimplification but you get the idea. Bear in mind slavery is not condemned in the Bible as being evil (it is indirectly condoned as an acceptable practice in fact) and yet I’m willing to guess you think slavery is wrong. Why is that? Where is it written? As Wildfire Emissary said, “Is something good because God said so, or did God say so because it is good?”

    “To an atheist, “good” is only determined by other humans — with no person having any moral authority greater than any other. If one person wants to kill, to sacrifice, to be a suicide bomber, to _______, no other person has any grounds to deny them their desires without a higher power.”

    I find it interesting that you use sacrifice and suicide bombings as examples of evil deeds seeing as they’re uniquely religious practices…just saying.

    @Mikel
    “Without God, there’s no such things as objective “good” or “evil.”

    You are mistaken sir. There is no objective good or evil, period. Morality, by it’s very nature, is subjective. Even if a god or gods exist, morality is still subjective- subjective to that god. Fortunately, humans (and animals in general) are very much alike and can, therefore, usually come to a collective understanding of what they think would be most beneficial for everyone. There are plenty of people who do not adhere to this understanding of course…and a number of people who have a different understanding altogether.

    ” if there’s an objective “should,” there’s evidence for a Creator, Designer and Moral Lawgiver of the universe”

    Huh? How does that logic follow? “Should” implicates preference. I have no idea how that is evidence of, well, anything.

    @Mike
    “It is really of no use to argue with the world – they are going to hate us and crucify us”

    To my understanding, it was the religious leaders who ordered Christ’s crucifiction. Also, why do you think the world marginalizes you? Here in America, Christianity is a majority. And you’re part of the world too and part of society.

    ” they will do it anyone who follows Him ( long history of that)”
    Huh? Not really. Christians have been persecuting people a lot longer than Christians were persecuted. And Christians were usually not persecuted for believing in Christ but because they undermined Roman authority.

    Cheerio!

  14. Eric Burton January 8, 2012 3:13 AM
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    When I stopped believing in God, I realized that the comfortable foundation of where I had thought my morality came from was gone. I used to believe that there was always a transcendent standard to which we all could appeal as the final word on whether something was right or wrong. (Aside: I could not see how unhelpful that actually was at the time, since it’s still for us “down here” to argue about what that god said. But even so, it was a helpful idea, even theoretically. In other words, even if it was hard to judge the specifics of that transcendent law, I understood the importance of it existing.)

    But now I freely admit that I don’t think there are any transcendent moral values, morals are innate, and likely evolved in our species. Now I don’t understand why that would be an argument for theism, or against a lack of belief in god. I mean, I see it used as a sort of, “These atheists don’t believe in immovable moral codes, and thus they are just preferences! Isn’t that scary!?” tactic, but that doesn’t really contribute anything.

    What I have realized is that the moral “code” most of us have, or conscience, or whatever you want to call it, is part of the human species, and likely predates religion at all. You may say that God put it there, but such a claim is easily dismissed without evidence. But of course it is interesting how two different people will interpret the same data. There was a time when I would have thought it as evidence of god as well.

    Thank God that’s no longer the case :P

    I wish you well in life and hope to hear back from you.

  15. Apologetics Guy January 8, 2012 2:58 PM
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    Hi Eric,

    Thanks for stopping by. Why did you stop believing in God? What was the turning point for you?

    You said, “the moral “code” most of us have, or conscience, or whatever you want to call it, is part of the human species, and likely predates religion at all.” Can you explain what you mean by “part of the human species?” Do you think moral values and duties are physical things? Are they just parts of our genetic makeup?

    -Mikel

  16. Eric Burton January 9, 2012 1:27 PM
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    (1 of 2)

    It worked!

    This comment system seems to not post things sometimes, and when you try to resubmit, it says it’s a duplicated.

    Ok, my first response was lost in the ether. It was more detailed and long-winded than this will be, but perhaps you should be glad as I have a tendency to ramble.

    There was no real turning point, no one thing that happened or made me believe there was no god. It’s really a cumulative case that says there is no good reason to believe in him anymore. It didn’t make sense to me once I was able to look at it with a truly analytical mindset.

    The world around me, what we know about the universe, our species, and everything that science tells us makes more sense if god does NOT exist. To me, it makes less sense if he does exist. But of course I cannot make myself believe anything, I either believe it or I don’t.

  17. Eric Burton January 9, 2012 2:12 PM
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    I can’t post 2 of 2, maybe my first one has to be approved?

  18. Apologetics Guy January 26, 2012 11:19 AM
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    @Eric This is a test comment I made from a different computer. Looks like the comments are working again.

    It’s interesting that you said, “everything that science tells us makes more sense if god does NOT exist.” I don’t see it like that at all when I consider the evidence for God based on cosmology and design. Have you read There is a God by the late Dr. Anthony Flew? You might find his journey from atheism to theism interesting, especially the role that DNA research played in his worldview shift away from naturalism.

  19. Eric Burton January 27, 2012 8:18 AM
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    I will try and respond to the last bit you wrote, to see if the system will post something different!

    Regarding me saying “everything that science tells us makes more sense if god does NOT exist.”, and you coming to a different conclusion from the “same” data, well of course you see it differently! You are a believer. You already believe, and thus you will interpret this data differently than someone who doesn’t believe. You were asking me about what changed my mind, and that was a part of it – looking at all of the discoveries that have been made in science, along with my own experiences, made me realize that if there was a god, he was the universe’s best “hide and seek” player.

    I wrote a little bit about how I think people (believers and non-believers alike) respond to evidence for and against their already held positions on my blog, and I think it relates to this issue. It’s at http://doubtingeric.blogspot.com/2012/01/how-open-minded-are-you.html

    Regarding Antony Flew, no, I have not read that book. Sounds like it could be interesting. I should point out that although you said he was a theist, that is not true. He was a deist, by his own admission. I was something like a deist for a little while, before I stopped believing. I wanted to still believe in god, but could not explain his apparent absence, so I pictured him as a designer who was not interested in our daily lives so much.

  20. Eric Burton February 5, 2012 12:24 PM
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    (2 of 2, continuing from 1 of 2 above)…

    Regarding the moral code and its genetic origin, what I am saying is that it is likely that the genes (if they are genes at all, and not just learned behavior) that encouraged our ancestors to behave “morally” have survived and are a part of nearly all humans today (not all humans of course, as we have people without moral compasses, such as sociopaths and psychopaths). So we “feel” what is right and what is wrong, but there is no transcendent standard that we get it from. It seems likely to me that if it was from on high, it would be less ambiguous. But the claim that our morals are not from god cannot be proven, I just don’t see any reason to think that they are.

    By the way, I understand that the question that is being asked when an apologist asks if we can be “good without god” is not the same as “would people do good things if they didn’t believe in god?” I think a lot of anti-theists take offense at that question because they misunderstand it. They think that believers are asking if atheists even have the capacity to act morally, implying they are evil at heart (many believers of the monotheistic faiths in fact DO believe this about atheists, but such a idiotic idea can be dismissed without much thought).

    The question, as phrased in the billboard and on websites everywhere, is worded in an inelegant way, which is regrettable. But it’s still being asked. Perhaps it should be more carefully worded? Something like this seems to get at the heart of it: “If god doesn’t exist, and thus a transcendent moral law doesn’t exist, how can we humans rightly claim in any meaningful way that a given action if moral or immoral? Isn’t it just genetic, social, or both, and as a result, relative?”

    My answer to that would be that we cannot claim it in any meaningful way, and yes, it’s relative.

  21. Eric Burton February 27, 2012 4:09 PM
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    Regarding the moral law and its possible genetic origin, what I am saying is that it seems likely that the genes (if they are genes at all, and not just learned behavior) that encouraged our ancestors to behave “morally” have survived and are a part of almost all humans today (of course, not all humans have this, such as socio and psychopaths). We “feel” what is right and what is wrong, but there need not be a transcendent standard or source of it. It could be divine, surely, but I don’t see a reason to think that it is, especially considering that a supernatural worldview doesn’t make sense to me. In fact, it seems likely to me that if it were from on high, it would be less ambiguous and less reliant on our reason to figure out what is moral.

    By the way, I understand that the question being asked when an apologist questions whether we can be “good without god” is not the same as “would people do good things if they didn’t believe in god?” I think a lot of anti-theists take offense at that question because they misunderstand it. They think that believers are asking if atheists even have the capacity to act morally, implying that they are evil at heart (many believers in fact DO think this way, but such an idea is so silly that it can be dismissed without much thought).

    The question, as phrased in the billboard, and on websites everywhere, is worded inelegantly, which is regrettable. But it’s still being asked. Perhaps a better way to word it would be something like this: “If god doesn’t exist, and thus a transcendent moral law doesn’t exist, how can we humans rightly claim in any meaningful way that a given action is moral or immoral? Isn’t it simply genetic, social, or both, and as a result, relative?”

    I think it best to claim ignorance on this latter question, but I see no reason to accept the christian claim.

  22. Eric Burton February 27, 2012 5:19 PM
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    By the way, the above comment is what I have been trying to get to post for all that time! :D

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