Good Without God
I was driving to work this morning and I got behind someone with a bumper sticker that said, “Good Without God.” I guess I’m supposed to be surprised that someone can be good despite not believing that God exists or that Jesus died to expunge the sins of humanity.
But I’m not.
Now let me explain why.
The foundation of this discussion requires the reader to distinguish ontology from epistemology. A further distinction must be made between morals and ethics. Once these categories are nailed down, my lack of surprise is justified.
Ontology is the state of being. Morality is ontological in nature; in other words, something is or is not moral. It is not moral because someone deems it so. It is not moral because a group of people deem it so. Once it was expected to kill your first born child as an offering to the gods and put the body in the cornerstone of your house for protection against evil spirits. It was always immoral to do that. It wasn’t moral until one day it wasn’t.
What happened was that humans realized that this was an immoral act and stopped doing it. Moral epistemology caught on to the truth of moral ontology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge–what it is and how we obtain it. Morals don’t change, but our understanding of them does.
Putting morality into practice results in ethics. These, of course, can change as the human understanding of morals changes. Ethics are also subjective; different situations might call for different reactions. Lying is wrong, but what about in 1938 when you’re harboring a Jewish family in your basement and the Gestapo asks about them? Maybe lying isn’t so bad then.
With that out of the way, we can bring this home. What does it mean to be good without God? That’s not actually a simple question. “Good” can refer to Plato’s The Good, the true sense of goodness (which is analogous to moral ontology). “Good” can also refer to ethics consistent with The Good. Does one have to believe in God in order to understand The Good, or to act in ethical ways consistent with it?
The answer is, surprisingly, no on both counts. And this is perfectly consistent with a Christian worldview. Let me demonstrate.
The distinction between ontology and epistemology isn’t limited to just morals. Think of mathematics. I can believe all I want that 2 + 2 = 5, but that doesn’t change the reality. Similarly, the atheist can believe all he wants that God does not exist without changing the truth.
The Bible says God is the source of all truth; in other words, he is the foundation of morality. Jesus never sinned (went off the rails against God), so he is an example of perfect ethical behavior. Obviously, the skeptic doesn’t buy this premise. But it doesn’t matter because we are all made in the image of God.
This means all humans have an innate understanding of what The Good is. We know when someone wronged us. If you don’t believe me, give one of your kids a Popsicle in full view of the other ones. “That’s not fair!” No one has to teach them that.
I can boil this down to the following points:
- God has inscribed upon the hearts of his image-bearers a sense of morality.
- Anyone with knowledge of morality can act in accord with that morality (ethics).
- The atheist is made in the image of God.
- Therefore, the atheist has a sense of morality.
- With a sense of morality, the atheist may act in accord with it.
This is why I’m never surprised when I see declarations of people being good without God. It doesn’t comment on the veracity of God’s existence, nor does it make the person stand out in any way. It’s totally expected under the Christian worldview.