Skip to comments.Can We Be Good Without God
Posted on 01/05/2002 11:44:50 AM PST by Brian Kopp DPM
Can We Be Good Without God J. BUDZISZEWSKI
ABSTRACT: Now the question "Can we be good without God?" may be taken in two different ways. One way focuses on knowledge, the other on action; one takes the question as meaning "Can we 'know' what's good without 'knowing' God?", the other takes it as meaning "Can we 'do' what's good without 'following' God?" Let's consider both.
Ive been asked to speak today on the question, Can we be good without God? To answer, Im tempted to tell you my own story. Years ago when I rejected God, I also rejected the distinction between good and evil. Then again, I was an extreme case. Someone who asks Can we be good without God? isnt trying to be extreme; hes looking for a halfway house. So instead of telling you my story, Ill try to lay out the logic of the matter.
Now the question Can we be good without God? may be taken in two different ways. One way focuses on knowledge, the other on action; one takes the question as meaning Can we know whats good without knowing God?, the other takes it as meaning Can we do whats good without following God? Lets consider both.
Can We Know Whats Good?
As to the first whether we can know whats good without knowing God you may think Im going to say that unless we study the Bible we cant know anything at all about right or wrong. Im not, for the Bible itself makes the opposite claim: it says God has written a law on the hearts of all. Everyone has a conscience, and although the outer ring of our conscience may be influenced by culture, the inner core is universal and unchanging.
For instance there isnt a human being alive who doesnt know the good and right of love, and there isnt a human being alive who doesnt know the evil and wrong of murder. In the Biblical view, if we are confused about such things as sex, selfishness, abortion and euthanasia, the problem isnt so much that we dont know about right and wrong, but that we suppress what we do know about them. For we cant not know the basic outlines of right and wrong.
Perhaps you think, then, that the answer to the question Can we know good without knowing God? is Sure. Didnt you just say we can? Not so fast. Ive said we all know something but Ive also said we suppress that knowledge. Lets dig a little more deeply into this business of suppressing what we really know.
To begin, lets ask why we do it. Why do we lie to ourselves about whats right and wrong? We do it for the simple reason that we have a vested interest in doing so. We may want to know the truth, but the desire to know is not the only desire at work in us. The strong desire not to know competes with it, for our knowledge of right and wrong is an inconvenience to us. So we moan about how difficult it is to know whats right even when we know perfectly well whats right.
Now I propose to you that one of the things about good that we know perfectly well is the reality and goodness of God. When the Bible says, The fool says in his heart There is no God (Psalm 14:1), it doesnt call him a fool for thinking it, but for saying it, even though deep down he knows it isnt true. From the Biblical point of view, the reason its so difficult to argue with an atheist as I once was is that hes not being honest with himself. He knows that there is a God; he only tells himself he doesnt know.
If this Biblical view is true you are perfectly within your rights to challenge it, and we can take up such matters in the question-and-answer period but if this daring, preposterous, Biblical view is true, as I think it is, it changes everything. Why? Because that would show that the real meaning of the question Can I know good without knowing God? is Can I admit one part of my moral knowledge while holding down another?, or Can I admit to myself that I know about, say, the goodness of love and the evil of murder, while not admitting to myself that I know about the goodness of God and the evil of refusing Him?
My answer is you certainly can do that, but you will never do it well. To hold down part of your moral knowledge is to lie to yourself. So what? Think. We all know from experience that one lie leads to another. If you tell a big enough lie about something, pretty soon you have to tell a second one about something else just to cover it up. After a while you may find yourself lying about lots of things, and then you start losing track of when youre lying and when youre not. Before long you cant tell at all any more. Youre lost in a maze of your making, unable to see the difference between how things are and how you said they are.
Now the same thing is true when you lie to yourself. Here too one lie leads to another. This is especially true with the biggest self-deception of all, when you lie to yourself about God, because that knowledge is connected to the knowledge of everything else. Let me illustrate with something I mentioned earlier the knowledge of the good of love and the wrong of murder. You may try to hold onto your knowledge of the good of love but if you lie to yourself about the God whose very being is love, then your understanding of all love will be defective. Thats why we do such awful things in loves name. Or you may try to hold onto your knowledge of the evil of murdering your neighbor but if you lie to yourself about the God in whose image your neighbor is made, then you will find it difficult to recognize your neighbor when you see him. Thats why we do such terrible things to those who have the greatest claim on our protection.
Can We Do Whats Good?
I said at the beginning that the question Can we be good without God? may be taken in two different ways. Weve just considered the first way. Can we know whats good without knowing God? What weve seen is that in a superficial way the answer is Yes, but in a deeper the answer is No. Now lets consider the second way. Can we do whats good without following God? The answer this time is the same as before: Yes and no, but mostly no.
The Yes side is that as everyone knows, a person who doesnt follow God can sometimes do the right thing. He can sometimes tell the truth, he can sometimes show compassion, he can sometimes set aside his own interests for someone else. The problem is that this isnt enough. God is absolutely holy. Were not. When Moses asked to see God face to face, God said no, because it would kill him. When the great prophet Isaiah caught just a glimpse of the glory of God, He said Woe is me! I am undone. When the glory of God filled the ancient temple, strong men fell down. These were what we call good people, but as St. Paul says, All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Once one of my students asked if he could talk about God with me. I said okay. He told me he didnt see why he couldnt be good without God. I asked him why he didnt. He said, Because I think Im a decent person. I replied, If you think your decency is high enough for God, your idea of God must be pretty low. At first he was shocked. But then I asked him whether he thought he could go a week without selfishness, without resentment, without lust. I asked whether he thought he could go a day, an hour, ten minutes. He got the point, because he knew he couldnt. By myself, neither can I.
You see, trying to do without God has ruined us inwardly. Yes, by His mercy, there are still some good things in us, but not one of those good things is in its original healthy state. Not only are we broken, but we cant repair ourselves. Could you perform surgery on your own eyes, or treat yourself for madness? Suppose you tore off both arms; without your hands, could you sew them back on? Our sin-sickness is something like that. We may long to love purely, but our desires have become idols that control us. We may long to be holy, but our righteousness has become self-righteousness that rules us. We may long to be reconciled with God, but we cant stop wanting to be the center of the universe ourselves.
Because the law of right and wrong is written on the heart of all, many philosophies and religions teach about right and wrong with pretty fair accuracy. What they cant do is heal the sin-sickness. However true, no mere doctrine can do that. Our cancer requires more than a doctrine. What it requires is the divine surgeon, God Himself, and the name of His surgery is Jesus Christ.
J. Budziszewski "Can We Be Good Without God." Boundless (December 6, 2001).
Reprinted with permission of J. Budziszewski.
J. Budziszewski (Boojee-shefski) J. Budziszewski is Associate Professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a specialist in ethical and political philosophy and the author of Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law, How to Stay Christian in College: An Interactive Guide to Keeping the Faith, and The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man. He writes a monthly column for Boundless. J. Budziszewski is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
Copyright © 2001 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Do you seriously believe what you wrote? You must live in a relativist utopia. So--God should remove punishment from people who commit unrepentant murder--he should just let them into heaven and that will make people do good? What are you smoking?
How do you define truth?
You have distorted Christianity and so you have distorted its conception of morality. Christianity does not teach that we are either saved/damned on the basis of our behavior. Instead it teaches that 'none are good' and we are only saved through Christ. This does not mean that becoming a Christian will not make one good- it will. However, the connection you have made between behavior and eternal destiny is a creature of your own making.
Furthermore, how can an atheist do good for its own sake? There is no place for good in the atheist universe. If we are the creation of random chemical interactions then I see no basis for of the existence of goodness.
Christianity does not call us to act good. Christ saved his harshest words for those who acted well but ignored the spirit of the law. Christians are called to be good. Read the Sermon on the Mount- it is about purification of the self- not acting rightly out of fear.
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