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Can you be good without God?

By Nathan Jeffs

Of course you can. Ask Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffet or many of the other atheists, agnostics and secularists who have donated huge amounts of money and dedicated their lives to philanthropy. Perhaps, ask religious believers why they are good - why they do good deeds? Is it because of a desire to improve the lives of others? Or is it simply to earn themselves the reward of Heaven, Paradise etc.?

What does it mean to be good? It can be defined as possessing or displaying moral virtue [1] or showing kindness [1]. But how do we interpret these definitions and who do we consider to be a good person? For most people goodness is equated with selflessness. Take this analogy: two people both do the same good deed, however, one did it for a monetary reward, whereas the other did it out of pure altruism. Which one is the good person? I would say the person without an incentive to be good.

Ask many people for an example of a good person and they would quote Mother Theresa, famed for her humanitarian work in the slums of Calcutta. Not least is there questionable motive behind why she did what she did, but there is suspicion as to whether she was much of a humanitarian figure at all. Theresa said herself I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people [2]. Her motivation was purely Christ, purely the reward for her deeds in his eyes. She believed that the plight of the poor was the benefit of the world via the opportunity to please God. But ignoring her motive, there is still an argument that the work she did made her a good person: Robin Fox, editor of The Lancet, described the conditions of the Home for Dying Destitutes (opened by Theresa) as haphazard [3]. Academics described the set-up as caring for the sick by glorifying their suffering instead of relieving it [4]. I do not see Mother Theresa as a good person. We should question the idea that you can be good with God, because were it not for the reward of Heaven or the punishments of Sharia or threat of breaking the Ten Commandments, how many religious people would continue with good deeds?

The question which needs to be answered, however, is can you be good without God? As I suggested before, surely, one can only be good without God. The world is awash with examples of good deeds with no reward: take the example of Mark Zuckerberg and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative which plans to give away $45 billion within the lifetime of the couple. Zuckerberg, who quite aptly listed his atheism on his Facebook profile, has no religious incentive but has still chosen to donate the majority of his personal fortune for the purpose of advancing human potential and promoting equality for all children in the next generation [5]. Is advancing human potential good? Yes. Is promoting equality good? Yes. Does Mark Zuckerberg need God to be good? No.

However, Mark Zuckerberg isn't the typical person. He's a college dropout turned billionaire by his mid-twenties. Many people would be inclined to suggest that more typical people wouldn't be as generous or good unless they had some form of divine influence. But in everyday life we see small-scale examples of Atheists doing good deeds: the group Foundation Beyond Relief co-ordinates many Atheist volunteering projects around the world, improving lives whether that be through disaster recovery and support or through the Dudley Street Neighbourhood Initiative to bring communities together. These are all amazing deeds, all done without God.

Everyone is capable of being good, and everyone should take every opportunity to be good. To say it should be limited exclusively to those who believe in a God simply devalues the thousands of amazing actions done by non-religious people every day. Yes, we can be good without God and I'll conclude with a quote from Humanist Kurt Vonnegut - I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead.


  2. The Missionary Position - Mother Theresa in theory and practice - Christopher Hitchens
  3. Mother Teresa's care for the dying. The Lancet 344
© 2016 Nathan Jeffs

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