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Can We Be Good Without God?

Goodness is a state of mind says conventional wisdom. But can we really be good if left to ourselves? In other words, can we be good without God?

“This Office Hours column is a little different than usual. Several months ago I gave an open-air talk in the Free Speech Area of my campus as part of a ‘Veritas Forum.’ The subject was one students ask me about a lot, in private. Following is what I said, not in the voice of my imaginary alter-ego, Professor Theophilus, but in my own.” — Dr. B

I’ve been asked to speak today on the question, “Can we be good without God?” To answer, I’m 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?” isn’t trying to be extreme; he’s looking for a halfway house. So instead of telling you my story, I’ll 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’ 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.

Can We Know What’s Good?

As to the first — whether we can know what’s good without knowing God — you may think I’m going to say that unless we study the Bible we can’t know anything at all about right or wrong. I’m 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 isn’t a human being alive who doesn’t know the good and right of love, and there isn’t a human being alive who doesn’t 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 isn’t so much that we don’t know about right and wrong, but that we “suppress what we do” know about them. For we can’t 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. Didn’t you just say we can?” Not so fast. I’ve said we all “know” something — but I’ve also said we “suppress” that knowledge. Let’s dig a little more deeply into this business of suppressing what we really know.

To begin, let’s ask why we do it. Why do we lie to ourselves about what’s 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 what’s right even when we know perfectly well what’s 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 doesn’t call him a fool for “thinking” it, but for “saying” it, even though deep down he knows it isn’t true. From the biblical point of view, the reason it’s so difficult to argue with an atheist — as I once was — is that he’s not being honest with himself. He knows that there is a God; he only tells himself he doesn’t 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 you’re lying and when you’re not. Before long you can’t tell at all any more. You’re 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. That’s why we do such awful things in love’s 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. That’s why we do such terrible things to those who have the greatest claim on our protection.

Can We Do What’s Good?

I said at the beginning that the question “Can we be good without God?” may be taken in two different ways. We’ve just considered the first way. Can we “know” what’s good without “knowing” God? What we’ve seen is that in a superficial way the answer is “Yes,” but in a deeper the answer is “No.” Now let’s consider the second way. Can we “do” what’s 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 doesn’t 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 isn’t enough. God is absolutely holy. We’re 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 didn’t see why he couldn’t be good without God. I asked him why he didn’t. He said, “Because I think I’m 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 couldn’t. 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 can’t 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 can’t 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 can’t 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.

Copyright 1998 Jay Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

J. Budziszewski

Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of more than a dozen books, including How to Stay Christian in College, Ask Me Anything, Ask Me Anything 2, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and The Line Through the Heart. He teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.

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