Can we be good without God?

Barney Zwartz tackles this commonly-asked question.

Twice recently I have heard noted journalist Greg Sheridan talk about his new book, God is Good for You, on secular media. Both times, he was almost instantly questioned: are you saying atheists can’t be as good as Christians? It’s a challenge I have heard scores of times.

Many non-believers deeply resent any suggestion, even implication, that Christians think they are more moral because of their faith.

So let’s lay this to rest. Atheists certainly can be, and often are, as good as Christians – but only thanks to God, to whom they owe their understanding of good and their moral will.

Non-believers generally do not understand the Christian idea of human morality, and for that they can hardly be blamed as so many Christians do not either.

So, to set the record straight: this is what the Bible teaches on morality. Every human is created in the image of God, which is what gives each one inalienable worth and dignity. Being created “in the image” means, in part, that we are rational, moral and relational beings.

However much we abuse these attributes, we can reason, we have a conscience, and we are made to love and relate to other people and to God.

If it seems obvious today that compassion or selflessness or humility are good things, that is because of the centuries of Christian acculturation.

It is up to each of us how diligently we reason, how carefully we inform and follow our conscience, and how generously we relate to others. Thus, when it comes to individuals, many non-believers do all these as well as Christians, while Christians obviously can fail badly.

But there is one claim made by many non-believers with whom I have discussed the subject that I think is grievously wrong, and that is when they say they reasoned out their moral code for themselves, and it owes nothing to religion.

Really? No. They imbibed their values from the general culture in which they grew up, and absorbed them unconsciously. They may later reject or adapt some of these, but they mislead themselves when they claim their first principles are the result of unfettered reason (which Hume reminded us is the slave of the passions).

If it seems obvious today that compassion or selflessness or humility are good things, that is because of the centuries of Christian acculturation – all three were highly counter-intuitive in much of the ancient world.

And the decline in these values as Australia moves into the post-Christian world can be seen in daily news bulletins, especially recent Royal Commissions into banking and the institutional responses to child abuse (yes, the churches too often dropped their Christian principles for perceived self-interest).

So do Christians have any advantage? Yes – not in any sort of merit, but simply that they are forgiven.

This article first appeared in The Age

Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.