Can You Be Good Without God?

January 28, 2014 | 7 comments

Atheists and agnostics like to claim that religion or belief in God isn’t necessary for living a moral life. “I can be a good person without God,” they say. Some go a step further and try to build a case for why they can be even better people without God. For example, they might claim that whereas theists are concerned about obeying religious commands that will get them into a heavenly afterlife, unbelievers are able to apply all their energies to making this world a better place.

In a certain sense, it’s correct to say that one can be a good person without God. History demonstrates this. Classical Western culture, which did not have divine revelation or formal religion, held up natural virtue as the highest goal. Confucianism lays out a sophisticated moral code without a supreme being.

That said, I think a strong case could be made that it’s both easier and more logical to live a truly moral life as a religious believer than as an unbeliever.  If you ever find yourself challenged by an atheist with the “good person” argument, here are four reasons that might help your answer.

1. God Grounds the Good

What is the measure of morality? How do we know right from wrong—and thus what it means to be a “good person” rather than a “bad person”?

Without God, or something like God that is both authoritative and transcendent, we can only point to society’s definition or morality, or to our own personal code.

The problem with this? Society’s definition of morality changes, and sometimes it’s obviously wrong—think of Nazi Germany or the slave-state South. And our own personal moral codes are even more fickle, variable, and subject to error. To say, “I’m a good person because I’m living my personal moral code” is dangerously close to saying, “I’m living the way I want to live.” Is that morality?

Believers, on the other hand, have a standard outside themselves: authoritative and unchanging. God and his moral laws—whether positive laws (specific divine commandments) or the natural laws that originate with him—are the best and most reasonable basis for determining what it means to be a good person in the first place.

2. An Eternal Perspective

I mentioned before how some non-theists argue that belief in the afterlife leads to neglect of this life, but I think they have it backwards. Because believers see eternal consequences for their actions (Matt. 21:35-46), it heightens the moral drama of this world immeasurably. Just on the face of it, without any further information, who would you expect to take his moral conduct more seriously:

The person who thinks his everlasting destiny—and perhaps the destiny of others—depends on his living an upright life not only in deed but in word and thought?

Or the person who thinks that his life will end with the death of his body; that there will be neither reward nor reckoning for how he lives it? And that whatever good (or evil) he does to others will be but a momentary gesture, bringing nothing more than a flicker of comfort or annoyance in an absurd and ultimately pointless existence?

Unbelievers can try to gin up some home-cooked earthly motivation for living a moral code, even though its benefits are entirely confined to this life. But the believer’s eternal perspective so powerfully raises the stakes for being a “good person,” and thus the motivation, that it must make it easier to accomplish.

3. True Humanism

This next reason is related to the last one. A big part of morality, especially for unbelievers (who are generally less concerned about the morality of actions that don’t directly affect others), is doing good for our fellow man.  Some would even say that unbelievers are nicer to other people on earth because they they’re not all preoccupied with pleasing an imaginary person in the sky.

But for an atheist, this humanistic impulse rests on pretty shaky ground. Why be nice, or good, or loving, or charitable, to other people? What’s so special about them?

Some will shrug their shoulders and say it doesn’t matter. They just think we should. It feels right. Others will try to argue that charity towards others is actually in our self-interest: either because it eventually will rebound our way like karma, or because it just makes us feel good about ourselves.

But what about when it doesn’t feel right? What if the other person is a jerk? What if being good to another clearly inconveniences us or even harms us? Why should we do it then? The unbeliever has no answer.

The believer does. Theism provides a foundation for authentic humanism. We are to love one another not only because God commands it, but because it’s just—because God made those other people, and keeps them in being, and loves them, and thereby infuses them with their own value. How can the even boldest secular humanists in history compete with that glorious vision of mankind?

4. Got Grace

If there’s a more universal constant in human experience than sin, I don’t know what it is. Believers and unbelievers all know what it’s like to know what is right but to do the opposite anyway (Rom. 7:22-23).

To what do unbelievers appeal in this unhappy circumstance? All they have is themselves—which is the problem in the first place. Yes, some extraordinary people are able to go quite far on natural virtue alone, but they’re an exception. The rest lie on analysts’ couches and crowd self-help seminars desperate for some natural key to improvement. Or they despair.

Even if there were no God, I think that even the idea of divine help is… helpful. Believing that we’re not on our own, that with enough faith and practice and perseverance we can overcome sin, because we have access to spiritual energy outside of ourselves, can only aid us in our quest to be good people.

So even if belief in God were just a moral crutch, it would be a handy and effective crutch. But most theists think it’s more than a crutch. We believe that God not only sets out the moral law and tells us to obey, but gives us the power to obey it—what we call actual grace. We’re able to transcend merely natural virtue, go beyond all that we have to give by our own power, because God gives us his power.

That power perfects our natural virtue, making us better people than we could otherwise have hoped to be. Better still, it enkindles in us supernatural virtue, moving us from being good people to a moral state nonbelievers cannot attain: holiness.


Todd Aglialoro is the editor for Catholic Answers Press. He studied theology at Franciscan University, the University of Fribourg, and the International Theological Institute. A New York native and New England convert, Todd now lives in the San Diego area with his wife, seven children, and zero dogs.

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Robert Wiscount - Mar Lin, Pennsylvania

As a "reformed" atheist that has been touched by the Holy Spirit, I see it a certain way. As an atheist, I was frankly ignorant of the origins of my moral code. Did I try and do well by my fellow man? I would have answered, that yes, I tried to help other human beings. Then I found faith and a belief in the power of Jesus Christ. Now, in many ways, I am actually still the same person. I tried to help others as an atheist, but I did so on an island. My belief has connected me to a church that makes my own small efforts more powerful then they could ever have been from the island where I once found myself. Too many atheists fail to see the power of the church. They see only bricks and mortar with a name on the sign out front. They don't really know the person who's name is on the sign. If they did, they would find it impossible to deny their humanity and sacrifice for the sake of Jesus Christ. The church is so much more than bricks and mortar, it is something not totally of this world. It stretches beyond this world and allows us as humans to do more with the church then we ever could on our own. How do I know these things? I've been both of those people at some point in my life. I am more with the church then I ever was without it.

January 29, 2014 at 5:09 am PST
#2  Joseph Kutyla - San Diego, California

Of course you can be good without God. Just as pedophile priests can be bad with.

January 29, 2014 at 6:26 pm PST
#3  Charles Spinelli - Summit, New Jersey

We tend to compare God's goodness with human goodness. They are not the same. God' goodness is pure. Man's goodness is usually relative. As Christians, we believe we were made in his image but through choice fell away from perfection in the garden. As such we are broken and our human tendency is to sin. Christ calls us to restoration. This takes place in many forms but certainly through prayer and the sacraments of the Church, as Robert points out.

Men, all of us, are broken and sinful - from priests to Presidents. As to determine who is good, I'll go with my Savior's words; "Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone." - Mark 10:18

January 30, 2014 at 12:05 pm PST
#4  Cristina Baldor - Miami, Florida

Dear fellow bloggers & readers:

Hello! This debate is interesting, yet it makes me a little dizzy! I see it this way: Each person has their own inner spirituality which maybe they have molded in their hearts & minds & ultimately decided with their free will & chosen to therefore proclaim to the world, debate about it/explain it- like this blog, or simply keep their beliefs to themselves- "No, I never talk about religion or politics." I have heard my grandmother say who is a devout Catholic.

To each his own. Live and Let Live. But as a Christian you may show your joy, light & kindness to all & a human being with no belief or faith may start to wonder : What does he/she have that I do not? Why is he/she so happy? We all want to be happy, feel loved, feel peace during times of trial & comfort when needed. We all want to love others and are all made in the image of God. It is us who skews things. Ultimately, The Father knows all hearts & minds-He is omniscient-ALL Knowing. You may think you can hide from others very well, maybe you can even fool yourself a bit- but Heaven? Are you joshing me? You cannot hide under a rock. The Father loves us all- good or bad-the sun will rise on all- therefore, do not judge. He is in charge. He wants all to be saved and to know the full Truth in Jesus Christ. I have an acquaintance who does not like Religion at all. He says : I cannot believe what I cannot prove. I have smoothly tried to lure him into feeling that "God is Good." I sense he is so hardened & blind that the immediate reaction is-the comfort zone- oh no! 'Standardized Religion again! Not the Jesus thing!' Yet he is kind & polite, yet suffering so much. I feel for him. He wants to believe. He was even in a youth group as a teenager. He still does not realize that Christ lives within him. As soon as he acknowledges that and feeds it with The Bible and The Sacraments -he will be happy! I cannot & will not force my spiritual journey on someone else's heart & mind- it will not work anyways! Think about it!
Showing your love is best. Use your words carefully. Do not give pearls to Swine.

We have free will. We will make our own conclusions in our own minds & hearts for ourselves. When someone is grasping & trying to convince others-really themselves that there is No God...well, that is up to you. That human being must put his own body to rest each night. And every human soul has a conscience-whether the spoken of human wants to 'see' it. He/She will decide for themselves: Am I at peace? Do I have love in my heart? What happened today? Why was I so angry and spiteful?? The horror of the imbalance between heart & mind & the reality of the outpouring of their spirit throughout their lives, is the proof in the pudding. So if someone comes up to you to argue...my advice, If I may...walk away...pray that that human being...so Loved By All of Heaven...will one day see The Light & Love & Power of Jesus Christ. Amen.

February 13, 2014 at 12:15 am PST
#5  Greg Herwaldt - South Elgin, Illinois

We are the ones who plant the seed by our walk with God. We are being watched by those who don't believe our role is to win them over by our fruits Jesus talked about it in the Bible. The thing is God has chosen those in Advance of the ones who are Saved Why ??? There is more evidence of Jesus with History and Prophecy then there ever will be THAT there is NO GOD!!!!!!!!

March 21, 2014 at 12:48 pm PST
#6  doug nusbaum - henderson, Nevada

There is no mass evil compared to the christian genocide committed against native americns. 95+% of that group killed, with 100% extermination rate among many subsets and all for the single reason that "they were not 'lovine christians'. And there is the 30 years war, the 100 years war the crusades and numerous other murderous atrocities committed in the name of Jesus.

There is the 1500 year eugenics experiment carried out against the Jews, of which I am a beneficiary. Yea --- it took about 75 generations, but you Christians did breed a superior race by removing the bottom 5-10% of every generation, It is why we own the banks, and science :-)

Atheists and other unbelievers are what you call good because that is how evolution works over the long term among human tribes. You do not understand evolution and have no idea how most science works so you do not understand this. Sorry --- I can not educate you. but that is how it is. Tribes that did not care for their own perished when competing with those who saw value in caring for the less able, especially the elderly.

Good motivated from fear (eternal punishment) is not good is is acting out of fear. It is obedience to law, and like obedience to law can just as easily be evil. Think of all those obedient faithful who kill in the name of god. As to acting in the spirit of the church. You mean the church of pedophelia? You mean the church that instructs its members to obey the church and shield criminals rather than act in accordance with their conscience... That church? If you call that good --- well I will stay with my unbelief thank you.

July 11, 2014 at 12:13 am PST
#7  doug nusbaum - henderson, Nevada

Good people can and will do good things. Bad people can and will do bad things. But it takes government / religions / hierarchies to get good people to do bad things based on faith in the institution. I know of nothing that can motivate bad people to do good things out of such faith.

July 11, 2014 at 12:16 am PST

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