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.