A constant source of dispute between believers and non-believers is whether goodness is possible without God. Believers argue that God, at least as he/she is proclaimed by the great religions, advocates goodness, rewards it and punishes wrong doing, and that he actually helps you to be good; non-believers argue that God is not necessary, and that there are good people who have no God. Others go further and argue that God has a negative effect in our lives, promoting war and intolerance. Religious believers counteract these claims by accusing their opponents of being stereotypical and pointing out that atheism does not have a clean record, as we can see with Stalin and Pol Pot, along with the French Jacobins in the revolution. Propaganda flourishes in debates like this. But what is the case?
Firstly, there are different views in Christianity on this issue. The evanglical, Protestant view is that humans are steeped in the guilt of original sin from Adam and Eve to the extent that they are incapable of doing any good without God. The extreme evangelical case is that the only source of moral goodness is the words of Scripture found in the Bible. For them goodness without God is impossible. The Catholic view is more subtle. Catholics accept original sin, but they believe that humans have not the guilt of it, but the stain, which is a weakness in human nature that makes doing good hard. Catholics also believe in natural law. This is the basic morality by which humans should live which is ingrained somehow in nature and accessible to reason, even without religion. Catholicism sees God as the author of this natural law and looks for the justication of this belief to St Paul's Letter to the Romans chapter 1. However, religion helps to clarify what natural law is, because natural law leads humans to God and Christianity knows who God is and what he wants of humans.
Much of what is in the Bible is basic natural law, several of the Ten Commandments, for instance, such as the prescriptions aganst theft, murder and adultery.
It is clear that according to the Catholic view a person might keep the natural law, even if he knows not God. It would, though be very hard. Not even dedicated atheists would argue that being good is always easy. This is especially so in the level of personal goodness required by religions, which generally demands more than the basic good-natured law-keeping that is required by atheism. Religions believe that their devotional practices aid the development of good behaviour and that prayer is a powerful force for goodness in a human life. The non-believer cannot rely on this source of strength.
Another angle on the subject concerns personal virtue. Can an atheist develop personal virtues such as patience, which religious believers try hard to cultivate by means of prayer and spiritual exercises? In the Catholic view this is always possible, as natural law must advocate patience, but again it would be very hard. It might not always be cultivated to the degree in a non-believer than it is in a believer. But a deeper reason is that although the atheist and the believer both cultivate patience, they do so for different, though not totally dissimilar reasons. The social reason for patience is that it helps human relationships to flourish, and both believers and non-believers can value this, but the religious person directs his patience not only at human relationships, but on his relationship with God. This makes him significantly, but not totally, different from the patient atheist.
A deeper point is that being good requires giving due respect for all beings. Here God comes in. If God exists he is entitled to appropriate respect, but the non-believer does not give this, while the believer does. Of course, the non-believer may argue that he would give respect to God if he thought that God existed, and this is a perfectly cogent and credible case. I believe that any non-believer who denies honour to God because God does not exist, in his view, cannot be accounted a bad person. Such a person can give appropriate respect to other creatures, and there are non-believers who are respectful to other humans and animals. However, an atheism which is rooted in hostility to God, even if he exists, is a different matter. This is total disrespect and cannot be the mark of a good life.
In the end the religious believer knows that he will be called to account for his actions and that death cannot be an escape from accountability, but that it is the doorway to it. This marks a significant difference between believers and non-believers.
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