Being Good Without God
For Catholics at least, the news that atheists can live a morally praiseworthy life, or people belonging to any other religion, for that matter, is neither all that surprising nor particularly distressing. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said during his 2011 visit to the Bundestag,
Unlike other great religions, Christianity has never proposed a revealed law to the State and to society, that is to say a juridical order derived from revelation. Instead, it has pointed to nature and reason as the true sources of law – and to the harmony of objective and subjective reason, which naturally presupposes that both spheres are rooted in the creative reason of God.
Very simply put, to the point of trampling barbarically over all potential nuance, the structure of creation reveals a moral order. This means that it is even accessible to people who do not necessarily believe in the authority of the Church. The boundaries of nature reveal the boundaries of our freedom.
If one already believes that individual freedom takes precedence over nature, then Benedict’s argument will not be particularly compelling. That is not the point here. I am only briefly demonstrating that the Church presents a conception of the world in which her moral understanding can be available to everybody. Because human beings are created in the image of God, reflecting God who is love, we should expect that, even though we are fallen, we will naturally desire that other people have access to that which is good, even if we do not actually always know just what is best for them or go about this in a good way. Catholics can easily acknowledge that one can be good without believing in God.
The question of whether atheists can be good, however, is not the most important issue at stake. Quite frankly, it is a distortion of a more urgent question, which is how atheists can know what is good from the starting point of their atheism, and why they should live according to a moral code. If one believes that the universe is the result of a cosmic fluke, and that life on earth is governed by the survival of the fittest and random mutations that best help a being to survive, then why is a code of ethics (especially one that gives priority to the weak and vulnerable) so important? What are these codes but arbitrary social agreements? How can an atheist justify feeling a profound sense of moral outrage when that arbitrary agreement is violated?
The French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, in “Existentialism is a Humanism,” says,
The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that ‘the good’ exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now on the plane where there are only men.
For Sartre, unlike the Pope Emeritus, existence precedes essence, so human beings do not have a nature from which they can discover a way of acting. Instead, one must choose how to fashion oneself, and in doing so, one commits all of humanity to a certain way of being, by providing an example to all other people. One chooses what human nature is, one establishes it by an act of one’s will, and once this is done, one creates the moral code by which one lives.
Sartre argues that this type of existentialism is the end result of a consistent understanding of atheism. If this is true, then no moral system that humans may develop will have any basis in nature or a transcendent reality, but only in human will. An atheist may indeed follow a moral code that even Catholics can recognize as being “good,” but it is fair to ask (as Marc Barnes does, for instance) how the atheist comes to accept, justify, or indeed, create this code, and why it should be compelling for anybody else.
What about the flip side of this coin, also frequently used to discredit the Church, the bad Catholics? Why would somebody who actually has a compelling justification for the existence of moral perfection fail to uphold those standards?
First of all, while sins certainly cause scandal, it should be no surprise to anyone at all that there are bad Catholics. The Church is a place where sinners come in order to be forgiven and to draw closer to God. Jesus said that it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick, and so sinners need to come to the Church. Similarly, Pope Francis uses the image of a field hospital where the wounded can come for healing. These images should keep us from thinking that the Church is populated by living saints exclusively. Instead, it is a place of conversion where we, with God’s grace, repent of our sins and amend our lives. Indeed, Gabriel Blanchard goes so far as to say (a profanity after the jump) that “bad Christians are a sign that Christianity is doing its job, not that it’s failing through laxity.”
Furthermore, every Sunday at Mass, we pray publically, “I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” We do not hide the fact that we sin. Indeed, Reconciliation, the practice of confessing sins and doing penance, is one of the sacraments of the Church, one of the central ways of encountering God. The regular acknowledgement of our sins is fundamental to the practice of our faith.
It is also important to note that a Catholic who fails to uphold perfectly his or her beliefs does not disprove the teachings of Jesus or the historicity of the Resurrection. The truth of these things exists on a different plane from any Catholic’s sins.
Having said all that, because Christianity promises a transformation in one’s life, we cannot avoid the question of bad Catholics forever by pointing to the immense good that many Catholics do and by reminding ourselves that the Church exists for the conversion of sinners, or by appealing to transcendent philosophical proofs. Ultimately, we want to see the fruits of this conversion, which can be hard to see in some Christians. As much as we might tell people that they can come to the Church no matter their state of life, no matter the state of their relationship with God, we never expect them to remain as they are; we expect them to become better persons, and to let go of their former selves.
I believe that I can only say that conversion is a journey, not an event. For example, those who enter the Church have not reached the end point of their searching for God, but instead are at a new beginning. It is not the case that we are saved in an instant, able to spend the rest of our earthly lives as living saints. St. Paul, who had one of the most dramatic conversions in the history of the Church, describes this struggle in the Epistle to the Romans, saying
For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
Even Paul, who was converted by encountering Jesus in a flash of light, and went from persecuting the Church to promoting it, knows good but does wrong. We belong to a fallen creation, and our will is similarly fallen. We are tempted by immediate gratification and easy pleasures, and so have developed the compulsion to will the wrong things. The process of conversion involves our will being made one with God’s. In prayer, we learn to desire what God desires. In repentance, we disavow that which is evil and commit ourselves to that which is good. We cut off our members that cause us to sin. This is a struggle; it is truly difficult for the vast majority of us to unlearn disordered compulsions, but I would hope that most of us who call ourselves Christian are sincere in their desire for conversion. This is not to belittle our failings, but to point out that these failings are not the end of the journey. This is also one of the shocking elements of the faith: that even those guilty of the most horrific evils can truly repent and convert, and be welcome in the Church. We should therefore not expect that every Catholic experiences an immediate and dramatic growth in moral excellence when they have a moment that spurs them to conversion, but instead hope that these people are making progress in their journey toward God. The promised transformation is gradual, and our expectations must reflect this realistically.
In discussing conversion, we have moved away from only talking about doing good, and towards the idea of uniting our will to God’s. Being a Catholic is not merely to implement a sort of political agenda, but involves developing a relationship with God, in which we allow Him to guide our lives. Now, as St. James says, faith without works is dead, so this relationship must bear the fruit of living a good life. However, at the same time, we cannot reduce an understanding of faith to externally visible good deeds; too often we talk about religion as if its sole purpose is the cultivation of an ethical lifestyle, and it is certainly easier to describe it this way in secular discourse. However, this is to miss the importance of our relationship with God, and therefore, if we only talk about good works, and whether or not a specific Catholic performs them, we are not providing a complete picture of what it means to be Catholic. This is all more reason for why the question of whether atheists can be good without God is not the right question. They can be indeed be good, but without this relationship with God, they still lack something important.