Thursday, December 10, 2015

Good without God?

Yesterday I got a call from John Owensby, editor and publisher of the Kernersville News. It seems that American Atheists has put up two billboards in Kernersville encouraging people not to go to church. "Just be good for goodness' sake," the ads read. John asked me for a comment. I told him I'd like to take a few moments to get my thoughts together and then get back to him. 

I jotted my thoughts down in an email and sent them to John. I figured the reporter would pull out a couple of quotes, but John decided to turn my email into an article. He ran it on page 2 as a sidebar to the story about the billboards. 

For those of you who don't live in K-Vegas, here's the email-turned-article:

“Be good for goodness’ sake” refers to the phrase “Good without God” that atheist groups often use. Their point is that people can live good lives without God, and that believers only do good to gain reward or avoid punishment. This is a mischaracterization of what Christians believe. We have been saved by God’s grace, not through works, so any good we do is a response of gratitude for what God has done for us, not an attempt to earn salvation.

Can atheists be “Good without God?” My response is, how do we know what “good” is? The historical fact is that our society’s understanding of good has been shaped by the Judeo-Christian religious worldview that has influenced Western Civilization for 2000 years. So even if a non-believer does good things, that person is still being influenced by God (or at least people who believe in God).

It’s ironic that the sign refers to “holidays” when the very word means “holy days.” It’s also ironic that Santa Claus, who appears on the sign, is based on Saint Nicholas, a third century Christian bishop who was known for caring for children and giving gifts to the poor. (Legend says that he dropped gifts down the chimney at night so the recipients would not be embarrassed.) So, by mentioning holy days and depicting a Christian bishop, the anti-church sign itself exhibits the lasting influence of the Christian faith.

I don’t think people realize how much good Christians have done throughout history. It was Christians who first started hospitals, orphanages, and universities as we know them today. Early Christians fought for the rights of women and children. The early church was the first multi-cultural community in the ancient world. Even today, many, if not most social service agencies, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, etc. are run by Christians. Yes, we’ve had our bad moments—the crusades, the inquisition, etc.—but the good far outweighs the bad. And it makes me really sad to see people denouncing this faith that has made such a positive difference in the world.

It also makes me sad when I consider that at this time of year Christians are coming together to celebrate some of the most positive aspects of our faith: unconditional love, giving, charity, family, community, hope for the future. It saddens me that American Atheists has chosen this time of year to run these ads. It feels like a very deliberate slap in the face.


  1. That's my pastor! I'm glad we're on the same team!

  2. Ethics are ethics. Ethics shaped a Judeo-Christian worldview, and yes, I agree with you that these same ethics influenced Western Civilization, but a person can be ethical and moral and just without believing in a supreme being. I do not believe in a supreme being, and while I don't belong to any kind of organization involving religion or non-religion (?), I don't think many Atheists believe Christians are being "good" solely for reward. They are being good because they are human. You pointed out that "good" is subjective and it is also subjective in religious texts. We are able to define the word "good" as human beings, as people with hearts who want peace and success, and want to help others in our communities.

    You noted the irony in the etymology of the word "Holiday" and yes, it absolutely derives from Old English, but how can we define what it means to be holy? Holy is what is cherished and what is valued. Family, tradition, culture, giving, unity -- all of these are cherished and valued, especially at this time of year, as you have also pointed out. Do we need to believe in the existence of a God to consider these acts holy? Life itself is honored with the winter solstice and the celebrations of the new year. These are also holidays. Happy Holidays is not a demeaning phrase or a "slap in the face" in my view, but an inclusive phrase to incorporate all of which we have to celebrate and honor at the end of the year.

    A billboard was not the way to send this message. I pass it daily and you are right that the design and timing of it seems odd. But, for someone who works in K-Vegas and who doesn't believe in God, I would hope that people value me for my "goodness" and character as a human, and that they wouldn't think less of me solely because I chose not to follow an organized religion.

    And for me, that is the essence of the message. Be good, be ethical, and be an asset to your community. That is most important, and a church does not need to be a part of my life to be able to follow in goodness. Again, I don't see this billboard as "denouncing" anything. It's reminding those who go to church only because they feel as though they are "supposed to go" that they are not less of a person for not attending.

    I wish you and your congregation a very Merry Christmas and a happy new year!

    1. Dear Anonymous,
      Thanks for a civil, reasoned, even kind response. Would that more people who write on the internet would follow your example.

      On ethics, I think we have a chicken-and-egg thing going. I say religion gave us ethics; you say (if I understand you) that people's ethical values gave rise to religion. Maybe we're both right to some degree: ancient humanity's growing ethical awareness impacted their beliefs about ultimate reality (religion). The difference between us is that you would say (I assume) that the ethical awareness evolved; I would say it was influenced/directed by God. CS Lewis famously argued that the very existence of a concept of right and wrong is evidence of a creator with moral standards.

      My thoughts about ethics coming to our society through monotheism (specifically Judaism) come from historian Thomas Cahill's book, "The Gifts of the Jews." Fascinating book.

      You say, "I don't think many Atheists believe Christians are being good solely for reward." My impression is the opposite: It seems to me that I am frequently reading comments from atheists that at least imply that religious people have invented a reward/punishment system because they can't or don't want to just "be good for goodness' sake."

      I did not say that good is subjective (at least I didn't mean to say that.) I believe that good is OBJECTIVELY defined in the ethical teachings of Judaism/Christianity -- the Ten Commandments, Sermon on the Mount, etc. And I further believe that people (non-believing or otherwise) who say, "it's wrong to kill," "it's wrong to steal," "let's work for peace," etc. are being influenced by those objectively defined standards, handed down through years of Western Civ. You're right, you don't have to believe in God to follow those. I just think that God is where you got them from, albeit indirectly. (I guess I'm rehashing CS Lewis' argument here.)

      You say, "Happy Holidays is not a demeaning phrase..." I actually agree. See my post on this blog entitled, "About those Red Coffee Cups." It's not that greeting that feels like a slap in the face--it's the fact that they put up the billboards at this time of the year. (BTW, I was careful to say, "It feels like..." not "It IS..." because I believe it's unfair to assign motives to other people when you don't really know what's inside their head. Again: civil, reasoned discourse!)

      You ask, "How can we define what means to be holy?" Again, I would turn to religious texts, but I have to admit, your definition is quite beautiful. We're not far apart in the things we value. And you're right, we don't HAVE to believe in God to consider these things holy. But for me, believing in God endows these things with deeper meaning and a greater purpose, which makes them more fulfilling, AND makes them signs of hope that one day "the kingdom will come, and God's will will be done." (And don't worry, I'm not a Christian who believes my only job is to sit around and wait for that to happen--Jesus calls us to make a difference NOW.)

      You are right that "a church does not need to be part of my life to be able to follow in goodness." I do value you. I really appreciate your non-polemical response. Of course I'd love for you to come over to my side :) but even if you don't I think that if I knew you I'd be happy to call you a friend.

      Thanks so much for the Christmas greeting. I wish the same for you and yours!

    2. I love that we can have this conversation and thank you for all of your further explanations and for clearing up some of your stated opinions. I will definitely check out that text! The community is lucky to have a civil minded, realistic religious leader.

    3. Yes, great conversation. THANK YOU! And your last sentence is one of the best compliments I've ever received.

  3. Love this, conversation, kindness, agreeing to disagree. What a world we would live in if only.....

    Merry Christmas Everyone and Happy Holidays.

  4. Interesting dialogue going on here. Challenging reading and reasoning and logic. However, the main issue or point that I have is that we have two critical beliefs at hand. On one hand, we have a non believer in our Sovereign God and on the other hand we have a believer in our Sovereign God. The technical issues surrounding our ethics, behavior and social acceptance or rejection of that behavior or our ethics among and between groups of sinners of the world, while it may be of great importance to us as a so-called civilized world, is in the reality of life, made up of only two ultimate and distinct human categories. One category is made up of believers or those of us who have belief and total faith in our Sovereign and Just God, who recognize and admit our sinful lives, who sincerely ask for His forgiveness and believe in our Sovereign God's Son, Jesus Christ, Who sacrificed His life carrying the burden of our sins for us and believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and now offers all who believe in him eternal and everlasting life in Heaven with no more human sin, pain, suffering, fear, sadness or death. The only way to this eternal life is through Jesus Christ. On the other hand, we have those who do not believe in a Sovereign God or Heaven. My joy is that one is destined for everlasting life of happiness and love and my sadness is that the other is destined for everlasting pain suffering and death. I, for one, have chosen the everlasting life side with my Savior, Jesus Christ. Again, our Sovereign and Just God does give us a choice. I love all people and pray daily that those who have not made that choice for eternal life and peace and happiness will make that choice before it is too late. Making the wrong choice here is more than just an ethics or behavior mistake. More than your perception of, evaluation of or acceptance of our outward short-term human behavior is at stake here. At stake is where you will spend eternity. That is ultimately what should be important to you and those who you love.
    LD Hutto