Can you be a good person without being God-fearing?
The immediate and obvious answer seems to be yes. There are self-described irreligious individuals, agnostics and atheists who live upstanding lives filled with hard work, strong marriages, volunteer activities and other honorable undertakings. But recently, I began to wonder about the validity of my question.
What do I mean? Well, a short while ago my husband had an experience which all of us have had at one time or another. He said something and immediately realized that it came out differently than intended. Unfortunately, he was on a TV show with a massive audience and in the fast-pace of the show, there was no opportunity to elucidate his comments. Add an explosive blogosphere to the mixture and his comments about atheists, which were unintentionally inflammatory, got repeated, magnified and distorted. Our office email filled up with letters from atheists.
The emails fell into two categories. Some people who were hurt or confused by his words wrote to express their feelings or to urge him to rethink. Their messages were thoughtfully written and made some good points. My husband answered each of these and sent each writer a copy of the article he had immediately written explaining both the meaning behind his comments and his disappointment in himself for expressing himself poorly.
The much larger group of emails was angry and written in attack mode. The overwhelming majority of these were disgusting, filled with profanity and threats. And that is what started me thinking. Like many Jews and Christians I have frequently been embarrassed when people who publicly proclaim their religiosity, verbally or through their professions, dress and actions, behave in shameful ways. It is irrelevant whether it is a case of hypocrisy or human failing; the action leads to dismay at the violation of standards. That dismay, however, necessitates a general agreement as to there being standards to violate. It is fair to say that a synagogue-attending or church going individual who commits adultery, embezzles, spews profanity or acts in any reprehensible way, is behaving wrongly. There is a stated correct code of conduct that has been breached. In contrast, a religious person who considers himself a “good person,” would also judge his goodness through the prism of his religion. Giving charity is good, because God said that one should. That same reasoning holds true for being faithful in marriage and dealing honestly with others. For a religious person, God defines what is good. There is a framework in which to judge the religion and its adherents.
What then of the “good atheist”? Would one of the individuals who sent a polite email feel ashamed by the writers of the vulgar ones? Would they feel that the writer reflects badly on them? Does a hard-working, honest atheist feel betrayed by one who is a con man? If the answer is yes, I’m not sure why. Atheism is defined by what one doesn’t believe, not by what one does. In that case, each individual may decide for himself what being good means. One person can decide that graffiti is wrong while another sees it as an artistic expression. One person might be meticulous in financial dealings while another decides that stealing is honorable as long as it is from a wealthy victim. Who laid down the law that having an affair is wrong? Maybe it is simply a fact of human nature. If there is no agreed upon external system of values, how can there be right or wrong? But, this does seem to be a problem for society. Stipulating that each and every person decides what’s good or not seems to be a prescription for anarchy.
Perhaps being good means being a law-abiding citizen? By those standards SS, KGB and Stasi officials were all good people. In fact, most of those who broke the law to hide Jews in Nazi Germany did so because they were responding to the demands of a higher Authority than their country’s legal system. Americans who helped slaves escape through the underground railway were similarly acting illegally. History shows that what we commonly label as being good isn’t necessarily synonymous with acting within a legal framework.
I don’t have an answer to my question. The thoughtful email writers offered proof of atheists being good people. I agree that the examples they cited ranging from serving in the military to exemplary business practices to charity work overlap with some of my own definitions of good behavior. I agree that atheists can be good people by terms that are meaningful according to the guidelines I follow. But I still find myself wondering how they can define behavior using a term which their atheism seems to make either a meaningless one or else one that only exists by the benchmarks of a religiously influenced society.
In the final analysis, that is what my husband was trying to say in the first place. Cultures where atheism was a defining feature, like Stalinist Russia or Mao’s China, weren’t free, pleasant or successful places. Atheists thrive today when they live in societies with patterns of behavior that were established under a Judeo-Christian culture. Yet, the system only works as long as the majority of citizens adhere to that moral framework. If too many people take God out of good, the entire structure crumbles.