Can We Be Good without God?

I was recently interviewed by Jennifer, a lady from Scotland, who is writing a dissertation for her Ph.D. in religious studies. The question she is attempting to answer is, "Does rejecting God mean rejecting morality?" So she sent me a list of questions on that topic, this being the first: Do you personally believe that you can be morally good without a god? This is my answer: 

This entire conversation must begin with a clarification: we must distinguish between moral ontology and moral epistemology. Epistemology, the branch of philosophy that is concerned with knowledge and how we know what we know, answers questions like, “How do we know what is morally right or wrong? Must we believe in God to affirm moral values? Or, must we believe in God to live a moral life? Or, can we construct a system of ethics apart from belief in God?” 

Ontology is a sub-branch of metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that is concerned with the nature of reality and what really exists. Moral ontology is concerned with questions like, “Are there objective moral truths? If there are objective moral values and obligations, what is their grounding? In others words, where do they come from? What is the best explanation of their existence?” 

The distinction is vital because the question “What can we know morally?” (the epistemological question) is very different from the question, “Where do objective moral truths come from?” (the ontological question).

Now, to answer your question, I would need to clarify. If you mean, “Do you personally believe that you can be morally good without believing in a god?” (an epistemological question), my answer would be yes. The atheist can affirm moral values and live a good moral life, just like the theist.

However, if you mean, “Do you personally believe that you can be morally good if God does not exist?” (an ontological question), I would say no, because I think objective morality is unintelligible apart from God’s existence. If God does not exist, there is no such thing as objective moral truth. 

She had additional questions about how we come to know moral truths, can morality be an evolutionary development, and more. It's an important topic, one that we should give careful thinking to. In fact, that's what we're going to do this Thursday night at 6:30 pm (PT). Join me for Stand to Reason's next live online Q & A (watch a live stream on Google+ or here on the blog). It will be a conversation on God and morality, and your questions and insights are welcome. You can find more info here


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Brett Kunkle (@brettkunkle) is the founder and president of MAVEN, a movement to equip the next generation to know truth, pursue goodness, and create beauty. He has more than 25 years of experience working with youth and parents. Brett has a master’s degree in philosophy of religion and ethics from Talbot School of Theology and co-authored the book A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World.

Brett Kunkle