By Aaron Earls
Can you be good without God?
From billboards to books, columns to community projects, atheists and other non-believers have campaigned that morality can be separated from religion. Unfortunately for them, many around the world see a belief in God as a prerequisite for being moral.
A majority of people in 24 of 40 nations surveyed by Pew said it’s necessary for a person to believe in God to be moral. In the U.S., a slim majority (53 percent) said the same.
This position is most prevalent across the Middle East and Africa, while substantial numbers in Latin America and the Asia/Pacific region agreed.
In every European nation, a majority disagreed, with France, Spain, Czech Republic and Britain having the highest percentage of respondents who specifically said that having good moral values did not require a belief in God.
Pew reported significant correlation between the wealth of a nation and their citizen’s agreeing that a belief in God was necessary for a person to be moral. The more wealthy a nation is, the less likely the people are to think good values comes exclusively from a theistic belief system.
The major exceptions to that rule – the U.S. and China. People in the United States are much more likely than those in similar nations to say belief in God is essential to morality, while those in China are much less likely.
So what should a Christian believe? Holding that atheists are incapable of moral acts would require us to ignore what is often directly in front of us. Many people who don’t believe in God do good things.
Christian philosopher William Lane Craig says it would be “arrogant and ignorant to claim that people cannot be good without belief in God,” but there is a deeper question involved.
While Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists alike can behave in a moral fashion, that is different than the philosophical question of whether or not morality can exist apart from God. Craig writes:
If God does not exist, then it is plausible to think that there are no objective moral values, that we have no moral duties, and that there is no moral accountability for how we live and act. The horror of such a morally neutral world is obvious. If, on the other hand, we hold, as it seems rational to do, that objective moral values and duties do exist, then we have good grounds for believing in the existence of God. … We cannot, then, truly be good without God; but if we can in some measure be good, then it follows that God exists.
He argues that atheists can be good, but that very fact is evidence they are wrong about God’s existence.
This moral argument for God’s existence played a role in the conversion of C.S. Lewis. Thinking back to his days as an atheist, Lewis explains in Mere Christianity:
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”
Craig, Lewis and other Christian thinkers would say that a shared sense of morality that stretches across time and place points to a Lawgiver.
For them, belief in God is not required for moral acts, but God’s existence is very much required for morality itself.