Goodness with or without God? Epstein’s surrender plan to religious faith.

November 23, 2009

So I've been reading this book titled Good without God . Maybe you've seen it too.  I was struck by this passage, on the first page:

"the time has come for it [rationalism] to be aggressive, and not only to declare that men can be good without God, but to boldly maintain that no one can be truly good who believes in God." 

Now that's a bold rationalism: to say to the world, "be even better without God." Many rationalists, freethinkers, and atheist humanists have been proclaiming as much for over a hundred years. This one book, Good without God, from which I quote, was published in 1902. Yes, 1902 -- by Robert Chamblet Adams. 

There was a time, not so long ago, when non-religious humanists imagined tearing down the wall of separation between science and faith. That Enlightenment wall assigned to science the discovery of facts and the natural world, and assigned to religion the defense of values and the human spirit. These non-religious humanists saw how religion's grasp on ethics had grown weak and undeserving, and how viewing humans as natural creatures was a sounder basis for ethical advancement. Naturalistic humanism could explain why us humans have moralities and get into moral difficulties, and how we could improve our ethics using only our own natural cognitive skills. They dreamed of a world in which people would see how a meaningful life didn't have to depend on a god, and how ethics should not be motivated by faith alone. 

But it is really hard tearing down a big wall. It is far easier to pretend it isn't there, or to perch up on top so you can shout down on everyone. 

And then I was reading another book, also titled Good without God , that reminded me about that big wall. In this 2009 book, by the Harvard humanist Greg Epstein, I read this passage:

"What is so wrong with the idea of God as a motivation, as the way for us to understand our purpose in life? Well, if it really, truly does motivate you to be good, then nothing. I have no quarrel with you." (p. 65)

How different from the 1902 book of the same name! 

Epstein's passage can be read in two very different ways. Does Epstein mean that the faithful can be good with God, where "good" means "good according to one's own religion"? Or does he mean that the faithful can be good with God, where "good" means "good according to the list of Humanist principles" like those mentioned in Epstein's book? Epstein's entire book depends on this ambiguity.

Epstein's brand of ethical humanism tries to unite the faithful and the faithless under an umbrella of vague humanist platitudes. There's a good reason why these platitudes (keep striving, foster social growth, save the planet, inclusiveness and justice for everyone) are so vague. It's because there is little agreement among the faithful, and among the faithless too, about priorities and methods. The faithless disagree on everything from abortion to poverty to global warming. The faithful have their denominations, and each denomination sets its own moral priorities somewhat differently, with the additional warning of "and God wants things that way." The faithful already have their God's Word on ethics -- they don't need humanism. And what with Epstein saying that cold science and the new atheism has no comfort or care to give us, the faithful don't need science either. The Enlightenment wall stands firm.

Most of the faithful like their faith because God delivers firm moral absolutes -- and ethical humanism can't, or won't. Maybe ethical humanism is broad and vague enough to include some religious people. So what? Who will join Epstein up on top of the wall? Only those among very liberal denominations already comfortable with religious pluralism, moral vagueness, and ecumenical cooperation. Which is precisely where ethical humanism was three generations ago. The naturalistic humanists were tired of waiting for the faithful to deliver their verdict on whether humanistic ethics was satisfactory enough. The verdict is surely in: the faithful really want to be reassured that their belief in God isn't dumb or unethical. Countless religious leaders are providing that very reassurance, filling rows of shelves at the bookstores, and it's working pretty well. None of them need Epstein or ethical humanism, since they remain convinced that they are ethical religious people. And if Epstein is quite comfortable with them all believing that they are ethical religious people, then Epstein isn't even asking them to be "good according to the list of Humanist principles." Epstein only asks, "Be good" regardless of any faith -- humanism's version of "don't ask, don't tell." Religions can easily reabsorb such an ethical humanism.

Ethical humanists want people to become better people, and they do have a few ideas about how to accomplish that worthy aim. If advancing this aim means criticizing people's faith in God's Word, then be prepared to criticize their God and their faith in that God. Be prepared to tell them that they should not base their morality on such a God, and that they should look elsewhere for figuring out ethics. Be prepared to tell people that other religions and non-religious philosophies have valuable wisdom about life too. Be prepared to tell people that they should take science and naturalism more seriously. Be prepared to ask them to really think .

But if your humanism depends on not criticizing peoples' faiths, don't be surprised when the faithful realize they have nothing to learn from you. The faithful already believe that the world will be saved by God with or without humanism. 


#1 J. (Guest) on Monday November 23, 2009 at 7:28pm

Maybe the among the varieties of ethical humanism some are too tolerant for Mr. Shook. Can ethical humanists succeed in their social goals while rejecting alliances with with tolerant and well meaning believers with whom we share social goals? Impatient until everyone agrees with me I’d like people - atheists, naturalists, humanists, free thinkers, religious believers, whomever -  to be good and to work for a more humane society whatever the source of their motivation.

#2 JohnnyCrash on Tuesday November 24, 2009 at 1:37am

Interesting article.  To the comment: The problem of tolerance also lies in the rationale behind it.  Religion frames what one is permited to be tolerant or intolerant of.  Religious adherents take orders, either blindly from leaders, or based on exhaustive studies of sacred texts on moral issues.  Rational, ethical, humanists on the other hand use a different guide - commonsense, logic, and reason.  The three major religions rely on the same irrational beliefs in things like Eden’s magic fruit and talking snakes.  These sacred texts all have their share of arbitrary lists of things to be violently intolerant of (race, religion, sex, and many other items).  Studying such fairy tale filled texts to find a moral compass generally fails miserably in providing believers with a firm foundation on true tolerance.  It is rare to hear of radical atheists bombing abortion clinics, carrying on bloody jihads or crusades, enforcing brutal female circumcisions, etc.  On the other hand, religious intolerance and the resulting bloodshed is all too commonplace.  Tolerance (or intolerance) must be based on reason, not superstition or ignorance.  Racism and violence therefore become things logically intolerable for rational reasons.  Equally intolerable is the concept of using sacred fables as any sort of moral reference - especially when said texts explicitly condone hate and brutality.  Religion therefore, by nature, is only superficially tolerant lacking the rationale to really make it stick.  Have I written “tolerance” enough times? HAHA Sorry, its late and I need sleep.

#3 Pau (Guest) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 at 5:41am

It seems like an important source for disagreement is the concept of good- or the lack of it.
When religious people say “good"they are usually satisfied with the behaviour that conforms to the rules of their religion. The conflict arises when old rules conflict with the present state of societies mores.
The concept of “good” according to the list of Humanistic principles, such as is, only substitutes one religion for another.
For me, good equates with the behaviour that aids beings in the act of living together with a maximum of welfare.
Good loses all meaning if not considered in a social context, in relations to others (some may say that one can be good to himself,fine with me). This results in a flexible and variable concept of good, what is good in a given situation and space, may not be good in another. A god has nothing to do with good.

#4 pjbourque on Tuesday November 24, 2009 at 11:22am

I’ll not enter into the strictly philosophical discussion here. I grew up solidly in the liberal Catholic tradition and left as a young adult when Christianity, religion and God no longer made any sense to me. Still, I have had contact over the years with thousands of liberal Christians whose dedication to and work for social justice is truly admirable, including my sister who is a nun and who couldn’t care less what the Pope says.

#5 Ophelia Benson on Tuesday November 24, 2009 at 1:36pm

“There’s a good reason why these platitudes (keep striving, foster social growth, save the planet, inclusiveness and justice for everyone) are so vague. It’s because there is little agreement among the faithful, and among the faithless too, about priorities and methods.”

And even about the meaning of the platitudes. “Inclusiveness and justice for everyone” in many religions doesn’t apply to women or gays or infidels or apostates or untouchables or many or all those.

#6 Kevin Bjorke (Guest) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 at 6:39pm

The question about moral connection to godliness has been written-off by monotheists at least as far back as Aquinas:

#7 Kevin Bjorke (Guest) on Tuesday November 24, 2009 at 6:41pm

for some reason the rest of my comment about the Euthyphro Dilemna was cut off.. must have been divine intervention

#8 Ophelia Benson on Tuesday November 24, 2009 at 6:44pm

Or Socratic.

#9 Jason (Guest) on Wednesday November 25, 2009 at 9:49am

Greg wouldn’t have to sit on that wall if you weren’t bricking it up so high.  The point is to eliminate the wall and find common ground.  You and the religious extremists are too focused on the contradictions and Greg brings a refreshing approach of reconciliation and understanding.

#10 Ophelia Benson on Wednesday November 25, 2009 at 10:10am

What’s refreshing about an approach of reconciliation and understanding? Surely that approach is at least as stale and familiar as the approach that says there are real differences that matter.

#11 JohnnyCrash on Wednesday November 25, 2009 at 11:16am

Understanding and reconciliation?  Religion is the worse offender when it comes to reconcilation.  Religion itself is irreconcilable with understanding.  Oil and water.  Religious morality comes from fables believed to be fact.  As such, this type of morality can only be superficial or arbitrary.  To be good for a trip to heaven is selfish and lacks real love for fellow man.  To be good because one is simply told to without reason by Zeus (or insert other mythological being) is a tenuous motivation.  To understand logicically and rationally why and how one should be good is a humanist’s credo that is more honorable and true.  These sacred text also contain plenty of BAD morality.  As one who studies these texts - racism, sexism, and violence are overflowing in the Old and New Testaments and the Koran.  Therefore the texts themselves are an incongruous and confusing mix of morality and intolerance - which results in wrong-headed morality all too often if used as guides for morality.  The limited good religious organizations do offer, is like taking Vitamin C for cancer.  A nun helping orphans results in them being indoctrinated into the cycle of ignorant bible culture.  In addition it supports the entire church, which in turn proliferates anti-birth control dogma to povery stricken millions (locking them into poverty and resulting in millions sick and dying), it promotes Catholic influence in politics (which limits some of the rights of the rational) and gives the church influence over laws affecting science (slowing progress, limiting life-saving technology), and preaches unnatural sexual repression (that leads to confusing morality to teens, priests who molest the very orphans being “helped”, and anti-gay intolerance).  The limited good religion does offer is offset (by far) by the greater damages they cause to the advancement of knowledge, the promotion of tolerance and peace, and the rights of others.

#12 pjbourque on Wednesday November 25, 2009 at 12:08pm

Edward Kennedy evidently had a very deep religious faith. I cannot understand or identify with it, but there is no denying that he had an enormous positive influence on the U.S. Senate and American citizens over many decades. He is not guilty of the accusations that Johnny Crash makes of Catholics, though I don’t deny that many are guilty. I have news for those people who think that all religious people only have a net negative influence on the world and that they really have a hidden agenda of converting people to their beliefs: Many people are religious AND are committed to what we would call humanistic values. In addition, they put most of us secularists to shame in terms of how much real, unselfish work they do to right society’s wrongs.  It is wrong to treat these people disdainfully and lump them with fundamentalists who are convinced that non-believers are going to hell and that some holy book has all the answers.

#13 Ophelia Benson on Wednesday November 25, 2009 at 12:43pm

But Johnny Crash doesn’t make accusations of Catholics or of all religious people or of religious people at all - he talks about religion, not religious people, and Catholicism and Catholic influence, not Catholics per se.

This distinction is important. Ted Kennedy may or may not have had ‘a very deep religious faith’; I have no idea; but his value as a legislator was secular, not religious and certainly not Catholic.

#14 JohnnyCrash on Wednesday November 25, 2009 at 5:03pm

To be completely fair, while religion does result in a net negative influence IT ALSO results in a litany of positive influences that I do not deny.  It is the _nature_ in addition to the scope of religion’s net negative influence that I deem far more dangerous than any good it does.
I have nothing but respect for Kennedy’s work.  At the same time, there is a fundamental problem with institutionalized religion no matter how you cut it - and as you mention, he was not bound by it.  As machines, as corporations of bureaucracy, religion is often no different than any other corporate lobbyist group trying to change public policy (for believers or against non-believers).  This trods on others’ rights and violates the entire spirit of the separation of church and state.
It is an important distinction to note though, that Kennedy went against the church, HIS church, on nearly every social issue possible in the _political_ arena (abortion, gay rights, stem cell research, etc).  At the same time, the Catholic church and many other denominations spend millions of dollars (culled even from poverty stricken believers) to goals that are opposite to good, rational, morally based humanist causes.
To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson - any person can have the right to worship whatever they like, so long as it does not limit my rights.  This, religion, actively and agressively strives for today.  Religion systematically engages the political process and encroaches on the rights of gays, secular thinkers, scientists, and non-believers in general.  Humanists on the other hand, do not seek to eliminate the freedoms of anyone - even their freedom of religion.
In addition to political interference and the limiting of others’ rights, you have negative ideological influences.  For instance, racist pro-semitic language and past genocide stories in the bible does not help the bloodstained Middle East process anymore than racist anti-semitic language and the similar use of violence as found in the Koran does.  The very words of both the bible and the Koran regarding women and gays has resulted in thousands of years of injustice (sometimes violent).  From the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust, the Church has death and torture on its hands that is based on clear foundations explicitly written in sacred texts.  Not to mention lesser issues like the non-biblical stance on birth control even in the face of AIDs in Africa.
It is hard for me NOT to think of any time in history where religion or religious thought has NOT played a major role.  For current examples you need not stretch the imagination.  Bosnia and Kosovo for example, with the Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim influences.  Brutality in Rwanda with the Catholic majority.  Protestant/Catholic fighting in Northern Ireland.  The Sudan which is mostly Muslim.  Ad nauseam.
Any justification for violence, especially based on myths and legends, is one I personally can not tolerate on moral AND rational grounds, whether they open soup kitchens during the holidays or not.  Feed thousands of orphans with one hand, brutally create thousands more with the other.
Politically, religion does harm.  Scientifically, it slows the clock on beneficial progress.  Socially and morally, it does more harm than good.
Morality therefore is most effective when coupled with the power of reason.  The freedom to think critically.  In this regard, religious morality is severely flawed, leads to confusion, and often backfires into immorality.
Note that not once in my perspective did I refer to individuals.  I am speaking about the institution of religion.  I disdain groupthink morality and find comfort in the morality of individuals (even among the faithful or otherwise).

#15 Matt (Guest) on Wednesday November 25, 2009 at 5:08pm

(Sign) Another ideological purity piece about how Greg is a naive traitor.
“Epstein’s surrender plan to religious faith.”

And, of course, Shook could not go without the 3rd characterization of Greg as arrogant:

“But it is really hard tearing down a big wall. It is far easier to pretend it isn’t there, or to perch up on top so you can shout down on everyone.”

While this editorial seemed to be leading up to the former, since we’re at it, why not just suggest that Greg “is shouting down at everyone”? No need to explain as Greg’s point-of-view is so flawed, all criticizm is tenanble, apparently, whether or not any evidence for such accusations are even offered.

Nice hijacking of right-wing memes:

“Surrender to the terrorists” becomes “Epstein’s surrender plan to religious faith.”

while “intellectuals arrogantly sitting in their ivory towers (criticizing the ways of _real Americans_)” becomes “perch up on top so you can shout down on everyone.”

The author seems to suggest that there is nothing which theistic and nontheistic people can see eye-to-eye on and work together about.

Just throw the baby out with the bathwater.


@pjbourque, I agree. Nontheistic charity has a LONG way to go before it can replace all the faith based helping hands out there.

And, @Ophelia doesn’t seem to understand your point, or is trying to discredit it by ignoring the forest for the trees. Senator Kennedy was driven by his faith. As much as the results were secular in nature, his belief as well as Dr. King’s in striving to make a more equitable world and caring for the least of us was grounded in his religion.

#16 Ophelia Benson on Wednesday November 25, 2009 at 5:16pm

“Senator Kennedy was driven by his faith. As much as the results were secular in nature, his belief as well as Dr. King’s in striving to make a more equitable world and caring for the least of us was grounded in his religion.”

How do you know that?

#17 JohnnyCrash on Wednesday November 25, 2009 at 10:20pm

Every bit of Catholic faith would have disagreed with nearly every piece of legislature on social issues Kennedy worked tirelessly to pass.  Gay marriage, stem cell research, pro-choice, you name it - Kennedy’s political legacy is at direct odds with the stalwart and foundational moral principles of Catholicism - his claimed faith.  It is all right there on the record.  My respect for Kennedy comes from his willingness to protect the rights of those he may have disagreed with (to be more accurate - those his faith disagreed with).  His country and others came before his faith (or at least what his faith thought was right).  MLK fought for the rights of Christian, Muslim, Atheist, and otherwise, without trying to religiously indoctrinate.  His social work involved preaching a secular message of justice and fairness (even if he often used religious type methods/speaking styles).  If he came from a spritual place, his message wouldn’t have reached as wide an audience since other denominations may have been turned off.

I guess you can tell us what Kennedy thought Matt, since you seem to know more than the facts clearly show.

Criticize the critique if you must, but that is not an argument of the actual concepts discussed, its a sign of degenerating into a schoolyard tiff because of a lack of ground.  “Right wing memes” and other comments just further inflame instead of bear out logic and discussion.  If you disagree, EXPLAIN.  Use dialogue and reason.

Religion feeds as many orphans as it creates… and the food often comes with the attempted indoctrination into the already flawed religious based moral system.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.