Someone on Facebook (“Zach”) was touting the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Doctors Without Borders, and the Foundation Beyond Belief yesterday, saying they were “doing good without gods.” Zach’s point was that atheists can be just as compassionate as Christians, or even more so. I have to say I am impressed with the Gates’ generosity and the great work DWB does. I’m not familiar enough with FBB to comment on that group.
What He Meant to Say Was…
But there’s confusion in this phrase, “doing good without gods.” It’s a uniquely atheist/skeptic kind of thing to say, but I wonder if we Christians are partly to blame for it.
I think what Zach meant was “doing good without believing in gods.” Otherwise what he said makes no sense. Atheists, Hindus, Muslims, tribal religionists, Jews, and Christians all do the good we do without gods if there is no God or gods; but if there is a God or gods, then we all do the good we do with God or gods. So if there is a God, and if this God is good and motivates humans to do good (as I’m obviously convinced is true), then the Gateses, DWB, and FBB are all doing good with God. They just don’t know it or acknowledge it.
With Or Without God?
Look at it this way. Suppose Zach and I wanted to settle the matter once and for all, so we set up an experiment:
Hypothesis H: atheists can be good without God or gods, as much as or more than Christians can be good with God.
EC1 (Experimental Condition 1): There is a good God who really exists, who created all of physical reality, who made humans in his image, and who has impressed his ethical nature upon our own natures so that we recognize what is good even if we don’t acknowledge God as its source. We measure how much good Christians do in that reality.
EC2: There is no God or gods. We measure how much good atheists do in that reality.
Statistical Test: compare the measurements. H is supported if the measurement in EC1 is not significantly greater than in EC2 by Student’s t-test.
Feel free to laugh–though there’s a point to it. Even as a thought experiment this fails miserably. Reality rules: in EC1, if atheists are good, they are good in a reality that includes God; they are good with God, whether they believe in God or not. In EC2, if Christians are good, they are good in a reality that does not include God; they are good without God, whether they believe in God or not.
Obviously the experiment is impossible in a more fundamental way. We live in Condition 1 or Condition 2, or potentially Condition 3, Condition 4, … Condition n, and whichever Condition x we’re in, that’s the reality we are in with respect to the existence or non-existence of God or gods; and we’re never going to change it. Obviously I believe we’re in Condition 1, and that it’s not an experimental condition at all, but I think you get my point.
But Zach and many others (including the authors of at least two books, judging by their titles) miss this. They think that if they’re good without believing in God, they’re being good without God. They treat it as if it’s the belief that matters, not the reality of God.
How Christians Contribute To This Confusion
And this is where I wonder if Christians bear part of the blame. Too many of our preachers have focused on what happens if we believe in God, rather than centering their message on the reality of God himself, and his character and his Kingdom. So if atheists and skeptics focus on what happens if we believe or disbelieve in God, maybe they’re just following certain Christians’ cues.
We could also assign some of blame for this logical error to postmodern rejection of knowledge of reality. Whatever the source of the confusion, I’m urging fellow believers in Christ to keep the reality of God at the center of your thinking. Belief and disbelief have their effects, but they have those effects because of their relation to reality.
And I’m urging atheists, skeptics, and seekers to bear in mind that your beliefs about God are not the same as the reality of God. If God is real, you can’t be good without God. You can’t be anything without God, for there is no such thing as without God.