There is a straw man run amuck in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, has proffered that one can be “good without God.” The book has received wide acclaim, more for the title, I suspect, than the reasoning contained therein. In fact, so popular is the book’s title that it has spawned a billboard war between believers and nonbelievers. But that is not why I throw my fellow Harvardite under the theological bus. Well then, pray tell?
The problem with Epstein’s book is not the title’s proposition, that nonbelievers can be morally good despite a lack of belief in a deity. Anyone not blinded by the right and who has the least bit of sociological savvy can observe that faith is not a prerequisite to living the moral life. Hence, Epstein’s argumentation toward this end amounts to a rather moot point (though his is an admittedly kinder, gentler Humanism than the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens). Rather, the problem with the book is that the title’s proposition itself rests upon a shaky proposition, namely, that the notion that one cannot be good without God has ever had traction beyond the minority Christian movement we call “the Christian right,” which happens to be wrong about most things theological (which in turn begs the question as to why intelligent Humanists with the public’s ear continually deplete their air time engaging that community).
If Humanists want to engage the religious world in a constructive way (of course continual publications attacking theological straw men does fascinate the public and so predictably sell books, which may be their ultimate goal, in lieu of genuine dialogue) a better point of contact begins with the following proposition: The aim of the religious life is the transformation of being toward the end of realizing one’s full human potential. And, it might be added, that that potential is hardly tapped by merely living the moral life.
It was Voltaire who said that “God made mankind in His image and mankind returned the favor.” But whether mankind is a construction of God’s or God is a construction of mankind’s, the notion of the imago dei (to be made in the image of God) speaks to my very point. In the imago dei we have the highest conception of human potential in that the imago dei represents an amalgamation of the highest virtues: compassion, forgiveness… unconditional love. In the end, this is that toward which the religious life calls us via the transformation of being.
In sum, merely to live the moral life, while laudable, is no remarkable achievement and certainly is not something that requires belief in God. Indeed, those who thusly view the religious life utterly fail to understand the religious life. The point of the religious life is the transformation of being; it is to hold out the invitation to become other than we already find ourselves to be - to be better than merely good.
Can we be good without God? Of course we can. But, we can be better with…