Good (Without God) – Part One: What Are Our Priorities?

This post was inspired by a presentation I gave at the Center for Inquiry’s 2011 Leadership Conference. You can find extensive coverage of that conference here.

In England, it’s reasonable to assume someone is an atheist until proven otherwise. The influence of religion on public life is minimal, even given our established church. So when I came to America I was excited to join the local atheist and skeptical groups – I wanted to join in the fight against religious privilege and promote secular values in this very religious country.

Everything was going well, with a steady stream of meetups, discussions, debates and debunking sessions. Then, something terrible happened.

A menorah appeared on Cambridge Common.

Suddenly, the email lists were aflame with denunciations of this outrageous infringement of the separation between church and state. Excited missives shot back and forth, and a campaign of letter writing mounted to eradicate this stain on secular America.

In the midst of the firestorm, I began to wonder about our priorities. It struck me that each and every day I walked past Cambridge Common on the way to class. And each time I walked through the Common, I passed a number of people who live there.

Not once had any of these atheist groups expressed an iota of concern for these people – these human beings - who sleep on park benches and carry their belongings in plastic bags.

But the little white wooden menorah really made us angry.

A disclaimer: I am not arguing here that the secular concerns of Humanism are unimportant or should be abandoned. On the contrary, I consider the separation between church and state to be of signal importance and vital to defend, and I salute those who do this important work. I have myself promoted the campaign of Damon Fowler on this blog.

At the same time, it strikes me that this response reflects a larger set of priorities within the movement which require critical scrutiny. While we frequently voice our commitment to a set of humanitarian values, often our most high profile movement efforts are related to defending the barrier between church and state: lawsuits against the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, or against the National Day of Prayer, for instance. I can’t help but wonder, laudable though these efforts are, if the resources we devote to them might do more good – for humanity and our cause - if they were temporarily diverted to humanitarian work which directly improved the lives of our fellows.

Often, if Humanism is to be “Good Without God”, we seem to be more concerned with “Without God” than with being “Good”.

There is good empirical evidence to support this. In American Grace, Putnam and Campbell present a compelling case that religious individuals give more to charities (both secular and religious) than the nonreligious, are more engaged in their local community, and are more likely to be active in politics and volunteering. So the religious are, by and large, “winning at service”.

Significantly, though, the researchers stress that this difference in civic engagement is not about the intensity of a person’s religious belief, but rather due to their involvement with a religious community. If a non-religious individual happens to be engaged with a religious community to a similar degree to a very religious person, they found, they would display the same level of civic commitment. Therefore, they hypothesized, close, morally intense non-religious communities might encourage the nonreligious to get more engaged in civic and service work.

My conviction is that our movement will be stronger and more morally compelling if we listen to Putnam and Campbell and shift our  attention more toward being “good” than being “without god”. Despite the clear moral necessity of such a shift, I see a number of benefits which might accrue were we to do so:

  1. We would be less susceptible to charges of hypocrisy, since we will be enacting our values instead of simply espousing them.
  2. We will build a bigger movement, drawing in new members who are alienated by or indifferent to a focus on being not-religious. The Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard has seen a significant increase in attendance by women since refocusing our agenda toward service and humanitarian work.
  3. We will build a stronger movement, developing our organizational capacity. Since performing service work requires group organization, this will develop useful skills we can use to further our other goals.
  4. The improved public perception of our movement will enable us to pursue our secular goals with a greater chance of success. It’s harder to dismiss the arguments of those you respect and who you see as a positive force in the world.
  5. Service can be fun and enlightening, expanding our horizons, taking us to places we might never see and doing things we might never do due to our social class and level of education.

Given the strong moral case for service, and the five benefits just outlined, I feel there is good reason to shift our priorities.

Instead of crafting a movement which is (Good) Without God, let’s endeavor to be Good (Without God).

In Part 2 I will give 10 ideas for how your Humanist group can engage in service work

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Mike Haubrich

    One of the issues I have with your post is the consideration that atheists and humanists often belong to several different groups in addition to the secularist groups which bear their names. If we do charitable work in a setting not sponsored by the local atheist or humanist group, then we are working in a way consistent with our values while we join and support the secularist groups precisely because we want someone protecting the Wall of Separation. I think that you are making an assumption that we belong to just the atheist and/or humanist group.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Hi Mike! A question very similar to this came up after my talk at the CfI conference. I o not believe I am making the assumption you mention. This is why I present the evidence from ‘American Grace’, which seems to demonstrate conclusively that people involved in a religious community do indeed contribute more time to volunteering and more money to charity both through their church and elsewhere. It is not the case, following the empirical data available, that secular individuals “make up” for their lack of service in atheist / Humanist groups by doing more service work outside those groups.

    • Alex

      Very thoughtful post. Enough theory, here is a concrete idea; please post what percentage of your gross income do each of you donate to charitable causes that directly help the homeless. Protesting against a religious artifact never put a bite of food in anybody’s mouth! To keep the world fed and functioning, I recommend each of you donate at least %10 of your gross income to charities that directly impact educating and feeding the poor. You don’t want to look bad in comparison to the religious right, right?

      See below.

      • JLCS

        @Alex: Oh wow, a poll done by some insignificant institute that openly identifies itself as “christian”. Yeah, I’m sure those are significant findings.
        They polled “non-religious” on one hand, and “ACTIVE FAITH adults” on the other.

        Here’s how you get the findings you like:
        Simply define “active faith” as somebody donating to charity. Then you pick somebody who just doesn’t care about anything, and put him up as a representative “atheist”. Ta-Daaaa! The christian Organization now has a poll “proving” that christians are the better people. Woooohoooo!

        There’s several studies done on this topic, by less-biased and more respected institutions, some that actually value truth over propaganda.
        Look those up, would you?

  • Kip’ Chelashaw

    After reading this post, I’ve something of a similar question to one I’ve asked here before… How does an Atheist establish what is good? In other words what is the underlying basis for goodness in the Atheist mindset? Or put differently, by what standard ought I as an individual ought to be good?

    (Hint: I’m afraid to say that without the acknowledgement of God (and specifically the Christian God) I cannot see how you can commend goodness or implore it on us or in simple words no God ultimately = no good)

    • TempleoftheFuture

      Hi ‘Kip,

      Your question is one frequently asked of naturalists – “What is the basis of your morality?” It’s a question I will address at length in a later series of posts. It is not easy to answer in a short comment like this, but here are some critical considerations for you:

      1) God provides no secure basis for morality because A) There is no evidence that such a thing exists; B) There is no compelling reason why we should follow the moral dictates of such a thing even if it did exist, since we would be morally compelled to evaluate those dictates in terms of our conscience anyway (this is a form of the the Euthyphro Dilemma); D) If we rely on religious texts to tell us what is moral, we have the problem of interpreting the text, and there is no single “correct” interpretation of any complex text. Hence you will have different religious believers and different forms of Christian arguing bitterly over what is moral even though they all believe their morality is based on God. (I’ve expanded on this point here:

      2) Morality is, by definition, concerned with questions regarding the welfare of conscious organisms like human beings and some animals (this is the most intriguing step of the argument).

      3) Science, reason and observation can give lots of ideas regarding what promotes human welfare and what does not. Therefore we can say to some extent objectively what will promote human flourishing and what will not. This does not require God.

      I recognize these three points don’t establish a watertight “basis” for naturalistic morality. But they do demonstrate the fatal flaws in “god-based morality” and put in place a skeleton of a naturalistic approach.

  • Nathan DST aka LucienBlack


    To help you consider that question, ask yourself the following: What you do if you came to believe that God does not exist (any god)? How would you treat your fellow human beings at that point? Would you start being selfish, and lying, cheating, stealing, doing whatever you thought you could get away with? If not, why?

    Another thing to consider: not every issue of morality in today’s world is addressed in the Bible. When such things arise, Christians are forced to draw conclusions in other ways, using principles that are already established. Example: abortion is not directly referred to in the Bible, so on that issue, the Christian stance (usually anti-abortion) has developed from other, previously developed principles. This is related to the interpretation issue that James mentioned.

    Atheists of course, will do much the same thing. For example, I personally consider conscious life to be the most precious thing that I, or any other human, has. I also consider my life to belong to me, and only me. No one else has the right to take it from me. From these two principles, I can determine that I’m anti-death penalty, pro-assisted suicide if life becomes unbearable(it’s my life, my choice, the doctor is just helping me meet that choice), anti-war except as a very last resort, and that I find killing except in the defense of my or another’s life to be immoral. See? A couple of basic principles allow me to draw conclusions about other issues.

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