How to be a Good Person Without God

by Benjamin Studebaker

In many western societies, religion seems to be losing influence, particularly among young people. Many religious people argue that this threatens society’s moral frameworks. Without God, on what basis do we distinguish the good from the bad? Secularists often scoff at this question, resenting the implication that only the religious can be moral. And yet, many secularists are also moral subjectivists, who claim not to believe in any absolute sense of right and wrong, arguing that morality is culturally relative or a matter of individual taste. This does seem to imply that as religion weakens, the intellectual foundation of many of our substantive moral beliefs is being eroded, and that to the extent that secularists remain good people, it is often due to socialization and intellectual inertia rather than some truly substantive alternative. But it doesn’t have to be this way–there are excellent secular moral theories that do offer compelling objective alternatives to religious morality.

It is undoubtedly true that religion is giving ground in western countries. In many European countries, less than half the population affirms belief in god:

Even in the United States, religion is weakening. The number of people who will explicitly admit that they have no religious affiliation has risen to a full quarter among young people:

Those young people who do affiliate report less intense affiliations:

Service attendance has plummeted among the young:

As has daily prayer:

Importance of religion is falling:

Certainty about the existence of god is at an all-time low among Millennials:

A minority believe that the Bible is literally true, even among older generations:

Taken together, the indication is that fewer people are religious and that those who are religious are less certain about their beliefs and less confident that they know God’s will. Historically, people’s moral beliefs have had a lot to do with what they believe God commands. Based exclusively on religious beliefs, many people have historically been willing to kill others for having different religious beliefs or no religious beliefs at all. Others have condemned homosexuality or sacrificed animals. In some cultures, it has even been common practice to sacrifice children and babies to the gods. Many of these actions cause immense suffering and are thoroughly condemned by nearly all objective secular moral theories. How does religion practically motivate people to do these things?

Most religions operate on a remarkably simple set of principles. It goes something like his:

  1. There is a God.
  2. This God has things he wants you to do (i.e. “good” things) and things he does not want you to do (i.e. “bad” things).
  3. If you do good things and do not do bad things (or repent for the bad things that you do), God will send you to some heaven or paradise after you die.
  4. If you don’t do good things and you do bad things (or fail to repent for the bad things that you do), God will send you to some hell or terrible place after you die.

In sum, religious moralities operate on a core principle of selfish egoism–you do the things that God commands to receive a reward and avoid a penalty. Abiding by religious morality is consequently no different from following the law. Indeed, religious people often speak of morality in legal terms, calling it “God’s law”. For these people, disbelieving in God means disbelieving in meaningful consequences for bad actions. These people often claim that if there is no punishment for acting wrongly, we have no reason to avoid bad actions. This is because these people’s moral beliefs are entirely self-focused and egotist.

One of the great observations of our secular moral theorists is that there is a sharp distinction between morality and law, between what it is good to do and what someone commands. Derek Parfit discusses this difference in his opus, On What Matters.  Parfit claims that morality is irreducibly normative and that while natural facts can inform our decisions by making us more aware of the likely consequences of our actions, they do not in themselves have moral content. Parfit believes that we have fundamental object-given reasons to do good things and avoid doing bad things. For instance, cutting off your son’s arm for no reason is wrong, because this causes your son to suffer for no reason, and suffering for no reason is intrinsically bad. There is no possible universe in which it would be good to suffer for no reason. It is beyond even the capabilities of God to make it good to suffer for no reason. Even if God himself commanded everyone to cut off the arms of their sons, this would not make this action good, because unnecessary suffering is intrinsically harmful. If God sent people to hell for refusing to cut off the arms of their sons, this would not make refusing bad–this would make God bad. Those who resisted this command knowing the penalty is damnation would be brave, courageous, and selfless. They would be good.

If God is good, his goodness cannot come merely from his power. The ability to punish does not bestow any moral authority whatsoever, because actions are good or bad irrespective of what any being, person, or organization believes. To offer any semblance of justification, those who would cut off the arms of their sons because God ordered them to do so would have to believe that God had some good reason for demanding this, that they were not being ordered to mutilate their sons for no reason. This would require an extraordinary level of faith not merely in God’s existence and power but in God’s benevolence.

Once we accept the core secular moral principle that it is intrinsically and objectively bad to suffer for no reason regardless of what any being thinks or demands, this principle has all kinds of implications and places very large demands on us. There is a great deal of suffering in the world, and if we genuinely believe that suffering is bad, we are obliged to try to alleviate this suffering even at substantial cost to ourselves, with no hope of recompense. The secular moralist recognizes a duty to relieve suffering even though no God will reward this behavior. Indeed, secularists typically recognize a duty to relieve suffering even when many people will take advantage of them or even try to punish them for doing so, even when doing so may cost them their lives. The life of a secularist is especially precious because there is no belief in heaven. Dead is dead.

Secular morality typically asks people to care about others even when those others will not reciprocate this care or will even actively seek to exploit the moralist, with no hope of reward. Consequently, many secularists fail to meet the demands of secular moral theory, which requires an extraordinary level of altruism and selflessness that goes far beyond anything required by any religious moral theory. This means that while many secular moral theories are objectively quite convincing on a theoretical level, they often fail to motivate people to undertake the massive sacrifices demanded in a practical context.

The core problem is the separateness of persons. Intellectually, we can recognize that suffering for no reason is bad not just for us, but for all beings. But we do not experience the suffering that these other beings experience–we are separate from them. So while we have very strong theoretical reasons to care about this suffering, in practice we find that these reasons do not compel us to undertake massive personal sacrifices. In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, Asimov explored the possibility that humanity one day might create a hive mind where the experiences of suffering and happiness are shared. Asimov rightly recognized that this would dissolve the separateness of persons and make it much easier for people to act morally. When they relieved another’s suffering, they would relieve their own suffering. The conflict between the selfish interest and the social interest would be eliminated.

In this way, Asimov tried to imagine a new set of conditions where we would believe that we had strong egocentric reasons to do good things and avoid doing bad things. It is immensely regrettable that human beings seem unable to do good things and avoid doing bad things simply because they are good or bad and for no other reason. Moral truth seems to be insufficiently powerful to motivate good action without some external factor that connects being good to being personally rewarded. Given that this is the case, we need practical secular moral systems that are more effective at making this connection.

How do we do this? I have some ideas.

To start, we need to recognize that even though we cannot directly experience other people’s happiness and suffering, we still benefit from their happiness and are harmed by their suffering in a great many ways when these people reciprocate with us and are part of our community. If we help our friends and family members to be happy and avoid suffering, they will be more able to help us in the same ways. If the other people in our society are happier and suffer less, they will be more economically productive and they will commit fewer crimes. We will see our living standards rise more rapidly, and we will be safer and happier ourselves. If people in foreign countries are happy and don’t suffer, we will benefit from trading with them, we are less likely to see influxes of refugees, and these foreign populations are less likely to dislike us or want to harm us. So we have some practical egotistic reasons to care about other people and to try to benefit them as much as they are willing and capable of benefiting us. We should recognize that when we exploit others, we encourage them to resent us and oppose us, damaging our relationship and making cooperation unsustainable in the long-term. Even if we are able to consistently exploit them, we will damage their psychological well-being, reducing their productivity and effectiveness. Even if we are pure egotists, we should recognize that we always have duties to reciprocate good behavior and to not exploit others. If we abide by those duties, we will have better lives. We will live in more productive and safer societies.

More radically, while it is not yet possible to join an Asimovian hive mind, it is currently possible to get cryonically preserved when you die. Places like Alcor are currently willing to freeze your body when you die and attempt to resurrect you in the future using undiscovered technology. We cannot be certain that this will work, because the technology is undiscovered. But if you can believe that it will or even that it might, you can be a secularist and still believe in a kind of life after death. If you are a good person and you make the world a better place, your future society will be better and consequently your future life will be better as well. If you are a bad person and you make the world a worse place, human civilization may not last long enough for the necessary technologies to be discovered, and you may never be revived. This gives you egocentric reasons to care about what the world will be like in the distant future, even for people who do not yet exist and may never exist. If we do not take action to deal with long-term problems like climate change or economic inequality, we may never have the kind of society that can revive us. To get an afterlife, we have to ensure that human civilization is sustainable and continues to grow and develop in a healthy way. Unlike religious moral doctrines in which people are sent to an afterlife based on the whims of God, cryonics asks us to earn our afterlife by contributing positively to our world and by avoiding damaging it in ways that might cause our society to stagnate or collapse.

Theoretically, the best kind of people would all abide by secular objective moral theories of the kind advanced by folks like Derek Parfit and Peter Singer, even at great cost to themselves. Unfortunately, real people seem unable to follow those doctrines without some confidence that they will be rewarded. But we do not need God to bestow rewards. We can bestow them on ourselves by creating a just legal system that helps people to reciprocate and cooperate freely without fear of being exploited. Perhaps we can even believe in cyronics and try to build the kind of society that can one day revive us and give us a great afterlife. In these ways, secularists can have moral beliefs that are every bit as robust, both in a theoretical and practical sense, as religious people.