Good Without God



All good things come in threes, as the old saying goes.  Sure enough, the recent crop of books about religion by atheists and religious skeptics comes in three varieties.  The most popular kind is militant, media-friendly, and openly hostile to religion.  The god-spanking diatribes from Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris fit in this category.  A second kind is analytical rather than judgmental.  These books use evolutionary science or historical research to explain religion as a social phenomenon.  For example, The Evolution of God by Robert Wright gives a secular history of Jewish and Muslim mythology without calling religion useless or dangerous.  Staking out a position between these two types is a bolder third — calls for alternatives to religion. Greg Epstein’s Good Without God is such a book.  Neither an attack on religion nor an explanation of it, it is a call for a morally healthy replacement.  Like Dawkins, Epstein is an unbeliever passionately committed to the truth.  But Epstein also believes, like Wright, that religious communities create good moral behavior.  Epstein champions Humanism as the philosophy (or lifestance, as he prefers) that can satisfy both humanity’s desire for truth and its need for compassion. Epstein’s advocacy of Humanism is calm and strong.  His argumentative prose possesses all the subtlety that antagonistic atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens lack, but just as much force.  If their weapon of choice against religion is sarcasm, his is polite dissent.  He strives to love his enemies, and bends over backward to disagree respectfully with Christians who would damn him to hell. Epstein’s style seems especially appropriate given the moral path he proposes to illuminate between the religious and the nonreligious.  The emphasis of the Humanist, he writes, is on goodness, not on “without God.”  He rejects the morality of religious absolutists and godless nihilists alike.  Epstein believes that goodness should arise neither from the believer’s dependence on magical spirits nor from the atheist’s lonely mantra of self-reliance.  Humans don’t need gods to dictate their morality, but neither can they create meaningful morals as individuals.  Respectfully resisting both sides of the religious morality debate, Epstein argues for a different approach. Epstein’s cogent and well-articulated Humanist positions dispel the reflexive view of some atheists that Humanism is merely a salad bar of vague liberal values.  Humanism, “in a nutshell,” means “recognizing the difference between magic and reality, then bringing people together to help each other get on with the work of growing and building.”  More specifically, Epstein describes Humanism as an ethical system focused on promoting human dignity and preventing needless suffering.  By human dignity, he means the common understanding that not only we are human in our feelings, needs, and thoughts, but that we share this humanity with others who deserve the same love we do.  Humans are neither magical creations of intrinsic value nor empty nihilistic vessels.  The purpose of life is therefore neither pure selflessness nor pure selfishness.  Only as part of communities marked by genuine connectedness and moral purpose can we achieve human dignity and alleviate suffering. In one of the book’s strongest moments, Epstein challenges nonbelievers to organize and work toward their goals.  If atheists are serious about their quest to loosen the chokehold religion has on people’s minds and our country’s politics, Epstein argues, they must address the emotional needs that cause people to turn to religion in the first place.  Epstein rightly explains that neither poor logic nor sheer gullibility impels thinking people to embrace religion — it is instead the emotional need for a moral community, fulfilling rituals, and a shared culture.  The more important half of religion, Epstein suggests, is not faith, but practice.  Atheists can debunk nonsensical religious claims until hell freezes over without making the slightest progress in separating people who have a desire to believe from their religion. Epstein hopes to enlist atheists in the secular community building of Humanism as the better way forward. The typical response of atheists to Epstein’s brand of Humanism, as Epstein himself acknowledges, is to attack it as crypto-religious.  Are they right?  It depends, of course, on what one means by religious.  Epstein says that Humanism lacks the supernatural elements usually associated with religion, but does produce the ritual and culture that religion has traditionally provided.  Atheists who object to those elements of organized religion will naturally resist Humanism as well. My chief objection is not to the creation of ritual or culture, but instead to the particular interpretation of “goodness” that Epstein proposes as Humanist.  For example, Epstein relies heavily in his moral stance on the golden rule.  Appealing though it may be, not to mention ubiquitous in religion, the golden rule is riddled with problems of application and basic logic.  The golden rule tells people to treat others as they would wish to be treated.  Generally, I wish others well.  But if they do not wish me well, should I treat them well at my own expense?  And if I truly wish myself well, should I not treat my enemies badly?  Epstein would say I should treat them well because “winners don’t punish.”  Really?  Epstein cites the example of the United States helping Japan and Germany to rebuild after World War II, ignoring the fact that this cooperation came after massive US punishment for Pearl Harbor.  The US, like most powerful actors, achieves its power via a mixed strategy of cooperation and selective punishment.  People who never punish others simply get walked all over.  Sorry, Jesus, but you are a good case in point. If someone’s values are bad, no clever rule or logic test will improve moral behavior.  Consider that our beloved government’s legal system rests on systematic violation of the golden rule.  It punishes people in ways we would not wish to be punished.  I gladly send convicted criminals to jail, but do not wish them to put me there!  One might reply to this by saying that one would accept punishment as right if one had committed a crime.  Notice, however, that this logic justifies punishing people in many despicable ways, so long as they correspond to our values.  For example, a member of the Taliban might use the golden rule thus: “If I ever commit such a horrible anti-Islamic thing as a homosexual act, I hope society will punish me.  Therefore, by the golden rule, I will punish homosexuality in others.” The golden rule also produces serious logical inconsistencies.  I can, for example, create a paradox by desiring others to treat me better than they would if they used the golden rule.  By the golden rule, I would therefore have to treat them better than the golden rule justifies!  Another, more obvious, logical inconsistency in the golden rule occurs because human actions affect many people at the same time.  What if an action necessary to fulfill the golden rule toward one person violates the standard with respect to someone else?  Epstein says that Palestinian suicide bombers ignore the golden rule as they ponder their Israeli targets.  Indeed.  Of course, what they are more likely pondering is how well their self-sacrifice will protect their families.  And by the golden rule they should, because they would want their family to do the same for them. Nevertheless, Epstein’s Humanism, while dependent on the golden rule, also goes beyond it.  To provide more detailed Humanist moral stances, Epstein addresses gay rights, environmental sustainability, and materialism.  He even produces a fascinating Humanist commentary on the Ten Commandments.  These moral positions are bolstered by constructive proposals for how to integrate Humanist teachings into modern life.  Epstein explains, for example, how a Humanist funeral might better serve people’s emotional needs than a traditional religious one.  These suggestions are largely thoughtful and practical.  One need not be a Humanist to see their value. Humanists “must be known for their actions.”  Whatever one’s disagreements with the Humanist lifestance, all who can in good conscience act alongside Humanists for the greater good of society are called to action.  Epstein welcomes all who feel they should be good without God.  Even atheists who take serious issue with Epstein’s views on morality can appreciate the power of a compassionate, organized alternative to religion to speak out for social change.  Ultimately, this intelligent and moving book is an invitation to Humanism that all free thinkers should seriously consider.