Good Without God: The Ethics of Atheism

Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe
by Greg Epstein
(William Morrow, 2009)

On Monday, October 26, The United Coalition of Reason launched a “Good without God” campaign to raise the visibility of local nontheistic groups in communities across the country. Their billboards, big white lettering against a background of a fluffy-clouded sky, ask “Are You Good Without God?” The answer: “Millions are.” It’s like a kinder, gentler Atheist Bus campaign.

The CoR campaign ties into the release of Greg Epstein’s book Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe. Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University, is planning a 12-city tour, coordinated with United CoR. He also plans to participate in community service projects in many of the cities, as part of “Secular Service Day,” an idea designed “to unite secular groups across the country in the interest of public service, and to demonstrate our commitment to leading full and ethical lives.”

I first connected with Epstein while conducting research for The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail. When I met him, I was pretty drained from sitting through one too many Dawkins vs. D’Souza bestseller battles: great fodder for cable network TV news shows but no space to really interact with someone who disagrees. But I sensed when I first spoke with Epstein that he was similarly fed up with faith fights. Also, he wanted to connect with those Christians who wanted to explore areas where humanists and Christians can come together: issues of common concern such as caring for the environment, ending sex trafficking, and keeping church and state as separate entities.

In the months since I first contacted Epstein, I began to notice how the atheist-Christian debate was softening into a real dialogue. While there was plenty of material berating believers for their faith, I began to receive books such as The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality and An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion Than Without It. Writers like these were trying to help people come to some understanding regarding our collective appreciation of the mysterious.

In Good without God, Epstein illuminates the positive components of atheism by exploring the basic tenets and history of humanism. As a Christian, I appreciated Epstein’s gentle ability to guide me through his reasoning without insulting my own tradition—though he does cite religious leaders such as the Rev. Rick Warren of Purpose Driven Life fame, who do not extend the same courtesy to atheists. 

Epstein gears his message primarily towards those who do not profess to have a belief in God. Polls such as those conducted by USA Today indicate this group is on the rise, with 15 percent of Americans who do not identify with any religion. As with all statistics the answers may be contingent on how the questions are framed. For example, this current survey indicated that 51 percent of those who listed “none” for their religion still believe in God or a higher power. But these statistics do indicate that people no longer feel the social pressure of previous generations to identify with a religious group. 

Epstein admits that his effort to bring human beings together is like herding cats. But he feels this effort is worthwhile, especially considering that the nonreligious population is exploding. And the human need for caring and community remains.

Epstein chose the book’s bite-sized title slogan “Good Without God” because he felt it draws attention not only to the words “without God” but to the concept of “Good.” For humanists like Greg, this phrase reminds them that as nonreligious people they are for something, not just against something. 

Can atheists and Christians move past our prejudices and our distrust to work together for a common good? Social entrepreneur Shannon Hopkins has noted that in the United Kingdom, Christians often spearhead social enterprise ventures, and humanist collectives in the United States have created events like the Feast Conference 2009.

Occasionally, one can find a convergence of the secular and spiritual. Several Christians involved with The Nomi Network invited me to a recent screening of the film Call + Response. It’s rare to see the faithful strutting with the fashionistas, but these groups came together to expose the world’s dirtiest secret: there are more slaves today than at any time in human history. The Not For Sale Campaign, one of the driving forces behind this documentary, brings together a wide swathe of people including faith groups, students, teachers, artists, and the business community to mobilize together for this common cause.

Time will tell if this grassroots movement for good can produce real results.