November 20, 2019

When good people do not believe in God

Among the more surprising things that I discovered in “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe” by Greg M. Epstein (William Morrow: $25.99, 250 pps.) is the fact that Harvard University offers its students the services of a humanist chaplain, a job held by the author himself.  “Humanism,” which the author spells with a capital “h,” has been elevated into the equivalent of a religious affiliation at one of the world’s greatest universities.

On reflection, however, perhaps I should not have been so surprised. After all, the recent best-sellers by self-proclaimed atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris make it clear that there is a constituency for a moral credo that owes nothing to a divine creator. Indeed, the subtitle of Epstein’s book puts the total number of non-believers of various kinds at one billion.

Although he frequently refers to “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins, Epstein does not really bother much with the question of whether or not God exists, a subject that has been recently taken up in such compelling books as Karen Armstrong’s “The Case for God” or Rabbi David Wolpe’s “Why Faith Matters.”  Rather, he offers a critique of the classic rationale for organized religion among believers of all kinds — the notion that a moral code imposed on us by a higher power is essential to good conduct.  And he declares the rationale to be wholly wrong.

“It is not easy to live a good life or be a good person – with or without a god,” writes Epstein. “Tolerant, fair-minded people of all religions or none do not dwell on the question of whether we can be good without God. The answer is yes.”

Epstein holds an M.A. in Judaic studies from the University of Michigan and another M.A. in theology from Harvard Divinity School.  He is a disciple of Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the Reform rabbi who founded the Society for Humanistic Judaism, and the ethical imprint of the author’s Jewish background can be clearly seen on the pages of his book.  But Epstein insists on calling himself a “Humanist,” and he defines the term in a way that would apply to a good many people of my personal acquaintance who think of themselves as Jewish.

“If you identify as an atheist, agnostic, freethinker, rationalist, skeptic, cynic, secular humanist, naturalist, or deist; as spiritual, apathetic, nonreligious, ‘nothing’; or any other irreligious descriptive, you could probably count yourself what I call a Humanist,” he writes. “Humanism is a bold, resolute response to the fact that being a human being is lonely and frightening.”

To his credit, Epstein is ultimately less interested in labels than in what people actually believe and what people actually do.  He points out, for example, that Hitler regarded himself as an instrument of “the Almighty Creator,” and the soldiers of Nazi Germany wore belt buckles inscribed with the credo: “God is with us,” but he does not blame religion for their crimes against humanity.  Indeed, he is willing to credit both believers and non-believers with good deeds without conceding that good conduct is the result of the belief in any deity or any religion.

For example, unlike many atheists who would otherwise feel a strong affinity with Epstein, he does not uphold science as the ultimate answer to our problems. “[S]cience,” he reminds us, “won’t come and visit us in the hospital.” But the touchstone of Epstein’s belief system is the utilitarian notion that what’s good is what works: “Our morality,” he writes, “is based on human needs and social contracts.”  The fact that the so-called “Golden Rule” was embraced by both Hillel and Jesus, he suggests, does not mean that it is necessarily linked to God as he is variously described in the Jewish and Christian scriptures.

“[T]he ‘golden rule’ is golden because it’s a simple, easy-to-understand reminder that there are many reasons to be good, beyond God – and, in fact, God may not even be the real motivating force behind the good behavior of many pious people,” writes Epstein. “After all, we are evolved creatures, and much of our goodness – along with our constant struggle to bring it out – comes from the way we evolved.”

He patiently constructs his argument out of bits and pieces of religious and philosophical speculation that he draws from the last several thousand years of human history, ranging from the anonymous author of the 3,500-year-old Sanskrit hymn called the “Rig Veda” to the writings of Thomas Jefferson, whom he dubs “the world’s first truly Humanist head of state,” and much besides. Confucius, Darwin, Sartre, Churchill, John Lennon and Bill Gates should all be called humanists, according to Epstein.  In that sense, “Good Without God” is a short course in the history of humanism with a lower-case “h,” a term that has been used to describe a great many different and unrelated people and phenomena since it was coined by historians in the 19th century.

Indeed, perhaps the single most controversial proposition in “Good Without God” is the author’s insistence that “no morality is timeless and eternal.”  That kind of ethical relativism has always been a hot-button issue among religious believers who insist that some things are always wrong, whether it is the Christian fundamentalist who rejects abortion under all circumstances or the Jewish fundamentalist who rejects giving up “a piece of territory for a piece of peace,” as Yitzhak Rabin famously (and fatally) put it.

But the only absolute that Epstein embraces is that there are no absolutes. “Indeed, we Humanists can take pride in our passionate belief in a morality based on unfettered inquiry, on compassionate questioning,” he writes. “Call us ‘the keepers of the question.’” In that passage of “Good Without God,” among many others, Epstein’s essential Jewishness shines through.  In the proverbial room with ten Jews, he is the one with the eleventh opinion.

Jonathan Kirsch, author of “God Against the Gods: A History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism,” is the book editor of The Jewish Journal.  His book blog appears at