Just be Good for Goodness Sake?

Just in time for the holidays, ads proclaiming, “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake,” will appear on Washington, D.C., buses. The American Humanist Association will pay the $40,000 price tag.

It almost sounds good to “just be good for goodness sake.” Why do we need God to scare us into being good? Why can’t we just be good on our own for the sake of pure goodness?

Good without God?

As reported in the Associated Press, Fred Edwords, spokesman for the Washington-based humanist group explained: “We are trying to reach our audience, and sometimes in order to reach an audience, everybody has to hear you. Our reason for doing it during the holidays is there are an awful lot of agnostics, atheists and other types of non-theists who feel a little alone during the holidays because of its association with traditional religion.”

To that end, the ads and posters will include a link to a Web site to connect and organize like-minded thinkers in the D.C. area. Edwords claimed: “We are trying to plant a seed of rational thought and critical thinking and questioning in people’s minds.”

Rational thought? Is it rational to think that man is naturally good on his own? The philosophers and theologians have mulled over this concept throughout history without a consensus — is man naturally good or naturally bad?

The American Humanist Association defines humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism, affirms our responsibility to lead ethical lives of value to self and humanity.” The bottom line is, can you or I really be good on our own? Maybe. Sometimes. Naa.

Pick a saint, any saint. Saints are our models whose heroism was based on faith in God and willingness to give all for Him. Let’s take St. Maximilian Kolbe for instance. Aside from all the accomplishments using the media to evangelize devotion to the Blessed Mary, he gave his life in a German concentration in exchange for the life of a man with children. Can we be that good? I tend to think I would still be a nice person without my faith, but I am quite certain that I would not lay down my life for someone I was not even related to. If I didn’t believe in God, why would I volunteer to die? I’d want to hang on for every breath I had left because that’s all there would be. The heroic degree of goodness that allows one to sacrifice his very life for another is out of the league of “for goodness sake.”

We need God to propel us to the level of divine goodness, for human goodness is mixed with too much badness. Consider the following example. Imagine you are an atheist/humanist and you found $100,000 that had been stolen from a wealthy business. You knew they would never miss it and there was no way the money could be tracked to you. Would you keep it? If I really thought there was no God, I think I would. The owners were already wealthy and would not be hurt in any way. I could find lots of ways to spend the money. But that’s the imaginary me. The real me returns every penny overpaid accidentally in change. God makes all the difference. At times when I have returned money or told a cashier they forgot to charge me for something, people express surprise that I am “so honest.” I always tell them, there should be nothing surprising about such an act. “If you believe in God, you should act like it,” I usually say. “He knows everything so it’s not like we can away with anything.”

But faith in God is not just about a Big Daddy in the Sky watching our every move. It’s about our Daddy in the Sky loving us and waiting for us to be with Him in Heaven one day. It’s about loving God and loving our neighbor and that makes all the difference. What’s the incentive to be good, inside and out, without God or an afterlife?

Humanists say people should be good simply because society runs better that way and we feel better. Nice, but not that’s not convincing enough. It does not work on a grand scale for either individuals or society. The fact is it does not always “feel” good to do the right thing. It would be hard to return $100,000 if I did not believe in God. I think I would feel much better just keeping the money. By answering to an all-knowing God who does not want me to be waylaid with materialism that corrupts, I no longer desire stolen money — or at least can find the strength to resist temptation. Most of us need something bigger than ourselves to rise about our selfish inclinations for the good of others.

Religion a la Europe

Even though taking God out of the equation reduces the likelihood of people letting their conscience be their guide, modern Europe, to a large degree, is doing just that. The German Bertelsmann Foundation reported in July 2008, in their study of religion and religious practices, that worldwide 85% of young adults between 18 and 29 are religious, and 44% are deeply religious while only 13% have no appreciation for God or faith in general. Important differences were noted among cultures in the 21,000 individuals surveyed from 21 nations. The study showed that European Christians are relatively unreligious when compared with young adults in Islamic states and developing countries who claim to be deeply religious. Among Catholics in particular, the deeply religious in Europe is 25% percent, while outside Europe this figure is 68%.

In Eastern Europe and Russia where most young people have not been baptized, and have no connection to a religious faith or the Church, only 13% are deeply religious. Among the Western industrialized countries, the United States was the exception, where 54% of the young adults polled considered themselves deeply religious.

For Europeans, daily prayer is barely practiced. In France, a mere 9% of young adults pray daily, in Russia it is only 8%, and in Austria, 7%. By contrast, in the United States, 57% of young Americans respondents said they pray on a daily basis.

In his book on post Christian Europe, The Cube and the Cathedral, George Weigel diagnoses Europe as Christophobic — rejecting the Christianity of 1,500 years of history. Weigle asserts that, “European man has convinced himself that in order to be modern and free, he must be radically secular.”

This contention, that Europe is better off without God, was dramatized with the admission of ten new countries into the European Union (E.U.) on May 1, 2004. It was at that point when the process of drafting the E.U.’s first constitution began. The E.U., which formed in 1993, is a political and economic union now containing 27 countries and one associate.

The process of drafting the European Union’s first constitution contained all the usual political adjustments but a fierce controversy erupted as to whether God should be included — at least on paper. Specifically: should the new constitution’s preamble refer to Christianity as the source of Europe’s distinctive civilization? The answer of the majority was a resounding “no”! Fifteen hundred years of Christian influence on Europe went unrecognized.

Some leaders backed the suggestion of German Christian-Democrats to consider the preamble of the 1997 Polish constitution as a good compromise for the EU treaty. “We — the Polish nation — that is both those who believe in God as the source of truth, justice, good and beauty, as well as those not sharing such faith, but respecting those universal values as arising from other sources….

earth.jpgPope John Paul II lobbied European leaders for a clear reference to God and the Christian faith to be formulated in the European constitution. Alas, the majority desire was to remain purely secular and view Christianity as mere vestiges of the past, unimportant to the present and future. In the end, the preamble to the document used the words “spiritual”, “religious” and “humanistic” to describe Europe’s heritage and references traditions in Europe “nourished by the Greek and Roman civilizations.” It made no reference to God or acknowledged that Christianity is one of the central elements in the evolution of the Europe’s democratic civilization of today. Weigel contends in his book that, without this historical memory, there is no higher purpose to the commitments of freedom, tolerance and equal rights for all. It also negates Christianity’s reach into modern history to one of the twentieth century’s greatest geo-political dramas — releasing the Soviet Union’s iron grip in Asia and Eastern Europe.

Despite having no armies under his command and no weapons to deploy, Pope John Paul II played a pivotal role in this bloodless revolution. Through public statements, private negotiations and repeated trips to his native Poland, Pope John Paul II helped undermine communist rule in his home country in 1989. That event reverberated throughout other Soviet bloc countries such as Hungary, East Germany and Romania, sparking a chain reaction of revolutions and coups, most of them nonviolent. Today, that region is largely free and democratic. Years later, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reflected on the changes that occurred behind the Iron Curtain. “It would have been impossible without the pope,” he said. (1)

Although there came to be many players in this drama, Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford University historian, put it this way: “Without the pope, no Solidarity. Without Solidarity, no Gorbachev. Without Gorbachev, no fall of communism.” (2) This nonviolent revolution did more to expand democracy in Europe than anything since the defeat of Hitler. There simply is no understanding Europe without taking into account the Christianity that lies at its roots. It also assumes He is not necessary for Europe’s future, that the people can be good without Him.

Without God, however, the perspective changes. Such things as purpose for living, reasons for selflessness and mercy, forgiveness and repentance, respect for life from beginning to end, the divine gift of sexuality, etc., are nothing more than nice ideas containing no specific definition at the core. Without a moral culture, democracy and a free economy begin to erode. We have certainly seen just that in both Europe and, to a growing extent, the United States. As prayer and the Ten Commandments become verboten and the churches empty, an “anything goes” mentality descends. Where previously Christian values were the ideal, antichristian sentiments and behaviors move into the uncontested territory.

Discipline through the law will never be as effective as discipline from within — within the soul as it reflects God’s love. Europe’s history includes episodes of forced religion instead of true freedom. In such instances, cruelty, hatred and all sorts of unchristian behavior resulted. Such is religion when people claim to be Christian without practicing what they preach. Bad examples and diversions from true Christianity do not negate the fact that Christianity carried Europe into the modern world.

Now, Europe no longer wants to be carried and is going her own way. Although many are insisting that a Europe without God is a better one, it’s clear that hope and trust for the future has dimmed. Europeans are dying out. Without God, there is no hope for the future. A 2004 report titled Fertility and family issues in an enlarged Europe, prepared by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, reported on an intensive study of the quality of life of 28 European countries and concluded that there is a crisis at the foundations of European society, namely the failure of the population to reproduce itself. The study states: “Fertility rates in the EU have been below replacement level for three decades. Over the next four to five years, for the first time in modern European history, the number of births will fall below the number of deaths and a natural decrease in the population will set in.

“The accession of 10 new states to the EU in 2004 will do nothing to brighten this picture since their reproductive performance is even weaker than that of the existing Member States. Furthermore, European fertility compares poorly with that of its main competitor on the world stage, the United States, where the fertility rate is now 40% higher than in the EU and where population growth is projected to continue steadily for decades to come.”

So even if one believes that life without God is better, the most basic sign of hope for the future, namely, the next generation, is largely absent in such a milieu.

What Is Goodness?

What exactly does it mean to be “good for goodness sake?” Some say that same-sex unions, divorce and abortions are good, that they allow for personal freedom and choice. So is “good” a relative thing?

Wanting to do something has become justification for the right to do it regardless of whether it is immoral. But having a legal right to do something does not grant the moral right.

Pope John Paul II addressed issues related to moral theology in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (Splendor of Truth) in August 3, 1993. He stated that moral truth is knowable and that the choice of good or evil has a deep effect on one’s relationship with God. Pope John Paul II taught that there is no contradiction between freedom and following God’s law because it protects and promotes freedom. No matter how separated someone is from God, John Paul stated: “in the depths of his heart there always remains a yearning for absolute truth and a thirst to attain full knowledge of it.” He said that the splendor of truth “shines forth deep within the human spirit.”

In a world that increasingly pushes a no-limits/no-consequences approach, John Paul countered that by saying God remains the true author of moral law. He explained that human reason will not supersede the elements of the moral law that are of divine origin because that “would be the death of true freedom.” In particular, John Paul denies those ideas of morality that treat the human body as a “raw datum,” separating man and how he uses his body from his greater meaning derived from the entirety of his person.

John Paul reiterated the longstanding Catholic teaching that people are obligated to follow their consciences or they will be condemned by them. He explained conscience as an inner dialogue not just with self but also with God. Veritatis Splendor states that because an individual’s conscience may misjudge, a person is obliged to do his best to inform his conscience by seeking to understand what the divine law on a matter is, as expressed by the Church, and the reasons behind it. Committing immoral acts habitually can progressively make it harder for a person to perceive the truth and enslave us in sin.

To seek the truth is to seek goodness, for God is the author of both. And where there is true goodness, there must be love. When we discover such love, God’s goodness will emanate from us to our families and out into the world. And that is what true goodness is, for heaven’s sake.

1. Pope stared down Communism in homeland — and won, CBC News Online, April 2005.

2. Ibid.

Patti Maguire Armstrong


Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband have ten children. She is an award-winning author and was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’s Amazing Grace Series. She has appeared on TV and radio stations across the country.  Her latest books, Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families and children’s book, Dear God, I Don’t Get It are both available now. To read more, visit Patti’s Catholic News and Inspiration site. Follow her on Facebook at Big Hearted Families and Dear God Books.

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  • Hitler thought he was good.

    this was a very excellent article.

  • It sounds so seductive doesn’t it, to be “good for goodness sake”? Yeah why can’t we all be that way? The world would be so much better off, much more highly evolved and all that. Look at the societies though where atheism is the state “religion”…the former Soviet Union, China, with its one child policy, the Pol Pot regime etc…do any of us really want to live there? Is there true freedom there? No, true freedom, we know as Catholics is surrending our will to the will of God and doing what He wants for us.

    Great article. We live in scary times, but living in a world without God, or in a society that says there is no God, well, we already knows what happens to it.

  • yblegen

    Civilization without God will have to create a new vocabulary. They obviously do not know that he word “good: comes from old English meaning Gōd.

    I know, I know that is not their intent. Nevertheless, they speak His Name without even realizing it. Reading through Book of Wisdom, I find myself gasping at the similarities to our own time although I know it is believed to have been written around the first century B.C.

    Also, in “10 Books That Screwed Up the World and 5 Others that Didn’t Help” by Benjamin Wiker, Ph.D., it’s amazing to see where the ideas in this article originated. Without realizing it, we all think a certain way without even realizing that our thoughts have come from ideas generated by philosophers like Machiavelli and Hobbes who lived five hundred years ago. One learns that their main objective was to remove God from our lives which then removes any concept of good and evil which removes sin.

    The result is everything that Mrs. Armstrong wrote about. Thank you so much for laying out so clearly the result of ideas accepted that reject God, Our Father, His Son, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

  • Atheists once again unwittingly give glory to God.

    These ads shine a light on the fact that the demand to love and practice goodness is alive within all creatures. They confirm that each of us has infused knowledge of truth.

    Those of us who accept God’s gifts of scripture and tradition, given by his wisdom and mercy to reveal the details of righteous behavior are better able to recognize lies, and avoid the errant behaviors engendered by the confusion born of those lies.

    These atheists want us to reject God’s helpful gifts and do it the hard way. In doing so they have unwittingly affirmed everyone’s culpability for adherence to truth.

    Paul does it again…
    Romans 1:19-21
    For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God himself has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been understood and observed by what he made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him. Instead, their thoughts turned to worthless things, and their senseless hearts were darkened.

  • Liz

    As we hear more and more about “Gay Rights” and the “Right to Abortion”, I can’t help but remember the words of, I believe it was Mr. Donovan on Catholic Radio’s show “Open Line”, that government does not exist to give people rights, but to protect the rights given to us by God. If we are to “be good for goodness sake” as the humanists would have it, would anybody really do it? And if they did, why would they? Just for goodness sake? It’s a circular argument that leaves one with no direction and no hope. Only God can give meaning to our every action.
    And as for the recent comment of Barack Obama that we should just go ahead and leagalize abortion permanently because it’s already been a law for so long would be funny if it weren’t so sad. As a person of half black heritage, he of ALL people should remember that slavery of African-Americans was legal for a very long time in this country. Proving yet again that just because something is legal doesn’t make it right.

  • plisto

    While I believe that atheism leads the society to its destruction, little by little, as has been shown already in the history, I think it is quite exaggerating to say that individual atheists couldn’t be as good as some catholics, for example. I personally know many examples. Many Christians seem to take it for granted, that they have access to God’s grace, which, of course is true. But that shouldn’t lead us (as christians) to think, that because of this freely given grace we can act badly and still be forgiven.
    That is hypocrisy. Many christians nowadays are to be blamed for that.

    God’s grace is a marvelous thing. We as Catholic christians do not own it. It is a gift, as is the Church. The gift is for everyone to receive, and some people though not showing it outwardly, are better “christians” than many church-goers, who also claim to pray daily. We should never judge any individual, but pray and be kind, show God not by our words but by our example (though words might be important in some cases, of course).

    By what I’ve witnessed, I think goodness for goodness’ sake is possible. -But faith in God gives more comfort to those persons wanting to be good.

    Peace to everybody!