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.

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Patti Maguire Armstrong is a TV talk show host of Ladies of Another View and an award-winning author and magazines and newspaper journalist. She was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’ bestselling Amazing Grace series. Her latest books are Holy Hacks: Everyday Ways to Live Your Faith & Get to Heaven and Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families. She has a B.A. in social work and M.A. in public administration and worked in both those fields before staying home to work as a freelance writer. Patti and her husband, Mark, live in North Dakota, where they raised their 10 children. Read her blog at PattiMaguireArmstrong.com.

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