Can men and women be good without God? Pope Francis would say no—God is the source of all that is good. However, it seems that he would not respond the same to this question: Can men and women be good without believing in God?
Francis has quickly proven himself far more proficient at public relations than his predecessor. Following the model of Christ, he extends warmness and charity to men and women from all walks of life—the privileged and the marginalized, Easterners and Westerners, traditional believers and, well, traditional non-believers. Recently, Pope Francis announced in a prayer that whether one believes in God or not, “We must meet one another doing good.” In an imaginary dialogue in which an atheist prays, “But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist,” Francis responded, “But do good: we will meet one another there.” In other words, despite what one believes about God, those who do good actions ultimately obtain the same end. A Vatican spokesperson retracted the Pope’s statement, saying that he’s been misinterpreted. If that’s not what the Pope meant he should say so himself, because pronouncing atheists—or anyone—okay with God on the basis of good behavior is destructive and misleading, not to mention pointless: Why would atheists, even upstanding ones, care if the Pope thinks they’re going to heaven?
His statement seems loving and compassionate, but it is actually dangerous because it suggests that belief and action do not overlap. It severs morality from belief—what one finds true has no bearing on his or her conduct.
Beliefs have a massive impact on morals—especially beliefs about God. This is the argument that Andrew Fuller (1754–1815) used against Thomas Paine (deist) and Joseph Priestley (invented soda and denied the Trinity). Fuller, a Baptist preacher and evangelist, proved himself a formidable opponent to critics of Christianity (in non-ostentatious Baptist fashion, he even turned down honorary doctorates from both Princeton and Yale).
Fuller’s concern in his debates with Paine and Priestley was that any compromise in belief about God would lead to a compromise in morals. It is necessary to know God rightly in order to imitate His good ways in this world: “The object for Christian adoration is Jehovah…whose character for holiness, justice, and goodness, is displayed in the doctrines and precepts of the gospel.” Believing in God is not simply about getting the facts straight—it involves loving and conforming to His good character. Fuller writes, “The eternal standard of right and wrong is the moral law, summed up in love to God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to our neighbour as ourselves. This law is holy, just, and good: holy, as requiring perfect conformity to God; just, as being founded in the strictest equity; and good, as being equally adapted to promote the happiness of the creature and the glory of the Creator.” God’s rules are not random—they are an extension of His personality. The more one learns about God, the more he will learn about justice, goodness, and love. The more one worships God, the more he will celebrate righteousness and benevolence.
On the other hand, if one holds degrading and distorted beliefs about God, he or she will have wrong views of what is just, loving, and right. As Fuller says, “The worst principles will…be productive of the worst practices.” Even good actions that are not first derived from a love to God will be morally flawed—tinged with some degree of selfishness and deceit. This is why all humans need Christ who models how love for one’s neighbor is rooted in love for God: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16).
The Pope’s statement is striking because it downplays the relationship between beliefs and actions. In contrast, Andrew Fuller urges that rightly knowing and loving God is the basis for moral excellence, human flourishing, and happiness.
Fuller, Andrew. The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller with a Memoir of His Life by Andrew Gunton Fuller, 3 Vols., ed. Joseph Belcher. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1845. Repr., Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 1988.