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.


  1. In the parable of the sheep and the goats there is a mention of the sheep not knowing they belonged to God. They belonged to God because they showed compassion to Christ through his “little ones”. I think this mirrors what the pope is saying. Good is a universal, we sense it instinctively.

    1. Which passage are you referring to and how did you interpret it? That’s a new one for me. I agree that we sense good to some extent, but that doesn’t mean that mankind does good. Romans 1 notes how all “worship and serve the creature rather than the creator…”

    2. Matthew 25:31 to 46. I don’t know any other way to interpret this than literally. Romans 2:10, 11 says that some do goodn in romans paul is saying that jew are not superior to gentiles all are in need of salvation

  2. “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.”

    Umm, sorry . . that is simply not true. For starters, people don’t believe in God or the Judeo-Christian God or a variety of reasons. Just because one is agnostic or pagan or whatever doesn’t mean they have a “degrading and distorted” view of God. Secondly, you are seriously going to claim that many non-Christians don’t show more Christ-like behavior than many believers? Does Newt Gingrich understand more about the ‘moral law’ than Gandhi? And you do know Jesus wasn’t the first person to espouse the Golden Rule, right?

    1. Thanks for the comment. Imagine for a moment that the Christian God is the creator. It would be degrading indeed not to believe he exists. I know my wife would not find it amusing if I denied her existence; and if I did, it would affect my actions. Likewise for not believing in God. If God’s character is goodness itself, to deny God is to undermine goodness. I am aware that Jesus was not the first to voice the golden rule. However, he subjected it the love of God as primary, which was straight up new. Only when man loves God and loves what God loves, like justice and kindness, on the terms that God sets not on the terms that mortals set, can one truly love his neighbor. Everyone likes to think they’re pretty good by their own personal standards. But what matters is what God thinks. I didn’t claim that non-Christians are less moral than Christians. My point was not to prove that Christians are morally superior, but rather that insofar as one loves and obeys God will he imitate God’s goodness. Many Christians, including myself, don’t love and obey God like we should all the time. That’s why we need Jesus. Lastly, I sure hope that society doesn’t see Gingrich as representative of Christianity. That’s like saying that Bin Laden is representative of all muslims, it’s unfair (I’m not comparing Gingrich to bin laden).

    2. But you did say that it is necessary to have faith in God to understand goodness; by that rational Newt Gingrich, a professing Christian, knows more about goodness than Gandhi did.

      You can’t make a sweeping statement as you did and then say Christians don’t always “obey” . . .you didn’t say Christianity had the best moral code, you said that belief in the Christian God is a requirement to do good and understand goodness.Following that, professing Christians should be by and large much more moral people than the non-Christians in this country, and the evidence doesn’t support that assertion.

      I think you claiming that Jesus “subjected the Golden Rule to the love of God” is completely misreading the text. Matthew adds the joinder between the two commands, which I think fits with what Jesus meant (“the second is similar”) ie that love of neighbor is love of God. Jesus exhorted people based on how they treated people and their actions towards others. I do equate God with goodness, but it certainly doesn’t require a belief in an abstract trinitarian Godhead to recognize God and thus recognize (and perform/act in) goodness

  3. Maybe he didn’t misspeak. Maybe (in your view) he believes something incorrect. The Pope is Catholic, after all. He and Andrew Fuller would be expected to disagree on many points. On this point, Francis seems to be well in line with Catholic teaching — from my reading of Spe Salvi it seems that Benedict would agree with Francis here.

    1. Yeah, Karl Rahner’s idea of the Anonymous Christian grounded the broadened statement in Vatican 2. Francis probably did mean it, but Vatican retracted it

  4. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It’s a very awkward situation for Rome, for sure.

    You state: “Beliefs have a massive impact on morals” But doesn’t the very tradition of preaching belie the fact that belief and action are all too often separate? Why else do we spend so much time preaching to the choir, telling ourselves what we already know? If right belief leads to right action in such a reliable way, then why aren’t we all saints?

    While it seems clearly true that without true beliefs about reality one is prone to error (ethically or otherwise), it strangely doesn’t follow that those who have true beliefs will live according to them.

    To put it another way: Those without compasses are likely to lose their way. But having a compass doesn’t entail that you’ll actually use it or use it properly.

    1. I agree that good actions don’t perfectly follow right beliefs. My point is not that Christians who rightly believe are more moral than those who don’t, but that God is the compass. When you learn about him and his ways you know more about the right moral direction. When you love him you follow it. Preachers are responsible for communicating why right belief is crucial: for holiness and for loving and obeying God. The apostles taught this way. Belief consists of more than right facts. I think most will resist my argument on this post because they define belief in modern terms: it’s right information. Belief consists of knowledge, love, goodness, and thus right beliefs should be salutary.

    2. I, too, have similar reservations about equating knowledge with information–although my analogy of the compass functions that way. Definitely something to keep thinking about.

  5. What part of the follow up statement was a retraction? I don’t think it was retracted. Only if you think that Salvation and Redemption are the same thing (Which Catholics and the Orthodox church do not) can you read the follow up statement as a retraction. Accepting Salon’s characterization of theological statements may be unwise.

  6. Is there any EVIDENCE that people who believe in the existence of the God of Abraham act in a “more moral” way than people who do not?

  7. How is the Pope’s statement dangerous and how does it sever morality from belief? I loved it because it suggests everyone can do good, believer and non-believer, and that both can meet in that common place of ‘doing unto others’ (not heaven surely, as that would be an insult to most atheists). Personally, what I find dangerous is a world where others are considered inferior, as well as their goodness, when they hold differing beliefs than those in the majority. I’m agnostic but I sense a kindred spirit with this Pope so far.

    1. I find that world dangerous too. But when it comes to God, the creator who determines what is good, it is morally hazardous indeed to not believe, love, and imitate his goodness. What you believe impacts how you understand and pursue goodness, so when beliefs are skewed so is one’s view on morality. The Pope’s statement is optimistic but naive because it assumes that everyone has the same standard of goodness. Christians believe that one cannot be good if he or she rebels against the good King and for the justice he stands for. The fact that you are an agnostic and sense a kindred spirit with this Pope is exactly why I considered his statement dangerous. Christians have very distinct and important beliefs, and to set them aside in order to appeal to non-Christians downplays the significance of why we believe what we believe. We believe that Christ is the only way for true forgiveness, righteousness, and eternal life. To compromise these truths is to present a weak anthropological religion rather than a robust God exalting one.

    2. Thanks for the reply, Ryan. I’m grateful for this conversation. I could not agree more that what we believe impacts how we act, for good or ill. I believe, as I’m sure you and that Pope believe, that we should love and treat our neighbors as ourselves, and that is a standard one can have regardless of being an atheist, Muslim, Jew, or Christian. We may diverge quickly from there but hopefully we have that commonality. I disagree strenuously that non-Christians can’t be good apart from any belief in God only because I know plenty on non-believers that are kind and generous in the present with no expectation of a reward in the hereafter. They are good simply because that’s the kind of society they hope to promote. Nor would I ever expect anyone to compromise a particular belief just to appeal to someone holding an opposing belief. The appeal for any belief system should rise or fall on its own merits but I would hope that adherence to a specific belief doesn’t preclude people of other beliefs finding some small common ground in the kindness and respect they show show each other. That was how I interpreted the Pope’s remarks in any event.

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