Friday, June 7, 2013

Good Without God (Book Review)

"Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity." This is the definition I found on the website of the American Humanist Association, an organization that has been in existence for about 70 years in the United States and whose motto is Good without God. Humanism, of course, has existed far longer in the history of mankind. One of its greatest periods was during the 16th/17th century Renaissance, and hence called Renaissance Humanism, when learning and rationalism in the arts and sciences triumphed over centuries of medieval superstition, supernaturalism, and ignorance. In recent times, humanism has been on the rise again; last month the British Humanist Association, called into question again, the Church of England's position as the established national church of the United Kingdom in light of the new attendance statistics they had just released. I have often been complimented as a humanist myself. Many followers of Jesus subscribe to aspects of humanist philosophy (indeed it is hard not to do so and it is not always wrong either) without realizing it; the danger arises when we are unaware of our own deep-seated influences, prejudices, false idols, and the many blind spots that may be hindering the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Therefore, it is my delight and honor to present Don Major's review of Epstein's Good Without God.

Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg Epstein. New York, William Morrow, 2009. (ISBN 978-0-0-167011-4.  250 pages.)
Epstein has a BA in religion and Chinese, a M.A. in Judaic studies from the University of Michigan, and a M.A. in theological studies from the Harvard Divinity School.  He is the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University.

About a third of this book involves Epstein’s understanding and experiences regarding humanism.  The remainder surveys and critiques other religions, and samplings of the writings and accounts of the lives of some humanists.

1. Epstein’s concise definition of humanism: “Humanism is an acknowledgment that a meaningful life is by definition a moral life, and a moral life is by definition a meaningful life.” … “Morality is not about sinners and saints, heaven and hell, damnation and punishment.  It’s about alleviating unnecessary suffering and promoting human flourishing, or dignity.” (page 63)
2. Epstein believes unequivocally in the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have others do unto you), a form of which is contained in the teachings of most religious systems.  
3. In the concluding paragraphs of the book, Epstein provides a summary of the book, and lists action steps:
“I write this as a call to action.  The subject is Humanism, but convincing you to become a Humanist or to use that word to describe yourself isn’t my goal.  If you are not a Humanist, please go in peace.  You have my respect.  ….Humanists must be known for their actions.  We must act together for our own good and for the greater good.  We are so fortunate to have evolved and been nurtured to possess reason, compassion, and creativity.   It is what we do with those qualities that will determine everything.
The fact that we live without God is, in a sense, not up to us.  It’s not really a choice.  We see the world around us.  We use our amazing human ability to think and believe with all our integrity that there is only this one natural world.
But goodness is a choice. It is the most important choice we can ever make.  And we have to make it again and again, throughout our lives and in every aspect of our lives.  We have to be good for ourselves.  We have to be good for the people we love.  We have to be good for all the people around us, be they friend or foe.  We are forced to be good without God.  If we can accept that reality and act with courage, we can be very good indeed. ….Let us go and make a difference now.” (page 220)


1. Epstein presumes that the merit and validity of a belief system is based upon measuring the goodness of the lives of its adherents. Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great shared this element.
2. Epstein states that religions can be used to control people by instilling fear in them, in particular eternal punishment, or to rally them to an unjust cause by claiming it to be a religious calling.  Mankind can get the positive part of religion (ethics, morality, and codes of conduct such as the Golden Rule) without the negative aspects that a religion would introduce.
Epstein notes that Nazi soldiers had belt buckles that said “God is with us” and Hitler’s writings said that “I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator, and by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”
3. Epstein states that Eastern and Western religions alike create a future life to make up for the lack of justice in this life.  A Christian apologetics book or course would deal with this as an aspect of “the problem of evil”.  Humanists were not the first to consider this issue in depth.
(pages 109-111)
 4. Epstein claims that the modern versions of religions (which he prefers) don’t talk about or claim afterlife concepts, especially heaven or hell.  I would say it is more accurate to say that liberal (not “modern”) versions of religion downplay or deny elements not related to human life.

1. Epstein does not argue against the existence of God.  He states “If you believe in Spinoza’s god, Dewey’s god, Tillich’s god, or Oprah’s god, we Humanists are your allies and friends.  But we believe that calling what you believe in ‘God’ is at best utterly irrelevant to whether you’re a good person, and at worst it can confuse and distract others and even you from what is really important.” (pages 12-17)
2. Epstein claims that humanism is tolerant of the religious beliefs of others, but humanists are not accorded this same respect from Christians, who classify them as just “unbelievers”. He mentions Rick Warren stating that if there is no God “you could indulge in total self-centeredness because your actions would have no long-term repercussions.” (page 2) Epstein rejects this characterization because humanists have a well-developed ethics system that honors human dignity and serves society and individuals, therefore humanism deserves respect as an independent belief system, not just to be categorized as “unbelievers”.
Of course it is not true that all people who reject God do so only because they want to self-indulge and not suffer consequences.  Chuck Colson is cited as stating that “many individuals do just fine and live perfectly good lives without God…”
(page 29)
3.  The Ten Commandments. Epstein states that some of the Ten Commandments correspond to humanist values: Don’t murder, don’t lie, don’t be jealous of possessions or people (pages 118 and 119). According to him, the Ten Commandments were appropriate to rabbis 2,000 years ago, and are not completely relevant today (page 137).

1. Epstein notes in the introduction that his purpose is not to win you over to be a humanist and that most humanists are not anti-religion.  But he mocks Christian beliefs.
2. The word “religion” has multiple meanings, between which Epstein does not distinguish.  The existence of superficial or insincere followers of some religions does not invalidate all spiritual concepts.  James 1:27 states: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (NIV).  The implication of the statement is that there are impure and flawed versions of religion as well as the pure and faultless type.  Jesus spoke against hypocrites: those claiming to have attained virtue and seeking to know God while being unloving to others and not having humility before God.  Jesus also spoke of the futility of a religious person who seeks to justify themselves by becoming “good”, by supposedly reforming their nature and performing adequately for God.  

3. Epstein states that humanists are constantly learning new things about ethics and improving those values.  The results of this evolution of values are superior to the outdated ten commandment-style dictates from a presumed deity, says Epstein.  The problem this presents to me is that individuals, with their limited knowledge and perspective, would not discern and protect the rights of everyone, or properly prioritize conflicting rights.  When Epstein speaks of abortion and infanticide, he states that ancient agrarian societies needed many family members in order to work, and this was the reason that abortion and infanticide were stigmatized.  These statements are a contradiction to his stated humanist family values, in which each member of the family is valued and respected.  There is a problem with morals and values that evolve based on the changing mechanics of our societies and economies.
4. There is perhaps a contradiction in Epstein’s statements below concerning the existence of evil.
His statement in position A below approaches a denial that there is an objective good to seek, or is stating that good and bad things will always both unavoidably occur, while position B emphasizes that there is a good to be sought.
Position A:  “… For fourteen billion years of random, purposeless, unguided evolution, matter floated around, formed stars that lit up and were extinguished, and those stars eventually formed the material that formed you and me and lizards and garbage dumps and concentration camps. Why should we expect perfection?” (page 142)
Position B: only a meaningful life is a moral life, we must do good for the sake of humanity, “…goodness is a choice. It is the most important choice we can ever make.“ (page 220)
5. Epstein claims “Is there a God?” is the wrong question.  He says the better question is “What do you believe about God?”, whether it is God as the force for good within each of us, or an eternal being who created us. 
Epstein may himself be asking the wrong questions about the purpose of religion, or at least about followers of Christ, who do not seek to know and submit to Christ primarily so that they can achieve a moral life.  According to the Bible, people don’t spend eternity separated from God because their actions lack enough virtue, they are separated from God because they reject the offer of reconciliation on God’s terms, and a truly good life is one consequence of, not the basis of, this reconciliation to God and their alignment with God’s purposes.
The apostle Paul states in his writings (one example is below) that his own morality and ethical perfection are worth nothing, and that knowing and understanding God, and participating in the restoration of the world were his best destiny:
For His sake I have lost everything and consider it all to be mere rubbish (refuse, dregs), in order that I may win (gain) Christ (the Anointed One),
9 And that I may [actually] be found and known as in Him, not having any [self-achieved] righteousness that can be called my own, based on my obedience to the Law’s demands (ritualistic uprightness and supposed right standing with God thus acquired), but possessing that [genuine righteousness] which comes through faith in Christ (the Anointed One), the [truly] right standing with God, which comes from God by [saving] faith.

(Philippians 3:8-9, Amplified Bible)
I recommend reading Romans 8 to see Paul’s explanation about what gives Christ’s followers their restored position with their creator, and for the explanation of the entire program for restoration of our lives and the world.

My understanding of humanism was significantly enlarged by studying this book.  Epstein provides good examples of humanist principles and arguments, some history of religion and philosophy, and comparative religion also, citing numerous other authors and researchers in detail. 

The failure to explain Christ’s teachings as being more than how to live a moral life is a significant omission.

Epstein was insulted by the statements of Rick Warren and so I will not refer to humanists as non-believers, because they believe in their own potential for goodness.

Related References

2012 Annual Report of the American Humanist Organization

Humanist Manifesto I (1933) 

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