Good without God

Illinois Secular Student Society bus campaign

The Illinois Secular Student Society has launched a Secular Samaritan campaign. They make the point that you can be good without God and use the instance of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet both of whom have and continue to give away billions of dollars to good causes.

On one level I think that this is great. It is true that if, as Christians, we want to see the world transformed then to see others join in this task is good. Its great to see people such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet give so much wealth to the poor and the needy. And its not as if they have to. They have chosen to do so. They have wanted to care for those who are in need. Hats off to them.

The point of the story about the good Samaritan is precisely that we shouldn’t judge in and out – who is worthy and who isn’t. From that point of view these secular students have chosen well.

But there are interesting other things in all of this. Firstly, the name itself. They are using the echoes of the parable that Jesus taught. They are entering the debate precisely on the ground that Jesus mapped out. Whether they would like to get rid of religion and faith or not they are having to campaign on ground that the Christian faith has mapped out.  This is important. Goodness – love for others – even those outside the group/clan/tribe – is a specifically Christian virtue that you don’t see before Jesus. So when others are wanting to claim this virtue we should applaud them.

Secondly, I would want to ask them – not what have other people done to be good but what are you doing for the betterment of humanity? They try and equate religious faith and the works that they do and those by atheists as equivalent. In terms of doing good that’s fine. But what about the overall amount? Roy Hattersley wrote in the Guardian after Hurricane Katrina hit the United States:

The Salvation Army has been given a special status as provider-in-chief of American disaster relief. But its work is being augmented by all sorts of other groups. Almost all of them have a religious origin and character.

Notable by their absence are teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers’ clubs and atheists’ associations – the sort of people who not only scoff at religion’s intellectual absurdity but also regard it as a positive force for evil.

There is a link between what you believe and what you do. As someone once said “You do what you believe and you believe what you do”.  Roy Hattersely ended his article by saying:

The only possible conclusion is that faith comes with a packet of moral imperatives that, while they do not condition the attitude of all believers, influence enough of them to make them morally superior to atheists like me. The truth may make us free. But it has not made us as admirable as the average captain in the Salvation Army.

Finally, of course, no-one is an island. Each person lives in relationship. Bill Gate’s wife Melinda is a Catholic. It is obvious reading about her (a fascinating read by the way and well worth reading) that she has had a profound influence on Bill (Presumably why they married!!!). She has helped with his empathy and the direction of giving as well as giving itself. Obviously too Warren Buffet is a great friend of theirs and they work inter-relatedly. It is not to downplay Bill Gates or Warren Buffet or what that have done but it is obvious too that Melinda plays a major role.

I welcome atheists starting to do more. I think it fantastic that Bill Gates and Warren Buffet give so much away – they are examples of generosity.

But lets let the atheists overall do more than bus campaigns.


14 comments on “Good without God

  1. NotAScientist
    November 5, 2010 at 2:44 pm #

    “Whether they would like to get rid of religion and faith or not they are having to campaign on ground that the Christian faith has mapped out. ”

    I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say this is the ground that Christianity has mapped out. Adopted and used in many cases, certainly. But it isn’t original or unique to Christianity.

    “This is important. Goodness – love for others – even those outside the group/clan/tribe – is a specifically Christian virtue that you don’t see before Jesus.”

    You actually do see it before Jesus, specifically in the concept of the ‘sacredness’ of a guest in one’s home. It appears in the Bible earlier than Jesus, and the Romans and Greeks had believed in it earlier than that. There’s also the existence of versions of ‘the golden rule’ as far back as Ancient Egypt if not earlier.

    Maybe I’m just a nitpicker. And I’m not saying that ‘The Good Samaritan’ is a bad story, or has a bad lesson. Only that the gospel writers took ideas that already existed and used them and built on them. Which is great. That’s progress.

    “But what about the overall amount?”

    I believe, and I could very well be wrong, that atheist and secular groups are doing the proportional equivalent of their religious brothers and sisters based on their percentage in the country.

    Also, quite simply, atheists and skeptics and humanists and agnostics are less organized. While I, for example, wouldn’t give money to a Christian charity, I would be just as likely to give to an atheist charity as I would be to give to just a secular charity. (Doctors Without Borders jumps to mind, which isn’t an atheist organization, but isn’t a religious one either.)

    I agree, however, that people everywhere should give more to charity.

    “But lets let the atheists overall do more than bus campaigns. ”

    We do. We just aren’t all in groups, and are much less likely to promote what we do than the religious are.

  2. Will Cookson
    November 6, 2010 at 8:18 am #

    Hi notascientist,
    Good to hear from you and you raise some good questions. Having read your blog (and why no more stories?) I can see that you want things based on facts. There is much that I can agree with you on in this. As a trained mathematician and statistician I think too much can be too woolly when making great decisions.

    In terms of the uniqueness of loving others there is the ‘sacredness’ of the guest and the versions of the ‘golden rule’. I totally agree that the Bible has loving others before Jesus. “Love your neighbour” is from the book of Leviticus and its the key theme of the the book of Jonah (rather than the fish!).

    But this is the point – people did not apply them to those outside the group/clan/religion. So take 1st century Jewish thought. You would never be a guest if you were outside the tribe- a ‘sacred guest’ would only be Jewish. The brilliance of the parable by Jesus is that he breaks all this down by making the victim have no voice and no clothes so you couldn’t tell what people group he came from. And its the hated Samaritan (for which we are to read whichever group we have problems with – Christian, atheist, Muslim, etc.) who come forward. You find this outside as well; the Emperor Julian was outraged that Christians took care of pagans as well as their own people.

    Jesus takes a concept that is certainly there in the Old Testament but not interpreted as meaning everyone and puts it centre stage and says that this means everyone.

    Obviously the US is different from the UK. In the UK it is more stark but even in the US there are statistically significant variations between atheists and believers in terms of giving. The Hoover institute for example has this here: I think that on that basis that we need to ask serious questions about these differences.
    Now as I said I am all for working with all people of good faith who wish to do good for the sake of people and the world.
    It may be that atheists and non-believers are less well organised but again I would argue that this is something that you need to think seriously about to make a difference for humanity.

  3. Paul Barnard
    December 1, 2010 at 9:06 pm #

    Hi Will

    Interesting article and discussion with notascientist.

    i think that i also (from a limited knowledge base) would have to take issue with
    “This is important. Goodness – love for others – even those outside the group/clan/tribe – is a specifically Christian virtue that you don’t see before Jesus.”
    From my limited knowledge of Buddhism i think that the principle of love for others, even outsiders, is important in Buddhism which was certainly around long before Jesus.

    i also don’t really like, or see the need, to talk about the comparative “goodness” of those with faith and those without. While i agree that historically, and in the present day, faith groups play a massive role in aid and influencing society for the good, i also think that people who don’t have a faith have contributed huge amounts, financially and in terms of transforming society.
    these are both important and i don’t think trying to show that Christians, or people of faith in general, are better than those who don’t believe, contributes anything to the debate, and indeed could detract from more important discussions about faith and about how to reduce poverty and injustice.
    Rather than comparing and contrasting our (i write as a person who does believe) efforts with those of secular groups (more than once, as you also refer to this in your Blair v Hitchens post) shouldn’t we be working together to achieve our mutual aims?

    anyway i look forward to reading more of your postings now i have discovered your blog.


    • Paul Barnard
      December 2, 2010 at 8:30 pm #

      ”shouldn’t we be working together to achieve our mutual aims?”
      Your namesake couldn’t agree more Paul.


  4. Paul Barnard
    December 1, 2010 at 9:22 pm #

    Hmmn….i have just read the hoover article you refer to and it does seem like a quite dramatic difference between giving by those with faith and those without.
    however whilst i am not questioning the data as such i do think that the fact that the hoover institute is a conservative and Republican think tank, that counts Margaret Thatcher, Condelezza Rice and Milton Friedman amongst it’s fellows, they are coming at the issue from a very particular viewpoint. (although interestly Christopher Hitchens is a media fellow, which just goes to show nothing is as simple as it first seems!)


    • Will Cookson
      December 1, 2010 at 10:18 pm #

      Hi Paul,

      Pleased you found me! Great to have your comments.

      I don’t think that I disagree with you in the main. I am happy to work with anyone of faith or no faith. I think I was just trying to point out to those of my friends and acquaintances who are atheist that its no good hiding behind others. We are all responsible for making the world a better place. I just questioned how much they were doing!
      Nick Baines had an interesting point in a recent blog ( that nearly 80% of people who volunteered in this country came from and through the churches (would need to ask him where that stat came from) then I think that it is reasonable to ask those who have no faith what they make of that and question when they specifically put out a campaign that says that those of no faith are making a significant difference.
      If you don’t like the Hoover stats then there is the USA Today one I quote in the Hitchens article (

      I don’t really want to get into a spat about inter-faith issues. Again I didn’t want people to forget how revolutionary Jesus was. I take on board your point about Buddhism. My question was really to stop people just saying everyone practised that and therefore its obvious. It wasn’t and it isn’t.

  5. Paul Barnard
    December 2, 2010 at 12:14 am #

    Hi Will

    yeah i agree Jesus was a revolutionary!
    i think we do agree generally, and i knew that you weren’t saying that you wouldn’t accept working with atheists etc.

    if there are stats that say that most volunteers and donors do have some sort of faith then in some ways fair enough. i guess i was more questioning a general assumption that people with a faith are “better” than those without, which i know you weren’t saying but i think sometimes is an attitude amongst Christians.

    i guess it depends how people take things, if they are able to have a reasonable discussion and think about what they think about issues, then it is totally valid to ask the question.
    but some people won’t do that, some people might take offence at the discussion or others may just take what is written as completely correct rather than an opinion that they should think about themselves.



  6. Jenn
    December 22, 2010 at 11:07 am #

    Goodness – love for others – even those outside the group/clan/tribe – is a specifically Christian virtue that you don’t see before Jesus.

    I beg to disagree. Goodness and others virtues are already existing long before Jesus came. And note too that there are a lot of religions already existing Before Christ.

  7. Will Cookson
    December 22, 2010 at 12:58 pm #

    Hi Jenn,

    By the way welcome and thanks for the help over on wordpress. As you can see I want to keep the background and header but wanted a certain style change.

    There were indeed many religions existing before Jesus and of course Jesus was Jewish and stayed Jewish as did his disciples and early followers. But the point I was seeking to make was not to attack the other faiths but to make the point that when you look closely at what love for others meant in those early times it very much tended to be love for others inside the group/clan/tribe. Jesus comes along and revolutionises this concept.

    • Jenn
      December 22, 2010 at 4:31 pm #

      I didn’t know that love for others, even those outside the tribe wasn’t tolerated Before Christ.

      Oh well, it’s history. If what you said is true, then great. 🙂

      Anyway, I get what those people were trying to say. Those who believe in “Good without God”. The atheists. Not believing in a god doesn’t really mean evilness. Maybe they just don’t believe that there’s someone out there monitoring each of us. What I find interesting about atheists is they do their best to help themselves and to help others.

      They’re just like us. The only difference is they take all the credit (or shame) and they don’t use the word “God”.

    • Jenn
      December 22, 2010 at 4:33 pm #

      Anyway, Will, you’re a Catholic, right?
      What can you say about those Born Again who just call themselves “Christians” (but absolutely they’re different from catholics)?

  8. Will Cookson
    December 22, 2010 at 4:53 pm #

    Well I am catholic. But I’m not Roman Catholic. I’m a priest in the Church of England (Anglican or Episcopalian are part of the same group). We have within our church people of all sorts – Catholic, Evangelical, Liberal, charismatic etc. I have to say that I rather like the eclectic mix. I often don’t agree with my colleagues but I find I am quite happy being in the same church.
    Our church is slightly different in the Church of England in that we meet in a school and therefore work in a slightly different way. You might get an idea from our website ( You might also get an idea from our flickr account
    In our particular church we have people from all sorts of backgrounds. Some have come from Roman Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Pentecostal. Some have come from no religious background. Some have a faith that is vibrant. Some have a faith that has been dulled or bashed. Some don’t even know if they have a faith or not. But its great and a privilege to have all of them in the church.
    Does that answer your question???

    • Jenn
      December 23, 2010 at 4:56 am #

      Oh, that’s cool. Yea, I guess, it does answer the Q.
      Your church’s cool because you people there seem to be open-minded about religions.

      By the way, Hinduism came first before Christianity, right? Then, in Hinduism, love for others (even to those outside the tribe) isn’t tolerated?


  1. Blair vs Hitchens – some statistics and why the news has got it wrong « Will Cookson's Blog - November 28, 2010

    […] reality is that people of faith contribute more to society than those that don’t have faith. As I have argued in an earlier post Indeed there was an article in USA today recently that made the same point. So, demonstrably […]

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