I won’t be reading “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe” by Greg Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain of Harvard University.
I would’ve read it if I thought it had anything of interest to say about morality. But based on the author’s response to a question on the On Faith blog, it would seem that either he was hit on the head right before he answered or he’s been leaking IQ points from his ears since getting his Harvard gig and everybody’s been simply too kind to point it out.
The question posed by On Faith is:
Q: Is there good without God? Can people be good without God? How can people be good, in the moral and ethical sense, without being grounded in some sort of belief in a being which is greater than they are? Where do concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, come from if not from religion? From where do you get your sense of good and evil, right and wrong?
While the question seems to be a journalistic slow pitch designed for Epstein to take it yard, his response is such a whiff that I don’t think anyone could see it as anything less than an embarrassment.
For one, Epstein fails to answer the question put to him as to how there can be good without God. Or even what “good” is in a universe without God? He simply points out that there are people who don’t publicly acknowledge God who are also good. Well, duh. But that doesn’t answer the question as to whether good can exist without God. You know, for all of Pontius Pilate’s fault (which have been well documented) he at least faced the relevant question when he asked, “What is truth?”
Epstein, on the other hand, skips merrily past the difficult question of defining good and, I guess, assumes that the definition of “good” is acknowledged by all as the same worldwide. In his swerving around the main question Epstein actually lends credence to the theory that good and evil are innately recognized by us. And if that sense was put in all of us then we must ask by Whom?
If, however, Mr. Epstein doesn’t believe that good can be innately recognized then it would seem incumbent upon him to answer that question since he actually wrote a book on the subject.
But if Mr. Epstein is evasive concerning “good” he certainly finds it easy to label anyone who thinks that “good” and “God” are inextricably linked as bad. He calls Rabbi Brad Hirschfield “prejudice” for suggesting that there can be no “good” without God. He even suggest that the Rabbi is not in his “right mind.”
So, from Epstein’s work we can surmise at least one nugget. Epstein= good. Rabbi= bad. I don’t know if that’s enough to build a worldview on but Mr. Epstein seems pretty comfy with it or at least comfy enough to write a book on it.
Ironically, Epstein writes early in his piece:
I see all of this activity as a chance to finally begin a new kind of conversation about god, religion, morality, and community. It’s a chance to put to rest some of the animosity and mutual mistrust that we’ve seen too often when religious and nonreligious people come together of late. It’s a chance for Humanists or nontheists like me to begin again to work alongside religious people of many stripes to build the better world we all want and need to see.
So in an effort to put to bed all that animosity and mistrust, Epstein calls the Rabbi names by writing:
But this is not the time to debate the question, “can we be good without god?” And frankly, I am disappointed in Rabbi Hirschfield for his assertion that we can’t be.
Let’s be perfectly clear: of course we can be good without God. Millions of Americans are. But that’s not what my book is about. Because if you think we can’t be good without God, that’s not just your opinion. That’s not just some brainstorm that crossed your mind. It is prejudice. And it might even be discrimination.
He’s sure it’s prejudice but unsure whether it’s discrimination? So Epstein, as well as failing to define “good” also seems unable to define “discrimination.” Do they not have dictionaries at Harvard?
“I mean, no one in his or her right mind would ever say, “Oh, you’re a Catholic. How nice–is it possible for you to be a decent human being, too?” We wouldn’t ask whether it’s possible to be a good person and Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist. We don’t ask whether you can be good and a Democrat, or a Republican (at least, usually we don’t). So since we know that there are now millions and millions of people living without belief in a god, it’s time to reject the question of whether we can be good without God.”
So instead of answering the question that was actually put to him (which also is the name of his own book) he rejects the question? Wait. The name of your book kind of says that you’re going to be answering this question. I’ll alert the philosophy departments all over the world that there is “of course” good without God so that solves that philosophical conundrum, I guess.
Then he continues to reroute the question by stating all the things he’s not going to answer until he gets to one he might:
However, that’s not to say living well or being a good person is easy–with or without god. And so the question why we are motivated to be good without God is much very much worth asking. The question of how we can be good without God is absolutely crucial. And both of these questions lead to a third–with whom can I be good without God? After all, one of the most important reasons people turn to religion is for a sense of community–so how can Humanists and the nonreligious build a secular alternative to religious community?
Hmmm. A secular alternative to a religious community? Uhm…I think it’s called Harvard University, Mr. Epstein.
And in conclusion he says that there’s a reason he doesn’t answer the main question put to him and that’s because…wait for it…oh I’ll just let him tell you why.
But again, can we please agree that from now on it should be beyond the pale to accuse Humanist, atheist, agnostic, and nonreligious citizens of having no basis for goodness and decency? Let’s remember that we are all imperfect.
You gotta’ love how some people just declare whole areas of questioning as “beyond the pale.”
And if we all are imperfect as Mr. Epstein states, isn’t there necessarily some standard of perfection that he is measuring us up against? What is that standard, Mr. Epstein?
But I’ve got to feel a little sorry for the editors at On Faith blog who came up with a decent question, invited a Harvard man who wrote a book on it to answer it, only to be informed that their question is “beyond the pale.”
Maybe Mr. Epstein’s book is better than his efforts here. But for now all I can say about Mr. Epstein’s article is: Not good.