By Aaron Earls
Global opinion is split on whether it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person, according to a Pew Research study.
For the Christian, however, the question is a bit more complicated than it seems on the surface but can provide avenues for apologetic and evangelistic conversations.
After collecting responses from 34 countries spanning six continents, Pew Research reported 45% say it is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values, while 51% disagree.
Those global numbers are similar to the percentages in the U.S., where 44% say believe in God is necessary and 54% who disagree.
Majorities in every European countries included in the study, with the exception of Greece, say believe in God is not necessary to live a moral life.
Canada (73%) and Australia (79%) are much closer to the European perspective than the U.S., with clear majorities saying someone can have good values without believing in God.
Asian countries are mixed with slim majorities in Japan (56%) and South Korea (53%) saying it’s not necessary, while large majorities in Indonesia (96%), Philippines (96%), and India (79%) say belief in God is needed.
African countries like Kenya (95%), Nigeria (93%), and South Africa (84%) are solidly behind belief in God as a necessity for a moral life.
In South America, a clear majority see it as necessary in Brazil (84%), while the majorities are smaller in Mexico (55%) and Argentina (55%).
But regardless of what global opinion says, how should a Christian answer the question? In short, it’s complicated and it depends on how we define the terms.
Yes, people can be “good” without believing in God.
First, we need to make sure we are simply talking about someone demonstrating good moral behaviors.
Scripture is clear that none of us is good enough to merit salvation or earn our way into heaven (Psalm 14:1-3, Romans 3:10-12, Ephesians 2:8-9). We aren’t talking about that standard.
Neither are we speaking of the motivation or heart behind those acts, as those taint even our best acts (Isaiah 64:6).
When we speak of “good” in this context, we are speaking of being able to do something that an outside observer would recognize as a positive act toward someone else, in essence: being nice.
In Scripture, we can see the basis for all people being capable of such actions.
The biblical view of humanity doesn’t start with Adam and Eve’s regretful bite of fruit. It starts with their being created good and in the image of God.
While humanity’s fall has serious and lasting ramifications, it has marred but not destroyed the image of God in us. That allows us to reflect our Creator in the way we behave.
If we assert that no one can be good without God, non-Christians will rightly point to the time they gave money to the Salvation Army or the day they helped their friend deal with a tragedy.
They can even point to many people outside the Christian faith who have lived sacrificial lives even to the point of death for the betterment of others.
Our faith does not need to be undermined by the existence of your nice Muslim neighbor or the philanthropic atheist.
They aren’t proof that the God of the Bible doesn’t exist. In fact, their actions are a further reminder of His existence and His goodness.
People can behave morally if they don’t believe in God, but their recognition of and obedience to a moral standard actually serves as evidence for God.
No, people cannot be good without the existence of God.
Removing God and His creating us in His image undermines our ability to judge certain actions as “good” or “evil.”
In Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey details many of the consequences to embracing a Darwinian evolutionary view of humanity, one of which is a loss of moral standards.
She details scientists and professors defending clearly immoral acts as logical outcomes of evolution. One example was a book on the origin of rape, describing it as “a natural, biological phenomenon that is a product of the human evolutionary heritage.”
“… the authors were genuinely surprised by all the controversy the book caused. After all, to a Darwinist it is simple logic that any behavior that survives today must have conferred some evolutionary advantage—otherwise it would have been weeded out by natural selection. So the authors were virtually forced to identify some benefits even in the crime of rape.”
If an atheist wants to move away from this perspective, they can embrace a subjective view of morality driven more by cultural or even individual preferences than evolutionary biology. Yet this poses its own dilemmas, as Tim Keller makes evident in Making Sense of God.
“… if we create our own values individually, on what basis could we urge anyone else to accept them?” he asks. “Or if we create those values collectively, how then can we recommend them to any other culture?”
One secular view of morality requires viewing rape akin to “the leopard’s spots and the giraffe’s elongated neck.” The other can only allow us to say rape is wrong for me or my culture but may be an accepted part of someone’s else society.
In reality, the problem is much more obvious for those trying to assert these views of morality—they don’t actually live this way.
The scientists arguing for an evolutionary perspective on rape would not brush aside such acts committed against themselves or their loved ones. The secularists with a subjective view of morality will likewise not see moral wrongs committed against themselves as mere cultural differences.
As C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later.”
Lewis then moves from establishing the fact that everyone, regardless of what he or she may say, acts as if there is an objective morality to demonstrating how this moral standard is evidence of a divine moral Lawgiver.
Thinking back to his days as an atheist, he writes, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.”
Humans can know and do good things, not necessarily because they believe God exists, but because God actually does exist. Our morality is not dependent on our belief in God’s existence, yet it is entirely dependent on the fact of His existence.
God is real, and, as a result, people can be good—even if they don’t believe in Him.
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.