Can You Be Good WITH Religion?

I am not a fan of the so-called “New Atheists”—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christipher Hitchens. I find their rhetoric to be little more than religious fundamentalism disguised as rational argument, and I think that they intentionally misunderstand the difference between religion as something that makes people do bad things and religion as something that bad people know how to use to do bad things. Don’t get me started on this; I can go on all day.

But I do respect the fact that these thinkers have shifted our discourse from the question, “Can you be good without religion?” to  what I see as the much more important question,“Can you be good WITH religion?” I believe that the answer to both questions is “yes.”

Some of the most moral, compassionate, and honorable people I know are atheists, and I think that their atheism helps to make them this way. Some things about religion can actively get in the way of moral behavior, and not having a religion can eliminate some very big obstacles to being a good person. But some of the finest people I know are also very religious. I work at a university that was founded by an order of Catholic Sisters. These women have gone all over the world setting up ministries to bring education and health care to some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. I see these same fruits every day in my LDS ward: people who care about each other in profound ways, leaders who take other people’s problems on as though they were their own. Religion can and does make people better.

Some time ago I realized, quite to my surprise, that there are not two different kinds of religion, one good and one bad. The things about religion that can make people act badly are exactly the same things that can inspire people to be like God. It is the mixiest of all mixed bags. We absolutely can be good people without atheism, but we have to make a constant effort to monitor ourselves and correct for the weaknesses that our greatest strengths can turn into if we are not careful. Here are just a few examples of what I mean:

      • The boundaries that define our community from the inside can become barriers for those on the outside who need our help. This is something that inheres in the way that communities work. Communities cannot function without boundaries, but boundaries erase people and their experiences in way that can cause profound pain. Every circle draws some people in and defines some people as “out.” Those of us on the inside have a sacred responsibility to notice who is absent and speak for them in ways that our boundaries do not permit them to speak for themselves.
      • The certainty that gives meaning and structure to our lives can also make us real jerks. One of the most important things that religion does is give us a sense of certainty about a lot of big questions—purpose of life and “why am I here?” And because we are evolutionarily designed to generalize our beliefs into universal systems, we have a hard time not believing that everybody else should see things our way. This can cause us to discount other people’s values and experiences in ways that cause pain and ruin relationships. The corrective for this is the ability to meaningfully entertain the possibility that you are wrong. If you aren’t thinking “what if I am wrong?” on a pretty regular basis, then you are probably not doing it right.
      • Belief in an afterlife can cause us to treat injustices in this life casually. As the only species who has any idea of its own mortality, humans have a deep need to believe that we will not simply cease to exist when we die, and most religions provide such an assurance. This is a good thing. It can become a bad thing when we start to believe that justice can wait until the next world. Far too many religious people are willing to endure great poverty and deprivation (not their own, of course, but other people’s) on the grounds that this life is just a blip and eternal justice will eventually take care of everybody. Not caring about deep injustices in this life—for whatever reason—is one of the most important definitions I know of a “bad person.”
      • The existence of clear moral codes can confuse us into thinking that we have developed the capacity for moral reasoning when all we are doing is obeying stuff. Here, for me, is the pith and marrow of the matter. I believe that the most important thing that human beings can do in their lifetimes is develop the ability to exercise moral reasoning. As it happens, this is a belief that stems from the most Mormon part of my brain—the one that sees the War in Heaven as a battle between a philosophy that wanted human beings to develop the capacity for moral reasoning and one that wanted to make obedience the only real decision we ever have to make. According to LDS theology, we all voted for the former. Far too many of us seem ready to take back our vote.

As the BYU Title IX controversy unfolds, I am thinking a lot about this prospect of being good WITH religion. Here we have an honor code that, I absolutely believe, has been designed by religious people with good and moral intentions. It creates the expectation that students will behave morally, and it holds them accountable when they do not. In many ways it represents the best we are as a people. But, like so many of the best things about religion, it has the potential to become one of the worst things about us. In the hands of sexual predators, it can become a tool to ensure silence. And in the hands of uninspired  managers, it has become a way to re-victimize survivors and discourage the reporting that is so necessary to preventing sexual assault.

This does not mean that the Church, BYU, or the Honor Code are bad things. It means that, like so much else in religion, the best things have the potential to turn into the worst things if we do not monitor them carefully and correct for our excesses.


  1. Voree Prophet says:

    You missed an important one, most relevant for authoritarian religions like Mormonism: Your leaders could tell you to do immoral things, and you’ll feel obligated to obey. Whether it’s slaughtering innocents, as occurred countless times in the Bible and again in our own Mountain Meadows history, or coercing women to join you as plural wives, or denying the humanity of LGBT people, when the prophet speaks your own religion obliges you to comply. You can either obey, or you can reject the command, in which case, you are acting morally in spite of your religion.

  2. FYI, Christian Smith, a sociology professor at Notre Dame, made a compelling argument at BYU on 2/23/16 against the sort of atheism you refer to in the beginning of your post–especially the “amateur atheology” that some scientists invoke. Here’s the link:

  3. Great post. I remember having similar thoughts after reading “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Despite the Book’s flaws (a can of worms I don’t intend to open by bringing it up), for me it raised the paradox that some of the very things that make my particular brand of religion powerful, like a belief in continuing revelation, belief in a God that can and does intervene in human affairs, and that demands our obedience, are the same things that can, under the wrong circumstances be abused in horrific ways. My conclusion was not that these things are bad, but rather that the the sublime power that comes with religion comes at great risk if we don’t check ourselves. Not that we should give up these beliefs, but rather that we should be aware of the risk: the way to salvation is dangerous, straight and narrow, thin as a razor’s edge; you can fall off either side into fundamentalism or into unbelief at any moment if you aren’t careful.

    On certainty, my initial reaction was to say that certainty is not as necessary for religion as we may think it is. That, is, there is no question that certainty can make you act like a real jerk, but I’m less convinced that certainty is really necessary to give meaning and structure to our lives in a religious sense. In a certain sense, certainty is at least in tension with a belief in continuing revelation. A lack of imposed certainty frees us to speculate and explore different possible answers to theological questions, and that process of exploration itself, perhaps paradoxically, can sometimes result in more meaning and structure than a learned certainty. But there are some things on which the gospel does teach certainty which is close to absolute. At the very least, I think we should limit our certainty to those matters on which the gospel really does teach certainty, which is a pretty short list–I don’t think it really even extends to any significant degree beyond what Jesus calls “my gospel” in 3 Nephi.

    On obedience vs. moral reasoning, I’ve come to think of it in these terms: yes, we are to learn obedience, but obedience in the abstract itself is neither good nor bad. It becomes good or bad only in practice. Obedience to God is a virtue; obedience to our carnal nature, or worse, to satanic influences, is the worst kind of vice. So learning obedience is not a question of learning to obey, but a question of learning to discern which of all those persons and influences that compete for our obedience is the proper object of our obedience, and learning that kind of discernment is really no different from learning who God is and what kinds of things he commands and does not command, which in turn is perhaps not different from obtaining the Holy Ghost, or as Paul puts it, the “mind of Christ.” Maybe the line between learning moral reasoning as it is used in the OP and learning the mind of Christ is a blurry and unclear one. Which is to say that I think I reach the same conclusion expressed in the OP about the importance of learning moral reasoning, but I perhaps get there via a different route.

  4. I really liked this Sunstone article:

    It talks about how organized religion sometimes reduces our spiritual lives to obedience and “doing the stuff” that we’re told we need to do to be a good person. And maybe that is not what Christ was talking about when he said “seek ye first the kingdom of God.” Striving to have a real communion with the divine will naturally lead people to do good. Mormons try to access God through obedience and works. Maybe that is backwards.
    That is where atheists come out ahead of religious folk. If they are striving to good it comes from an internal place and not an external one. In other words, they don’t do good because they are being told they have to do such and such in order to “make it” to heaven or the Celestial kingdom or whatever your destination religious folk are hoping for.

  5. I’m curious to know how this differs from the mere statement of the law of unintended consequences. Nothing in mortality is truly pure, all goodness (religious or otherwise) contains the potential for badness. I’m fully persuaded that many people in and out of religion make good and bad choices and that people’s intrinsic moral dignity oughtn’t be a function of their confessional allegiance (whether to a specific ‘religious” tradition or to some flavor of the spirit of the age). I’m much less persuaded by the rhetoric suggesting that atheistic goodness is nobler or more independent or somehow better than theistic goodness, which is undertaken because God wants it done (and perhaps promising that the doing it will bring the doer closer to God’s vibrant presence). With very rare exceptions, we align ourselves with the “supergood” (the dominant moral definition of what is most important about a good life or good society) defined by the community to which we feel the keenest allegiance (acknowledging that many of us are nevertheless cross-pressured). If the supergood is defined/disseminated by sermons at church or expressions of righteous indignation on social media, that doesn’t change the fact that we are aligning with an external supergood. (Failure to align in any way would be most typical of “sociopathy” or severe autism, conditions in which one’s capacity to acknowledge and engage a supergood is profoundly disordered.) If anything, many religious people (those caricatured as “obeyers” or “conformists”) are at least acknowledging this fact rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. But, again, seeing more clearly on this central question is no guarantee of good behavior (certainly not of greater human dignity) or that a particular plan to improve the world won’t have negative side effects. The much harder and more interesting question, I think, is how to adjudicate goodness, and there I think I see little more than question begging the spirit of the age (or the most facile of commissions of the naturalistic fallacy) in the atheist doctrines of goodness (where they differ from theist doctrines of goodness, from which they plagiarize extensively).

  6. I gather this is not intended as a true critique of the New Atheists, and the opening is just a framing device. Because there is much more to say if this were really about atheists. But as a list of the major ways that religion can go awry, I think it’s pretty good. (Which really means that I’m not quickly coming up with a fifth to add to the four headlines here.)
    To the belief in an afterlife, I would extend by saying that some believers do take too little thought for their own and their family’s temporal welfare. In a Mormon context, the case that presents itself to mind is the serial missionary or church calling enthusiast who sacrifices his family and his health in the process. Some believers take a hard stance on including and excluding children based on who is perceived to “make it” to whatever kingdom in the next life. Also, a good share of the discussion about the environment and global warming can be placed on the “don’t care, the apocalypse is coming” kind of thinking.

  7. Clark Goble says:

    Yes, as a critique of the New Atheists I don’t think this works. (Heaven knows there’s lots of critiques of what I see as the atheist equivalent of intolerant fundamentalist Evangelicals)

    That said, a common critique of the New Atheists is that they tend to apply to religion what are really fairly general aspects of human cognition. The above as relating to religion seems to be doing that to a certain degree too. If you read especially the various evolutionary psychology analysis of religion (Atran and others) then the above will seem to be not as religious as we might assume.

    Consider Michaels’ list.

    1. The barriers that define the community can become barriers for those on the outside. But this is a general feature of the psychology of in-group/out-group dynamics. Just look at polarized political parties. Heck, fans of sports teams for that matter.

    2. Certainty that gives meaning can make people jerks. Well, the New Atheists are as much an example here as an intolerant Evangelical or Mormon is. Again how we treat high values ideas tends to make people intolerant of opposition to those ideas. Are markers of religious identity really that different from same the markers we see people raising as trumps of privilege on so many university campuses? It’s not hard to find ideas people get riled up about. This is hardly uniquely religious.

    3. Belief in the afterlife make treating injustice casually. OK this is more religious. But is it unique? Look at the myriad of philosophies that reject the afterlife and say this is all there is. One needn’t look far to see how easy it is devalue life if it turns out it is fleeting. Nietzsche’s a great example but I’d argue the history of people living for now isn’t much better than people living for tomorrow. More to the point, humans just have a pretty innate ability to dehumanize others and treat them as props rather than people.

    4. The existence of clear moral codes really aren’t uniquely religious. Arguably secular moral codes dominate today much more than religious ones in the west. Again, it’s not hard to find examples of people thinking they’re engaging in moral reasoning when they’re just aping the rules of the group they identify with. I’m not sure people in uproar of people being allowed into say bathrooms are doing this more than the people in uproar because some aren’t allowed. There are people who think through issues on both sides. But the typical person just isn’t doing that. Peer norms simply determine moral identity more than rational thought. This again is just a feature of human cognition sadly. (Heidegger even had a term for the general issue: Das Man. Being caught up in the thinking and practices of the group)

    I won’t comment on how this relates to various religious issues or politics issues indirectly related to religion (such as the honor code at BYU). I’ll just say that these problems seem universally human and something we need to always be on guard of.

  8. This is a fantastic article. Thanks MIchael.

  9. What an important piece, thank you.

  10. Clark, it is quite possible to encounter elephants, clowns, big tents, or trapeze artists individually, not as part of anything larger. But if you encounter all four together, the chances are very good you are at a circus. It’s pretty much the same with the four aspects that I mention. You are absolutely correct that they respond to universal human needs and desires, and any one of them can be found in all kinds of cultural spaces. But if you ever find them all together–a strong community, a certainty about the answers to questions about deity and human purpose, a belief in an afterlife, and a moral code–then you are looking at a religion. This is true by definition: this is what “religion” means.

  11. Clark Goble says:

    I think the issue is whether these features are characteristic as dangers of religion. That’s the mistake the New Atheists make. Certainly we can find characteristics that we’d call religion. However if we’re looking at dangers it’s worth asking whether these dangers are due to religion or whether they’re due to basic human cognitive structures.

  12. Emily U says:

    I couldn’t agree more on the 4th point. The robust Mormon focus on obedience comes at the cost of development of moral reasoning – we seem to be forever intended to be children of God and not adults of God. It makes me thing the leadership a) doesn’t think it’s members are capable of mature moral reasoning or b) fears the consequences of widespread mature moral reasoning.