Book Review: Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg M. Epstein
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: William Morrow (October 27, 2009)
With this title the book is obviously going to discuss morality. Fortunately it quickly disposes of the question of “whether we can be good without God” early in the introduction. As the author, Greg Epstein, says the empirical evidence is irrefutable “Millions and millions of people are, every day. The answer is yes. Period.”
But, of course, he devotes the rest of the book to explaining and recommending how the one billion “non-believers” of the planet are, and can be, good. On how they do and can deal with social organisation in suitable ways.
Proud humanist heritage
Epstein explains that humanism, atheism, agnosticism, etc., is more than “non-belief.” That in fact humanity has a rich and proud heritage of thought and contribution to society, of “seeking goodness and wisdom without a God.” Humanism has its roots in the wisdom of the past, in the East as well as the West. This heritage includes also figures like Isaac Newton “who even given his Christianity could be considered a precursor to modern atheism and free thought because his discoveries helped lay the groundwork for some current beliefs.” This approach appeals Rather than being outsiders to our culture, society and history, we humanists can legitimately claim to represent so much that was positive in human history, despite the religious mystical and superstitious beliefs common at the time.
Part of the problem with attitudes towards “non-believers” is that while we often consider the religious as a group this is usually not the case for “non-believers.” Epstein says: “We may be a diverse group But no more so than others.” Epstein demands that society should stop assuming non-believers have no beliefs. “It’s time to recognise that non-believers are believers too: we believe in Humanism.”
Of course the book discusses the nature of humanism in several places, but I like some of the short definitions. Humanism is “above all an affirmation of the greatest common value we humans have: the desire to live with dignity, to be “good.”” “Humanists believe in life before death.” Humanism provides “a place where family, memory, ethical values, and the uplifting of the human spirit can come together with intellectual honesty, and without a god.”
Well, perhaps not a “place” yet – more a possibility. And this gets to Epstein’s major preoccupation in this book. The need for humanists, atheists, freethinkers, etc., to recognise the human need for community with its attendant trappings of ritual, ceremony, meeting places and maybe even its own teachings. I believe he has some important points here – but I don’t agree with all his solutions to these problems. However, they are important issues which non-believers need to discuss and find solutions for – and Epstein’s thoughts are a welcome contribution. But we should recognise that one size doesn’t fit all – different communities in this diverse group will find different solutions that they are comfortable with.
Greg Epstein is the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, USA. Humanist Chaplaincy is relatively rare and this position reflects both Epstein’s personal history and the solutions to the human problem of community that are comfortable for him. He is an atheist but has graduate degrees from both the University of Michigan and Harvard Divinity School and was ordained as a Humanist Rabbi in 2005. This background may influence him to see strong parallels between the humanist community he wishes to promote and existing religious communities.
Expanding the vision
Personally, I would expand that vision. I think we should also look to the present and future when considering community. The world is changing and even some religious organisations recognise this. While many churches are tradition-bound, many have also adopted new methods of community and worship. “Supermarket religions,” meeting in buildings that look more like malls than churches, charismatic emotional experience and less emphasis on dogma. These churches show their recognition of modern community needs by providing social services like childcare and counselling.
Some religious organisations have recognised the opportunities provided by the internet and invest much of their time and effort in “internet evangelism.”
So, in considering how we can fulfil human needs for community Humanists shouldn’t just ape the church experience. We should be recognising the old weekly meeting format does not necessarily accord to modern methods of socialising. Today people have so many more modes of contact with work, profession, sport, hobbies, travel and internationally. The internet has opened radically new ways of interacting, often rapidly and internationally. So modern communities, and community building, must reflect this.
If teenagers can socialise and people can search for life partners by internet interaction, why can they not get much of their community and ethical satisfactions, and learning, on-line? I believe that this is already a reality. Internet communities are already forming naturally –especially for young people. And unlike the old-style communities these are international in scope.
Surely the internet has contributed strongly to the current widening of interest in atheism and humanism at a grass-roots level?
Ritual and ceremony
Epstein discusses why humans find ritual and ceremony important. These mark significant life events like birth, naming, coming of age, marriage and death. Then there are the traditional holidays, usually of pagan and agricultural origin but now often taken over by religions.
In my lifetime I have seen society wrench many of these rituals and ceremonies back from the hands of religion. Non-religious marriages and funerals are now common – and excellent and refreshing they are too. Christmas is largely a secular event, devoted to families rather than spirits. Tim Minchin’s song White Wine in the Sun is a moving example of secular family Christmas in our Southern hemisphere climate.
While many non-believers may be enthusiastic about ideas of organised secular communities, others are clearly wary. Many of us recognise that problems of dogmatism, authoritarianism, blind followers, etc., are not unique to religion. Even without the authority of gods it is possible for secular organisations to show such negative features. Perhaps this is why we say organising atheists is like organising cats. We value our independence of ideas, as well as lifestyles, too much to replace one dogmatic ideology by another possible one.
Epstein warns against the idea that humanists should create their own holidays. He thinks it better to take the ones we have but give them their original or modern secular meanings. He even favours using some religious ceremonies themselves, largely unchanged but imbued with new meaning.
There is also a need for secular alternatives in other areas. In many societies, but not all, we do have this for education and medical care. Religious organisations dominate social services – partly because they use them as another source of tax-free income from the state.
The current emergency in Haiti also highlights the need for clear secular alternatives for charity and relief donations. There is a huge, mainly secular, response and wish to help but many people are confused about the best agency to donate to. There is a clear need to identify aid agencies which won’t divert funds into proselytizing. I have discussed a new development in this area in an accompanying post Secular Charity.
This is an excellent book for anyone thinking about these issues – the secular origins of morality and ethics, the proud traditions of humanism and free thought, and the problems of human communities in a modern secular and pluralist society. Many will find Epstein’s ideas appealing. Some of us will be wary – preferring less rigid and more modern forms of community.
So Epstein has made a valuable contribution with this book, even though it is still partial. I just wish that other humanists, atheists and freethinkers would contribute their ideas to a wider discussion of these subjects.