Ok, this blog entry explores Greg Epstein’s book, Good Without God. Before that, though, I thought I’d share how I came to be reading a book about Humanism.

Morality vs Religious Faith

Living through COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been curious to see the assault on reason that many “faithful” have launched. It may be that these believers are NOT believers, or that scientific reasoning and faith are not mutually exclusive (as those who fight against masking, vaccinations exemplify). After all, I believe and vaccinate/mask up. There are other questions, though. I ran across them in Phil Zuckerman’s article in Salon, and they were intriguing:

. . .while most people assume that such a morality is grounded in religious faith, and while it is certainly true that all religions contain plenty of moral ideals, in our nation today, it is actually the most secular among us who are exhibiting a greater moral orientation — in the face of deadly threats — than the most devout among us, who are exhibiting the least.

Before proceeding, let me make it clear: When I say the “most secular among us,” I mean atheists, agnostics, people who never attend religious services, don’t think the Bible is the word of God, and don’t pray. (Source: Phil Zuckerman, Salon)

The rest of the article shares some interesting stats:

  • 80% of secular Americans accept the evidence that human activity is causing climate change
  • More Americans die annually from firearms than automobile accidents;
  • since 2009, there have been 255 mass shootings in the U.S.; every few hours, a child or teen dies from a gun wound.
  • 55% of white Evangelicals are NOT in favor of banning guns

The author continues with a laundry list of hot topics, asserting that for each, the “most secular” have a moral stance as opposed to religious. It all, of course, raises the question, “Can people be good without having some Divine Being checking their evil?”

For many people, including many atheists, the answer to Dostoevsky’s18 question “Without God … It means everything is permitted now, one can do anything?” is “Yes”, inasmuch as ‘every-thing’ refers to acts of extreme immorality. Religions underpin large-scale intragroup cooperation3, but they also promote distrust of non-believers who are excluded from such religious moral communities. Does rising secularism moderate effects as atheist norms become stronger within societ-ies? The present findings suggest that intuitive moral suspicion of atheists is culturally widespread (Source: Nature)

Hmm. Is being moral limited to believers? It’s obvious that the answer is, “No. Unbelievers can be moral.” You may as well ask, “Can believers engage in scientific reasoning?” Looking for some clarification, I found myself curious by Greg Epstein’s selection as Harvard’s chaplain. The guy must be a genius, no?

Good without God

When I saw that Harvard had selected an atheist for its chaplain, I was intrigued. I mean, my idea of a chaplain is a priest or reverend or rabbi. Instead, Greg Epstein, author of Good without God, was the man chosen for the job. The book’s inside flap says:

Questions about the role of God and religion in today’s world have never been more relevant or felt more powerfully. Many of us are searching for a place where we can find not only facts and scientific reason but also hope and moral courage. For some, answers are found in the divine. For others, including the New Atheists, religion is an enemy. But in Good Without God, Greg Epstein presents another, more balanced and inclusive response: Humanism. He highlights humanity’s potential for goodness and the ways in which Humanists lead lives of purpose and compassion. Humanism can offer the sense of community we want and often need in good times and bad–and it teaches us that we can lead good and moral lives without the supernatural, without higher powers . . . without God.

Humanists don’t deny the significance of God, but rather consider God to be the most influential literary character ever created.

Given recent reflections, I decided to pick up a copy and have found it a fascinating read.




Here are my notes on Greg Epstein’s book, Good Without God. Those notes capture key ideas that I simply had to organize to process well.


  1. Over decades of polling, a majority of Americans have consistently indicated a negative opinion of atheists and nonbelievers.
  2. One out of every two Americans admits to being prejudiced against fellow citizens who don’t believe in God.
  3. If we can convince ourselves today that one entire goup comprising millions of people might be incapable of goodness, then we harbor inside us the ability to turn against and hate any other group as well, and no one should feel safe.
  4. Over a billion people around the world are nonreligious
  5. In the United States, the nonreligious now represent approximately 15 percent of the population (approx 40 million Americans)
  6. Nonreligious is the fastest growing religious preference in the US
  7. Almost one in four American young adults today has no religion
  8. If you identify as an atheist, agnostic, freethinker, rationalist, skeptic, cynic, secular humanist, naturalist, or deist; as spiritual, apathetic, nonreligious, “nothing” or any other irreligious descriptive, you could probably count yourself a “Humanist.”
  9. Joining the Humanist lifestance, you have company: Thomas Jefferson, John Lennon, Winston Churchhill, Margaret Sanger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Voltaire, David Human, Kurt Vonnegut, Einstein, and more
  10. Humanism is being good without God. It warns: 1. we cannot wait until tomorrow or until the next life to be good because today is all we have 2. rejects dependence on faith, the supernatural, divine texts, resurrection, reincarnation, or anything else for which we have no evidence
  11. Humanism is a progressive lifestance, without supernaturalism, affirming our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment, aspiring to the greater good of humanity
  12. Most religion is not about an all-seeing deity with a baritone voice and a flowing beard. It is about group identification–the community and the connections we need to live. It is about family, tradition, consolation, ethics, memories, music, art, architecture, and much more. Outside traditional forms of religious affiliation or custom, it is hard to find these.
  13. Humanism is more of a philosophy, a lifestance, rather than a divine or revealed religion
  14. While nonreligious people often value science highly, many deeply religious people value and study it as well. So surely valuing science cannot be a way to distinguish religious people from nonreligious people. 15. Science can teach us a great deal, like what medicine to give to patients in a hospital. But science won’t come and visit us in the hospital.

Chapter One: Can We Be Good Without God

  1. All the evidence suggests that creation narratives like that found in Genesis are neither literally true nor divinely inspired metaphors but simply the first flawed human attempts to answer questions for which we now have much better answers.
  2. The scientific method, while imperfect, is the most reliable tool human beings have ever known for determining the nature of the world around us. 3. What do you believe about God?
  • Humanist answer: We (the nonreligious, atheists, Humanists, etc.) believe that God is the most important, influential literary character human beings have ever created.
  1. Different kinds of atheism: *Ontological atheism: a firm denial that there is any creator or manager of the universe
  • Ethical atheism: a firm conviction that even if there is a creator/manager of the world, he does not run things in accordance with the human moral agenda, rewarding the good and punishing the wicked
  • Existential atheism: even if there is a God, he has no authority to be the boss of my life
  • Agnostic atheism: a cautious denial that claims God’s existence can neither be proved nor disproved
  • Ignostic atheism: another cautious denial that claims the word “God” is so confusing it is meaningless
  • Pragmatic atheism: God is irrelevant to ethical and successful living, and views all discussions about God as a waste of time.
  1. Why are people naturally good?
  2. The Prisoner’s Dilemma:
  • The idea that people, like prisoners attempting to escape a jail cell, are constantly faced with decisions about whether to cooperate with one another or whether to defect
  • Sometimes rationality is not so rational. There is a donor, who pays a cost in order to cooperate, and a potential recipient, who gets a benefit from the donor’s cost
  • More sophisticated players learn that in the long run, giving and getting can occasionally be a win-win strategy.
  • We’re all objectively demonstrably better off when aiming for cooperation than when aiming for selfishness
  1. Neural complexity:
  • Humans have evolved a complex enough ability to think that we can recognize what is called “the interchangeability of perspectives.”
  • That is, if I want you do something for me, I have to be able to take your interests into account as well, unless I am a “galactic overlord” or am not interested in a particularly high rate of success
  • This is the key insight of the Golden Rule
  1. Five rules of cooperation:
  • Kin selection: The mysterious pull we often feel to love, nurture, and come to the aid of members of our own family.
  • Direct reciprocity: You feel motivated to help others because they can help you.
  • Indirect reciprocity (pay it forward): I help you, somebody else will help me. It feels good to give to others, whether we get back or not.
  • Network reciprocity: Groups or networks like churches, temples are examples of unselfish human cooperation. We form these networks because we evolved to. People need community.
  • Group selection: The idea that sometimes individuals may sacrifice their own personal success and yet still “win” if members of their group have success against members of other groups.
  1. Humanism rejects “Social Darwinism.” Our job as Humanists is not to minimize the role selfishness and brutality have played in human history.
  2. Humanism is the active choice that, whenever possible, dignity get priority. It means acknowledging and understanding our selfish genes precisely so that we can continue to evolve beyond them.
  3. Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns, and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility" (Humanist Manifesto).
  4. If no morality is timeless and eternal, then we will never be able to fool ourselves into thinking that there is one set of easy and obvious answers to questions about euthanasia, abortion, capital punishment, or other such issues. We’ll have to argue them out.

Chapter Two: A Brief History of Goodness Without God, or a Short Campus Tour of the University of Humanism

  1. Rig Veda: “Who really knows? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen? Perhaps the universe formed itself. Perhaps not–the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows. Or perhaps he does not know.”
  2. Lokayata and Carvaka: No one has ever been able to prove that he or she has witnessed a miracle. No man or woman has ever risen from the dead. No god has ever appeared on earth to explain how or why he created the basic elements that seem upon any careful, serious examination of the facts to be all we have and all we are. And those who beg and berate us to believe–that is, to believe the unbelievable–almost always have their own self-serving agenda.
  3. Epicurus: “Nothing to fear in God; Nothing to feel in Death; Good can be attained; Evil can be endured.”
  4. Epicurus declared the following:
  • Examine all that we do
  • Examine all we choose to love and value
  • Choose that which is worth choosing (which produces happiness)
  • Jains: “If God created the world, where was he before creation? If you say he was transcendent then, and needed no support, where is he now? No single being had the skill to make this world–for how can an immaterial god create that which is material?”
  • Deim: there may have been a God who created the universe, but that this God did not appear to interact with the world other than by assigning nature’s laws; therefore miracles such as the virgin birth, resurrection, or the trinity were impossible.
  • Thomas Jefferson: All people are equally deserving of an opportunity to pursue happiness and to be free of suffering in this life (rather than redeemed by it in the next life)

Chapter 3

  1. Humanism is an acknowledgement that a meaningful life is by definition a moral life, and a moral life is by definition a meaningful life.
  2. Morality is not about sinners and saints, heaven and hell, damnation and punishment.
  3. Morality IS about alleviating unnecessary suffering and promoting human flourishing, or dignity.
  4. …if you believe God is nature, or love, or the universe, do you really think there to be any difference in your belief system and Humanism?
  5. There are those who are truly motivated to be good by terror of God’s supernatural punishment and hope for his miraculous rewards. But maybe if you are among the many millions who don’t literally believe in heaven or hell, then you too are a Humanist…you will have to choose a purpose based mainly on how you as a human being should relate to other humans beings in this world, for the sake of this world. Just as Humanists do. [compelling argument]
  6. Many people claim that Humanism or atheism is nihilism and vice versa. This assertion is either unconscionable, incredibly ignorant, or both.
  7. Types of nihilism:
  • Russian nihilism: act by virtue of what we recognize as beneficial. Beneficial is defined as to deny and negate…everything. (think The Joker from the Batman)
  • Schopenhauer’s Nihilism: It is summed up as “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.” (think Eeyore)
  • The Noble Lie: there are no true values worth living by, but that if we lie to ourselves and say there are, in fact creating entire elaborate moral and social systems based on these lies, things will go much better for us. 8. The largest denomination of people is people who say they believe in God, but not driven by faith (nominal Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc.) who are religious in name only but do not take the tenets of their religion seriously. These are people who consider themselves religious but have been secularized.
  1. This largest denomination are not Humanists. You may be close to it but you still have to take responsibility and decide what you are.
  2. A secular culture is not the same as a Humanist culture. The former sometimes falls short of the latter.
  3. What are we striving for?
  • Much of religion has been about trying to find a solution to this constant, ever-imperfect hunger for companionship
  • Jonathan Haidt describes the “happiness formula.” It is H = S+C+V 1. H=happiness 2. S=the extent to which our brains are wired to allow for feelings of happiness, uplift, and joy 3. C=conditions of our lives (love and work are the single biggest elements)
  1. V=voluntary activities
  • Happiness as the standard for a meaningful life is too egocentric, too nebulous or both
  • “Although there is no single over-arching purpose to life, self-actualization for every human being gives life purpose…[Humanists] believe that the most important purpose of human life is for every individual to strive for and attain self-fulfillment–to become what each is capable of and to help others do the same” (Source: Eva Goldfinger, _Basic Ideas of Secular Humanistic Judaism_).
  1. U.S. Army version? “Be all you can be.”
  2. The entire idea of self-fulfillment amounts to little more than a psychologically dressed-up version of happiness, potentially solipsistic and menacing as well.
  3. Be of service…when we explain why we ought to give and help others, we must begin with our individual needs, and then move to others' needs, not vice versa.
  4. **Cultivating dignity** by Sherwin Wine:
  • Four Qualities:
  • The first is high self-awareness, a heightened sense of personal identity and individual reality.
  • A willingness to assume responsibility for one’s own life and to avoid surrendering that responsibility to any other person or institution.
  • The third is a refusal to find one’s identity in any possession.
  • The fourth is the sense that one’s behavior is worthy of imitation by others
  • Moral Obligations
  • I have a moral obligation to strive for greater mastery and control over my own life.
  • I have a moral obligation to be reliable and trustworthy.
  • I have a moral obligation to be generous.
  1. “Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait. Some of the conditions are within you, such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality. Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you: just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get the relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of meaning and purpose will emerge” (adapted from Erich Fromm by Greg Epstein)
  2. There is a state in which you’re aware of your own humanity, and you’re also aware of others' humanity, and you’re aware that all human beings are human. There’s a state in which you’re aware of your own vulnerability and mortality, and that awareness allows you to connect with others from a place of strength and empowerment. There’s a state in which you don’t have too much clingy connection or too much lonely disconnection, but where you combine self and other. Being in this state feels good in both the short term and long term–good enough to motivate us strongly. And so our goal is to get there and try to stay there. 18. If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? - Rabbi Hillel [The Golden Rule, but negative version]

Quick Reflection

Sherwin Wine’s four qualities and three obligations that compose human dignity and human being’s ongoing quest to personify them are quite impressive. In fact, they are common to many belief systems and capture the essence of dignity. I definitely think anyone could adopt these for their own, regardless of belief.

I remember the first time I read about Rabbi Hillel in my college years. The assertion made at the time was that Jesus was the only one to phrase The Golden Rule in positive terms. That is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Chapters 4-6

  1. Without any conflict, human life is tedious.
  2. Humanism’s basic focus is about engaging with life, acknowledging the reality of aging, sickness, death, and other problems so that we can learn to most fully appreciate the time, health, and life we have.
  3. Essentially all the world’s religions were founded on the principle that divine beings or forces can promise a level of justice in a supernatural realm that cannot be perceived in this natural one.
  4. Karen Armstrong, Charter for Compassion - Watch video
  5. Humanists reject the idea that any supposedly divine commandments, as they are proclaimed by human beings, ought to have absolute authority over our lives.
  6. Humanists believe that laws and ethical principles must come from human reason and compassion.
  7. If a given religious precept can help lead to a good life and society, we may adopt it.
  8. Humanist Commandments?
  9. Humanism fights against the message of a very important book. The book is Humpty Dumpty.
  10. Humanism principles:

Chapter Five: Pluralism: Can You Be Good with God?

  1. Pluralism: To compete with one another in good works.
  2. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (Source: Martin Luther King Jr as cited)
  3. Say that you do not believe in God at all, and despite whatever else you might add about the good things you do value, there are many who will consider you indecent and unfit.
  4. We should cultivate agape: “Understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all men”
  5. Religious pluralism:
  6. Interfaith cooperation on big issues such as
  7. Make inclusion work:

Chapter Six: Good Without God in Community: The Heart of Humanity

  1. Your relationship with religion is about how you live life every day, how you respond to a thousand situations that are impossible to fully predict or prepare for.
  2. Beyond ritual, what is the role of culture more boadly in religion and Humanism? How should we understand the relationship between belief in God and religious affiliation? We’ve seen how many good arguments there are against belief in God. But remove religious affiliation, and for most people, you also strip away their sense of connection to their unique ancestry, heritage, memory, and identity. Is the sacrifice worthwhile?
  3. ABC approach
  4. Benson’s Relaxation Response:
  5. If you are not a Humanist, please go in peace.