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Can one be good without God?

Kierkegaard would say yes, but only up to a point

  • Jeffrey Hanson, ABC
  • International
  • August 12, 2013
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A constant refrain within recent atheistic rhetoric has been that one can be "good without God." The nineteenth century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, whose birth 200 years ago is being celebrated in scholarly communities around the world this year, would certainly have been interested in this discussion.

Debate about the meaning and significance of Kierkegaard's thought, which he articulated in a way that deliberately avoided systematic transparency, is understandably ongoing, and there are predictably deep divisions in the secondary literature on what Kierkegaard's writings – often published by their author not in his own name but under pseudonyms, ornamented with myth, poetic narrative and literary flourishes, and maddeningly unstructured – are supposed in the end to mean. But what is not in dispute among admirers of his work is that Kierkegaard still speaks to contemporary readers in a way that is suggestive if not always conclusive.

Kierkegaard, I think, would cheerfully admit that a person can be good without believing in God. He was a lifelong admirer of Socrates and felt that the Greek sage attained the highest wisdom it was possible to achieve without a revelation from God. Socrates came to the realization that justice and goodness were existent apart from and above the consensus of human beings and could be known, however partially, by those who strove to love, not just their approximations as they were given in appearance, but the very being of justice and goodness as they essentially are.

Kierkegaard would never have denied that a person could live as Socrates did, esteeming justice and goodness and trying to make their own characters just and good by means of that esteem. But he would want to be clear about the difference to morality that a revelation from God makes for specifically Christian ethics.

There is a scandalous dimension to the intrusion of God upon goodness. Many atheists today claim that Christianity is "offensive" in some way or another. Kierkegaard would say this is quite in order – Christianity is offensive and must be so in order to remain what it is. The offensive aspect of the difference God makes to goodness is one that Kierkegaard thought Socrates missed, as he believed anyone without the benefit of revelation would have done, no matter how wise they were in other respects.

One area where Socrates and all human reasoning that carries on its work without the benefit of revelation falls short is in accounting for why people are so often not good. For Socrates all evils are simply the result of ignorance of what is truly good. If people only knew what was just, Socrates reasoned, they would automatically do what was just. He stuck to this position even in the face of prosecution for his beliefs and behaviors, and while he died under accusation of impiety he insisted to the jurymen of Athens who sentenced him that he believed in the gods as none of his accusers did.

So the really interesting question to Kierkegaard would not be whether people can be good without God, but a twofold problem of how to explain why so often they are not good, with or without God, and what to do about that failure.

Full story: The gospel according to Kierkegaard: Sin, guilt and the offense of forgiveness

Source: ABC Religion

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