Acton Institute Powerblog

Taking God Out of Good

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

In a world apparently dominated by Christian footwear, a Berlin-based company has come to the rescue of atheists. Atheist Shoes boast a line of footwear that proudly announces the wearer’s lack of faith. The soles of the shoes (not to be confused with “souls”, mind you) state “Ich bin Atheist” (“I am an atheist”). The company  thinks the world needed a “nice, understated way for people to profess their godlessness”, and the founders of the company wanted to help atheists proclaim their unbelief, especially in a world hostile to non-believers (despite the fact that Christians are now among the most persecuted people on the planet right now.)

We’re lucky to live in Berlin, a city where roughly two thirds of the population are atheists, but we’re conscious there are still places where it’s difficult to be godless.

One page of the company’s website is entitled “Taking The God Out of Good“. Noting that atheism is not opposed to being charitable, the page states they just want to do it in a way that doesn’t support any religious charities.

[O]rganised religion has a historical monopoly on ‘good’ and continues to be proud of its ‘do-gooding’, in preach and practice, despite the strong likelihood that it has done far more harm than good in it’s long, yarn-spinning history.

We find this sad. Not only because organised religion survives, scandal after scandal, unscathed, but because the atheists we know are amongst the kindest, most caring people we’ve met, each capable of being moral and good without god stories to show them how.

We want to challenge the lowest-common-denominator view of atheism, to demonstrate that you don’t need god to be good.

The owners of this company understand that business is not simply about making money, but that business has social aspects: employing people, offering a product to consumers, using profit to benefit others. The irony of taking a religious ideal – being charitable to the less fortunate – and putting an atheistic “spin” on it seems lost on the shoe-makers.

However, once one tosses God out of the picture, then “good” is impossible to define. There are no parameters or boundaries, no definitions for “good”. “Good” becomes whatever one decides it to be. While the atheists of this shoe company want to pin scandal and damage on religion, one must accept the fact that the majority of 20th century genocides took place at the hands of atheists: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and others. These men all cheerfully believed they were doing “good”. And in a world where God is removed from “good”, they were – because they got to define “good”. As Fr. Robert Sirico writes in his book Defending the Free Market: the Moral Case for a Free Economy:

Those who claim that right and wrong have no stable meaning promise to liberate us from old structures, but in reality relativism undermines the rule of law and invites tyranny. Princeton professor Robert George has noted that people who imagine that relativism is the best guarantor of tolerance and freedom of belief couldn’t be more wrong. If everything is relative in matters of morality, how can one make the case against a Stalin or Hitler? Without moral absolutes, would we be able to speak of universal human rights, or
denounce female genital mutilation or child sacrifice, incest or rape? A firm belief in a transcendent moral order is the only guarantee of the “unalienable rights” of all people.

Atheist Shoes wants to have it both ways: a free market to create and enjoy the fruits of one’s labors, but with no acknowledgment of the true source of human creativity. They want to be good and charitable, but only on terms they define. What is to stop them from, in the future, deciding that charitably funding Al Qaeda is good? When you take God out of good, you don’t get a different shade of good. You get evil. Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, knew this:

In the city of man, there is no moral consensus, and without a moral consensus there can be no law. Chairman Mao expressed the alternative well: in his view, morality begins at the muzzle of a gun.

There has never been a case in history in which a society has been able to survive for long without a strong moral code. And there has never been a time when a moral code has not been informed by religious truth. Recovering our moral code – our religious truth – is the only way our society can survive. The heaping ash remains at Auschwitz, the killing fields of Southeast Asia, and the frozen wastes of the gulag remind us that the city of man is not enough; we must also seek the city of God.

Atheist Shoes is the perfect shoe store for Main Street in the City of Man. In the City of God, though, it just isn’t good business.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.


  • Pingback: Hope for the future | Truth & Charity The Intersection of Faith & Life()

  • Pingback: God out of schools, God out of gov’t, God out of good… | Got Nones?()

  • disqus_I0BZZLx11l

    I think by attacking the atheist company you just proved the claim that atheists receive hostility from a christian dominated world.

  • Galileo

    The ability to do good in this world is mutually exclusive of belief in a higher power, and this is incontrovertible. A simple look around illustrates that religious beliefs are easily molded around various agendas and motivations, nullifying the argument that they are necessary for good, as they are just as necessary for evil. If you need the fear of retribution from a divine being to convince you to do good deeds, then your problems transcend that which belief in a higher power can accomplish for you.

    • RogerMcKinney

      Your fighting a straw man of your own making. No Christian writer has ever written that atheists cannot be moral. They claim that atheists can’t define morality in any way other than their personal preferences or group preferences. A lot of philosophers of ethics agree, such as Pete Singer and Alex Rosenberg. Check out Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.

  • RogerMcKinney

    Self-interest is not a moral compass. It’s a means of survival. If self interest demanded you kill all but your family because of a food shortage, would you consider that moral?

    How do you know Lenin, Stalin and Hitler were criminals? They just had a different sense of morality. All three thought they were working for the common good.

  • RogerMcKinney

    Yes, because Jesus said love your enemies. But if the radical group committed crimes, such as suicide bombings, then those responsible would be jailed.

    • Tim Whelan

      Interesting argument. How did you work that out though? Is God speaking through you? Or was it your own human reasoning? Assuming it’s the latter, am I allowed to use human reasoning too or is it just for Christians?

      • RogerMcKinney

        It’s in the Bible.

  • foobar

    “However, once one tosses God out of the picture, then “good” is impossible to define. ” – Where do you think Christianity got the morals? From god? Just _study_ some history and you’ll see they’ve borrowed all the “laws” from these godless people.

    • To which laws do you refer? And which godless people? Given the history of Judeo-Christian faiths, it is quite easy to see that indeed God did give people of faith laws that helped them live together in peace, and worship God as one. Just because people don’t always follow the law doesn’t make the law or the law-maker “bad”. It means people are flawed.

  • How then do we account for Hitler’s claim that in carrying out his
    anti-Semitic program he was an instrument of divine providence? During his ascent to power, Hitler needed the support of the German people — both the Bavarian Catholics and the Prussian Lutherans — and to secure this he occasionally used rhetoric such as “I am doing the Lord’s work.”

    To claim that this rhetoric makes Hitler a Christian is to confuse
    political opportunism with personal conviction. Hitler himself says in Mein Kampf that his public statements should be understood as propaganda that bears no relation to the truth but is designed to sway the masses.

    The Nazi idea of an Aryan Christ who uses the sword to cleanse the
    earth of the Jews — what historians call “Aryan Christianity” — was
    obviously a radical departure from the traditional Christian
    understanding and was condemned as such by Pope Pius XI at the time. Moreover, Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not religious, it was racial. Jews were targeted not because of their religion — indeed many German Jews were completely secular in their way of life — but because of their racial identity. This was an ethnic and not a religious designation. Hitler’s anti-Semitism was secular.

    more >>>

    • Galileo

      You make good points, but he still used Christianity to justify his actions, which is an indictment of it whether he believed in it or not. What constitutes “traditional Christian understanding” anyhow? There are various branches of Christianity that believe very different accounts of the same ideas today. The Nazi interpretations would would just be one more on that list even if they aren’t part of popular Catholic or Protestant doctrine.

      • RogerMcKinney

        The Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant branches all agree on the essential facts of history, though they disagree on the application. Only the “modernist” or “liberal” churches disagree with the historical facts; they think none of the Bible is historical.

  • RogerMcKinney

    The quote suggests that only if you have never read Christian writers on the subject. The point of the Christian writers and modern atheists such as Rosenberg and Singer is that atheists who act morally are acting inconsistently with their atheism. Christian writers are pointing out the inconsistency of atheist behavior, not their immorality.

    And no, it doesn’t take omniscience, just common sense.

    • Galileo

      Stating that acting morally is inconsistent with atheism is the same as saying atheism and morality cannot coexist. This is factually incorrect, and there is nothing inconsistent about it.

      A sense of morality has nothing to do with faith- at a basic level morality is established by how we desire to be treated in this world. As humans, we can teach our children and our peers what is “right” without instilling in them fear of eternal consequences if they do not abide. “Do unto others” is as old as existence itself and religion holds no monopoly on that concept. This is why atheism and morality perfectly coexist, more often in a way that faith and morality do not.

      • RogerMcKinney

        So how do you respond to leading modern atheists, like Rosenberg and Singer, who insist that atheists can’t know what is right and wrong?

        And you fail to see is the subtle shift in the definition of “moral” that you made. Morality as defined by Western civilization since Aristotle has been objective and universal. That is the definition of morality the great atheist philosophers used and leading academic atheists today (Rosenberg and Singer et al) use.

        But you switched to a definition that is purely personal feelings and desire. So if my desire is to kill you and it suits my self-interest, you have no rational for calling that wrong; it’s merely different from yours. And it doesn’t matter if you get all of the planet to agree with you. All that means is you found people who agree with you.

        Of course, most people today define morality in terms of their personal preferences of a group of people. It just shows how dishonest most modern atheists are for redefining a term to win an argument. That sort of morality is trivial. Everyone has preferences and it’s trivial to find other people who have similar preferences. But that isn’t morality in the traditional use of the word. What atheists like you do is latch on to traditional Christian morality.

        Your type of morality gives you no authority to punish another person for violating the preferences of your group. Your morality is nothing more than a housing covenant. You can ask people to leave your group but you have no authority for punishment.

        • Galileo

          Let me give you the definition of morality
          Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.
          Behavior as it is affected by the observation of these principles.

          I didn’t assert any definition of morality previously, although this is one I am completely comfortable with. Instilling fear of retribution in the afterlife isn’t a uniquely Christian concept if that’s what you were inferring.

          But in what world is morality universal? More importantly, if morality was universal, why would faith be a necessary component? Morality isn’t even universal within faiths. This is why you can’t atribute it to religion because the same people of the same faith don’t even agree on it. I haven’t read anything by the writers you keep bringing up over and over, but it doesn’t matter, arguing that religion is necessary for morality is one I dispute

          As was pointed out in another comment, the basis for what is moral was appropriated by religions from man. Religion didn’t invent morality, and therefore morality is possible without it. That aside, if you think it takes a book or a set of mythology to understand that killing someone is wrong, or stealing is wrong, then you don’t give humanity enough credit. How could anyone argue that someone of faith cannot know morality when so often people of faith do not know it either. It is the rule of law that carries authority to punish an individual, and faith isn’t a necessary component now, nor was it ever, in establishing that law and guiding people towards moral behavior.

          Nope, no faith required to understand that.

          • RogerMcKinney

            I agree completely. You gave the modern definition of morality, and it was easy to determine from your posts that you were using the modern definition.

            I’m saying that wasn’t always the definition of morality. Rosenberg and Singer, among others, still use the old definition. The new definition agrees with the philosophers that the old morality can’t exist without God.

  • RogerMcKinney

    Anyone can claim to be a Christian; that doesn’t make them one. And in Hitler’s Germany, most “Christians” did not believe in the fundamentals of the faith – the divinity of Christ, his virgin birth, physical death and resurrection. Germans had created a new religion devoid of the doctrines of traditional Christianity but retaining all of the key words and phrases, an enormous act of dishonesty. Hitler could have easily been one of those Christians.

    • So, you’re the arbiter of who is Christian and who is not? And whether that is the only valid belief system? I’ll bear that in mind. :-/

      • RogerMcKinney

        I’m not the arbiter; the Bible is and it is pretty clear on who is and isn’t a Christian. Reason, philosophy and history demonstrate that Christianity is the only valid belief system.

        • Sounds like confirmation bias if I ever heard it.

          • RogerMcKinney

            Then you can’t tell the difference between confirmation bias and sound logic.

  • Tim Whelan

    Assuming the Bible is the word of God. The word of God as written in the Bible hasn’t stopped Christians from burning heathens, witches, jews, waging illegal wars and
    sexually abusing children. People holding belief in the word of God hasn’t
    stopped them from carrying out these immoral acts, just as not believing in the
    word of God does not stop people from leading good lives. It is human decision
    making – people’s interpretation of the word of God which has lead them to do
    right and wrong. Just as I would trust a priest not to abuse my children I
    would also hope – whether as a Christian or an atheist, one would trust an
    atheist shoe company not to fund a terrorist organisation. Maybe for some
    people that’s taking a leap of faith? Albeit a very small one. But then again,
    I’d also trust someone with an MA not to write such sensationalist nonsense and
    in this case my faith has been disappointed.

    • RogerMcKinney

      Just as an atheist can act morally, and thereby contradict his faith, Christians do the same thing when they act immorally.

    • RogerMcKinney

      PS, what Hilton wrote is not nonsense; it is standard philosophy.

      • It is not “standard philosophy” (whatever that is) to state that “good” cannot be defined outside a diety’s direction. For one thing, even using scripture as a template, one can define morality in thousands of different ways. Which scripture? The Torah, the New Testament, the Koran, the Tao Te Ching… what? Even sticking to the Old and New Testaments, I guarantee that every denomination, sect, parish, and congregation comes to different conclusions. And those conclusions are different than their ancestors arrived at.

        What’s the difference between that or using using law and secular philosophy as a guide? Except for the fact that reason was used to develop the latter?

        • RogerMcKinney

          Yes, it is standard philosophy. Read a book on philosophy sometime. I suggest you start with the Atheist’s Guide to Reality by Alex Rosenberg. You’ll find most of the answers to your questions in it.

          No, honest people cannot come up with different morality using the Bible. Honest people follow the principles of hermeneutics which severely limit interpretation.

          • Another good one: Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart.

          • RogerMcKinney

            The description sounds good, but the author is a Christian. I doubt many atheists will read it. Rosenberg is a leading atheist philosopher who says the same things about atheism that Christian philosophers have been saying.

  • bTrain

    “However, once one tosses God out of the picture, then “good” is impossible to define.”

    that assertion is completely unfounded. Your god gives you one possible definition, that doesn’t mean it gives you the only possible definition. If that were the case you would never eat shrimp but instead you pick and choose what to believe from your literature.

    Buddhist monks do not all have gods, do you seriously believe they cannot possible define good?

    • RogerMcKinney

      As explained in the posts above, you are looking at good in the post-modern sense of the word, which means that “good” is whatever anyone defines it to be. In the post-modern sense, defining “good” is a very trivial act: good is what I say it is. End of discussion.

      But “good” in the sense that Hilton is using it means something very old and universal. Clearly, the discussions on this blog prove that very few people today can even conceive of a definition of “good” other than the post-modern one. It appears too difficult for people today to even get their heads around.

      The idea of “good” that Hilton uses reigned from pre-history until roughly WWII in the US. It was the foundation of Western civilization. Many atheist philosophers still use it, such as Peter Singer and Alex Rosenberg. If you want a good idea of the ancient meaning of “good” from an atheist’s perspective, read Rosenberg’s “Atheist’s guide to reality.”

      It’s odd that I spend most of my time blogging with atheists in instructing them in what atheism is all about. Atheists today hold to an anemic version that is full of contradictions and absurdities and refusal to face reality. Being a real atheist is more than just denying that God exists. Any junior high student can do that. It’s trivial and childish. In fact, almost every atheist I have known are read about decided to be an atheist in junior high when they had neither the knowledge nor intellectual ability to discuss the subject.

      The ancient idea of “good” that Hilton writes about is objective, in the sense that it is based on principles deduced by reason by sound assumptions about reality. It is universal in that it comes from outside of mankind and is not the invention of any man. It has authority because only God has authority over men; no man has any moral authority over other men. It is good because it promotes the flourishing of mankind.