Can We Be Good Without God?

Some useful resources connected to my recent dialogue at the University of Alberta

On Tuesday 23 January 2018, I had a dialogue with Dr. Howard Nye at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. We had a wide ranging conversation covering atheism, Christianity, goodness, justice and a wide range of other topics.

Here are a few resources for folks who want to follow up on some of what we talked about:


Science and God

“Science has buried God!” an atheist friend remarked to me. That’s a claim I hear ever more frequently in the media, online, or on the lips of celebrity atheists. A few years ago I had the chance to interview one of the UK’s leading atheists, Dr. Peter Atkins of Oxford University, who put it bluntly: “Science gives you the promise of understanding while you’re alive. Religion offers the prospect of understanding when you’re dead.”

Is Christianity Dying?

Scarcely a month goes by without the media running a story that the church in the UK is dying. For example, British newspaper, The Telegraph, recently reported that “more than half of the population has no faith and the share of the population who say they are Church of England Christians has fallen to just 15%—the lowest ever recorded.” So is Christianity in a death spiral and can secularists look forward to a godless Utopia? Well, as ever, things aren’t that straightforward.

Can Life Have Meaning Without God

I recently debated Andrew Copson, CEO of the British Humanist Association, on this important topic, at the University of Hull. The full debate — including the discussion and Q&A — can be watched here:

If you’re a skeptic, an agnostic, or a seeker, I encourage you to think about the issues this debate raises. If you’re a Christian, I’d also encourage you to watch it as this topic is a powerful way to introduce the gospel to friends, colleagues and neighbours.

Is God Against My Freedom?

One of my favourite movies is Braveheart. Who could forget that stirring speech made by Mel Gibson, playing Scottish hero William Wallace, as he motivates his troops at the Battle of Stirling Bridge with the cry: “They may take our lives, but they can never take our freedom!”

Freedom is a powerful idea and probably our culture’s supreme value. People want to believe they are free to choose their ethics, beliefs, values, and more. Our culture proclaims that choice is good, the more of it the better, and anything that restricts it is bad. And that’s a problem when it comes to God—surely, the protest goes, God is anti­-freedom. Don’t I have to choose between my personal autonomy and a belief in God?

Can We Be Good Without God?

Some of what follows is drawn from chapter 8 of my book, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist. If you enjoyed it, please do consider buying the full book, which is available both as a paperback and an ebook. It’s available online, or from all good bookstores.

A few years ago, I was having lunch with an old friend in a vegetarian pizza restaurant in London. Now I’m no fan of vegetarian food—I think I’m persuaded by the argument that the word “vegetarian” is derived from an old German word that means “bad hunter”. However, my friend, Garth, had just started dating a devout Buddhist, so he was not merely eating vegetarian, but vegan.

Halfway through the meal, I looked up from my lentil and sawdust pizza to see Garth surreptitiously produce a small plastic container from his pocket: he opened it and shook out the contents over his pizza.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Tuna,” he hissed in a whisper.

“Tuna?” I said.

“Shhhh!” Garth hissed. “Not every vegan takes the liberal approach that I do. Besides,” he added, “I don’t know what all the fuss is. So I eat fish. Big deal. Fish doesn’t count as meat, does it? It can’t be meat if it lives in water.”

“You claim to be a vegan and you eat fish?” I asked.

“Yes. And prawns, crab, shellfish, lobster, that kind of thing.”

“Strangest vegan I’ve ever met,” I said.

“Duck, too,” he added.


“Well, they live in water don’t they.”

“Let me get this straight,” I said, “ you’re claiming to be a vegan—telling your girlfriend, your colleagues, and your family that you’re a vegan, subjecting your friends to vegan restaurants—all the while chowing down on anything that moves. Why not just come clean and admit you’re an omnivore like the rest of us: it’s the hypocrisy that galls me.”

Hypocrisy?” Garth said, looking genuinely offended. “I thought you’d be more, well, progressive. And besides, who says that you get to define what the word ‘vegan’ means? Who died and pronounced you King of the Dictionary? I say ‘vegan’ to me means ‘occasionally eats meat when there is a vowel in the month’. How dare you tell me your meaning of the word trumps mine.”


27 Places / 3 Questions

At this time of year, our deck is one of my favourite places to read. I love the view of our garden and the rambling, overgrown pathway that leads into the small woods that lie at the rear. I love the sound of the wind in the trees and the patterns of sunlight cast by the leaves. And I love the feel of the warm wooden boards of the deck beneath my feet. It was sitting there in the sunshine one weekend, idly reading a newspaper, that my eye was drawn to an article on the front page: “Twenty-Seven Places to See Before You Die”. Always drawn to a potentially good travel piece, I turned to the article. There, accompanied by some stunning photography, was laid out a collection of beautiful locations—Yosemite Valley, Cape Tribulation, the jagged peaks of Torres del Paine; even the English Lake District.

Dialogue Without Diatribe

How can we learn to disagree without being disagreeable?

I was recently speaking at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, where I’d been asked to address the topic “Does Religion Poison Everything?” During the lecture, one student at the back of the lecture room gesticulated wildly every time I made a point with which he disagreed. At the end of the talk, there was a time of Q&A and this student was among the first to raise his hand. He began by self-identifying as an atheist and then proceeded to ask a series of increasingly complex questions about moral philosophy. After the event was over, the student found his way to the front and continued his questions and we went to and fro for about half an hour across a range of issues: Can you be good without God? Do you need God for moral values? What does the good life look like? Finally the student shook my hand and said, “I’ve disagreed with almost everything you’ve said in the last 90 minutes. But this has been the most fascinating conversation I can remember and you’ve given me much to think about. Thank you.”