Doing Good Without God


As a result of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, including Washington, D.C., Georgetown’s Catholic community is abuzz with excitement and praise for the pontiff. It doesn’t take much more than a glance at one’s Facebook feed to know that people are excited to see a pope who is changing the focus of the church to issues such as poverty, climate change and humanitarian crises, which many argue should have been the primary focuses of the church all along. This new pope helps attract a younger generation that is less inculcated in Catholic thought and more focused on social progressivism than previous generations. For this, we applaud Pope Francis.

However, for those who are newly interested in the Catholic Church because of the message of this progressive pontiff, we’d like to highlight one key point: the Catholic Church does not own being good, nor does any faith. Being a good person is a universal principle that lies outside of religious doctrine.

While it is laudable that the pope, with the megaphone that he has, would call upon the nations of Europe to welcome refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East into their countries, homes and parishes, many leaders in Europe have also called for countries to accept refugees. Notably, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande have led their nations to accept more refugees on explicitly moral grounds. Hospitality is an ancient custom that predates the Catholic Church, and the people and countries taking in refugees are not necessarily doing so because God or the church told them.

Likewise, on the issue of climate change, environmental activists have been trying to frame global climate change as a moral issue for years, and the pope’s words of action are helpful and appreciated. That said, to assume that the only reason that one should care for the environment is in order to be a better Catholic is to ignore the work of those most dedicated to this cause.

Imagine that a leading atheist such as Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher called for the exact same things that the pope has and was able to reach the same amount of people. It does not take a particularly bright mind to realize that he would be given much less credence, almost exclusively because of his religious preference. And yet the substance of his proposal would remain the same. In its own way, this is a kind of discrimination. Atheists the world over, including here in the United States, are distrusted and believed to be immoral because most people believe that morality is inextricably linked with religious thought.

This ostensible religious monopoly on morality has real world consequences. According to the Pew Foundation, only 41 percent of Americans view atheists positively. Only 45 percent would even consider voting for a qualified atheist for public office. Fewer people would be comfortable with their son or daughter marrying an atheist than a person with any other faith, knowing nothing else about the person.

People seem to believe that atheists are nihilists or that they have rejected the moral foundations of our society. This is simply not the case. Of the 16 percent of Americans who do not profess any religious belief, at least 5 percent are self-identified atheists, which equals about 15.8 million people. These are law-abiding Americans who find their moral centers in philosophy, societal norms and common human decency. But because religious groups are credited with exclusive moral authority, most Americans would deny them basic rights.

We, as Georgetown students, respect Pope Francis because he advocates on behalf of our fellow man for the least among us and the most in need. These are common moral principles that people of all faiths or none can embrace. We ask that nonreligious people be given the same right to a judgment of character as religious people — not immediately labeled as amoral nihilists. Every person is much more complicated than his religious affiliation and condemning him based on a single belief misses who he really is. As Pope Francis himself said, “Who am I to judge?”


Joseph Laposata is a senior in the College. Garrett Hinck is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.


  1. Natural good works, as opposed to supernatural good works infused by agape are not meritorious and therefore are not acceptable by God.

    • To assume that good works not intellectually recognized by the actor as enabled by the divine is to deny prevenient grace. So, from a vantage point of limited knowledge, as all humans are by our nature, it is impossible to pass absolute judgement on the presence of divine grace in another’s action, even if that person does not intellectually affirm the proposition that there exists a Deity.

      • That should read: “To assume that *about* good works…etc”

      • “In order to rightly understand the value of good works,
        it is crucial therefore to distinguish two different kinds of
        “good works”: natural and supernatural. In a person in a
        state of mortal sin, there can still be “good works” according
        to natural human virtue. Thus a person in a state of
        mortal sin can still love his family, be generous to others
        in need, work for the common good of his country, even
        die for his country in military service. In addition, a person
        in mortal sin can have faith and hope (dead faith and
        dead hope). However, none of these works, since they are
        not inspired by supernatural charity, are meritorious for
        eternal life. Hence St. Paul says that “if I have prophetic
        powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,
        and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have
        not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I
        deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain
        nothing.” (1 Cor 13:2). Such works done without charity may
        be naturally good, but they are not proportioned to eternal
        life, which is the life of God who is love.
        Works moved and inspired by supernatural charity,
        on the contrary, are “good works” in a far higher sense.
        Because they stem from God’s own gift of love, they can
        merit an increase of that same gift of love. Thus they
        contribute to a growth in justification/sanctification and
        merit eternal life.” Lawrence Feingold

        • Again, I don’t deny the metaphysical claim you make about the status of divinely infused works versus works stemming from our own power. However, no human person can know the state of another’s soul, neither can anyone tell if a work done by another is infused with prevenient grace – God working through that action towards the internal conversion of the person. If you claim that an atheist’s works are not infused with grace – even prevenient grace – then you assume an epistemic privilege that no teaching affords you. So, the most you can say is that the actions of unconverted people do not necessarily spring from a source of grace (although they might due to the salvific will of God) and therefore may not hold any spiritual weight.

          • I agree with you about no one knowing the state of another’s soul or whether an atheist or anyone else who is not a Christian. Mr. Feingold’s qualification for his distinction seems to be that for natural vs supernatural good works is whether one is In has committed A mortal sin, not that we can know this ourselves about someone. Even the good works of a Catholic who has been in a state of grace for several years but who then commits a mortal sin and who has not confessed those sins is no longer in a state of grace and such good works are not accepted by God, nor are the good works meritorious. We can’t know that but the person who committed the mortal sin can. Any good works done by anyone not in a state of grace are only natural good works unacceptable to God.

  2. Only thing I heard in this article is that atheists are nihilists?

  3. This article comes off less as a defense of atheism and more as a detraction from the Pope. It’s fine to be atheist, but you have to acknowledge the fact that the Pope is a meaningful figure for literally billions of people in the Catholic faith, and that his words are bound to have an impact on them greater than the same words from Bill Maher (who’s kind of an annoying dude anyway).

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