Can We Be “Good without God”?

subway_ad_nyc_smA billboard erected near Chicago’s loop posses this question “Are you good without God?” with the answer, “Millions are.” Also, on Monday, October 26, 2009, Manhattan commuters will be greeted at twelve subway stations with posters asking “A Million New Yorkers are good without God. Are you?” These ads sponsored by the United Coalition for Reason (UnitedCoR) coincide with the launch of Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University. Ad campaigns in other cities will be launched as Epstein continues to tour the country to talk about not just his book but a larger movement to put a positive spin on the face of atheism.

Based on the reporting on this campaign by media outlets such as the New York Times and The Chicago Tribune one could conclude that this campaign is yet advertising blitz to cash in on the buzz generated by a crop of New Atheist best-selling books. On the surface, these campaigns may look similar. But Epstein notes that while like the New Atheists, he doesn’t believe in God, he differs with them on some of the methods they employ to advance their cause.

When I asked Epstein why he joined forces with UnitedCoR last spring, he said that they were both interested in building a positive movement among nontheistic groups. They were interested in launching an awareness campaign, and they both agreed that his book title represented a great slogan for this campaign. Epstein observes, “Good without God, to me, is effective as a bite-sized slogan because it draws attention not only to the words ‘without God’ but to the concept of ‘Good.’ It reminds us nonreligious people that we are for something, not just against something—and all people, whether religious or secular, need to be reminded to be positive and constructive rather than just negative and critical.”

In addition to visiting at least a dozen coalitions in 2009, Epstein plans on participating in community service projects in many of the cities, as part of “Secular Service Day,” an idea launched by some of his students at Harvard. While the thrust of his book aims at presenting a positive side to atheism, Epstein seeks to build bridges among faith communities as well around issues of common concern such as the environment and sex trafficking.

Time will tell if such bridges can be built or if, like other advertising campaigns, they’re more slick than substance and buzz dies when the posters start peeling. Based on the success of projects such as the documentary A Purple State of Mind, which began touring in 2008 continues to spark discussions among Christians and atheists, as well as dialogues like the upcoming Killing the Buddha event in New York City with Frank Schaeffer, I’m inclined to think Epstein might be on to something here.

Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).