Recently, the Pew Research Center came out with a study saying that the majority of Americans believe that it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values. A 2011 study on the question reflected that 49 percent believed that it was not necessary, while in 2017—only six years later—that number shifted to nearly 56 percent. I found it most interesting that these numbers were not only influenced by the increase of those who are atheist and irreligious; the numbers had also risen amongst believers—Protestant and Catholic.
The outcome of this study begs the questions: What is morality really all about? Is it just arbitrary and made up by society? Is morality just about being a good person? Or is it about something deeper? If there is no God, then who defines what is a “good person” or the characteristics of “good moral values”?
Those who would subscribe to the irrelevance of God for the moral life may also hold—not necessarily, but probably—a generally less demanding personal moral responsibility. Some of the same people may say something along the lines of, “Well I haven’t killed anyone… so I am a pretty good person.” While it is certainly good that murder is considered a moral evil, it is hardly the only requirement.
What would our answer be to the question of God’s relevance to the moral life?
As a Christian people who come together every Sunday, our presence together says that acknowledging the existence of God and having a relationship with him is important. Our coming together to worship—even though we often fail to be the best we can be and even though we don’t find deep fulfillment in our world—says that we have come together to encounter the God that can change everything. Our communal prayer as a Christian people helps to show that is it not only loving others that is necessary, because in first loving God, we come to not only love others but love them as fully as possible.
In Mark 12:28B-34, we hear of a story that speaks to the question of the relationship between morality and the belief in God. In the story, a man approaches Jesus and asks him about the moral life: “What is the first of the commandments?” Essentially, “How should I act and how should I be as a person?” Jesus answers, “The first is this: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (emphasis added).
In other words, morality flows from our love of God! While one is not more important than the other—loving God or others is not mutually exclusive—there is a right order in which they should develop. Morality is not just about arbitrary laws, but about the relationships of love that we have with both God and others.
Morality is about the law of the heart, the law of love. Since God is love, God and our moral lives are thus at the heart of who we are and who we are called to be. Yet, as shown in the Pew study, oftentimes we want to reverse the teaching of Jesus. We want to love our neighbor…and then show our love for God if it will end up proving beneficial.
Certainly, there are people in our lives whom we may personally know to live morally upright lives even though they do not believe in God. That, however, does not mean that those values didn’t come from the truths that religion reveals and proclaims. Many who say that belief in God is not necessary for morality take for granted that the whole of Western civilization was founded on the principles of Christianity.
One of these fundamental teachings that is taken for granted is Christianity’s deep and intrinsic understanding of human dignity: that each human life is sacred. Our God did not just create us as blobs of flesh, blood, and brain. He created us uniquely in his own imageand likeness. We are called to a radical love of others because of this inherent dignity.
Even if someone may not intellectually believe in God, I think their moral uprightness of selflessness and charity nonetheless point to his existence. Without God, the divine source of reality, from where would come this intrinsic, sacred dignity? We act as moral persons because deep down we know that each person is created by God, that each person is another Christ before us. We cannot love God fully without loving our neighbor, and we cannot love our neighbor fully without loving God.
As Christians, are we adding or subtracting to the conclusion of the Pew study? Our witness can either greatly help or hurt society’s understanding of the intimate relationship that exists between the love of God and love of our neighbor. Do we show that our first love of God directly impacts love of our neighbor in the Church parking lot after Mass; in the grandstands of our sporting events; in our internet browsing; or in the hallways of our schools? Our relationship and love of God can never be separated or follow after love of others.
Lastly, I think the Church’s Feast of All Saints completely contradicts the outcome of the Pew study. Each one of us is called not just to be a “good person” or to live a mediocre moral life, but to love radically—to be a saint. And who were the saints? The saints were men and women who knew God and loved others radically because of it. Their love of others was never separated from their love of God.
As I was thinking and praying about this study I thought about St. Mother Teresa. One story from her life that I came across beautifully illuminates her supreme love of God.
One day, Mother Teresa took in a woman off the streets of Calcutta. Her body was a mess of open sores infested with bugs. Mother Teresa patiently bathed her, cleaning and dressing her wounds.
The woman never stopped shrieking insults and threats at her. Mother Teresa only smiled.
Finally, the woman snarled, “Sister, why are you doing this? Not everyone behaves like you. Who taught you?”
She replied simply, “My God taught me.” When the woman asked who this god was, Mother Teresa kissed her on the forehead and said: “You know my God. My God is called love.”
Deacon David Stavarz is a transitional deacon for the Diocese of Cleveland. He is a graduate of Borromeo College Seminary and is currently finishing his formation at St. Mary Graduate Seminary, in Cleveland, Ohio.