Living a "good life" without God?

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”
-Marcus Aurelius

An atheist friend recently put this argument forward to me, and I’m honestly a bit stumped.

I’m no philosopher or theologian, but it would seem to me that “virtue” would be rather subjective in this case. I’m struggling to respond adequately, since arguing from a religious/Christian perspective alone is not helpful (since my friend is not a believer).

Any thoughts?

It’s kind of all up to God. I don’t really know. But, if you were a Christian then converted over to Atheism, I would fear for you because you knew Jesus at one point.

To be clear: I’m a devout Catholic and definitely don’t agree with the argument/my friend on this one. I’m just trying to figure out how to respond most clearly. :wink:

Marcus Aurelius had a lot of good ideas, but he’s wrong about this.

If there is a God and He is just, then because of His nature he gets to decide what qualifies as just and what justifies. We don’t get to decide whether His requirements for eternal life are just or unjust. If God is perfectly just then by comparison all of our virtues look like filthy rags to Him. Virtue is not enough because he also requires faith in Jesus. In the reading for today’s mass Jesus says, “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through Me.” His game, his rules.

I’m willing to bet your friend hasn’t completely given up on god if they are willing to argue to see your reaction. People of questionable faith seek out there "religious " friends and try to stump them. I recommend buying the book “Case for a creator” by Lee Strobel reading it and giving it to your friend. That book put all my doughts to rest.

What exactly do you disagree about? It looks like his thesis is “Live a good life,” which seems pretty uncontroversial.

Sorry, I was arguing from a Christian perspective before. I see now you say that wouldn’t be helpful. Try this then:

Ask your friend What is justice? What is virtue? And where does he get his definitions?

Without God, it’s very difficult to define virtue, since it becomes subjective, although you don’t have to bring God into it.

Marcus Aurelius words have no authority but are very poetic and are a not-unreasonable position for an agnostic to consider. I don’t say ‘atheist’ who presumes to say “God does not exist” as if ‘atheists’ know for certain something of which they cannot truly be certain. They can only honestly say, “I do not believe that God exists”.

However there is ambiguity in what Marcus Aurelius says, as what is a definition of a good life or a noble life? For anyone who does not accept God’s existence and authority, as you suggest, interpretations are subjective. How we apply the definitions in our own daily lives is to some degree a subjective interpretation of what God requires of our lives in the Commandments. However we agree on basic principles of what goodness means in Christian teaching and truth. Agnostics draw their interpretations from…where? For some, now, it might mean the Christian presumptions that still do permeate many parts of our world and society even where awareness of the source has been lost?

What Marcus Aurelius meant by ‘good’ and ‘noble’ is not explained in the quote…
We mean what the commandments and beatitudes teach. Jesus requires in Matthew 25 verses 31-46, practical acts of assistance and kindness to others in their needs, which Jesus reveals is loving God. We regard a good life as loving God above all and others as self.

You could ask your friend what he/she understands as good and noble, but I wouldn’t make too much of it because it is a poetic reflection from a philosophic mind not an argument against faith. It is an argument with which an agnostic might seek to reassure himself.

I think, if we’re honest, the definition of such concepts as “a good life” (as in a virtuous life), altruism, and selflessness, to name a few, have made huge strides in penetrating our collective psyche due to the contributions of Christianity, due to the light Christ brought into the world. I doubt that love of ones enemy, as opposed to vanquishing him, or forgiving/turning the other cheek, were items even on the table as an option for previous societies in any kind of universal or grand scale. Social justice concerns as well are largely the product of a society challenged to live according to higher morals standards because those standards are seen as being objective in an absolute sense as they’re perceived to come from a higher source, related in some sense to the foundations of this universe rather than issuing merely from my own preferences on any given day.

Having said that I do think we should recognize the contributions of philosophers and thinkers who perhaps delved deeply enough to recognize the beauty of virtue, but IMO they were dimly perceiving something that Christianity revealed and made definitive in greater depth and clarity-the image of God in themselves.

By what mechanism did we manage to acquire the ability to understand virtue, and nobility, and love? And why would these traits live on in anyone’s memory, if we did not first understand them to be sublime and above nature? How does nature develop anything unseen and above itself?

To acknowledge the existence and goodness of these things, as Aurelius does, is admirable but limiting; to take the next step and acknowledge their origin is to approach an understanding of humility and truth and freedom.

I know that if I were a Roman emperor, it could be tough to take that step. As Christians though, we must.

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