The other day I read a really insightful post by Melinda Selmys. She said that goodness, truth, and beauty are all one, but that each of us is attracted to a different aspect. Some want truth for truth's sake, and they find out that the truth is good; others are just looking for beauty and find it in the truth.
It certainly seems that it's true for goodness and truth. I remember saying of a friend of mine who had become an atheist, "What he loves more than anything is the truth. And since God is truth, when he comes to the end of his life, he will find he was loving God all along."
Me, I'm a goodness person. If I found out for sure that I could possess goodness only by abandoning the truth, that's what I'd do. But of course it doesn't work that way. You can't ever know what goodness is unless you have the truth about it. And because you're always finding new information and ending up in new situations, you have to seek the truth all the time if you want to be good. So yes, you can't have goodness without truth. I'm not entirely sure that seeking goodness will necessarily bring you to the truth, though. Until you have the truth, you can't know that goodness is goodness! So I think either way you should seek truth.
Truth alone doesn't necessitate goodness, though. You could know the truth and just not want to make the right choices. The Church says that's what Satan did. And I've run across some incredibly smart people with a very keen grasp of the truth who then came up with monstrous morality out of it -- because they knew what reality was like, they just didn't want the same sorts of things I want.
But beauty .... I don't really know that beauty is necessarily connected to either goodness or truth. I'll go further: I feel that my whole life has been one long reluctant walk from beauty into truth. When I was a kid, I believed in fairies, because fairies were beautiful and I wanted them to be real. As I got older, I couldn't believe in them anymore because there was just too much evidence that there weren't any. I had a while as a pantheist, because nothing seems more beautiful and fitting than that everything around me is interconnected and conscious -- but again, after awhile, I just couldn't make myself believe that it was really so.
Reality is not perfectly shaped to human taste. It feels like it ought to be true that a person's spirit lingers in the places where they've been -- I certainly feel the presence of my friends and family while wandering around their homes, even when they're not there. But the truth is that my mind associates their space with them and imagines their presence all by itself. When I have a bad day, it seems like a pattern of bad luck is following me around, but it's just apophenia. The more I understand about how the human mind works, the less prone I am to assume, "Because it feels like it must be true, it is."
Perhaps it would be best if we thought of these three things as the goals of different mental powers: truth is what we know, goodness is what we choose, beauty is what we enjoy. Sometimes we choose what isn't true, because we didn't spend enough time pursuing the truth or because we don't want it. Sometimes we enjoy what we know is imaginary -- fairy tales, artificial flowers, airbrushed models.
Of course ideally they would be unified. We would know the truth, enjoy it, and choose it -- we would find the wrinkled grandmother beautiful because of her love, and seek the truth only to do good with it. But I don't think we can properly unify these three goods by pursuing only one of them and assuming the others will follow. You really do have to give attention to all three, if you want any of them.
The reason atheism is not more attractive -- even for the "nones," various kinds of spiritualism are pretty popular -- is because people aren't convinced it contains all three of these goods. Can it be good to know there's no cosmic punishment for evildoers or reward for the righteous? Can it be beautiful to think that you will eventually die and be eaten by worms? Even if it's true, no one wants it, because most people don't pay as much attention to truth as to goodness and beauty, not when they're looking for a religion.
I think goodness is definitely to be found in atheism -- there are great moral systems there and some incredibly good atheists. They give a lot to charity, volunteer, and treat others with kindness, and they do it either because they are naturally attracted to goodness (most of us are) or because they have a solid, true philosophical grounding that convinces them it's the right thing to do. The only trouble is that people don't know this, so they assume atheists have no morals.
Beauty is harder. Atheism isn't to a human scale. It's just plain not as beautiful to me to live in a world where so many things aren't particularly meaningful. I want everything to be meaningful. I find a great deal of beauty in the world as it is, but I'd be lying if I didn't say it would be more beautiful to think it had all been tailor-made by someone who loved me infinitely. Isn't that why people believe it in the first place? Religion fills in the holes of the things we don't understand and can never be okay with: why we long to be understood, but no one will ever understand us; why we spend all of our time longing for either the future or the past, but no moments last; why we fear death so much when it's the one certainty of every life. These things hurt; they're not the pictures we would paint if we were holding the brush.
At the same time, I think there's beauty to be made, even of materialism. For instance, when I die, I'm not just worm food -- the nitrogen and carbon in my body will re-enter the cycle of the earth and perhaps one day be part of another creature. It's still disturbing to think of my consciousness no longer being present, but seeing it this way is somewhat comforting. Or to think of my stories, my genes, my little rituals and traditions, surviving in my children.
Studying nature is pretty much always beautiful, but you have to have the right eyes. It can look a little brutal sometimes -- like when you watch a nature video and you're rooting for the baby harp seal, but then the polar bear who doesn't catch the seal lies down and starves to death. It's harsh and unlovely. But the amazing level of order and complexity, the survival of all that is best and brightest, and the immense vastness of the universe are all beautiful. But it's the strange beauty you might see in art made by aliens. It wasn't made for you. You have to learn to see it.
In short, I don't think beauty, goodness, and truth are all one. I think they're all important, but they must be sought separately, each with its own method. If you seek only one, and ignore the others, you might just end up with none of them.