Good Without Gods
Let’s say you go to the Pineview Baptist Church.
Picture an imaginary box that represents the church and its congregation, a container for all the practices, beliefs and acts the church holds dear.
Somewhere in this box is the subject and substance of Morality – all the actions, arguments, rationale and justification for being Good. Probably every member of PBC would tell you that Morality is wholly contained within the box of Pineview Baptist.
They’d say you couldn’t have morality without being a member of their religion. Some of them might even say you couldn’t be really moral without being a member of their specific church. To those people, no deliberate moral act could take place outside the Baptist Church, or, specifically, Pineview Baptist Church. “If there is no God, what keeps you from robbing and raping?” is really the speaker’s way of saying just that.
Considering that we’re talking about a mental model of the relationship between religion and morality, let’s call that morality-contained-within-PBC idea Morality Model 1.
Can Model 1 be valid? Let’s look at a moral issue for a moment and see if it holds up.
For now, we’ll avoid hot-button subjects such as abortion and rape and sending your kids to Father Feely’s Choirboy Training Ranch, and go for something small and non-controversial, a pastorally positive moral act:
“Open doors for old people.”
Do you have to be a member of PBC to know this moral point? Nope. A Baptist? Obviously not.
You only have to know it.
Which means, simply and instantly, that Model 1 is not the right one. Under even the simplest and most basic scrutiny, Model 1 doesn’t hold up. Morality – at least as far as door opening is concerned – is not exclusively contained within Pineview Baptist Church.
If you thought goodness arrived only in a PBC wrapper, you’d never know it, though. You’d argue forever that morality was what your church said it was, and nothing else, and would focus on what your church wanted people to do rather than on good, fair, decent behavior. To you, every other approach would look like immorality ... while to the people in other churches, it might be you who looked immoral.
Note that insistence on the truth of Model 1 is not just a questionable idea that a few people hold from time to time. It is widespread and extremely persistent.
How about we consider a Morality Model 2? In Model 2, religion itself, some kind of devout faith, is the real deal, the true source of morality.
In this model, PBC exists within the larger framework of Religion – as, apparently, does Morality. This might not mean that any particular church in this larger box would necessarily contain morality. There might be churches that were decidedly immoral – say one where the leaders of the church forced old people to open the doors for them, because the leaders were considered the Chosen Ones.
But as long as they open doors for their elders, you could have Muslim moralists, Jewish moralists, Shinto moralists, even Judeo-Christian-Islamic Hootenanny moralists. But under Model 2, you could not have agnostic moralists. You could not have moralists who had never heard of religion. You could not have atheist moralists.
People really believe that. As an atheist, I’ve occasionally been confronted with the interesting argument “If you’re a good person, you’re really a Christian whether you know it or not.” It makes me think some people could see a dog eat grass and conclude it must be a pony.
Does Model 2 hold water?
Certainly there are plenty of Muslims and Jews who open doors for old people. Probably even Shintoists and Zoroastrians and Wiccans do it.
But do agnostics ever open doors for old people? Do atheists?
Having been both, and having known a number of atheists and agnostics, I can tell you the answer to that: They do.
That has to mean either that agnostics and atheists are really Hootenanny church material without knowing it or that Model 2 also fails to hold up.
I know for a fact there are atheists and agnostics, lots of them, who walk around day after day and not only open doors for older people but also completely fail to rape or kill anyone. Likewise, there are some Christians – and devout members of other faith traditions – who walk around day after day with murder and rape in their hearts and on their hands.
In a turnaround of the earlier argument that a moral person, even an avowed atheist, must be a Christian without knowing it, some people would insist that even a lifelong churchgoer was not a “real” Christian if he was capable of thinking or doing such things. Yeah, and maybe a horse that bucks off its rider isn’t a “real” horse.
Regardless, Model 2 also doesn’t hold up. Morals do not come exclusively from membership in some major faith tradition.
Is there another mental model of morality, a Morality Model 3?
For Pineview Baptist Church members, it’s this: Pineview Baptist has no causal connection at all to Morality. Morals do not depend on the specific religious beliefs of Pineview members. Neither are Pineview members automatically moral.
Furthermore, for religious people in general, morality and religion-in-general have no causal connection. Morals do not depend on basic religious beliefs. Neither are religious people automatically moral.
Down at the real-world base, here’s the real deal on morality: the box of Religion is totally separate from the box of Morality. Religion itself has no causal connection to morality. Immersing yourself in God, gods or holy books doesn’t make you moral.
In fact, the only link between the two is the shaky one that religious people deliberately make in an attempt to make their religion seem necessary – the hijacking of morality by the members of Pineview Baptist Church, along with the pompous crowing that only they are blessed with a moral code.
On a side note, it’s worth pointing out here that the Ten Commandments, which are often touted by fundamentalist Christians as some sort of ultimate moral anchor that simply must be shared with everyone, are not all that moral. The commandment to honor your mother and father is probably universally felt to be a good thing, but what can an outsider make of the commandments to “have no other gods before me” or to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”? Not only is there nothing in polite society that requires a person to remember the Sabbath, but remembering the Sabbath has nothing at all to do with helping create a polite society. These are sheer sectarian huckstering, as are one or two others – depending on which Ten Commandments you’re reading – and have no bearing at all on moral behavior in a culturally complex society.
If you’re going to have only ten ultimate moral statements you hope to share with your entire society, it just seems a waste to devote three or four of them to home-church cheer-leading.
The fact that the boxes of Religion and Morality are separate does not mean that PBC members can’t be extremely moral people. It does mean that moral people do not have to belong to PBC, or Judeo-Christian-Islamic Hootenanny, or any religion.
PBC members are not moral because they’re PBC members. JCIH believers are not moral because they’re JCIH believers. Neither are moral people somehow automatically PBC or JCIH members without knowing it.
People are moral because they care enough to make an effort to be good. Period.
Having said that morality does not come “exclusively” from PBC or some major faith tradition, it might seem that I leave the door open to churches as imperfect-but-acceptable places to learn morality. Some people think carefully selected churches are peachy-keen places to learn morals, and even agnostics sometimes send their kids to Sunday School to pick up the basics of “good” behavior.
However, there are some other problems with the traditional mental model of Religion Equals Morality. It turns out that both Model 1 and Model 2 have costs.
If morality consists of a body of good acts, it would be best if everybody knew just what those acts were, and how to do them. Right?
Open Doors for Old People
There, how hard is that?
But if one group after another overlays that with a sectarian advertisement – which they do – will the core message get through? Or will it become a mere side issue to the more loudly-proclaimed sectarian point?
“Pineview Baptist Church invites you to worship with us this Sunday, when Pastor Jimmy Bob Phillips will offer a sermon on the subject “Why We Open Doors for Our Good Pineview Baptist Elders.”
“We Judeo-Christian-Islamic Hootenanists are the Chosen People Because We Are the Sole Possessors of the Holy Truth of Morality, Which is ‘Open Doors for Old People.’ Those With the Truth of JCIH in Their Souls Shall Ascend Upon Death to an Immortal Paradise, Where All the Doors Shall be Opened, and Nobody Shall Be Old, Ever, and Besides, if There Are Doors, They Shall Have Those Supermarket Electric Eye Thingies and Open on Their Own Anyway. Whereas All the Rest, the Wicked Non-Door-Openers, Shall Burn Forever in Locked Rooms, While Demons Fornicate With Them With Flaming Demon Weenies, and They Shall Cry Forever for the Doors to Open, But the DoorKeeper Shall Turn Away His Face and Hear Them Not. So Join JCIH or Burn Forever, Heathen Scum.”
Churches, being churches, sometimes get quite wrong what moral behavior is. Those in the deep South were some of the strongest champions of slavery, and as recently as my own childhood, Southern Baptist churches were still aggressively segregated.
To some significant extent, churches often act as purveyors of sectarian rules rather than as champions of some larger moral code. Granted, churches serve as more than morality schools, but even non-churchy people often tend to see morality as a church issue. Religions have had a traditional lock on the subject of morality – so much so that in many places and times it has been practically forbidden to focus on the subject as a whole in any institution but a church.
The problem is, presented with the rhetoric of PBC, and JCIH, and forty or fifty other churches, sects and “faith-based” groups, your average guy on the street is going to be considerably confused about just what constitutes good behavior. A young person might even conclude that if so many different groups disagree about this business of opening doors for old people, maybe it’s not that good anyway. Maybe opening doors for old people is just sectarian bull poop. Maybe all of morality is sectarian bull poop. Worse, if he decides to give up his religion, maybe the package deal forces him to close the gate on trying to be caring, compassionate and law-abiding.
Imagine that you have a limited amount of time, energy and intelligence to bring to bear on a big problem – which is very much the case, isn’t it? Some of the things on your To Do list never get done.
Now imagine that you spend half of your problem-solving time, energy and intelligence on solving the problem and the other half on some other thing. That other thing might be interesting or fun or useful in some way, but it does nothing to solve the problem.
How quickly, efficiently and thoroughly will the problem get solved?
It makes sense that it will probably be solved less quickly, efficiently and thoroughly if you divert energy into other things than if you devote all of your time, energy and intelligence to the problem.
But then again, we’re all only human. Maybe it’s impossible to give a problem your all. Maybe you only have 50 percent of yourself you can bring to bear on a problem. Still, of that 50 percent, if you put 25 percent into the problem and the other 25 percent into dusting and genuflecting to your Our Lady of the Open Door shrine, how soon is the problem solved? It’s obvious: Less quickly than if you had used your “whole” 50 percent of problem-solving ability.
If morality and religion are separate conceptual fields, separate boxes, and you have the goal of increasing moral behavior, but you try to do it by spending a large amount of your energy on the morality-and-religion-together Model 1 or 2, just how much good do you accomplish?
Considering that you and your group will expend some of their time and energy in chanting, speaking in tongues, handling snakes, adjusting your funny hats, kneeling and praying with Brother Pat, lighting candles, arranging incense, polishing up the gold elephant statues, cutting parts off babies, poring over bomb designs – whatever your particular religion demands you do – you will definitely have less time for door opening. You will get less accomplished with your limited time, energy and intelligence applied to the mixed effort than if you had focused the full of your available resources on moral behavior alone.
The sad fact is, if your main focus is your religion and not your morality, you and your friends become less able to achieve some full measure of morality.
Going the Wrong Way
When you have a possible answer to a serious problem, you don’t just sit there. You take your answer and run with it. You make some effort, you spend money, you travel far down the road to where you think the answer lies, in an attempt to solve that problem.
So if what you have is a wrong answer, by the time you realize your mistake, if ever, you have already expended money, time and effort on it. In the case of bad directions to get somewhere, for instance, you may have gone quite some physical distance in the wrong direction.
That means you don’t just stop being wrong in one instant and start being right in the next. Oh, no. First, you have to fix the wrong part. You have to give up on the money you’ve lost, you have to accept as lost the effort you’ve expended. You have to actively turn around and go back over the misguided distance you’ve traveled. You have to spend even more money, time and effort to get back on track.
Regarding morality and religions, that means that if you have a wrong answer about moral behavior, you just can’t instantly and easily fix it. A price has to be paid.
The first part of that price, the part where you have to admit you’re wrong and consciously accept that you’ve wasted some significant part of your time and life, and have an uphill slog ahead of you to get back to zero ... for some people, that alone is too much to undertake.
In human terms, movement has a psychological momentum as well as a physical one. I couldn’t guess how many times I’ve been a mere hundred feet from my door when I realized I’d forgotten something, and automatically decided not to go back for it because it was “too much trouble.”
Words from On High
Finally, and importantly, if you believe that morals are handed down by mystical superbeings rather than worked out among rational, compassionate adults, you will never really “get” morality.
It is impossible to be a moral being yourself, or a positive moral force in your society if you don’t understand something of the reasons for moral acts. People who think that only religious faith keeps you from committing crimes – and I’ve heard that silly question often enough “If you don’t believe in God, what keeps you from committing murder anytime you feel like it?” that it must be a pretty common idea – have no way to think about morality beyond “I have to do what my god says.”
Worse, contained within that question, a question suggested by everything taught in churches, is the statement that the natural desire of human beings is to rob and kill others and the only thing restraining them is their good Christian faith. Freighted within the question is the clear implication that compassion, love, charity, tenderness and decency are unnatural, alien traits to humans, and become available only after you start to believe in God. For people who believe that, every person outside their religion is automatically wicked.
To me, this is so far beyond insulting – not just to me but to the entire human species – it’s just plain filth.
Knowing nothing of the nature of morality, such a person might live his entire life blindly following rules handed down to him by others. Those rules might be anything from “Open doors for old people” to – I kid you not – “Beat your wife to death if she allows another man to see her bare face.” He would neither be able to teach an adequate moral code to others nor be able to respond to some new situation requiring on-the-spot moral judgment.
He would never ask himself what’s good about being good. He would never be able to understand that people with different beliefs can be every bit as good as he is.
For instance, why open doors for old people? Why really?
Because it’s good to help those less strong than ourselves – it costs you almost nothing but might mean a great deal to the person you do it for.
Because it’s a win-win: It gives you a good feeling to know you’re helping someone, and it gives them a good feeling that someone cares enough to offer help.
Because if you help maintain the tradition of young people opening doors for elders, you yourself will probably someday benefit.
Because generous acts help maintain an overall friendly atmosphere in your society, which benefits everybody. If you help some elderly person, it’s likely someone else will follow your example and help your own parents or grandparents ... or your pregnant wife, or a handicapped child, or just someone tired and harried and in need of a little human caring.
Because compassion feels good, and even though the beneficiary of the act may be a total stranger, the act itself makes you a better person for yourself and your family.
Compare this list of reasons to the juvenile, simplistic “Because my supernatural sky-daddy commands it.” The two mindsets are not even in the same ballpark.
The same process holds for every other aspect of morality.
Why not rob and rape? For good reasons, and not because Jehovah commands it.
Why not simply kill people who annoy you? For good reasons, and not because of red letters in the Bible.
Why help the less fortunate? For good reasons, and not because Allah looks down and approves.
The guy who understands the real mechanics of morality is far more advanced, morally, than someone who robotically does what he’s commanded, who fearfully does “good” acts to avoid eternal fire, or who selfishly chalks up goodie points only for the purpose of bargaining for his own everlasting life.
He’s also a much better neighbor to those who hold other faiths, or no faith at all.