Reason to be Good

Like most people, I was brought-up to believe in God — not in an overly devout way, more as a cultural tradition.  But my nominal belief in God had little to do with how I lived my life, or even how I saw it.  I was always convinced I had a good reason to believe, even though I was not conscious of that reason.  Faith was more of an assumption for me than a conviction.  I was baptized and raised Catholic, but Catholicism, even my in name only version, just meant membership in a group with a history and an identity.  I was never worried about “saving” my soul, or anyone else’s for that matter, even though I studied as a vowed member of a religious order (Conventual Franciscan) for the Catholic priesthood in the seminary for five years.  In retrospect, my reasons for choosing a life of clerical celibacy at the time — just as AIDS was devestating the gay community — may have had more to do with avoiding the harsh reality of my sexuality than a calling.  Historical figures like Jesus and Francis of Assisi are exemplary and inspiring to be sure, but not because of supernatural claims, divinity, or faith.  They primarily spoke of and witnessed to truths rooted in this world, less so one beyond it; but centuries and millennia since they lived have seen us embellish their lives and heap piety on their memory, obscuring their wisdom.  After leaving the order, I identified as a “recovering Catholic."


Ironically, it was those who took their religious faith most seriously that made me question mine.  Scandal, closed minds, miraculous interventions from a wish-granting deity that functions like some sort of supernatural vending machine, provided you have exact change, persecution over the most natural of things like who you find attractive and/or want to have sex with, and sectarianism (not just the “my god is better than your god” variety, but also the “my Jesus is better than your Jesus” infighting that plagues contemporary Christianity) — I mean really, on almost every conceivable count, religion has failed to produce a life worth living, apart from its promise of something better to come, so what’s the point?  It leaves me asking, “what have you done for me lately?"

Many Christians are good people, as are many of the adherents of other religions.  Just as many are not.  I have observed that the “good” religious people I encounter are often good despite their practice of this or that religion, despite a belief in scripture as providing the blueprint for morality.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “I don’t believe that, I just try to be a good person,” which usually indicates they’ve confronted some anachronistic pericope from scripture or dogmatic teaching of their religion based upon it and decided they can skip over that and still profess their faith.  It begs the question:  is faith the source of their sense of right and wrong?  And how can it be when they use that sense of right and wrong — what we might call their personal morality — to determine what they believe?  “Goodness” seems not to be a byproduct of belief, but of reason.  When individuals ground their own morality in careful, informed thought and reflection, their moral convictions are often stronger than those who are simply told what to believe and how to behave.

The noted humanist Andrew Mueller has pointed out that pledging yourself to any particular religion “is no more or less weird than choosing to believe that the world is rhombus-shaped, and borne through the cosmos in the pincers of two enormous green lobsters called Esmerelda and Keith.”  To paraphrase Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell — most people, when they say they believe in God, actually believe in believing in God.  It seems a harmless cultural phenomenon until you consider that throughout history lives have been lost because those people over there do not believe what these people over here believe, and human suffering has resulted from the unquestioning belief in the “rightness” of one's side, unsullied by rational and critical thought and scornful of challenges or contrary opinions.  We might be forgiven in pre-Enlightenment times for our ignorance, not knowing any better, but today there is no excuse.

And so we are left with the question of good over evil.  For much if not all of recorded history, we have outsourced the moral management of the universe to gods, but it is becoming abundantly clear we must take a more honest, active approach and become the superintendents of our own lives, guardians of our planet and its resources, and shapers of the society in which we wish to live.  It really is up to us what we make of life.

If abuses are destroyed, man must destroy them. If slaves are freed, man must free them. If new truths are discovered, man must discover them. If the naked are clothed; if the hungry are fed; if justice is done; if labor is rewarded; if superstition is driven from the mind; if the defenseless are protected and if the right finally triumphs, all must be the work of man. The grand victories of the future must be won by man, and by man alone.

Man must learn to rely upon himself. Reading bibles will not protect him from the blasts of winter, but houses, fires. and clothing will. To prevent famine, one plow is worth a million sermons, and even patent medicines will cure more diseases than all the prayers uttered since the beginning of the world.
(Robert Green Ingersoll)

As I see it, the nonexistence of god(s) and the decline of religion as a motivation to do and be good has made the world a more moral and equitable place. When the promise of meaning and of justice is not delayed until a life after or separate from this one, we realize we must get it right, do it right, set it right — now.  Life and the living of it are what we make of them; success or failure is not dependent on the presence or absence of divine favor but of human reason.

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