Being Good

There’s tons to blog about and now I’m a day behind. Let’s start off with a Sunday morning religion post.

There’s an outstanding column in today’s Boston Globe by Sam Harris, titled “Bad reasons to be good.” Harris argues against the common idea that religion is the best arbiter of morality. Harris is an atheist who seems to have made a project out of exposing the shams and inconsistencies of religion. This should keep him busy.

Most Americans appear to believe that without faith in God, we would have no durable reasons to treat one another well. … The problem, however, is that much of what people believe in the name of religion is intrinsically divisive, unreasonable, and incompatible with genuine morality. The truth is that the only rational basis for morality is a concern for the happiness and suffering of other conscious beings. This emphasis on the happiness and suffering of others explains why we don’t have moral obligations toward rocks. It also explains why (generally speaking) people deserve greater moral concern than animals, and why certain animals concern us more than others. If we show more sensitivity to the experience of chimpanzees than to the experience of crickets, we do so because there is a relationship between the size and complexity of a creature’s brain and its experience of the world.

I’ve long believed that good socialization, not religious belief, is the real key to moral and ethical behavior. Emotionally healthy and well-socialized people, religious or not, nearly always treat other sentient beings decently. Sociopaths can quote the Bible all day long and still get their kicks out of bashing bunnies.

The bare-assed fact is that human history and everyday life are overflowing with empirical evidence that “religion” and “morality” don’t always hang out in the same ball park. Yet unthinking people (which is most of ’em, alas) continue to believe that religion is somehow a necessary prerequisite for morality.

Unfortunately, religion tends to separate questions of morality from the living reality of human and animal suffering. Consequently, religious people often devote immense energy to so-called “moral” questions — such as gay marriage — where no real suffering is at issue, and they will inflict terrible suffering in the service of their religious beliefs.

Under some circumstances our marriage laws may inflict real suffering on gay couples, but let’s put that aside for the moment. There is no better example of what Harris talks about that the embryonic stem cell controversy. To my mind, anyone who puts a higher moral value on saving frozen blastocysts than on alleviating suffering and disease is self-evidently screwy. Yet in our current sick culture the Screwjobs are respected for their “values,” and the rest of us are told we’d better straighten out or no one will like us.

I suspect a great many people have a gut-level queasiness with this view of morality, but they haven’t found a way to drag this queasiness into their heads to think about it and explain it. Language and logic seem to fail us. If killing is “bad,” then killing a blastocyst is “bad,” we are told. Is that not logical?

The “logic” of morality fails the “values” side, too, sometimes. The famous “rape and incest” exemption to abortion bans comes to mind. Logically, if abortion is murder, then it’s murder no matter how the conception took place. Yet many who oppose abortion can’t bring themselves to take that last, logical step and extend the ban to rape and incest victims. Some twinge of sympathy for the victimized women holds them back. To anti-abortion rights purists, on the other hand, that sympathy is moral weakness; the righteous must harden their hearts and stick to logic.

Perhaps you see the problem.

The purists painted themselves into a “logical” corner with Terri Schiavo, IMO, because too many of us these days have personal experience with making end-of-life decisions for loved ones. And most of us know in our hearts and guts that, sometimes, it’s selfish to cling, and loving to let go. The Schiavo episode revealed the “values” tribe to be a small, hysterical minority.

Harris continues,

But the worst problem with religious morality is that it often causes good people to act immorally, even while they attempt to alleviate the suffering of others. In Africa, for instance, certain Christians preach against condom use in villages where AIDS is epidemic, and where the only information about condoms comes from the ministry. They also preach the necessity of believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ in places where religious conflict between Christians and Muslims has led to the deaths of millions. Secular volunteers don’t spread ignorance and death in this way. A person need not be evil to preach against condom use in a village decimated by AIDS; he or she need only believe a specific faith-based moral dogma. In such cases we can see that religion can cause good people to do fewer good deeds than they might otherwise.

Last year a “creationist” testifying in the Dover evolution trial perjured himself by lying about using church money to buy “creationist” books for the public schools. A “Christian” organization called the Alliance Defense Fund routinely fabricates lies — such as the claim a California school banned the Declaration of Independence because it mentions a “Creator” — as part of its crusade to break down the separation of church and state. ADF and the perjured creationist have, apparently, decided that lies are OK if they help spread the Gospel (and they call us “moral relativists”).

Last July I wrote a three-part series explaining why the purists are wrong on the embryonic stem cell question; here is Part I, Part II, and Part III. Parts II and III in particular focus on the disinformation about stem cell research being spread by the purists to defend their “logical” opinion. I wrote,

The fact is, opponents of stem cell research routinely lie — to themselves, to each other, to anyone who will listen — in order to defend their belief that embryonic stem cell research is immoral. This suggests to me that the real reasons people object to stem cell research have less to do with moral principle than with some deeply submerged but potent fear. And this takes us back to elective ignorance. Something about flushing all those blastocysts makes the Fetus People uncomfortable in a way that condemning Henry Strongin to death does not. The arguments they make against stem cell research, which are mostly a pile of lies and distortions, are not the reasons they are opposed to stem cell research. They are the rationalizations created to justify their opposition.

I’m hypothesizing here, but everything about the “logical” morality of the purists seems ass-backward to me. Very often their “logical” arguments seem post hoc, and assembled to provide a pretty cover for opinions that actually were dredged out of the murky depths of their ids. The fact that most of their “moral” causes involve sex and death seems to be a clue.

And the problem with their “logic” is that it is based on assumptions about matters like life, death, beingness, selfness, etc. that are rigid and narrow and make no sense to me. As I argued here, if you change the assumptions the “logic” falls apart.

Sam Harris is arguing for a secular morality — fine with me — but throughout the ages many religious people also have expressed the view that true morality — “goodness,” if you will — is based on compassion. This is central to Buddhism, which teaches that the two eyes of enlightenment are wisdom and compassion. And, ultimately, wisdom and compassion depend on each other, because true compassion (metta) arises from the wisdom that all beings are One, and true wisdom arises from the desire to realize enlightenment (bodhi) to benefit others (bodhicitta). The actions of a genuinely wise and compassionate person will always be moral.

Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 comes to mind also —

If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.

The word for love used in the original Greek text is agape, which I’ve been told meant something like “affection” or “concern for others” before Christian scholars got hold of it.

And, of course, several of the Heavy Hitters of Religion — Rabbi Hillel the Elder and Confucius, for example — independently came up with the Golden Rule. Although seems to me a truly compassionate person follows the Golden Rule without having to think about it as a rule.

As it says in the Tao Teh Ching —

      1. Thus, when the Way is lost there is virtue
      1. When virtue is lost there is humaneness
      1. When humaneness is lost there is rightness
      And when rightness is lost there is propriety.

    (Verse 38, Charles Miller translation)

    I guess if you’ve lost propriety, the final fallback position is “logic.”

    Update: Dinesh D’Souza is “logical.”

28 thoughts on “Being Good

  1. I am the shop steward at work; most of the time I spend in that role is unpaid (as is usually the case for a steward). That’s fine; I took the job to take an active role in conflict resolution. I try.

    Occasionally, I admit that I am not Christian, and some people are completely amazed. How can a person act in a ‘moral’ way, and have compassion and empathy without a ‘faith’ in Jesus. IMO, moral action has nothing to do with religion. For people who are inclined to act with compassion and wisdom (nod to Maha), a religion provides a framework. For people who are hateful (Jerry Faldwell comes to mind; you may disagree), the framework is a device for viscous policy.

    I seriously wonder if the torture bill would have been supported by the public and our elected officials if they thought that such tactics were going to be performed on Christians. Would we waterboard a ‘terrorist’ we believed might bomb an abortion clinic? My opinion is that most Christians would find his zeal – shall we say – excessive – but torture a Christian???? That’s immoral!

  2. You would be interested in two op-ed pieces in today’s Washington Post. In one, Asra Q. Nomani, a Muslim woman living in Morgantown, W Va., says that verse 4:34 in the Koran is widely interpreted in the Muslim world as giving Muslim men permission to beat their wives. In the other piece, Yvonne Ridley, a British woman who converted to Islam in 2001, says that the Koran promotes the liberation of women and that arguments to the contrary are based on ignorance.

  3. Maha,
    Wisdom and compassion? From this crew?

    Those who cannot think or feel, have neither compassion, nor can they exhibit any wisdom.
    I believe in God, but I don’t believe in religion. Religion has caused more death than any two other factor’s combined… Who cares how you get “THERE?” Wherever “there” is…
    I’m wise enough to know how ignorant I am, and compassionate enough to try to care about it…
    I try not to hurt anyone else and I’m trying to understand what everyone’s path is.
    ‘You go your way, and I’ll go mine…”
    That sound’s pretty healthy. Of course. not, to the ‘wise and compasssionate’ crowd. They know better…

  4. I’ve long believed that good socialization, not religious belief, is the real key to moral and ethical behavior. Emotionally healthy and well-socialized people, religious or not, nearly always treat other sentient beings decently.


    You’ve got to check out Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone. It is a very comprehensive treatment of the role of social capital in democracy and community building in the U.S., by a Harvard political science professor who spent many years studying social capital in Italy and in the U.S. While the conclusions in the book will hardly seem surprising, its exposition will put your hunches in a much more well-informed and well-reasoned framework.

  5. Notice how the problem of “Christians behaving badly” is generally handled by both religious types and the media in America. There are at least three methods:

    1. The “No true Scotsman” fallacy: simply take any example of a Christian acting badly and say they’re not a “true” Christian (fundamentalists add in their wholesale dismissal of most Christians as not “real” Christians).

    2. The “isolated incident”: for instance, each domestic terrorist group found out (and almost all have been explicitly, and loudly, Christian) are not part of any whole, but are merely “isolated incidents”. This applies to even groups like militias and anti-abortion groups, which are often/usually linked nationally.

    3. Just don’t mention the Christianity connection: note this in just loads of killings, for instance, and how the religion angle is either not mentioned or severely downplayed in the media. For instance, the recent killings in the Amish schoolhouse were done by a conservative Christian — a fact which was downplayed in US media but mentioned as an obvious part of the story in the foriegn press. This is true for things like the woman in Texas who killed her children, the guy a few years ago in the NW who killed his family, and is something I’ve seen for a great many years now. Contrast it with any killing done by a Muslim, for instance, where the killers’ religion is mentioned often (for instance, the DC sniper). These examples are just off the top of my head; a concerted search would, I’m sure, bring forth many more examples.

  6. Thanks for explaining Buddhism terms. It seems I have been a Buddhist and didn’t realize it. I get the same reaction Doug Hughes mentioned. I consider myself a secular humanist, but most of the self proclaimed Born again Christians I know really struggle with their morality and deeds. It is no problem for me.I do things for others not expecting anything in return, regardless of religion , race, or gender. This confuses the Christians I know, I have been asked why I would do something for nothing.
    While I admit Christians have done some excellent charity work, much pain and suffering has been imposed by deluded followers in the name of Jesus. I get a kick out of people with the little fish on their cars that cut me off in traffic, run red lights, and speed, or bone others over in business. I am amazed how many Christians have told me that the only way to win in Iraq is to nuke the bastards. The new Christian extremist mantra is “hold them to account”, forget the compassion, and NEVER turn the other cheek.

  7. 1) Love God
    2) Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

    That’s it. That’s the actual Christian moral creedo. All of it.

    Christian church leadership of both Protestant and Catholic over the enusing millenia have piled on loads of uneeded contradictory stuff to cement their power or fulfill their agenda and people have bought it for reasons of both ignorance and self-interest and because it’s easier than doing what Jesus Christ actually said.

    1 and 2 are how I try to live.

  8. Ivan R. — Thank you for the recommendation. Actually there are several different ways to approach this issue. You can study it through a social-psychological lens, for example. The historian Karen Armstrong has written a lot about mythos and logos that is relevant from a different angle. The Buddhist approach works for me, but I try not to “preach.”

  9. The hyprocisy of the stem cell issue, IMO, comes when you find out that most people against stem cell research say it’s okay to keep embryos for invitro whichamacallit. Even though many of the embryos can be destroyed by the owner. They have no consistency in their beliefs; thus, I have no respect for them trying to shove their religious beliefs down my throat.

  10. It strikes me that the Christian religion in this country is still heavily imbued with early Puritan thinking. Thus the inability to sensibly confront questions of or relating to sexuality. European and Latino Christians seem better able to divorce questions about the here-and-now from questions of faith. Also, it strikes me that differences in lifestyle may contribute to a greater need in this country for people to be given direction by others, rather than to slow down and really take the time to consider meaningful issues.

  11. The ‘logic’ that I find woefully unexamined in the fundamentalists’ minds, whatever the religion, is this:
    Since the God being worshiped and addressed in prayer is defined as omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, why would such an ‘omni-everything’ Supreme Being wear a narrow strait-jacket by forevermore limiting connection with the Creation through only one book, or one communication channel, or one representative, or one historical moment ?
    The Creator I believe in is magnificently unrestrained by such an illogical strait-jacket.

  12. Karen Armstrong’s The History of God was the book that finally liberated me from the guilt in believing that my morality was determined and judged by the Christian God. I recommend her book very highly. It’s what she doesn’t say in her book that leaves the greatest impact on an open mind.. Basically, a belief system that’s been cobbled together from myth and folklore to form the undeniable truth known as Christianity.

    R.G.Ingersoll said,and I agree… that an insect has more knowledge of God than the most learned theologian.
    The truth is.. that we are all floundering to understand our existence.

    What must I do to be saved?…. 🙂

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  14. I don’t know – on the other hand, I don’t find myself looking forward to anti-Christianity either, and how inherently great everyone is compared to these foolish Christians. Are people arguing for the abolition of Christianity or religion in general? Sure sounds like it in Harris’ case. Good luck with that.

  15. I don’t find myself looking forward to anti-Christianity either, and how inherently great everyone is compared to these foolish Christians.

    You can find fools in every religion, but I think the false notion that religion is necessary for morality could be more deeply held in the U.S. than elsewhere.

    Are people arguing for the abolition of Christianity or religion in general? Sure sounds like it in Harris’ case. Good luck with that.

    I’m religious myself, so I’m hardly against religion. My beef with Christians is that I wish they’d put more energy into being the best followers of Christ they can be and stop trying to control everyone else.

  16. You might take a look at an article that appeared in the Journal of Religion and Society, vol. 7 (2005) titled “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies — A First Look” by Gregory S. Paul. Despite the unwieldy title, it is basically a study of how countries like the U.S. which are very “religious” display much higher indices of social dysfunction than countries like the European democracies which are mostly secular by comparison. Although the author is not a sociologist but a paleontologist, the article is in a peer-reviewed publication.

    You can see a summary at,,2-1798944,00.html

    The whole article can also be read online.

  17. Yvonne Ridley

    Yvonne Ridley is a crank who has also said that “my religion is my race, and insulting my religion is racism”. She is sad person for who Islam provides nothing higher than a primitive sense of tribal identity.

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  19. I sometimes wonder what could happen to Christian belief if the profit motive of Christian leaders was non-existent. But as long as their self-maintenance is part of the equation, they’ll market it as ‘You need Christianity and Me to define it.’

    American mass marketers use sex to sell products. American Christian marketers use our proclivities to be sexual beings (one of the five essentials of all living organisms being reproduction) to sell the idea that sex without God’s recipe for it leads to spiritual death.

    Sex and fear. Always the tools of human propagandists, not of any divinity. The divinities don’t have to sell a thing to continue to exist.

    I think that’s the chief flaw that leads to the negative impacts of religionists. They claim wisdom from God, then preach from PT Barnum.

  20. Oh, Kevin Hayden, I have seen ‘religion’ using sex pretty directly, too.
    Several times these past few years, I’ve attended a huge evangelical church with some of my relatives and I am struck dumb by the music and the bodily responses on the stage and in the audience. It actually looks and feels like a hard rock concert, complete with guitarists fast banging their guitars held at genital level. Instead of the church music of hymns, this church uses a rock band on stage which plays rock music with ‘love’ lyrics to Jesus……the audience spends most of the service on their feet, swaying, gyrating, and holding their arms aloft, ‘getting off’ on Jesus……sublimation of sexual energy at the least…..

  21. The truth is that the only rational basis for morality is a concern for the happiness and suffering of other conscious beings.

    I’m agnostic and no fan of organized, dogmatic, religion, but can we PLEASE drop the fiction of a “rational morality” – because there isn’t one. All there is are post-facto rationalizations that only make sense given a set of underlying assumptions that cannot be rationalized themselves.

    countries like the U.S. which are very “religious” display much higher indices of social dysfunction than countries like the European democracies which are mostly secular by comparison

    Is it religion that causes the dysfunction, or the dysfunction that causes people to take solace in religion? Or both?

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