Awesome religious people (?!)

“Good religious people are good in spite of their religion, not because of it.”

Can anyone truly disagree with that statement? I’ve had a couple of variations on this discussion in the past week or so, and what with Alain de Botton getting lots of coverage with his recent waffle about ‘what useful things atheism should be taking from religion’, it’s been on my mind for a while.

For the purpose of this topic, let’s ignore for now the fact that even ‘good’ religious people are propping up a harmful institution, and take them purely as individuals. Unless you are a particularly masochistic atheist or an atheist living marooned in a very conservative religious area, most of the religious people you know and are friends with are probably ‘good’ religious people. These are my friends and family that I’m talking about here. They are intelligent, usually socially liberal, and often involved in charity projects for various good causes. They are Good Samaritans in pretty much every way.

But my point is that these people are good in spite of their religion, not because of it. Sure, there are a lot of good moral values mentioned in the Bible – don’t murder people, be kind to the poor, love your neighbour, yadda yadda – but these values are in no way unique to religion. They do not spring from religion and they do not belong to religion in any way. They predate religion and exist across all of its sectarian boundaries and outside of them. Just because some decent moral values happen to be mentioned in a religious text does not make them religious values.

(For the record, this is why I think de Botton’s most recent book is a complete waste of time. He thinks he’s writing about Good Religious Ideas, but all he’s doing is talking about Good Ideas that religion has coopted, and acting like he’s such a groundbreaking smartypants because no other atheist has possibly thought about them before. Um, we have. Community-building has been quite an important focus of the atheist movement in recent years. But I guess it’s better late to the party than never, right Alain?)

So yes, people may take these good moral values mentioned from the Bible and apply them to their life. But I have to wonder why they bother getting these ideas from a religious text when they are freely available from humanist ethics, our biology as social creatures, and, if I may say so, common bloody sense? Is ‘not-murdering-people’ really such a mind-blowing concept that we have to attribute the idea to some kind of deity, rather than admitting humans came up with that one all by themselves?

You could take your morality from the Bible, but why bother? Why would you use that as your source, when it comes with all of the horrible baggage of the outdated, bigoted, homophobic, patriarchal bollocks that is also in the Bible right there alongside the nice stuff? No matter how adept you are at mental gymnastics, revisionist reading or modern interpretation, one simply cannot unwrite those passages of the Bible that one is uncomfortable with. It makes my brain hurt on behalf of my family and friends who willingly put themselves through this kind of logical torture in order to take their moral values from the Bible and yet still manage to be good people.

Whyyy??

Whyyy??! - This is pretty much how I feel on the topic.

I’m not gonna lie. I think that being a good person, despite having to wade through all that crap, takes guts of steel. I have a weird, twisted kind of respect for that ability. I just can’t understand why they would do it. Why would you throw an enormous roadblock in front of your own path to goodness, only to hurl yourself over it (with enormous effort) to declare victory? They get to goodness in the end, I get that, but why make it so difficult for themselves? Why not just take the ethics that come with our common humanity, and not complicate things with religion? Wouldn’t that be so much simpler, easier, more productive? Think of all the effort expended by good people on justifying religious texts – all that effort which could have been used to better purpose.

I know a lot of very awesome, whacky, fun, good religious people. They would be just as awesome/whacky/fun/good without their faith, because their values come from their humanity, from who they are, not out of a dodgy old book. I don’t understand their determination to hobble themselves with such a limitation, but I have a grudging respect for their ability to step up and be good people despite it.

I think some people, especially young, open-minded religious types, are capable of recognising the flaws in their religious institutions and want to be able to change them from the inside, to drag the church (kicking and screaming) into the 21st century. Props to them if that’s the case – I know I couldn’t stomach it.

I have no resolution for this conundrum. Needless to say I try not to associate myself with the “bad” sort of religious people, so if you know me and you are reading this, I reckon you’re probably fine. As I’m thinking about my friends here, I want even less than usual to offend people. So remember, if you’ve reached the end of this entry and are feeling offended, the over-arching theme here (despite my usual abrasive way of expressing it) is:  How are you so awesome?!   O_o

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nick
    Mar 31, 2012 @ 05:14:54

    I think if you ask your christian friends (I’ll say christian since it’s the only religion I have any familiarity with) whether they consider themselves to be good people, you will find they do not. It is in fact one of the fundamentals of christianity that it’s precisely because we aren’t good people that we require the grace of the God (grace being a gift freely given, not earned).

    Practicing chraistians should, as a result of of being genuinely repentant of their sins and seeking God’s will for their lives, consequently act in ways consistent with what we would consider good behaviour. Yet it is often the case that more enlightened and seemingly good people are those most acutely aware of how far short they fall of deserving grace.

    You can take my comments in the ‘why I get angry’ post as an example of how ordinary people living ‘good’ lives can be even more guilty by having a greater understanding of what they are doing wrong.

    I think you’re right in the sense that we don’t need religion to teach us right from wrong, we seem to come to that instinctively. But where we perhaps need christianity is to show us we’re kidding ourselves if we think we’ll actually do the right thing.

    Reply

  2. cheisserer
    Mar 31, 2012 @ 08:39:56

    I don’t understand your In Spite Of comment, and I don’t understand how you’d know these people would be good/wacky/fun/awesome without their religious beliefs. Development is too complicated to say such a basic thing. It’s the “Begging the Question” fallacy: a person’s development has to do with many factors, one of which could easily be a long, stable environmental history of married couples working out differences because their religion deemed it so, ending in the cool/wacky/fun religious friend. Another could inevitably be the Just Cuz She’s Cool factor.

    I can’t prove to you that I grew up a respectable person because of my religion as much as you can prove I grew up a respectable person in spite of it. And I can’t prove the bad habits in me are from Atheist Movements any more than you can prove my bad habits are from the Bible.

    I always feel motivated to comment on your thoughts. The reason for my consistent motivation comes from the way you write. You write inflammatory, like a shock jock, and backhandedly insulting. You’re aware of it, and I’m fine with it: I understand your space. It’s cool. But, if you want more rational discussion, I’d recommend removing phrases like “weird, twisted kind of respect for that ability.” It comes across as preachy, especially since I’ve spent my whole life living the ways of the Bible and being that seemingly warped, sadomasochistic, self-destructive oaf you mentioned having that “respect” for.

    You’re certainly welcome to bust your skull against the seething inaccuracies of the Bible while gnashing your teeth at the obvious backwardness of such a doomed and hindered culture. Ranting is good for the soul.

    I have a perverse, somewhat infected respect for a person so dedicated to tearing at the lifeblood of so many such as you.

    In fact, I’d much readily be interested in how awesome YOU are, instead of how uncouth and bumpkin-ish everyone else is. 🙂 ~x

    Reply

  3. Daniel Ralph
    Apr 01, 2012 @ 18:58:14

    I believe that a reasonable measure of how “good” someone is, is the moral code they choose, and how well they stick to these morals. As such I think it’s reasonable to eliminate a good chunk of religion as a source of someone’s “goodness” based on which morals they choose to adopt from their religion.

    In my humble opinion, anyone who accepts all of the morals taught by the bible, would be a genuinely evil person. Sure, there are plenty of good moral lessons in there, but there is also an awful lot of really nasty stuff. When you see a Christian who doesn’t stone someone to death for something as trivial as gathering sticks for a fire on a Sunday, it’s clear that they have decided that the lesson taught in Numbers 15 (32-36), despite being a direct order from God himself (via Moses) is not something that is morally acceptable to them.

    For the sake of this particular argument, it doesn’t matter why someone does good, be it to feel they deserve the forgiving grace of their God, the fear the wrath of their God, or because they think being a dick is a kind of dicking thing to do, what matters is what they do. And by choosing to love thy neighbour, and not stone them to death for believing in another God (Deuteronomy 13) you have demonstrated that your morals come from another source, and that you are in fact good, despite the foundations upon which your religion was built.

    (For the record, every Christian I know has a observably vastly better moral code than that taught by the Bible, so IMHO, every Christian I know is good in spite of their religion)

    Reply

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