“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.
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?!