Documenting the Coming Singularity

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Do We Need God in Order to be Good? (Part 3)

Is religion the cause of society’s goodness? That is the question we will examine today. There are two divergent views about the direction of our culture in terms of goodness and morality. One the one hand, religious people might decry the direction of our culture by citing the increased incidence of sex outside of marriage, or the widening acceptance of pornography and bad language. On the other hand, sociologists might hail the positive changes society has enjoyed in the last several centuries. As examples they would cite the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, laws against child labor, and an increasing acceptance of homosexuals (which most religious people would see as a decrease in morality).

Those standards of behavior that are predicated primarily upon religious beliefs, which have to do most commonly with restrictions on sexual expression outside of marriage, are certainly in decline. As religion loses its hold on our culture, I liken our behavior to that of a teen going away to college who experiments with his new found freedom from parental restrictions. Certain aspects of what he was taught by his parents do not seem to be rational, so he sets them aside. But as he does so, he learns whether or not those old restrictions make sense. If he finds that they do, he will abide by them. If not, he discards them entirely. For example, if he was taught that masturbation would make him blind, he will find that it does not, and he can see no ill effects at all. In a similar fashion, our culture, over the centuries, has been shedding the religious rationale for standards of behavior and is finding out whether or not those prohibitions have a basis outside of religious stricture. In some cases, for example having children outside of marriage, we are finding that there are solid sociological reasons for minimizing that practice. In other cases, for example the subjugation of women and marginalization of homosexuals, we are finding that there is no rational basis for them outside of religion.

So if we look at trends such as increasing justice and human dignity for women, minorities, and homosexuals, we can see that they are not fuelled by religion at all, and in large measure are actually hindered by religious belief.

There will always be debate on this issue, however I do hope that this series of articles will shed some light on the question for my readers.

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jillbeth said...

We don't need God to be "good". There are a lot of good people out there who have no faith. But a common misconception (even among Christians)is that you only have to be "good" enough to get to Heaven. It is faith in Jesus Christ and accepting him as our Savior and the Son of God that will get us there. I also believe that there are a lot of people who consider themselves Christian who will be surprised to find themselves in a fiery place, and many people who never stepped foot into a church will find themselves spending eternity in the presence of God.

Barry Mahfood said...

You speak with much wisdom. Thanks for your comment.


Spaceman Spiff said...

Just a quick note on the subjugation of women:

John Paul II wrote a really big book called "Theology of the Body." In a small section that I read, he makes the argument that the subjugation of women (according the Bible) is a *result* of the Fall. In Eve's punishment, God says "Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you."

God's intent was a beautiful equal partnership in man and woman are distinct but equal.

From this perspective, JPII says that whenever we live this out, counter to our fallen natures, we are in fact being more truly man and woman than when we don't.

Thus Christianity offers an explanation, but not an endorsement, of what we see in the world around us.

Barry Mahfood said...

Very interesting information. Not too unexpected, though, in that Christianity will always claim that evil is the result of the fall.

My point in the article is that society's progress is not the result of religion's effect. In fact, religion has, in many cases, been a hinderance. Consider how many religious people have resisted equality for all races and for women on the basis of the Bible. I will agree that these people have misinterpreted scripture; nevertheless the impact of religion is not, in my opinion, a force for the progress of equality in society.

Spaceman Spiff said...

Yes "religion" taken as the actions of religious people (which is certainly a fair way to take it) has been used as a justification for evil as often as for good.

My answer to this question though requires connecting a number of conclusions that I don't think you've heard before. So I'll try to summarize as best I can. If you like this you can post it as a guest article. Anyway, here goes.

First, while I agree that religion has often been used to justify evil at least as often as it has been used to for good, I do think the language we're using is very interesting. Where did we learn to use language like good and evil?

Can there be any content to the ideas of good and evil other than "that which I like" and "that which I don't like"? Without some sort of religion, I'm fairly certain it can't. Yet I think you and I both want to be able to mean something more than that. So the very fact that we are asking why religious people so often do evil things already seems to concede that something like religion is a given, since there is some good and evil larger than both us and those religious people.

Second, that religious people do so much evil doesn't prove that religion does no good. Only that it isn't a panacea, and that people will use anything they can find for the ends they had. Would you say that science has more often been used for good than evil? I'd be willing to take that debate any day of the week. But of course I wouldn't then make the claim that science is false or evil or a negative force in history. What people use science for only shows their own nature, not the nature of science.

Third, if my understanding of Christianity is correct, then there is plenty of evidence to support the idea of "general revelation." If God reveals himself in nature, and if man is made in God's image, it is no surprise then that we might find men everywhere doing good without "religion" and people with "religion" doing evil. Christianity allows me to say "God is working over there in those people, though they may not know His name" and "All who call themselves Christians run the risk of doing so falsely and using Christianity as another tool for evil." Ultimately, Christianity teaches that God is progressive, and nothing else, least of all religion. Thus wherever we see good happening, we say "Praise God!"

A view of science or democracy as uniquely progressive, or a view of religion as uniquely or inherently regressive is much less forgiving and flexible, and as far as I can tell, doesn't hold up under scrutiny. There are too many examples of religious understanding causing people to do good and noble things and too many examples of science, capitalism, democracy, and what-have-you being used in evil ways for those to hold up.

Anonymous said...

Well, I can't contribute much to the conversation on the scientific end, but I can respond with something I do know: literature. As you can well imagine, some of the greatest literary minds have grappled with the same topic. I always find their comments refreshing because literature and story can provide us with a new language for discussing topics that grow stale from familiarity.

The writer that comes to mind is Fyodor Dostoevsky. You've got to love the Russian writers. They had to deal with many of the social and political ideas we are currently faced with quite a while ago. Take a look at a chapter from _THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV_ called "The Grand Inquisitor." Critics have seen this chapter as both a tour de force against Christianity and a beautiful apology for it. Dostoevsky lines up almost every argument against a loving, benevolent God and then makes an attempt at an answer. How you feel about the answer might well help you understand why and where you stand on the question you've posed.

I'm not saying it's an irrefutable conclusion, but it is at least an interesting digression. Let me know how you like it.

Here's the link:

Barry Mahfood said...

Thanks for the thoughts and the link. I will check it out.