Thursday, December 24, 2009

Can One Be "Good Without G-d?






My daughter and son in law came in yesterday, listening for a good part of their journey to National Public Radio, which had a program on Greg Epstein, a humanist clergyman and authour of "Good Without God", what a billion nonreligious people DO believe".

The idea that an atheist can be a good person is not a novel notion to me. It was a debate that raged through my childhood and adolescence. I have indeed met people whose theology repels me yet who have an abundance of good deeds. I refuse to blind myself to this seeming contradiction. Life sometimes challenges what we learn and believe.

My father told us of growing up in the early years of Nazi rule in Germany. He described an institution called the "Eintopfmahlgericht" (One pot meal). Every week, a uniformed Nazi party member would collect from each household a pot of stew. Its ingredients and method of preparation were dictated to each home, so there would be no fudging on quality. My father wanted to challenge my thinking by asking me what could be wrong with such a worthy enterprise. What could be wrong with feeding hungry Berliners in the throes of the Great Depression?

This troubling question nagged at me for years. One day, years later, the answer came in a conversation I overheard on the subway. "Do you want to owe HIM a favour?" one man asked another.

The image of my grandmother handing over her pot of stew to the Nazis for their charitable work flashed through my mind. What favours would the Nazis later demand of those who they helped? To me, ingratitude is repugnant. How many people would spontaneously want to repay a kindness in their hour of need? How many anti Jewish picketers or street thugs were repaying a benefactor? A good deed, or even a bad deed is not isolated from the motives of the doer. What if my grandmother would have been given the choice of donating her stew to the Salvation Army or the United Jewish Appeal? Although she was conscripted into kindness, she was denied the right to credit her good deeds to the faith of her choice.

There are many different types of people. There are emotional people, calm and detached intellectuals and driven go getters. If you ask each of them to devise a moral code, they will each accentuate different virtues. On the pyramid of human goodness, who gets to sit at the top? Without G-d, who is the most perfect type of human being ? Does such a person end up becoming a god of sorts? Is there a greater vision according to which the vast diversity within humanity can be organised into a harmonious whole?

One advantage of a non physical G-d is that there is no argument over the race or ethnicity of the supreme being. A Supreme Being that is above physicality can not be claimed by anyone to be "one of us."

Very often, the argument is not between believers in one G-d, polytheists and atheists. Far more frequently is the vocabulary of religious faith appropriated to describe a supreme being that is severely limited by the preconceived notions of the believer. One might seriously propose under some circumstances that a being called God was really created in the image of the person who calls himself a believer. Is there a danger of creating a god who is really a rubber stamp for one's vices?



In a constitutional republic, the actions of government can be measured against a founding and defining document. A law can be struck down as unconstitutional. It is this process that struck down segregation in the US. It also, in 1857 mandated the return of Dred Scott, an escaped slave to his "owner". For better, and sometimes for worse, a constitution can be a standard by which people judge and modify their actions. Scriptures are to an individual and a family a sort of constitution by which one can modify behavior and attitude.

It is inevitable that there will be conflicts between people. According to which agreed upon document will litigants agree to move from their personal judgment call of who is right?

In the absence of divine revelation, what can be the measuring standard of human conduct other than the shifting sands of intellectual fashion? The public attitude towards marriage and abortion as well as " mercy killing" has shifted greatly in the last forty or fifty years. How will they change in the future? If public consensus is the last word in what is moral, then perhaps we should attempt to shape and modify it. If so, then who should be in charge?

The Christians and Muslims were politically dominant in a big chunk of the world. They racked up a considerable toll in bloodshed. Hindus came up with the caste system and widows who burned themselves on their deceased husband's funeral pyre.

So along came the French Revolution, the Communist Manifesto and National Socialism. Humanity, the proletariat and the master race became the gold standard, the acme of human goodness. It brought us a body count of millions and millions, far more than were ever killed in the name of God. They had their own scriptures, and their own auto da fe. Then we have Richard Lamm, who said back in 1984 that the elderly have a "duty to die." That was 25 years ago. By what authority will Lamm cling to life when he himself is elderly?

It takes a very selective and edited vision to present humanism, in which a Supreme Being is replaced with humanity as a blueprint for the ideal society. You can find a multitude of great atheists who behave well, but you have to deal with the large number of failures, not only under totalitarianism, but under the tyranny of the pleasures of the moment, of those who couple and procreate according to no higher plan or set of rules. Intellectual honesty would demand dealing with a representative sample of one's "faithful".

A lot of people will use a selective reading of scriptures to rubber stamp their vices. When poor people and rich people pray in different houses of worship, it is easy for their "God" to degenerate into something created in their own image. When people invoke "Allah" to have twenty minute "marriages" in Iran or to gang rape and kidnap Christian girls in Egypt for conversion to Islam, then such a "God" that condones that must surely be an idol.

Idolatry is not only a faith with many gods. It can be worship of self or one's national or class interests. Being truly monotheistic is a matter of self examination and self discipline.

The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson was approached by a man who told him, "Rebbe, I am an atheist." The Rebbe replied, "The god you don't believe in, I also don't believe in."

I do not believe that the struggle against godlessness is only a struggle with godless others, but also a struggle with one's self. Greg Epstein sounds like a thoughtful man. He has stated his opposition to those who call themselves believers. How does he define his struggle within? Does he have a book or code that describes how he should behave and feel? Who wrote his book? How will his book look in fifty years?

The prophets of Jewish Scripture were withering in their denunciation of the failures of their time. Their books that were left to us were indeed protest literature. Some of the prophets were imprisoned and even killed. Will Greg Epstein's prophets be as demanding? I want a faith that can criticise itself with the harshness of prophetic language and still stand. Has secular humanism reached that level? I'm still waiting to see. Sphere: Related Content

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