jeudi 18 août 2011

"I believe in doing the right thing"*

I was having a discussion with my grandmother and my mother a while back and although I can't remember exactly how the conversation went, I think my grandmother said something like "oh, he must be Christian". And I replied, "you don't have to be Christian to be a good person," to which she replied, laughing nervously, "well, we don't know any." Meaning she couldn't think of a single person who was a "good person" but who wasn't a Christian.
So I'm looking for examples of non-religious people who have done really good deeds. The only person I could think of off the top of my head was an author called Dale McGowan, who started a charity called "Foundation Beyond Belief", but I'd like more tangible examples. I'd like to be able to show my mother and grandmother that no, you don't have to believe in God to be a good person.
In fact, I think it's even more commendable if you do good deeds because you think it's the right thing to do, and not because you think you'll burn in Hell if you don't. I think being non-religious means you can truly decide for yourself who you are, what you want your life to be, how you want to behave around people, and how you want to react to whatever is thrown at you. It seems to me that religion is an "easy" way out: most of them even literally promise "answers to all of life's questions". But isn't it better to figure them out for yourself?
I've often told MB that there were some really, truly, good people who attended the churches I've been to. And I think it's wonderful that religion inspires some people to do some really generous, selfless acts.** But as someone else said, in a discussion about morality on AskMeFi, "Doing good things for other people, because you know (in your heart) you'll be rewarded by god, seems very selfish [...] -- how can (some) theists claim ultimate moral authority when their own salvation is the goal?"
I *think* the really "good" people that I knew were fundamentally good people. In other words, they would have done good deeds regardless of whether they thought they had to. There are people like that -- who are kind to everyone they meet, who care about for others, who are constantly putting others' needs before their own (yes, that's my definition of "good"). And then there are others who will do good deeds once in a while just to balance out all the evil deeds they do (and that they KNOW deep down are wrong). (I think the only way you can truly not know right from wrong is if you're a psychopath.)
Another good response from that same morality discussion thread on AskMeFi (
In practice, for most people the true answer to "where does your sense of right and wrong come from?" is "my parents and my peers and other aspects of how I was raised." Since most people don't consciously remember learning right from wrong, it seems to them innate. And since their "innate" sense of right and wrong matches to a large extent the "innate" moral sense of many other individuals, they reason that we must all have been born with that universal moral sense, and proceed to conclude that ultimately our sense of right and wrong must derive from our very Creator. And not only did He make us with that specific morality, we were made, spiritually speaking, in His image, which implies that our values are values that God holds Himself.
Which is true as far as it goes, except that the causality is a lot simpler the other way 'round: we invented God, and in doing so, gave Him all our attributes, including our sense of morality.
Pragmatically, the rules by which we all live become necessary once society reaches a certain size, one in which we can no longer know and establish trust with everyone else. The rules are there because they "work" for large groups of near-strangers living together. A society in which certain things (murder, theft, etc.) are not held to be evil, and certain other things (altruism, honesty, etc.) are not held to be good, is prone to collapse. At the very least, a society that holds functional values outcompetes the societies in which do not, leading to the marginalization if not outright destruction of dysfunctional societies. In other words, the reason certain moral values are held nearly universally is that they are necessary for the societies in which we live to exist, and, having been born into such a society, we are under tremendous social pressure to adopt them as norms so that we can continue to enjoy the benefits of civilization, as that is another one of the rules that "work."
I cam across an online book called "Secular Wholeness" that deals with non-religious morals and ethics. This excerpt expands on what I said above, about doing the right thing because you know it's the right thing:
"If you are like me, you remain moral because the temptation to any really unethical action trips one or more of the following alarm wires in your mind:
  • A list of don't-do items deeply internalized during your childhood.
  • Your natural empathy with other humans: if you do this thing, it will cause pain, and that distresses you.
  • Self-image: people would think poorly of you if it were known you did this thing (or, in nobler terms, this act would be unworthy of you).
  • An adult's foresight: experience tells you that actions like this one have bad outcomes, ugly repercussions, or hidden costs.
  • Your philosophy of life: you feel that nobody ought to do things like this, so you can't do it without being a hypocrite.
  • Last and least: there are legal penalties for being caught doing this."
*The title is from my brother's Facebook profile, under "Religion".
**Of course, the scary thing is that religion also inspires people to do some not-so-good acts. Like bannish your daughter when she admits she's attracted to women rather than men.

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