What’s God Got To Do With Goodness?

The question of moral goodness can’t be considered without looking at religion. After all, religious leaders have been declaring themselves to be the true arbiters of goodness for thousands of years. But does God really have anything to do with human goodness?

Shortly after I began my quest a reader commented that the answer to my question about goodness is easy: Goodness comes from God. Period. End of discussion. But does it? And even if goodness does come from God, dripping down from heaven like a super sweet milkshake, how do we puny humans tap into that?

One of my failures in this quest is that I have not interviewed as many clergy as I’ve wanted. I haven’t completed a single formal interviews with Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Islamic clergy, although I have engaged in long conversations about goodness with friends who are Methodist ministers. If there is a Phase 2 of The Goodness Project, then I will have to fix that problem. For now, though, I’m going to have to hypothesize about how clergy might respond to my query about God and goodness. I’m also going to have to ask for your forgiveness because I’ll undoubtedly get this wrong.

What do I think religious leaders would tell us? Buddhists, especially Zen practitioners, would likely say that the question is irrelevant because to them God is irrelevant. What matters is a person’s meditation practice and actions. I am so ill informed about Islam, Judaism and Hinduism that I have no idea what those clergy might say, so I won’t guess.

For Christians, I suspect that prayer and meditation would be part of the answer. (God may be talking, but if you’re not listening through prayer and meditation, you’re not going to hear what he says.) Some denominations would no doubt urge immersion in The Bible, and some would probably say that you have to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior. All would likely emphasize attending church every Sunday.

Even if my guesses about a Christian approach are correct, I still don’t have an answer about what God, even a Christian God, has to do with goodness because there is no one Christian definition of goodness. There is no single interpretation of The Bible. To one denomination, I’m an abomination because I’m a lesbian. To another denomination, my sexual orientation is morally neutral, and it’s how I live that matters. To one minister, Jesus is the embodiment of love who preached turning the other cheek to your enemy. To another minister, Jesus is an avenger who uses a flaming sword to destroy those who disagree with him.

If I take God as the arbiter of good, or the source of all goodness, how do I chose which God? Which good?

And here we are back at the core of the issue: We all have to figure this out for ourselves. If we go to church, we have to decide which church and which interpretation of goodness to accept. If we sit in a pew on Sunday, we have to decide whether or not to adopt the minister’s interpretation of scripture, and hence of morality.

I don’t know if God exists, but if there is a divinity, then in an everyday, down-in-the-dirt, you’ve-gotta-figure-it-out-for-yourself way God doesn’t matter. We still have to make our own decisions. It’s still our responsibility. Isn’t that a kick in the pants?

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6 Responses to What’s God Got To Do With Goodness?

  1. Barry says:

    The Talmud tells a story of Rabbi Hillel, who lived around the time of Jesus. A pagan came to him saying that he would convert to Judaism if Hillel could teach him the whole of the Torah in the time he could stand on one foot. Rabbi Hillel replied, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it.”
    http://www.jewfaq.org/brother.htm

  2. As someone who does not believe in God, but does believe in both goodness and the capacity of humans to be good, I don’t think God and goodness have a necessary connection. I know people who are sincerely religious, and I think their belief in God helps them be good. OTOH, the amount of evil done in the world in the name of religion is mind-blowing, and has been done by people from all religions. (Note that I am not calling religious people evil, but suggesting that killing members of another religion in the name of your idea of God is an evil action.)

    There are many non-religious spiritual practices in the world, but I don’t think they’re necessary to goodness, either. Like religion, they can be very helpful to those who follow them in their personal quest to act morally in the world, but they aren’t the only way to do that.
    While I think self-awareness and self-examination are very useful in determining one’s own path to goodness, I also know people who simply are good to other people without reflecting on any of these things.

    I seem to be leading up to the idea that there are many paths to goodness. Perhaps the most important question is how do we as humans make goodness a key part of life for all of us, without setting rules about whose idea of goodness controls.

  3. Marcos Valdez says:

    I just came upon your blog a few days ago (good timing!) and I’ve read some of the archives. I think I have something relevant to say and it just so happens it fits with this recent post.

    I am an atheist and I think morality and goodness do have a direct connection to God, properly understood. When I say “God,” I don’t mean an authority who makes arbitrary decisions as to what is right and what is wrong. I’m using the word metaphorically, to describe “what is.” In other words, the underlying nature of reality.

    Interesting aside: liberal Christian theologians hold to this more metaphorical meaning of the word God. The only difference between them and myself is the cultural trappings we’re comfortable with. Relevant theologian:

    http://www.marcusjborg.com/

    Whatever goodness is, it is certainly not entirely arbitrary. When scientists study it, the generally think of it as behavior that is conducive to the good of the group, whether mutualistic or truly altruistic. The particulars may vary from culture to culture, but in no case is it decided by an individual. It’s always an outgrowth of the brute facts of our biological and cultural evolution. Perhaps the concept of goodness as a type of behavior is misguided but, even if that is the case, I cannot see how one would separate morality from the nature of reality.

    The emphasis can be taken off of the idea of God as a person and placed instead on the idea of God as the underlying basis of reality. When seen this way, the idea that morality must rely on God not only makes a lot more sense, but seems almost inescapable. If one is conservatively religious and sees God as a conscious being with intent (and again, as an atheist, I do not), the concept remains valid.

    You’ve posted elsewhere on your blog about how people’s moral sense comes from the gut and is thereafter justified through rationalization. One study also seems to indicate that peoples’ idea of what God thinks about moral issues is (wait for it) based on their own prejudices:

    http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/12/01/0908374106.full.pdf+html

    When God is understood in the more metaphorical way, it seems these studies actually point to the same result.

    People get their sense of right and wrong from visceral feelings that have been imparted on them by their ancestors’ biological and cultural evolution into an aberrantly intelligent, social group of mammals. That murder is almost always wrong in all cultures is an inescapable result of wanton killing breaking down social cohesion and efficiency. That picking up sticks on the Sabbath is wrong for ancient Jews is an inescapable result of their specific cultural heritage.

    After the initial gut reaction, humans use their freakishly advanced cognitive abilities to construct a narrative as to why a person/action/event was, in fact, good/bad. If this post-hoc moral reason is applied honestly, it sometimes leads people to question their intensely personal beliefs. This can lead to real progress in goodness.

    The seemingly arbitrary barbarism in many historical (and contemporary) cultures’ sense of morality may seem to suggest that there can be no universal sense of goodness. I don’t claim to have an answer to that conundrum.

    That said, civilization does seem to be making progress. In another post, you noted how even human infants are more cooperative than chimps. What’s more, violence in industrialized nations has been dropping for decades with no sign of slowing down. Progress is a real thing. We really are (as a whole) nicer people than our ancestors. Steven Pinker article:

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pinker07/pinker07_index.html

    And TED video!:

    Being non-violent certainly isn’t all there is to goodness, but that’s got to count for something.

    One thing I know for sure: any philosophy that’s worth a damn, no matter how it’s justified, is ultimately pragmatic. Wherever we decide goodness springs from, its application has to help us live better lives. It has to be useful in the real world. It has to be a reaction to the way the world works, whether we like the hand we’re dealt or not. In that sense, it has to come from “God.”

    • dianesilver says:

      Welcome Marcos! Apologies for not approving your comment before now. I’ve been traveling, and your comment was inexplicably shunted into spam by WordPress. I’m so pleased that I thought to look at my spam before deleting it.

      What a fascinating and well thought out comment. Although I might put a different emphasis on some points than you do, all I can really say is I agree. I particularly love your concluding paragraph:

      One thing I know for sure: any philosophy that’s worth a damn, no matter how it’s justified, is ultimately pragmatic. Wherever we decide goodness springs from, its application has to help us live better lives. It has to be useful in the real world. It has to be a reaction to the way the world works, whether we like the hand we’re dealt or not. In that sense, it has to come from “God.”

      Thanks so much for posting.

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