Quodlibet: Good without God?


Being good is not the same as being ethical, or virtuous, or doing good, or even leading a good life.

Let me begin with two stories. The first comes from Voltaire, who is reported to have said to his mistress, Marguerite, “Whatever you do, don’t tell the servants there is no God or they’ll steal the silver.”

Another, told by the writer Diderot in the 18th century, is about the journey of Catholic missionaries to Tahiti–a dialogue between a chief named Orou and a priest, who tries to explain the concept of sin.

Orou says that many of the things Europeans find sinful are sources of pride in his island.

He doesn’t understand the idea of adultery, since in his culture generosity and sharing are virtues. Marriage to a single man or woman is unnatural and selfish. And surely there can be nothing wrong with being naked and enjoying sexual pleasure for its own sake—otherwise, why do our bodies exist. The horrified priest delivers a long sermon on Christian beliefs, and ends by saying,

“And now that I have explained the laws of our religion, you must do everything to please God and to avoid the pains of hell.”

Orou says, “You mean, when I was ignorant of these commandments, I was innocent, but now that I know them, I am a guilty sinner who might go to hell.”

“Exactly,” the priest says.

“Then why did you tell me?” says Orou.


These stories indicate a couple of things about the relationship between religion and morality—or more precisely, the belief that God is the source of morality. The first story suggests that belief in God is “dissuasive.” By that I mean, religion is seen as a way of preventing certain kinds of actions that we would do if we believed there was no God. The kind of God religious people normally think of in this case is the Old Testament God, or the God who gives rules and expects them to be obeyed.

Not all religious people believe these rules were given by God to Moses or Muhammad directly, but most would agree that it’s a good idea, in general, not to steal, commit adultery, hate your neighbor (or envy his possessions obsessively), or kill other people. For at least a thousand years busy theologians have tried to put these essentially negative rules into more positive form: for example, by saying that people should act out of love for each other, or love of God, and not out of fear. Most Christians would say this is the essential difference between the laws of the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus in the New. But they are only partly right. Both books of the Bible and all of the Qur’an emphasize fear of God, judgment, and the rewards and punishments of the hereafter as goads to repentance, leading a better life, giving up your rotten ways. Even the books of the Bible that are tainted with Greek thought—like the Book of Proverbs–emphasize that “the Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” So it’s mischievous to say that fear and trembling aren’t used for moral leverage throughout the Bible.

Modern Christians, Jews, and the Muslims who focus on God’s compassion and mercy, are required to ignore a whole cartload of passages where God reminds people, like any ancient father (and not a few modern mothers), that his patience is wearing thin. Jeremiah 5:22 (NIV) “’Should you not fear me?” declares the Lord. ‘Should you not tremble in my presence?’” The answer is a deafening: “Yes.” Remember the flood? Remember the first born sons of the Egyptians? Remember the plagues and famines? Remember Sodom and Gomorrah? You love this God because you ignore his commandments at your peril. He has chosen you; you have not chosen him, and he can withdraw his favor whenever he wants. (As Jackie Mason used to say, you look at Israel and you have to wonder if “maybe the Samoans aren’t the chosen people”).

The theme of the oldest books of the Bible is very plain: God “loves” (more precisely, he watches out for) the ones who keep his commandments and punishes those who don’t. — A simple message that theology has had two thousand years to massage. In fact, the New Testament belongs to the history of that massaging process. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the first spin doctors–re-writing the script, transforming Yahweh into a compassionate conservative. But let’s be clear that the hero of the story is a typical Near Eastern tyrant: powerful, vengeful, jealous by his own admission, proprietary (“His is the world and all that dwells within”), and though slow to anger, fearsome when his wrath is provoked, watchful to point of being sleep- deprived (Ps 121.4). There is no unconditional love here. God is not a model for progressive parenting; he’s not interested in the self-esteem of his people, has not read Dr Wayne Dyer, and will not break down weeping on Oprah! for being compulsive. The message of God the Father is, “Do this or else.”

A larger question posed by Voltaire’s little story is whether the motivation of fear is ever ethical. If you do something because there is a threat of pain and suffering if you don’t, or if you hold off doing something you would really like to do—for the same reason—are you being moral?

What Voltaire is really saying—as Nietzsche, Marx and Freud would later say—is that religion is useful for keeping certain kinds of people in line. Eighteenth- and Nineteenth- century European society could be neatly divided into those who knew better and those who served the ones who did. Marx went so far as to suggest that the social deference the moneyed classes paid to religion was simply intended to convince the lower classes that religion is true—in fact, that’s exactly what Voltaire is saying: Religion is a mechanism used by the knowledgeable to keep the unknowledgeable in their place. It has social advantages—Marx’s Jewish father conveniently “converted” from Judaism to the Prussian State Church in order to go on working as a lawyer. And we all know the younger Marx’s most famous verdict on the topic: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”

What’s missing from this critique, of course, is the question of whether a “religious act” can ever be a “moral act.” Clearly, belief in God (or a specific kind of God) provides behavioral incentives. As a system of control based on fear, religion keeps people from “being bad,” or at least doing things considered bad by the controller. But it does this inefficiently. Clearly it offers people an explanation for why they behave in certain ways, ranging from the “Bible tells me so” to “Papa dixit”—the pope says so. As a means of consolation, it teaches people to deal with the fear and insecurity created by oppression. But it does this at the expense of self-fulfillment, wholeness. It is the security of an abusive relationship, where comfort consists in being able to predict and manipulate eruptions of violence. In fact, to look back to the sacrificial origins of religion, this was precisely its social role. Even the story of the crucifixion, which many people believe is all about love and forgiveness, is the story of a God so angry at the sinful imperfections of humanity that he transfers his violence to his only son, who becomes the redemptive victim—the buy-back price—for sins he didn’t commit.

Let’s call this religious approach to behavior “Being Good.” Being good is not the same as being ethical or virtuous, or doing good, or even leading a good life. It’s a mother wagging an imperative finger at a three year old and saying “You’d better be good.” It always involves threat and reward. Two generations ago, the image would have included threats of belts or woodsheds spankings, going to bed without dinner. I guess, unfortunately, in some places it still does. But you don’t get ethics out of this. You get obedience and submission.


What about Diderot’s story about the missionary and the tribal chief? If the story about Voltaire suggests that religion is dissuasive and coercive, Diderot’s suggests another reason why religion doesn’t sit well with ethics: Religion is prescriptive, and like politics, it’s local. In 2000 years of massaging the message, it has changed because we have changed our minds. Most of the biblical rules about property, goods and chattels, adultery and incest were typical throughout the Middle East; in fact, as Freud recognized, the taboos against murder and incest are the earliest form of laws in some tribal societies. But the books we call the basis of the “Judaeo-Christian -ethic” weren’t written by tribes—tribes don’t write. And the body of laws we call the Ten Commandments contain lots of rules that have been quietly put in trunks and sent to the attic.

For example, we all applaud the wisdom of the commandment that says, “Honor your father and your mother.” It has a nice ring, especially during school vacations. But Deuteronomy 21.20 says that disobedient sons should be stoned in front of the elders at the gates of the city. And Exodus 21.17 says that anyone who insults his mother and father shall be put to death. As for adultery, which belongs to ancient property law in the Jewish system, the punishment is stoning—normally only for the woman (Deut. 22.21). In Deut. 22.28, the penalty for raping an unbetrothed virgin is a fine of 50 shekels–plus taking her on as a wife. There are laws protecting the rights of the firstborn sons of unloved wives when a man has several wives (Deut. 21.15) and even laws about how long a Jewish warrior must wait (one month) before he can have intercourse with a woman he has captured in battle (21.10). According to Leviticus 19.23, raping another man’s female slave is punishable by making an offering to the priest, who is required to forgive him. There are laws covering how long you can keep a Hebrew male-slave—6 years—but if you sell your daughter as a slave to another man she cannot be freed, unless after the master has had sex with her he finds her “unpleasing”—in which case she can be put up for sale (ransom) (Exodus 21. 7ff.). On it goes—throughout the books of the Torah—the Law.

The sheer ferocity of the God who gives, or rather shouts these commandments to his chosen people is distant from our time. The voice is unfamiliar: Failure to do what he says results in terror: In fact, that’s the very word he uses: “I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting disease, recurring fever, plagues that will blind you….those that hate you will hound you until there is no place to run; I will multiply your calamities seven times more than your sins deserve. … I will send wild beasts among you and they will tear your children from you. … If you defy me , I will scourge you seven times over. …I will send pestilence …cut short your daily bread, until ten women can bake your bread in a single oven. … I will punish you seven times over. … Instead of meat, you shall eat your sons and your daughters.” Don’t take my word for it: read Leviticus 26. It has literary flair. The God of the Old Testament is a three dimensional figure—far bigger than Zeus and twice as malignant. (Perhaps Zeus was able to give freer rein to his sexual appetites, whereas Yahweh limits himself to one Galilean virgin?) And look though you may, you will not find these laws “repealed” in later books, at least not in the way modern laws can be amended and repealed. But it’s absolutely certain that anyone who tried to obey these laws in twentieth century Europe or America would be slapped into jail, and the defense “The Bible told me so” would not be an adequate defense. –Try posting these commandments above the blackboard in your neighborhood school.

One way of charting the so-called progress of western civilization is to trace how human values eventually triumph over the ferocity of religious law. The kind of morality that Diderot’s priest represents, like the morality of the Bible, and even the reductionist versions of biblical and Quranic teaching that modern religious denominations espouse, is not ethics. It is not ethics because ethics can’t be grounded in what I’m going to call “irrelative prescriptive dissuasion.” If you say to me, “Well: no one believes these things any more,” then I say “Good for us for not believing. Then time to stop letting the Bible be the source of moral authority when the conduct of its hero is not up to our standards of civil behavior.” If you say, “There is great wisdom and poetry in scripture,” then I say “Please then, let’s treat it like other great books that express ideas, customs, and values that have no authority over how we lead our lives.” I have no quarrel with those who want to appreciate the Bible as a product of its own time and culture—with all the conditions that attach to appreciation of that kind. My quarrel is with people who want to make it a document for our time and culture.

And I suppose my quarrel extends to people who consider themselves experts, when what they are expert in is reading around, into, or past the text. Liberal theologians are immensely gifted at reinventing the God of the Bible in the light of modern social concerns. But the project is a literary–not an ethical one. At another extreme, which is really a false opposite, are the fundamentalists who claim to defend the literal truth of the Bible while ignoring two-thirds of the text and focusing on the “literal” truth of bits and pieces.

Can the Bible make you good? If you accept the framework, beginning with Adam and Eve, and the creation of a race doomed to be perpetually three years-old and scolded into obedience, I suppose it can.

Reduced to basic form, the temptation in the Garden of Eden is a story about a cookie jar and a sly, accusing mother. But it takes more than avoiding mousetraps for a choice to be moral or an action to be ethical. A moral act is one in which you can entertain doubt freely, where a person confronts human choices and human consequences, personal and social.

To be fair: the Bible and its cousins are important records of those human choices and their social consequences, coming from an age which is no longer relevant to us. To make it a book for our time is an abuse of the book and a misunderstanding of its importance. More depressingly for some, perhaps, there will probably be no book to replace it. Not even one by a secular humanist. But there will be wisdom, and reason and choice-making, and that will make us humanly better, if not exactly good.

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