I’ve been doing some recreational reading recommended by a co-worker, a sc-fi book “The Sparrow”, by Mary Doria Russell. While I was reading the other day, a bit of dialogue jumped out at me. I was struck by the following exchange between the central character of the book, a Jesuit Priest, and another main character an unbeliever. The exchange starts with the priest saying;
“And yet, you behave like a good and moral person.”
The response, which the author explained was explosive and expected, ended with…
“I do what I do without hope of reward or fear of punishment. I do not require heaven or hell to bribe or scare me into acting decently…”
There is an important idea here – nobody is “good and moral” for a bribe or from fear.
To begin with, it is inconsistent. How can we be “good and moral” for a bribe – does a child that behaves well for a treat make a moral choice or a selfish choice? Conversely can we be “good” from fear – again a child that behaves well from fear of punishment can hardly be said to be “good”, well behaved maybe but not “good”. If I remove the threat of punishment and the child is no longer well behaved what does that say about the character of the child?
If we are choosing to do the good or moral thing as a good or moral choice it has to be because we value the good and moral above ourselves, it cannot be self-centered (or self-justified). This is true whether or not we believe in God. To borrow the phrase of a well known song, if we are good we are “good for goodness sake”.
I think its clear that there is an objective standard of goodness revealed in the history of mankind. The ubiquity of the Golden Rule is well established. Without arguing that it is always the standard of every culture and time it can certainly be said to be the most universal. When we talk about good and moral behavior this is the normative definition understood. The implication of this objective standard of goodness is that it is not self defined or self-justified. The value basis is external to the self. If we choose goodness for our own sake this really is the same as choosing good for selfish reasons. It may not seem so immediately but if we think about it, eventually it comes down to pride, whose standard is it we are choosing?
Where does this objective standard derive its power. The Theist says, God and puts the matter to rest because God addresses the needs of the individual and the group. Without God it isn’t quite so tidy. Without God the needs of the group may be addressed, but the needs of the individual are given short shrift.
We may say that this is good and moral, after all the choice must be selfless. The problem is that it breaks down for the group if too many individuals don’t value the good. With God there is a reason to trust and to believe that we don’t have to make the selfish choice because we’ve got someone more than capable watching our back. Without God we are left with dumb luck and perhaps the nagging suspicion that we’ll be screwed if we do the right thing. That might be noble but it isn’t very bright.
So the question about why someone is good and moral if they don’t believe in God isn’t about bribes and punishment, that makes no sense. The question is, just what is the faith they are demonstrating based on?
After all as someone once said, “The just shall live by faith.”