Saturday, March 13, 2010

Do We Need God to Be Good?

Last night I heard theologian and author Bart Ehrman discussing his new book with Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air, in a show titled "Jesus And The Hidden Contradictions Of The Gospels." While I am always interested in an expose of the Christian Bible's flaws and contradictions, it was Ehrman's own religious evolution that held me near the radio long past my son's bedtime.

As a young man, Ehrman had a religious awakening and became a born-again Christian, an evangelical, "a fundamentalist" (his description). He held on to this viewpoint for years, even in the face of increased realizations about the flawed humanity behind the assembling of the writings that make up the Bible. It was a long time, he said, before he was able to look on the Bible as anything other than the direct, unquestionable word of God.

It was even longer before he was able to let go of his religious beliefs almost entirely and become agnostic. He was concerned, he says, that without belief in Christianity and Christ's divinity, he would no longer have any moral compass or code. He truly believed that without Christianity he would become a bad person. He would no longer have any moral code to live by. Without the Bible, and without his beliefs, he thought "I would become a completely licentious reprobate."

I have heard this viewpoint before, and it never fails to fascinate me. I have had friends, believers, Christians, ask me flat out how I manage to live as an atheist. What sort of moral guidelines can I follow? How can I possibly be a good person -- a Christian person -- without faith in God and the Ten Commandments at a minimum?

Unlike many questions with regards to faith and ethics, I don't always know how to answer this one. What creates an internal moral code? For me it might be empathy. I want to live without hurting others, hopefully through actively helping others, especially those in dire need and those close to me. But these explanations go absolutely nowhere in trying to cross the divide between those of faith and those without.

Listening to Ehrman's discussion of his own fears about living without faith forced me to turn the question inside-out. How can you live a morally good life when your only guideline is faith in a seemingly arbitrary set of rules that might have nothing to do with your understanding of your own capabilities as a human being? The dependence on Christianity for morals, to me, is indicative of a howling chasm in the formation of one's own existence. If a man truly believes that his morals exist only in relation to faith in a particular divine being, they rest on very shaky ground.

(This is not to say that I think people of religious belief have no morals; the questions relate specifically to those who cannot see a way to live morally without religion.)

It seems pretty obvious that faith in the Ten Commandments is no guarantee of a morally upright life. Look at the number of religious leaders and politicians who truly believe that they fear and love God, but at the same time commit adultery or embezzlement, engage in the same-sex relationships they claim to revile, or are just plain mean, nasty greedy people who make the world a much less "Christian" place to live.

So take those Commandments as a guidepost. Christianity certainly didn't invent, say, the idea of adultery. To a person who is afraid to live outside the religious box, adultery is not allowed because it might send you to hell.

As an atheist, I neither need nor believe in hell. Nor in heaven. But I do believe that adultery is wrong. Why? Because it hurts people. If you're in a relationship, no matter of what kind, the person facing you across the dinner table is trusting you to treat that relationship with respect, to treat them with respect, and with love. Adultery is a betrayal of that trust. That doesn't mean that you might not fall in love with someone else, or that the relationship might unravel. What it means is that you choose not to pursue a course of action -- a relationship or string of relationships -- out of cowardice or laziness. If you fall in love with someone else, or a relationship isn't working anymore, you owe it to the other person to be honest with them at the outset.

A lot easier said that done, I'm sure. A whole lot easier to stand stubbornly by a rule your faith lays out for you. No one ever said living without faith was easy. It requires imagination, a level of empathy and sympathy for the people around you. Murder, stealing, lying, betrayal, and coveting your neighbor's possessions (or spouse) are all possible with or without religion telling you it's wrong. (Worshipping God and having false idols is a bit of a moot point for an atheist.)

And I'm a big fan of resting one day of the week. Not that I've noticed our ever-so-Christian society is all that interested in keeping the Sabbath holy and resting on the seventh day of the week, not when there are profits to be made and shopping to be done. Whether those of faith are willing to admit it or not, Mammon has become the idol of our world, not the poor guy who lived in poverty and supposedly died to save others from suffering.

People like Bart Ehrman, or the devout man of faith he used to be, will continue to shake their head over atheists like me, will wonder how we manage to live without stumbling blindly from one sin to the next. I will continue to wonder how anyone can read the Bible as literal, and how millions stumble blindly through life depending only on a set of commandments and some badly misunderstood passages in Leviticus as guidelines for how to live morally. And I will, I am sorry, continue to pity those whose choices are determined by a fear of hell, or hope for heaven.

At the end of the interview, Ehrman says he was finally able to take a final step past religion to see that "there are lots of reasons to behave ethically. Many of us are simply hard-wired to love our neighbors as ourselves." I'll take that.

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