ON BEING GOOD A Meditation on Why & How

ON BEING GOOD A Meditation on Why & How

James Ishmael Ford

The other day I wrote a brief reflection in defense of atheists. I noted that the high profile of the New Atheists aside, and the misleading concentration of nontheists within both Unitarian Universalist and Buddhists in my circles making nontheists seem more numerous than they are, in reality atheists are a beleaguered minority. They suffer all sorts of insult and injury for their world view and having the temerity to speak it out loud. I observed how often atheism itself, that is the examination of whether there is a deity and the conclusion in a rejection of deity, is ignored in favor of accusing atheists of being bad people. Specifically, I was inspired to my small rant by a recent essay making the rounds in my social media circles. As I read it the argument being presented was the old canard that atheists are obnoxious, and besides that only the affluent can “afford” to be atheists. Said without reference to the truth or not of the atheist proposition. I’ve said what I want to say about that.

Then a friend on Facebook brought up a frequently cited concern about atheism. Without God, where is one’s ethics going to come from? This is a perennial question, of course. People have over the ages made all sorts of comments about how nonbelievers are untrustworthy. Without the hope of future reward or fear of future punishment, why would people be good? You don’t have to look hard to find people who want to exclude atheists from juries for just this reason.

Now, I think it is a second order question. It doesn’t address the challenge of atheism, whether there is a deity. And, I’m sure my friend and most theists wouldn’t want to argue that belief in a deity whether true or not is a moral necessity. It suggests people are wolves, but must be convinced they’re sheep for the common good. It reduces theism to being a mechanism for social control.

But, while I feel this has nothing to do with the question of whether there is a god or are gods, the question itself carries within it something important.

And that is a sense of good, a need for something good, a visceral thing rising in human hearts.

By most common usage I am an atheist. I prefer nontheist as I’m not angry and the word atheism is I suspect irretrievably contaminated by association with aggressiveness. Now, I totally understand why atheists are not always pleasant. And I note that simply saying there is no god, not that I think there is no god, but that there is no god is heard pretty much always as aggression by those who believe. In part, I think, because the theist position stands on very shaky ground. Rather for me on the face of it the idea of a deity with a human-like consciousness intervening in history is an embarrassingly obvious projection of human desire into the sky. This god has ceased to be even vaguely interesting to me.

But without a necessary reference to a deity with a human like consciousness I am fully engaged in the world itself as sacred, as holy.

As are any number of nontheists. As, I’m moderately sure, are people who prefer the term atheist. Atheism does not equate nihilism.

For where I stand, a philosopher might characterize what I believe to be true as pantheism. I freely acknowledge how I am profoundly moved by much of the spiritual literature of the west characterized as mystical. And for me there are traditional uses of the word God that I believe true. But, I also note that as long as there has been pantheism there have been those who say it really isn’t significantly different than atheism.

Whatever, my point here is we don’t need to posit a deity that directs the cosmos to have a sense of sacred, a sense of connection, and a sense of obligation and a call to action.

That said, I’m as concerned with the good as anyone.

So, to my friend who is concerned with the ethics of nontheists, I’d say two things. First, don’t worry. In practice theists and nontheists don’t seem to be a whole lot different from each other. Some are good, some are not.

And, second, if you’re interested in a nontheistic approach to the good, I’d say there are many. My last book If You’e Lucky, Your Heart Will Break spends a lot of time on the questions of how we might best live our lives and the nitty gritty of what that actually looks like.

Here’s how I see this urge for the good. In broadly philosophical terms I’d say we have two great insights as human beings. I like to call them the two truths. One is how we as individuals are unique and precious. As passing as the morning dew, but beautiful and precious. And, we, each of us, you and I and everything else are created out of the whole, which itself is dynamic constantly creating, sustaining and destroying. This great dynamic has no more essential substance than the individual, but exists in a great play of things.

What is unique about us, you and me, is that we can see these two truths. We can approach it intellectually, and even more important we can experience these things as our own intimate reality. And, and this is so important: as humans we are pretty much the only creatures who can change and change things. One can say with some justice we have the eyes of God. And we have the hands of God.

What we do matters. Now, it doesn’t matter in the sense of future reward or punishment. But it does matter in the great matter that can be found when we open ourselves to the movement of the real. Within the mystery of our human presence to what is, we find what in the west we call love. When we really pay attention, what we find is love. In many, many ways, our care for ourselves and for each other is the great work of love, the consequence of seeing the connections.

Which brings me to the how to be good part of this reflection.

A friend on Facebook recently pointed me to an essay titled “Six Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person,” written by Jason Pargin under his pen name David Wong. (I’ll set aside my discomfort with Mr Pargin’s use of what seems a Chinese surname in our racially charged culture. Another discussion, perhaps.) Mr Pargin is a novelist and Executive Editor of the humor website Cracked dot com.

His essay has had some twelve million page views since its first publication, so there’s a passing chance you’ve already read it.

The content is run through with the obscene, and it is my intent that this blog be G or at worst PG, and so I can’t quote much of it directly.

But, I found it several cuts above the typical self-help article. And, I thought I’d share the general thesis here along with a link to the original and some comments of my own as an example of how to be good without any necessary reference to deity.

The first and larger part of the essay is broken down into a number of sections, but in fact they all, I feel, can be reduced to one assertion. The world is only interested in what you do. The way I would put it is that we are what we do.

What you see is what you get. What we do is what matters.

This can be a harsh message, particularly fi we look at what we’re doing.

Rather than face this bottom line message, we are what we do, we’re really inclined to want to be defined by our attitudes. If we feel like nice people, if we care about others, then we are perforce good.

I, in fact, think there’s more than a nugget of truth in our holding up our good intentions. But, for me, they’re mainly worthy when they’re of use as they goad us into changing behaviors.

He then holds up some of the problems we’re going to have if we do hope to change, if we want to be good.

They are: Intentionally interpreting any criticism as an insult. Focusing on the messenger to avoid hearing the message. Focusing on the tone to avoid hearing the content. Revising your own history. And, finally, pretending that any self-improvement would somehow be selling out your true self.

Harsh pointing.

And true as true.

But, if you want to be good, they make a lot of sense.

To briefly reflect.

First, that intentionally taking criticism as insult. That intentional is, sadly, as natural as breathing. A first order characteristic of being a person, fragile as we are, is defense. Criticism is a challenge, it is at worst an assault and at best a gate to being something new, to changing the stasis, which disrupts the me of things. One old Buddhist text speaks of bowing down to those who criticize us even unjustly, they open doors.

Second, focusing on the messenger rather than the message. The whole assault on atheists rather than atheism is a pretty good example of this problem. The third point is a variation, noticing tone rather than content. Looking to be offended rather than trying to hear.

Fourth, revising history. This is fascinating. We are only vaguely constant, in reality we are in constant flux, and no where is this more true than in our story about ourselves. At worst we revise the story to make ourselves feel okay about what we’re doing. At best, we see the story as re-writable. This is our curse, but it can be our freedom.

And, finally, guarding the moment as if it were something transcendent. We are not permanent. There is no part of us that won’t go away.

Want to be good?

Open up.

Be large.

And reach out a hand to your neighbor.

That is the path.

And, as best I can see, its enough…

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  • MaryLouiseC

    There’s a difference between doing good and being good. I’m talking about ontology here, the very essence of one’s being. Anybody, be he atheist, non-theist, Buddhist, Hindu or whatever, is capable of doing good because we are all made in the image of God and have his imprint in us.

    However, we are all born with sin natures that we cannot change. That means that, in our very being, we are NOT good and our idea of what IS good is badly warped. And that is precisely why Jesus came. He atoned for our sins with his death and resurrection. Upon conversion, a person’s spirit, once dead in sin, comes alive in Christ. He is a new creature, reborn, with a clean slate, and is given right-standing with God.

    The Christian then embarks upon a life-long process of sanctification under the guidance of the Holy Spirit who infills him and empowers him to overcome sin. The goal is to become like Jesus which will only be completed in the next life. The Christian will clean up his act, one sin at a time. You won’t find any perfect Christians in this world, only Christians in the process of being perfected.
    So yes, the atheist/non-Christian is capable of DOING good from time to time. But he is incapable of BEING good in his essence. His sin nature remains because he can do nothing to change it in and of himself. Only Christ can change it and he rejects Christ.

    The atheist/non-theist has a further problem. If we are all accidents of nature, what would make one accident of nature’s idea of morality better than another’s. As Dawkins says, there is only “is” for the atheist/naturalist. There is no “ought”. With no source of morality outside of humanity, we are left with relativism, and the relativist removes his right to criticize anybody about anything just by being a relativist. The atheist can say that the majority gets to decide what’s right and wrong, but what if the majority follow a Hitler or a Stalin? Does might really make right? Atheists are left to borrow their values from religion whether they like it or not.

    And as for the suggestion that humans are “precious”, the atheist/non-theist must borrow that idea from Christianity because, again, if we are all just accidents of nature, what would make a person more important than a fly or a toad? Christians know that, because humans are made in God’s image, we have value. The atheist has nothing in which to ground such an idea — unless, as I said, he borrows from Christianity.

    In many respects, atheists/non-theists are nothing but cultural Christians.

  • Y. A. Warren

    “But without a necessary reference to a deity with a human like consciousness I am fully engaged in the world itself as sacred, as holy.”

    One can say with some justice we have the eyes of God. And we have the hands of God.”

    Are you familiar with panentheism, in contrast to pantheism, both proclaimed anathema by the RCC?

  • Yonah

    The author is a good person. But, as to the question of ethics, my advice is to not torture oneself with acrobatic “I’m this and I’m that, and not this and that”. The most important thing about ethics is where it lands…what actually physically gets done. I have every confidence that an atheist and a Jew can be equally ethical. For me, the question is by what social infrastructure can the ethical get done. In the West, Jews and the Church have the most infrastructure…and thus, the greatest moral accountability for their stewardship of that infrastructure. There may be lots of ethical atheists, but they do not have the institutional capacity to achieve market reach. Jews are in a bind in regard to stewardship. They have the physical plant, so to speak, but their numbers are small and decreasing…so, the plant typically gets used much for internal shoring up of the community…but, at the same time there is internal pressure to validate that internal attention by attending to social justice…paying the rent as it were. Doing both is not easy. The Church is in another situation. For 15 centuries it enjoyed a considerable degree of cultural dominance and influence. Even as that is now rapidly disolving, still the Church owns a large physical plant and market reach…which it utterly squanders because it now devotes its entire energy to trying to hold on to what cannot be held onto…its former position of power. So, the problem with ethics in the West today is not one of individuals…there are plenty of ethical individuals, but rather, the problem is the utter lack of a potent ethical social orangism.

  • axelbeingcivil

    This is a long way to go just to state that self-preservation/interest and empathy can provide a reasonable basis for morality, and that they ultimately are the basis, with or without a deity. Thanks for sticking up for atheists and a non-prescribed morality.