Justice Without God

Justice Without God February 19, 2017

“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” – “Justice, justice you will pursue.” This phrase, which I learnt from my Jewish clergy colleagues while protesting together in Ferguson, lies at the heart of faith for many. Almost all religious traditions, somewhere in their scriptures or practices, make a call to justice. From the Muslim call from god “O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice”, to the Mormon injunction “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly?”, the pursuit of justice motivates religious people everywhere.

I have seen the power of the religious call to justice for myself. Over the past three years, as I’ve become embedded in the activist community in St. Louis, I’ve come to know numerous activist clergy and members of congregations who find in their religion an irresistible summons. Their faith brings them to the streets to rally, and to the halls of power to lobby. I have seen clergy put themselves and their reputations at risk countless times to champion unpopular causes, offering witness and giving voice to people who are oppressed. Those who represent theistic faiths use god as a spur to work for justice, or an embodiment of Justice itself. God’s commandments – greater than those of any person – spark the fire of moral courage in them: for if God is commanding you to do justice, how can you refuse?

The religious impulse toward justice is far from perfect, though. Too often a religion’s concept of justice is wrong, leading clergy and congregation to promote oppression instead. For every righteous activist clergy person, I have seen just as many (if not more) who mobilize religious resources for evil. Yes, there are religious champions of LGBTQ liberation, but there are also plenty who actively oppose it. While there were clergy in the streets of Ferguson shouting “Black Lives Matter!”, there were also many which opposed the protesters, and more who found refuge in silence. God is neither a guarantee that its followers will act for justice, nor a wholly reliable guide to what justice is. Yet whether the vision of justice a religion presents is laudable or not, it is undeniable that religions tend to present a vision of how the world should be, and motivate their members to pursue that vision. The concept of a just god, which calls its followers to pursue justice, drives billions of people.

What about the nonreligious? If you are not a member of any traditional faith, and do not believe in god, where do you get your call to justice from? I get this question a lot, and sometimes it carries the unspoken suggestion that the answer must be “nowhere”. It’s a common stereotype that nonreligious people have no drive to morality and no reason to fight for justice, for if we are living in a purely natural world – a world in which everything will eventually die, and there is no moral lawgiver – what’s the point of being good anyway? We might as well do what we want, frolicking our way to the grave.

I reject this account. Humanists like me believe in the inherent worth and dignity of people. We believe that people are worth fighting for by virtue of our very personhood, and that the fight for justice needs no higher sanction than this. Those of us who do not believe in god get our call to justice not from above, but from the side. We look at the world we actually live in, see injustices visited on other people, and are motivated to act by their suffering. Oppression is wrong in itself, injustice is wrong in itself: there need be no celestial guarantor of its wrongness. And so, seeing that we live in an unjust world, we are motivated to act to improve it, working beside each other for the common good.

In my experience, this gives Humanists a powerful sense of solidarity. We know that any justice in this world will be achieved by human hands alone, and that no savior is coming to rescue us from ourselves. We know that inequality will persist until we unite to end it. We understand our ultimate responsibilities are to other people, not to a distant Creator, and so we join hands and fight. In turning from thoughts of heaven, we find each other.

None of this makes Humanist efforts for justice perfect or immune to problems. Humanists frequently lack the social and cultural institutions which religious communities enjoy – institutions which promote religious concepts of justice and encourage members of the religion to live by them. Humanists are guilty, too often, of talking a great game about justice, but failing to act. Our instinctive distrust of hierarchy and authoritarianism frequently prevents us from building the structures we need to have a greater impact in the world, and hampers the expression of our values. But it is simply wrong to think that people who don’t believe in god can have no commitment to justice: we do. It’s based in our reverence for the dignity of people, and our recognition of their worth.


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