Only as Good As

My colleague didn’t get lost yesterday, and I did manage to figure out which square Starbucks in a square outside the entrance to Westlake Mall he meant (it was kind of unmistakable, in fact, a freestanding little glass mansion of Starbucks all on its own), so we did meet up as opposed to standing around stupidly in the wrong place. They wanted to go someplace pretty and not too far away as they had to get bus back to the airport quite soon, so we went to a park on the water about a mile north of downtown. Then we argued about whether this park beat Nonsuch or not – I said no!!, they said yes!! – but then we agreed: Nonsuch is better as a park, Elliott Bay Park has a far more spectacular location and view. It’s too bad there was a good deal of cloud draping the horizons yesterday, because it meant Mt Rainier was entirely invisible (as it usually is) and the Olympics nearly so – we could just make out the foothills, and I had to inform them that in fact there are spectacular mountains rising just behind those. Never mind – they’ll familiarize themselves with the look of the Pacific Northwest over time. And there was plenty to look at – water, islands (which they refused to believe were islands – but they are, it’s just that the ends aren’t always easy to make out), peninsulas, ferries, sailboats. It’s true – the actual view from Nonsuch doesn’t compare. (The view from Richmond Hill, on the other hand, is another matter, and the one from the lawn east of Kenwood is not so dusty either.)

Now, back to unfinished business. Or not so much business as pontificating. But hey, if the pontiff can pontificate, so can the rest of us. So back to unfinished pontificating then. We were discussing this question of whether religion can motivate people to be good – not in the sense of motivation through fear, which as James Mill pointed out is a revolting selfish motivation, but in the sense of externalizing and personalizing an idea of goodness and then deriving motivation from that external personification. I think that is one – only one, mind you – way religion can work.

But of course one of the problems with that is that the result is only as good as the conception of goodness is – and all too often people’s conception of goodness is absolutely crappy; is in fact worse than common or garden badness would be. All too often, people’s conception of goodness boils down to making other people submit and obey and be under rigid control. All too often it hasn’t got a damn thing to do with kindness or generosity or compassion or mercy, and in fact looks far more like cruelty and lust for domination. As Mary McCarthy famously said, religion is only good for good people; for bad people it’s terrible.

And then there’s the larger problem, which has to do with the role of religion in public morality and public debate; with the fact that religion is wrongly but widely thought to have some kind of expertise in moral issues, and therefore public debate is cluttered up with bishops and priests and mullahs, who in fact have no expertise at all, but rather a deep knowledge of Authority, which is no help. Religion may at times with the right people under the right circumstances motivate goodness – benevolence, courage, altruism – in individuals, but religion is not a useful contributor to public discussion of morality. Either it has nothing whatever to add that is not available to secular thinkers, or what it adds is the wrong thing to add. In other words – sure, sometimes religious talking heads manage to say something sane, but that’s because they’ve done some thinking, the kind of thinking we can all do, and because they’ve been influenced by various humane ideas in the culture (that racism is bad, that capital punishment is not the way to go, that justice and equality have something to be said for them), not because they have some special religous wisdom. And other times they say things that are absurd or downright hateful, because they think their deity hates contraception or women who are not enslaved. So what is it that they add? Nothing.

Public discussion of morality has to be secular and rational, because the other thing just doesn’t work, and can’t work, and shouldn’t work. If you tell me your God thinks the babies should have their heads dashed against the walls of the city – I’m not going to be impressed, am I. ‘God says so’ just doesn’t cut it in public discussion, any more than ‘my gut says so’ does. But there are people of the ‘God says so’ party on every ethics panel and many chat shows. That’s a bad situation. That’s one reason there is a need for energetic resistance, and even, at times, rudeness.

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