I really hadn’t intended to write on this topic. So many others have said essentially the same thing in different places and I’m not sure that I have all that much to add.
But I’m frankly getting tired of reading that only religious people are moral, upstanding citizens. I’m sure some are. Maybe even most are. But the idea that the only way one can be moral and upstanding is to be religious is flat wrong.
Kevin Acee has a column in the San Diego Union-Tribune today where he all but says that religious types are more morally upright than non-religious folks. It’s a column about an NFL player who committed suicide. Jarrett Johnson and Eric Weddle are a couple of players he cites as men of faith who are good, upstanding family men, implying without outright saying that it’s their faith that makes them upstanding; that their faith makes them good people. Acee goes on to say Paul Oliver was likewise a man of faith who he would have put in that same ‘moral, upstanding man of faith’ category. Before, that is, Oliver’s widow’s lawsuit and allegations.
And that’s the problem I have with what he wrote (it’s a good column, by the way, worth the read). Is it necessary that someone be a ‘man of faith’ (or, presumably, a ‘woman of faith’) in order to be a good citizen, moral and upstanding? I hardly think so.
Let’s take a look at some historical religious figures usually held to be moral, upstanding men of faith. We have St. Augustine, he of the “original sin” idea among other things, who said that a remnant of Jews should always exist so that they can testify to their own perfidy. Oh, and let’s not forget some of the others who wrote and preached things along similar lines, like John Chrysostom, Tertullian, and Jerome. None of them had much use for Jews generally, ranted against them, and pretty much all but said they should be destroyed. They also pretty fairly can be said to have hated “pagans” too: anyone who did not adhere to the Christian faith was pretty much reviled by those Church Fathers; their revulsion was not limited to Jews. That seemingly is all proof of their morality and righteousness.
Lest we forget, I’ll hasten to point to Martin Luther as well. That fine example of religious (Christian) charity said Jews should be rounded up, thrown into their synagogues (of Satan, no less) and the synagogues burned to the ground. Those Jews who survived should be made to work in the fields toiling for Christians and never allowed to interact with Christians lest they lead some Christians astray with their lies (just see “On the Jews and their Lies” if you want to read more of that kind of thing. It’s wonderful, fun reading. Here’s a link to that wonderful work).
Yes, it’s not necessary to note that religious nuts flourish in every religion out there, and that they give their religious traditions a bad name. That’s not my point. My idea is that one can assuredly be moral without being ‘a man [or woman] of faith.’ I could simply let it go with the references to the fine, upstanding church leaders just mentioned and step back, knowing that moral behavior does not adhere solely because of religious faith and fervor.
But the simple fact is that religious faith does not necessarily lead to ethical or moral behavior. And it is also a fact that neither faith nor fervor for that faith leads to ethical actions. Sometimes it may, but just as often it doesn’t. As proof that it’s not just religious types who are ethical, I’ll note two men I know.
Those men are two of my neighbors. They’re both good men that I’ve known my whole life. I still call each of them “Mister” and have a great deal of respect for both men. Both men served in the military (one was a Marine, the other in the Army). The one-time Marine has been married to his wife for about 60 years or so, the ex-Army man 66 years this year (I didn’t say either man was young!). Both worked at their jobs for over 30 years, rarely missing time other than vacations. Both raised 2 kids who, themselves, are raising their kids and have been married for 20+ years each. Both help out their neighbors whenever anyone asks (sometimes just when they see folks who need help). By any criteria, these men have lived their lives well.
The ex-Army man serves as an usher in his church, and is a well-respected elder there as well, sponsors converts in the church, mentors young men, that kind of thing. The Marine mentors young men as well. He doesn’t believe in God though. But does that matter? Is their religion important with regard to either man?
I can count on either man if I need help. Both men have done a lot in the community. Both volunteer their time with charities and, without having direct knowledge that they do, I’m sure both donate to worthy causes. Both men are happy, healthy, and friendly guys.
From where I stand, neither man is more or less moral than the other. Does the fact that the one man is heavily involved in his church and the other isn’t make the church-going guy a better citizen? Did his church background mean his kids were brought up better than the other man’s kids?
Does it somehow make him more moral or ethical?
It’s the cut of the man, not where he spends his Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays (or, whatever day other faith traditions meet). It’s how he carries himself. It’s what he does.
It’s that his actions match his words. It’s that he’s there when his family needs him. It’s that he’s there when his friends, employers, or neighbors need him. It’s that he’s there when you ask or that he’s there even when he knows you need the help but don’t ask.
It has nothing to do with the religion or faith of the man.
You can act ethically and morally without praying. You can act ethically and morally without believing in a deity.
It’s about doing the right thing. It’s about knowing what that right thing is in the first place.
That’s not dependent on faith, that’s dependent on simply knowing right from wrong. That’s intrinsic (and, no, it’s not “god-given”).
That’s just being a man. A real man. And you can be a real man without being a man of faith.