Being good

Interesting post of PZ’s on being “good without god” and whether that’s a goal or slogan worth having.

The implication of “good” is thorough conformity. Has challenging an authority figure ever fit the definition of being good? When abolitionists broke the law by smuggling slaves into Canada, when suffragettes picketed to demand the vote,  when Stonewall erupted and Martin Luther King marched, when students protested the war in Viet Nam, were they being “good” in the general public’s understanding of the term? I don’t think so. They were being very, very naughty. Which was good. See what I mean? It’s an empty word that offers nothing but vague reassurances.

Yes I guess so. I admit I have been thinking all along that what “good” meant in that context was: not selfish, not ruthless, not brutal or predatory or greedy. I’ve been thinking it meant altruistic and generous as opposed to their opposites.

Now that PZ mentions it I’m not sure why I’ve been thinking that. It’s not self-evident, certainly. I suppose I’ve been assuming that what Christians in general mean by “good” is generous and altruistic…but is it? Am I just assuming that because I’m infected with the same anachronistic illusions that Karen Armstrong is? Am I assuming that because I’ve bought into modern goddy propaganda that religion simply equals compassion and related other-regarding virtues?

Well, but if there is modern goddy propaganda that religion simply equals compassion etc then Christians will have bought into it too, so I could still be right that that’s what they mean by the word.

I think they do, really – that’s my guess. For Quiverfull types and all the other flavors of lunatic it probably does mean obedience; it does for Mormons; but for more average Christians I think it means some variation on Charity, as in 1 Corinthians 13 type charity.

And that’s part of the appeal, for some, perhaps for many. That’s not really conformist. It’s not friendly to capitalism, for one thing. It doesn’t look with complacency on all social arrangements, because so many of them have not a damn thing to do with Charity or altruism or generosity.

One of the few persuasive things I’ve ever heard Karen Armstrong say – I think she’s the one who said it – was that real generosity is irrational, and that’s why religion is good at it. I think there’s something to that.

The two are not unconnected though. Challenging authority figures can partake of the same kind of irrational generosity. And then when you go that way you do find yourself flatly denying other people’s ideas of what is “good.” The pope and his friends for instance think the way to be extra special good and different from the selfish secular world is to be insanely concerned about human fetuses at the expense of adult female human beings. That’s the urge to be irrationally caring and generous run completely amok.


  1. Egbert says

    I think if we see Sam Harris’s moral landscape between well-being and suffering, that good means the direction toward well-being and away from suffering. We all have that built in intuitive understanding of what is good or healthy for us and others.

    That’s not the same as justice. Justice seems to be all about preventing suffering by preventing harm or stopping bad people, and that sometimes involves using force or suffering to stop them. So in one sense, you can be bad or naughty or even immoral but still be on the side of justice.

    What we seem to be doing mostly when arguing against religion involves justice rather than morality, although they both aim into the direction of increasing well-being and reducing suffering.

  2. Jeff says

    I think Mark Twain’s, “What is Man” would be helpful here despite its ending considering the limited scientific scope available to him at that time. He makes a marvelous argument despite his bias.

  3. Ken Pidcock says

    When I read this on Pharyngula, I thought that PZ was being a bit of a crank.

    The implication of “good” is thorough conformity.

    Sez who? Growing up, I was led to understand that resistance to injustice and militarism were good; in fact, my youthful attachment to religion related to its being instrumental to such resistance. So I react to “good without god” in that context: That we don’t need supernatural allies in the struggle against conformity with evil.

    It is good (?) to question authority, whether from the wider society or from one’s own community, but not always to assume that opposition is the better position.

  4. Achrachno says

    Ken said what I was going to say. I too thought PZ was being a bit over the top. Doing good often means resisting authority, at least in my mind.

  5. says

    In this context, in my experience ‘good’ means ‘morally good’, so saying ‘bad without god’ would probably be interpreted as ‘morally bad without God’.

    Some Christians would use that to say that atheists are wantonly rejecting God in order to indulge in wicked behavior, and so on.

    So, I’m not inclined to use the ‘bad without God’ expression. 🙂

  6. smrnda says

    I guess I never thought about being ‘good’ being related to obeying rules or authority figures or with conforming to what other people said was good. My basic principle was always being anti-oppression in any form.

    As for generosity, I kind of think that the belief in duty has to be balanced with some degree of respect for a person’s right to sef-determination and happiness. I’ve always thought of striking a balance between individual rights and social duty.

    Dong the right thing means having to make the best judgments you can as to what the right thing is at the right time, and part of being ‘good’ is being willing to look deeper, below the surface at issues to find out what really is the right thing to do. Sometimes what is right is obvious, but sometimes you really need to do some research.

  7. says

    You can be good in any sense of the word with or without god.

    But for what it’s worth, generosity is not irrational. Some short-sighted and greedily (lazily?) reductionist thinking seems to have led to a widespread assumption that a social animal in a social context is acting rationally in its best interests when it displays cold-hearted behaviour.

    Besides, it feels good to act generously. That’s just the way I evolved. Why should I let religion take credit for that?

  8. stuartvo says

    So, I’m not inclined to use the ‘bad without God’ expression.

    I doubt that PZ meant that we should start using that term as a new slogan. It’s guaranteed to be understood by our ideological opponents in the worst possible way.

    I think he just meant to be provocative: To get us thinking about the different ways that the word “good” can be used, instead of blindly assuming that everybody means exactly the same thing by it when we debate them.

    And most of all, I think he used it as a new way to express his long-standing belief that promoting atheism and secularism means vigorously challenging the status quo, in the face of a society that is fighting hard to maintain it.

  9. says

    Debates about the meaning of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are probably as old as philosophy, and are certainly as old as religion.

    They are not absolute terms, and only have meaning relative to the perceived well-being of an individual, a group, community however defined; possibly also such entities as social classes, societies and nations.

    A group regards as good that which favours the well-being of the group, again however perceived and defined. If the group is a religious congregation, its definition of ‘good’ can probably be taken over and adopted without much amendment by other congregations of other religions: sometimes including atheism as a ‘religion’ if we should choose to.

    Growth of numerical support for ‘us’ is good, as is disunity of our group’s enemies. And vice-versa.

    Achrachno @ #4: “Doing good often means resisting authority, at least in my mind.”

    That depends on what kind of authority. If I was offered a guitar lesson by a master like John Williams, I would follow his instructions and copy his technique to the last tiniest detail as far as I could.

  10. Dave Ricks says

    Well obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally – it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

  11. Blondin says

    Perhaps the word “charity” has its own conditional connotation, too. Not all charitable donations are universally recognized as “good”. (eg: Ken Ham’s Creation Museum, Peter Popov, the Catholic church)

  12. Shatterface says

    I’ve a lot of time for Myers but he tends to redefine words to suit his own purposes, e.g. his definition of ‘free will’ as some kind of acausal Casper the Ghost stuff, which I’ve never encountered outside his own blog.

    Has challenging an authority figure ever fit the definition of being good

    He really wrote that? Hell, even the most oppressive religions acknowledge martyrs killed for standing up to authority. Its practically a defining feature of religion that it places its own morality above any Earthly authority.

  13. says

    Heh! A revolt against the authority of PZ.

    That’s a joke – aimed at the many people who make a hobby of sniping at FTB and/or PZ as monuments to authority and groupthink.

  14. Jeff Sherry says

    PZ a crank? I don’t think so. Good seems to imply a sameness or a commanality with people. We’re good as you without God. The trouble is good has attachments from differing social groups.

    Freewill is one of those oddities I’ve never understood since I haven’t been able to think it through a religious mindset.

  15. says

    Like any slogan, “Good without God” glosses over a lot of nuance and assumes that definitions of key terms are held in common between speaker and audience. It can’t be helped that some audiences will miss the point. But “religionists” and “Christians” are not a monolith, and I wish people wouldn’t talk as if they were (as shows up in some comments on the Pharyngula thread). Sure, some people subscribe to a Divine Command view of “good”, which includes obedience to an insanely long and detailed list of Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots. But outside of that, I think there’s a widely-accepted understanding of “good” as meaning generally honest and trustworthy, kind to animals, doesn’t let their dog crap on your lawn, obeys the law (the important ones at least — moderate speeding eg. is almost universally acceptable), etc. And there’s value — and maybe even a little of that subversion that PZ wants to promote — in pointing out that you can do all that without having to quote Bible passages to justify it. Just do it, because it makes life pleasanter all ’round.

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