The Right and the Good

The general public by now knows that atheists were found in one American study to be less trustworthy than rapists, and that at one point, early in the 20th century, were not considered reliable enough to testify in American courts. The good news is that technically, more and more Americans would accept an atheist President (54%, up from 18%). The bad news is that an atheist is still the least likely, in categories including Muslims and lesbians, to be popular for President.

What does this tell us? Well, mainly it tells us that America is an extremely interesting first world country where development has run parallel, not opposite to, the nation’s religious beliefs. I don’t have much information about the rest of the world, but I’d love to see what religiously inclined countries like India think of atheists (or non-theists, to be broader-minded).

I suppose it also points at the root of the problem theists have with non-theists, which is the lack of trust. “If you don’t follow a set of God-inspired rules,” says the theist, “you can’t be trusted. What sort of moral compass do you have?”

This question frustrates me, because the flip side of it is: what sort of moral compass do you have that involves being good simply because you think an omniscient being will punish you for your sins after you die? Aren’t you going to try to be good simply because it’s inherently correct?

Here’s the root of the difference between the theist and me: that the “right” is also the “good”.

This sort of conflict has been cropping up in the public in various guises forever, but most lately in the form of the sprawling abortion debate. If the abortion of a fetus is necessary for the good of the mother — say if her life was in danger, or if she was forced to bear the child — is it also the right thing to do? Christian theists on the side of the “right to life” group would argue that the “good” in this case is superseded by the “right”.

The set of rules followed by the theist allows for no further interpretation* of the “right”. Thus we have the disconnect between the morally right and the accepted “good”. The morally right takes many forms, including edicts on whom we should befriend, love, marry, and support; declarations on what we should do with our money, how we should earn it; what we should eat and drink; how we should view ourselves in the scope of the universe. But if, for instance, my religion forbade me from eating any fish other than shellfish and all the shellfish in the world were being fished to extinction, how would I react? Would I choose the “good” or the “right”?

The non-theist is mistrusted because they follow no “rules” but their own examined, weighted (one would hope) conscience. Theists are mistrusted by non-theists because they follow rules that have, to non-theists, purely arbitrary roots.

I think it’s harder to believe in your fellow human than in a perfect and immutable God, but perhaps more rewarding. Think of the millions of tiny, miraculous ways in which we help and are helped by each other. There is no divine script we follow, no rule book we consult at a moment when someone falls, errs, loses, loses hope.

I don’t think we make that calculation in the moment when someone most needs a little human empathy.


* Of course, I’m making the assumption that the rules we’re talking about are the accepted ones in that specific community, because religious re-interpretation in the form of various sects and differing readings of the same religious texts would open a colossal can of worms that’s less than tangential to the current question. 


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