Monday, December 14, 2009

How Do You Define What Is Good?

Can you be good without God? This question is once again making the rounds with the recent publication of Greg Epstein’s new book, Good Without God. As Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, Chaplain Epstein’s book is a thoughtful and positive assessment of the fact that of course people can be good without God.

To me this is the wrong question. To me the question is what is good and how do we know it is good? That is to say is something good because it is good (which begs the question “What is good?”) or is it good because God says it is good (which begs the question “Which God are we taking about?)?

The Jewish God said it was good to commit genocide against many of ancient Israel’s enemies, and continues to sanction violence against those inconvenient people who refuse to recognize God’s Chosen’s right to God’s Promised Land. The Christian God said it was good to slaughter Jews, burn witches, go on Crusades, and condemn differently believing persons to eternal torment in Hell. The Muslim God says it is good to murder those considered the enemies of Islam (even if they are fellow Muslims). So saying we need God to be good doesn’t tell us much about either God or goodness.

Of course you might say to yourself, “My God doesn’t sanction those things at all.” And that is my point. Your God might not, but another’s God might. Which God is the real God? Which good is the real good?

And being an atheist is no guarantee of goodness either. While I don’t know a single atheist who would kill or oppress in the name of God, there is no doubt that they can do so for other reasons.

The fact is, believing or not believing in this or that God is irrelevant to defining what is good. And the question of belief distracts us from the question, What is good?

If I had to point to a single text to define my sense of global goodness I would point to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I like this document not because it is divinely revealed (it isn’t), or because it is reasoned flawlessly, but because it agrees with my sense of right and wrong. When it comes down to it, I have to define good for myself.

This doesn’t make me happy. I would rather rely on God or at least on people smarter than me. But I can’t. Much of what God says in the world’s religions I find insane and immoral. The only time I find God on the right side of an issue is when God agrees with me. The same is true of what smart people say. I like what they say if what they say agrees with what I say; otherwise, I reject it.

Does it all come down to us as individuals? Is there nothing but our own opinion? How do you define what’s good?


Patti said...

So is good kinda like porn? I can't define it, but I know it when I see it? ;0)

Rabbi Rami said...

I can't answer that, Patti, but I think it is brave of you to admit that you watch porn.

Kent said...

Concerning the genocide in the Scriptures, that was judgment against the Canaanites. God gave them 400 years to turn away from their infanticide, along with other ungodliness. During that 400 years, God was willing to let His people suffer under bondage in Egypt while He waited for a change of heart. They didn't change so Goad gave their land to Israel. I think that was awfully patient of Him.

Concerning the Christian God, I have been reading the Scriptures since I was 22 and I see nowhere the things you mentioned, other than there is a day of reckoning where justice is pronounced. I think the reason that some Christians did the things that you mentioned is because they decided themselves what was right, rather than follow God's teaching. Let's not blame God for what self-righteous people do. Jesus had very harsh words for hypocrites.

Allysa said...

This is a very interesting idea, it seems to me that we don't spend a lot of time talking about what is good (at least in the particular Christian circles in which I run) but instead about what is not good. I think you may have hit on something that made a great deal of sense (at least to me) in your post from a few days ago. what is good is what brings more love into the world and what shows more love.That will have to be my definition of goodness for now.

Rabbi Rami said...

I find it difficult to separate what is human from what is divine in scripture. I believe that people wrote the Bible and they wrote into God's mouth whatever they wanted God to say. As for genocide being limited to Canaanites-- read Deuteronomy 20:17:

“You shall annihilate them—the Hittites, and the Amorites the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded.

I suspect if these people weren't occupying land the Israelites wanted God would have ignored them.

dtedac said...

Rabbi Rami,
I also like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a great guide to knowing what is good. Yes, I also agree with what it says, but I think the fact that people from different nations and different faith expressions (or no particular faith) worked together to create this statement gives some "universality" to it. Hans Kueng and the Global Ethics people also look to this as a source document, as well as commonalities in the many world scriptures.


eashtov said...

Shalom All,

Here's Seth Godin's latest blogpost that may shed some light on the current discussion that seems to mirror the last words in the biblical book of Judges
(21:25) "Everyone did what was right in their eyes."