Good without God
In the theist-atheist debates one of the flash points is morality. Theists like to tell atheists that their morality is foundationless without God. That’s a debatable point in the theoretical and philosophical but I must conceded is baseless in the practical and actual. Many of my atheist friends are very moral people, I assume they are just as moral as I am and for many of the same reasons.
Sources of Morality in the Self
Joseph Bottum has written a book called The Anxious Age where he asserts that the sources of the current contours of American morality can be found in the collapse of the old Mainline churches. He came to his thesis and his book watching the Occupy movement. This quote is from his interview for the Amazon page.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for An Anxious Age?
In some ways, An Anxious Age really began when I was sent out to report on the protestors at Occupy Wall Street—and couldn’t finish the assignment. I could feel a spiritual anxiety about modern civilization radiating from nearly all of them, but I could find no easy way to explain it.
Now, two years later, this book is my answer: Not just those protestors, but nearly everyone today is driven by supernatural concerns, however much or little they realize it. Radicals and traditionalists, liberals and conservatives—together with politicians, artists, environmentalists, followers of food fads, and the chattering classes of television commentators: America is filled with people frantically seeking confirmation of their own essential goodness. We are a nation of individuals desperate to stand on the side of morality—anxious to know that we are righteous and dwell in the light.
The trouble, of course, is that we’ve lost any shared cultural notion of what exactly that goodness might entail.
Whether or not you agree with his thesis of the source of this self-righteous anxiety, the observation of its presence seem correct. We may not be able to agree on the details of morality but we are awfully sure morality is important and we are desperate to be seen as moral.
When do I Get Angry?
We may not be in control of when we get angry, but observing when we get angry will tell us something about values we hold in a preconscious or sub-conscious place. One of the most uncomfortable truths about myself that I continue to painfully learn is that I am deeply self-righteous, and the way I know this is that I get angry when people explicitly or implicitly challenge or even doubt the righteous self I believe my self to be.
It is small comfort to recognize that I’m not alone in this. It is shameful to recognize how prominent a place this truth about myself has in my Calvinist theological system and how flimsy a theoretical embrace of that system is in combatting this self-righteousness. I can sign my church’s doctrinal covenant all day long and have this change hardly at all. Despite my professed Calvinism deep inside I am an ardent, determined Pharisee.
Sources of My Righteous Self
Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is helpful on this point but I really don’t need to try to look for evolutionary developmental sources for this. I can find them easily enough with a bit of introspection and observation about my self-righteous self. Two powerful sources of my self-righteous self are my pride and my tribe.
Pride is always a tricky word. Augustine saw it as the chief sin and I think he’s on to something with it. We also recognize that there are some good things that fall within the semantic range of this English word too.
Ego is associated with pride and this is surely a strong source of my self-righteous pride. I am deeply insecure, realizing that I am a fragile, weak, temporary being who is desperate to establish himself as meaningful and consequential within the broader human story and community. I want to matter to myself and the way I know this is by seeing my significance in the minds of others that I see as important, powerful, beautiful, intelligent and important. The outward expression of my self are my actions and I want them to be seen as beautiful, powerful, important, glorious and all of that is just another way of saying “moral”.
My proud ego is a powerful source of morality. I don’t need God for this. I have my self.
You can see from my description of my proud self that it is deeply tied to the approval of the tribe that I value. I need my tribe to validate me, to help me see my self and more importantly to help me see my self as important, beautiful, significant, good and glorious. What this means is that I am deeply shaped by all of the other individual selves that make up this collective self of my tribe.
My tribe shapes me in deep and profound ways. This is of course an obvious truth but that obviousness is also estranged from my prideful self because it is a humbling reality. We all recognize this dynamic in others, but resist (especially in American culture where we esteem the individual) accepting it as true of ourselves. We blithely accept that “children born in Islamic cultures will most naturally become Muslims” but we resist admitting that we are just as deeply shaped and powerless against our cultural influences as they are of theirs. The Christian God can’t judge them for the decisions they make for different reasons than why He shouldn’t judge us for ours.
At the same time (as Haidt and others show) we instinctively mirror and defend our moral, religious (or irreligious) and relational tribes and angrily rise to the defense of our ideals and our tribal allies.
My morals are deeply shaped and fueled by the common morality of my tribe within the culture wars of our larger moral ecosystem. I don’t need God for this either. God, in fact, to the degree that we think him useful is usually co-opted by one’s side in a battle. In a twist on the ontological argument how much greater of an ally could we imagine than one that is all powerful and all moral?
In truth, however, I don’t need God for this. With my tribe and pride together my righteous self has tremendous fuel to propel me with anger, reason, accusation and self-sufficiently to battle the foe, even potentially unto death. What were the 9-11 hijackers screaming as they drove the planes into their targets?
What I Need God For
What if, in fact, I am not right? What if I in fact am deeply morally confused? What if, in agreement with my theoretically embraced religious tribe, I am not truly motivated by love for God, truth, morality, my neighbor, and certainly not my enemy? What if all of the fuel that my pride and tribe generate send me off in the wrong direction, or even in the right direction to hate, harm and destroy my adversaries with all of the vengeance of a wrathful god? What if in fact my doctrinal subscription tells me the truth about myself that I am deeply wrong about myself, my God and my neighbor and that my natural tendency is to make life work at their expense?
My tribe may be of some use in this because it is filled with other self-righteous, self-centered persons who will contradict and challenge me but in our American consumer self culture I get to choose my tribe from the moral menu and change them whenever it is convenient for me. This limits the value of my tribe in standing against me. Like no other time or place in history am I capable of descending into a practical unconscious Solipcism.
My pride is certainly not my ally in any of this. It is my pride that undermines the aid that my tribe might be given the inalienable right of choice in my civilization.
Oh too-often-unconsciously-self-sufficiently wretched man that I am who can save me from my own self?
I don’t just need a religious tribe, we’ve already seen that as a culture we have greatly undermined its capacity for help. I need a God who is my frenemy. He must be for me more than I am for myself. For the same reason a doctor can’t be his own doctor, and a lawyer shouldn’t be his how lawyer, I need a real, personal God who is for me despite me. This God must stand against me, resist me, speak to me things I don’t want to hear. I need this more than I need anything else if my self is to be saved from itself. I need this is I am to have any chance of being “good” in any sense beyond my own definition of good or even my tribe’s definition of “good”.
The Occupy Movement
The Occupy Movement was critiqued as movement itself without definition or agreement and was rightly predicted to die of this fatal malady. Of Bottum is right then the fatal flaw of that movement is indicative of our whole civilization. We are deeply self-righteous but in no agreement about righteousness beyond what our individual selves and our overly fractured and convenient tribes self-importantly imagine. We are offended, angered and vengeful when other residents of the world declare that we are this way (Russians, Chinese, Africans).
I am no different from a junkie but my drug is my self. If I am going to escape this I need a real God beyond myself. No other frenemy will do.