Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Decent Exposure

A friend linked to this blog post as her Facebook status, and as I read it I realized that it seemed to be entirely beside the point. The blogger, a Christian psychologist, reported this exchange with a student:
"I need to spend more time working on my relationship with God."

I responded, "Why would you want to do that?"

Startled she says, "What do you mean?"

"Well, why would you want to spend any time at all on working on your relationship with God?"

"Isn't that what I'm supposed to do?"

"Let me answer by asking you a question. Can you think of anyone, right now, to whom you need to apologize? Anyone you've wronged?"

She thinks and answers, "Yes."

"Well, why don't you give them a call today and ask for their forgiveness. That might be a better use of your time than working on your relationship with God."
"Obviously," he continued, "I was being a bit provocative with the student. And I did go on to clarify. But I was trying to push back on a strain of Christianity I see in both my students and the larger Christian culture." He doesn't object to spending time with Jesus, he wrote, but "all too often ... has almost nothing to do with trying to become a more decent human being." He concluded, "I truly want people to spend time working on their relationship with God. I just want them to do it by taking the time to care about the person standing right in front of them."

What bothered me initially was that the writer seemed to equate being a decent human being with a Christian, though given our ecumenical times I'm sure he would reject the imputation. I wrote to my friend in comments that trying to be a decent human being doesn't require Christianity -- many Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Confucianists, and people from most other religious traditions would agree, I think, that learning to be a decent human being is valuable. Nor, I think, is any kind of deity needed: as an atheist, how to be a decent human being is one of the questions, and practices, that matter most to me. Other atheists might not agree, but that doesn't affect the point. (To read some atheists, I gather that they don't think you can be a decent human being if you don't believe in evolution, or if you believe in astrology; I think that's obviously not true. This position would be the mirror image of certain kinds of Christian piety.)

True, you could try to reconcile the blogger's position with the teachings of Jesus, who's reported to have said things like this passage from Matthew:
41“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ 44“Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ 45“Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46“These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
The trouble is that teachings like this aren't about "trying to become a more decent human being": they're about trying to escape damnation and get into the Kingdom of Heaven. (Though it could also be argued that they aren't about "working on your relationship with God" either, for the same reason.) Jesus also taught his followers to abandon their families, to forego their parents' funerals, and so on; the goal was to be saved, not to become a more decent human being -- which, insofar as it matters to the Jesus of the gospels at all, was a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Some Christians have tried to moralize Jesus' teachings that don't fit the model, by claiming for example, that Jesus forbade divorce because he was concerned about the fate of divorced women in a patriarchal society. Maybe someone who was so driven by sexual craving that it led him to impose himself on others might have become a more decent human being by gouging out his own eye, or by becoming a eunuch for the kingdom of Heaven. But the context of such teachings makes it pretty clear that Jesus' primary concern wasn't with ethics.

Which brings me to the other side of the question. Every religion has important stuff in it which has nothing to do with being a decent human being. What does believing that Jesus is the Son of God, or being baptized, have to do with being a decent human being? What do circumcision, keeping kosher and going to micva have to do with being a decent human being? What does the system of purity and impurity in Hinduism, or its caste system, have to do with being a decent human being? What does praying five times a day while facing Mecca have to do with being a decent human being? Even Buddhism, which along with Confucianism is one of the more purely ethical religious structures, has plenty of features that have nothing I can see to do with being a decent human being. And these concerns are not supposed to be part of what my friend called putting on a "pious front": they are just as essential to religion as ethical teaching and practice. Which is one reason I'm not religious, because they aren't important to me at all.

These teachings, beliefs, and practices are important to many people. I'm thinking of the poll I wrote about here, which indicated that neither interpersonal ethics nor one's "relationship with God" are what concern most Christians in the US today: the pollsters found that a majority of those who "join a faith" (74 percent) cited "
the attraction of religious services and styles of worship" as a key factor in their lifestyle choice. And there are parallels outside of theism. To read some atheists, I gather that they don't think you can be a decent human being if you don't believe in evolution, or if you believe in astrology; I think that's obviously not true. Just as obviously, believing in evolution or not believing in astrology doesn't make you a decent human being.

This division also comes up in some of the ethical philosophy I've been reading lately. It's not enough, philosophers say, just to do the right thing; you have to do it for the right reasons from the right disposition, and strive to be a good person. I can't really deny that -- on some level I agree that the two aspects of ethics are inseparable -- but something about it still bothers me. For example, does it imply that if I am not yet a good person, I shouldn't do the right thing? Of course not, if only because doing the right thing is part of the process of becoming a good, or at least better person.

It's somewhat like asking about the relationship between being a good artist and being a decent human being. Numerous great artists have been failures in their relations with other people, and it has been debated how significant that is. Can you be a great artist even if you neglect or abandon your wife and children in the pursuit of Art? I'd also insist that many great religious teachers -- I'd include Jesus in that number -- have been poor role models for interpersonal relationships. The Buddha abandoned his family, because human attachment was an obstacle to enlightenment. At the same time, he produced some moral teachings that I consider valuable. I'm just saying that I don't think one can reduce Christianity, or any other religion, to being a decent human being. Putting stress on that aspect may be helpful when people go too far in the direction of ritual and piety, just as it would have been proper to suggest to Paul Gauguin that he lay off the absinthe and support his kids. But that would not necessarily have made him a better artist.