Posted by Ezra Roizen
By way of background, you can read my thoughts on faith here.
It’s important to note that this question is not asking if in order to be GOOD a person must believe in GOD. Instead, it’s asking if God is a PREREQUISITE for Good.
I say He isn’t.
That said, I do think it’s fascinating that, as we stated in our introductory post: “despite our constitutional separation of Church and State, the official motto of the United States is “In God We Trust.” In Zorach v. Clauson (1952), the Supreme Court also held that the nation’s “institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”
Our nation’s institutions presuppose a Supreme Being! To me that’s mind blowing. We’ve constructed our nation-on, and put our trust-in, an entity which no one can actually prove exists.
I attribute this to the fundamental need for what I’ll call a “Great Other” – that good behavior requires a focal point – a shared belief in something. The reason Town Halls are often the tallest building around is because they are a symbol of society – a reminder to be good, because of the Great Other. Why else would we have flag poles?
It could be said that communism made society the Great Other, but that was a circular reference and eventually the system imploded. The Great Other must be other than we – it must be something different on which we can all focus.
It’s funny how many movies have the basic Independence Day theme of a divided world one day being attacked by aliens, then all of a sudden all of humanity unites because we realize that even with all of our differences, we’re better off uniting joining forces against the common foe. We unite because of a Great Other.
In parallel, I think Good is a progression. It can be optimized and perfected.
So the important question to me is “what factors increase the amount of good?” How do we create an environment which promotes good behavior and demotes bad? In an excellent TED talk on the morality of animals Frans de Waal defines the “Pilars of Morality” to be what he calls Reciprocity (with a subtext of Fairness) and Empathy (with a subtext of Compassion).
Fairness and Compassion seem like good pillars to me. How do we promote fairness and compassion?
Well, the biggest challenge is that human brains are pretty limited. We forget stuff all the time, and need constant reminders to do the right things – and consider all priorities at once. This is why Great Other is so valuable. Most of us want to be good, but our brains can only fit so much in, so we sort of forget to be good when other factors take up our processing capacity.
So a Great Other is a constant index. It’s why people ask the question “What would Jesus do?” The Great Other keeps us honest. Its simplicity is its beauty.
But is God the optimal Great Other? Is God the best mechanism for increasing good behavior?
I think not.
God without religion is vacant, and pretty much every religion I know is both comprehensive and exclusive. Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That’s pretty inflexible. It means the only way to God is through Jesus. What’s troubling is that on the cross Jesus also said: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This leads me to believe that the Father and the Son may not always be on the same page. Yet my only way to the Father is through the Son.
Given its exclusivity religion actually increases relativism in the name of absolutism, that is unless everyone all of a sudden joins the same religion – and given the idiosyncrasies of each I don’t see that happening, without, well, some (new) divine intervention.
Positing religion as the primary Great Other poses many challenges. In the same way positing a nation has challenges as it’s also exclusive. It’d be great if the Oakland A’s could be the global Great Other, but not everyone could get to the games, not even me if they move to San Jose.
What (or whom) is the Great Other to which we could all subscribe?
I propose the Earth as our global Great Other. It’s something on which we can all focus, for which we can all be grateful, and over which we can all argue. Good will be in the context of our Planet, and Planet-willing, when we occupy new planets, we’ll add them to our pantheon.
Would there be more or less Good if Earth was our Great Other? Globally thanked, perfected, and celebrated.
I say yes!
I say God is not a prerequisite for good. He may exist, but He’s not required.
But I do like the idea of a common Great Other –mOther Earth.
Leave a comment and/or proceed to post #4: You Cannot spell G-O-O-D without G-O-D