When it is wrong to be right as a Christian or other God-fearing believer?

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by Neil Godfrey

I’m not saying it is right to be wrong, either, by the way. The following is a stream of consciousness thing, thinking aloud . . . I have never really tested the thoughts before to know if they do hold.

I have sometimes said that I see the mainstream orthodox versions of religious faiths as sharing a responsibility for the extremists associated with their brand of religion: the murderers of abortion doctors and manslaughterers of those needing medical care and murderers of those of the wrong ethnicity, faith, politics and real-estate. I still think that is the case.

At the same time I have found myself feeling a tad uncomfortable working with mainstream religious groups in social justice causes. Not that I dislike the people involved. Many of them are fine and sincere and good company and it’s encouraging to see them doing more than just praying.

But there’s still something wrong and a line in Gilad Atzmon’s The Wandering Who? caught my attention and reminded me of part of why even mainstream religion is not a healthy thing and why its perpetuation gives respectability to the same ways of thinking and valuing that can be turned so easily to criminality.

The ethical subject is engaged in a constant dynamic ethical exercise rather than a symbolic acceptance of a given rule. (p. 63)

That is, when we live by principles, or rules, that are inculcated or imbibed from a source external to us, we are not living a truly ethical life. It comes down to the old adage, Principles or People. If we choose to live by external sets of precepts we are failing to the ethical life of self-reflection that leads us into identifying ourselves with fellow-humanity and acting accordingly.

Likewise mainstream religion gives social respectability to faith in the occult. Occult technically means things hidden, such a spirits or a God. Once we accept such a faith as socially respectable there remains no way to control the nature of some of the gods that some people will embrace. We are giving respectability to irrational beliefs that can have dire consequences.

What I found slightly discomforting about our mainstream religious partners who joined with us in some of our activism was that they were clearly acting “as Christians” because it was their “faith” to do so, and their obligation to “perform good works”. There seemed to be a certain patronizing at work. It was as if they were needed in order to be sure the genuine ethical message was broadcast. We were simply doing it because we felt and cared for those we were trying to help. We had no thought of being “a light” to “witness” to “God’s/our love”. That was self-serving bullshit and in a sense hypocritical.


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8 thoughts on “When it is wrong to be right as a Christian or other God-fearing believer?”

  1. To me it seems as though any altruistic action could be considered self-serving in a way. What’s the difference between helping someone because it feels good and helping someone because god wills it? Either end could be seen as self-serving; one because you are pleasing yourself and another because you are attempting to please god.

    Who knows, though, maybe I’m just cynical. I think that as long as people are doing good, then their motivation doesn’t necessarily matter. Actions in the real world are the things that usher change, not motivation per se.

    I do agree with that observation of faith. Asserting that faith is a virtue will inexorably lead to immoral acts and gives safe haven to those who are extremists in that faith. Because faith is a virtue, the liberal religionists cannot truly condemn their more extremist brethren. All they can do is claim that they’re doing faith wrong. But what gives them that authority to say that someone else is doing their faith wrong, if faith itself is a virtue? And as Hector Avalos says, claiming that someone is doing their faith/religion wrong implicitly calls these “wayward” religionists heretics of a sort, and with the added bonus of there being no objective way of discerning which faith is the correct one and which one is the erroneous; which itself promotes more discord and even religious violence.

    Moreover, faith can’t be a virtue if one also sees truth as a virtue. Religionists like to equivocate between faith and truth, but since the two aren’t one and the same, if faith is one of the highest virtues, and it comes into conflict with “truth”, then faith in this case will necessarily be some form of deception. We see it all the time here in the US with the evolution/creation debate. That debate is really just a conflict between faith and “truth” (or what in more scientific language would be a higher probability of being true). Thus, to paraphrase what Sam Harris said elsewhere, no one flew planes into buildings, bombed abortion clinics, or beat gays to death because they were being too logical or too rational. No society ever burned witches, stoned adulterers to death, or enslaved and repressed entire segments of their populations because they were overly concerned with reason and evidence. All of those atrocities were in the name of some sort of faith. I don’t think any extremists of that sort would exist if faith itself were not seen as a virtue.

  2. I’ve got no problem with self-interest. But there may come a point where the definition can be too abstract. There are times we could not live with ourselves if we didn’t help someone in need. That’s a kind of self-interest, too, I guess. If as social animals we have the need for reciprocity “built into our genes” then isn’t that all we can ask for? We pitch in to help others when we can — not for any self-conscious self-interest reason. It’s just how we are, but if asked, we’d probably say it’s because we know it’s the sort of thing we’d like others to do to us.

  3. Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons……..

    Neil, perhaps in the case of people helping people – does it really matter? Surely, what matters is that some people are helping other people. It’s the people being helped that are the focus – not the motive of the helpers.Even if some people are helping others because of some dictate from some organization, with the carrot of some otherworldly reward in view, that’s a side issue – albeit an issue that might frustrate rational people..;-) – but of no consequence to the people being helped. Of course, if some people are helping others for some payback in this world i.e. education tied up with belonging to a church, then it is a very different ball game!

    You speak of “mainstream religion” – why the qualifier? Why the need to add this qualifier? Whether we speak of mainstream religion or organized religion, we are still speaking about *religion*. What are we talking about. What is *religion*
    Yes, Hoffmann is making a song and dance about the New Atheists and their ‘attack’ on *religion*. And, yes, the points in your post are well taken. People do do good deeds because of an external set of guidelines. They toe the line of what is deemed to be good by their affiliation with some organized structure. (But even here one can’t really generalize – people can join an organization because of genuinely wanting to do good for it’s own sake and not for the sake of following it’s dictates. Likewise, people brought up within it’s confines can still be genuine in their reaching out to others.)

    It’s not just Hoffmann who has taken issue with the New Atheists and their misguided attack upon *religion*. Scott Atran is on record;

    “It makes me embarrassed to be a scientist and an atheist”.


    And from his book (Talking to the Enemy) he slightly rephrases the point he made at the 2006 Beyond Belief Conference:

    “I do not criticize the Four Horsemen and other scientifically minded new atheists for wanting to rid the world of dogmatically-held beliefs that are vapid, barbarous, anachronistic and wrong. I object to their manner of combating such beliefs, which is often shrill, scientifically baseless, psychologically uninformed, politically naïve, and counterproductive for goals we share.”

    And from Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust:

    “On another plane, this work is agnostic and so prone to charges of insincerity from either side of the religious divide. The cognitive perspective I have chosen for this book is a biological and scientific perspective that focuses on the casual role of the mind/brain in generating behaviour. From this vantage, religion is not doctrine, or institutions, or even faith. Religion ensues from the ordinary workings of the human mind as it deals with emotionally compelling problems of human existence, such as birth, death, unforeseen calamities, and love. In religion, these ‘facts of life’ are always inherent problems of society, caused by the very same intentional agents that are thought to constitute society. They are never just random or mechanical incidents of a physical or biological nature, as science might suggest……………………From this vantage, human cognition (re)creates the gods who sustain hope beyond sufficient reason and commitment beyond self-interest. Humans ideally represent themselves to one another in gods they trust. Through their gods, people see what is good in others and what is evil”.

    Or to put all that is very simple terms: think of *religion* as our need for food, the physical necessities of living. But we don’t live on bread alone. To flourish we need extras in our diet – we need not just physical food but spiritual food also. ‘Spiritual’ being non-material – as in love, dignity, trust and validation. Aspects of our being that require input from outside of ourselves, from others. As with physically eating a bad diet damages our health – so likewise, a bad spiritual diet will damage our health – but it also carries the burden of damaging not just ourselves but our social interactions. And its here, of course, that the social dangers lie. Not simply that theology has infiltrated our spiritual diet, but that it has been allowed to take control. Nobody is going to stop people believing in gods, of whatever nature. What can be done is to stop these gods from having a social/political relevance. That should be the goal of the New Atheists – man the barricades against theological encroachment into social/political life – and leave the unconquerable *religion* to it’s own evolutionary trajectory. Theology, being an intellectual pursuit, allows a place for revolution. Religion belongs to the slow evolutionary road. Mix that up – and try a revolutionary attack upon religion – and methinks the backlash would very quickly reveal just who is top dog!

    Yes, its perhaps a technical detail – differentiating religion and theology. But if it’s a ‘war’ the New Atheists are after – then aiming their ‘guns’ in the wrong direction is going to make them look pretty foolish – which is where Hoffmann is coming from. Hoffmann should be turning those ‘guns’ the right way instead of ridiculing the New Atheists for their willingness to man the barricades.

    1. The quote from Scott Atran is one seen frequently by the accomodationists, who want us to respect religion. If one watches Dawkins at work, he never seems shrill, and certainly the past decade has shown the new atheists to have been anything but counterproductive.

    2. I spoke of “mainstream” religion because I suppose I take it as a given that the other kind is “bad” anyway and want to stress that it’s the “good guys” who are providing the safe haven for the bad ones.

      My consciousness of the difference no doubt stems from my own personal experience. After leaving a cult type of religion I was looking forward to what I expected would be the sanity of a mainstream one, only to find the latter were no different except by degrees and that they allowed everyone to play their own mind games instead of having everything under central direction.

  4. It’s not the motives that worry me — I should have omitted that last sentence or added to it. It’s the artificiality, the immaturity, the externality, of our “moral compass”. It’s the belief in precepts that are external to ourselves that is worrying.

  5. Neil: “It’s the artificiality, the immaturity, the externality, of our ‘moral compass’. It’s the belief in precepts that are external to ourselves that is worrying.”

    Yes, I agree. But inability to internalize isn’t solely owned by religionists either. Precepts are also codified in social laws. Sometimes offenders are required as part of a sentence to perform social services. You are, of course, talking about mainstream Christians and “a certain patronizing at work.” I believe this partly comes from maintaining a comfortable position in Western culture. And this position so entrenched in ethical religiosity is very much a matter of theology, as mentioned by maryhelena.

    I don’t think “religion” in the broad sense is the problem. Not all individual religions frame theologies dependent on an ultimate hands-on god responsible for moral laws. But this is the type of god and associated mainstream religion many modern atheists have a problem with, particularly a religion reliant on a perceived history that can be disputed.

    Speaking of ethical religiosity, Dutch historian Gilles Quispel is said to have written: “The world-spirit in exile must go through the Inferno of matter and the Purgatory of morals to arrive at the spiritual Paradise.” In other words, the goal of some religions or theologies is not adherence to moral rules and accompanying hubris; rather it’s attainment or awareness of an inner kind of spirit.

    Interestingly, ‘atheist’ is another term that G. Quispel has used in conversation differently from its modern association with ‘materialist’ or ‘naturalist’. Quispel was a close friend of C. G. Jung. In an interview with Christopher Farmer (Gnosis Magazine, Fall/Winter 1985, p.29),
    Farmer asked: “Whereas the ancient gnostics took the alternative of the Unknown Father seriously, Jung certainly did not. “
    Quispel responded: “Jung was not an atheist, so he did not, nor was he a pan-psychologist, but he did have a very personal concept of God. As he would say to his friends: ‘I can’t express myself,’ although he did once in the <Septem Sermones ad Mortuos (1916). And you will see him, in all his later works, trying to formulate what he had experienced then, in 1915, in a scholarly way. But he was furious, for example, when Martin Buber identified him with the gnostics, because he thought that his purpose and experience was different. And I think he was right. For him, light and darkness and that whole grim oceanic feeling which man has come from, is a real issue: making light out of darkness – the alchemical process.”

    So, I don’t see here concern about moral precepts determined by theology of a loving god external to ourselves, whether talking about Jung’s alchemical interests or gnostics and I’m sure we could add other theologies and philosophies, including naturalism, to the list. Which brings me to my point. Because of a mainstream (which you appropriately identify, Neil), institutionalized ‘orthodox’ Christian influence in our western culture, there is often a tendency to separate between believers and unbelievers. I really think the infighting among modern atheistic factions is counterproductive. Are we starting to see atheist denominations? There are many other theologies and philosophies held by people who are not materialists or naturalists who likewise have an interest in humanity and internal moral barometers. I believe that a joining of ‘guns’ (as described by maryhelena) from many of these people, atheists and others alienated in our society, could more effectively focus on theologies and brands of religion that share a responsibility for socially destructive extremist ways of thinking and activities.

  6. The sentence you quoted from The Wandering Who page 63 had me scratching my head until I went and read the two preceding statements:

    “For Kant, ethics is a matter of judgement rather than an internalisation of a given moral ‘code’ or rules. The ethical being, according to Kant, is distinguished by his or her capacity to judge ethically.”

    Taken by itself, the statement “The ethical subject is engaged in a constant dynamic ethical exercise rather than a symbolic acceptance of a given rule” could be taken either way, as I saw it. It might mean that all ethical rules are merely symbolic and thus not important, and thus one might use such a phrase to justify a theistic view in which “human morality” is wrong because whatever the Almighty Tyrant (of the system of theology) does is esteemed as right even when it is clearly wrong. But in context, it obviously doesn’t mean that.

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