I am continually mystified by what seems to be a prevalent belief in the religious community: that one cannot lead a morally correct life unless one practices a religion, or, at a minimum, believes in a deity.
I am particularly astonished that an individual as intellectually sophisticated as Kevin Leininger evidently has difficulty making decisions about right and wrong without appealing to Christianity, apparently his personal religion of choice, as suggested by his column, entitled, “Laws must be based on morality — even religion,” presented in the April 4 edition of The News-Sentinel
The broader question, of course, is what is the basis of morally correct behavior, and given that some of the greatest thinkers in the history of humankind have devoted considerable attention to this massively complex subject, it is unclear what we can add to this here. Nevertheless, some comments may be worthwhile, if nothing else for stimulating continued local discussion about it.
As always, we must begin with a definition of terms, in this case, “morality.” Writing in “The Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” Patrick H. Nowell-Smith stated that, among other things, a moral system involves “rules laying down what ought to be done and what ought not to be done.”
Thus, to a large degree, with morality we enter the realm of behavioral prescriptions: shoulds and oughts.
So how shall we make decisions about this? Should we follow Leininger’s implicit recommendation, and abide by the reported dictates of the Judeo-Christian/Muslim God? This is the one who, along with his good works, visits upon us unspeakable horrors on a daily basis, such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre of innocents as well as such periodic epic catastrophes as World Wars I and II, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
According to Wikipedia, the last two divine events resulted in the deaths of, respectively, 230,210 and 220,000 innocent women, men and children. One might reasonably ask that, if this is morally correct behavior, whether we should consider redefining the term.
On the other hand, it may be possible to construct a sound code of conduct using strictly secular methods. Researching “good” using various dictionaries and thesauruses, and nary a religious text, I developed the following list of 18 traits, which we may call, “good person traits”: honest, reliable, friendly, honorable, helpful, understanding, trustworthy, considerate, generous, modest, courteous, respectful, sincere, patient, pleasant, loyal, kind, and well-intentioned. Is there any among us, including Leininger, who would not agree that these are entirely admirable traits, worthy of our behavioral aspirations?
Moreover, it seems reasonable to conclude that good people have most of these traits most of the time, and that nobody has all of these traits all of the time. We all stumble morally, from time to time, but the sensible among us do not condemn people who, day in and day out, practice the “good person traits.”
In addition, absent from this list are such traits as height, weight, eye color, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability to play the trombone or religious beliefs. This is because reasonable people know that such characteristics are completely irrelevant to morally correct behavior.
For example, have we all not been acquainted with very high-quality Christians, as well as such monumental Christian hypocrites such as Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker? Should we condemn to perdition a practitioner of the “good person traits” merely because she or he does not practice a religion or does not believe in a god? Would this be morally correct? Can we not use the “good person traits” to guide our behavior without appealing to religion or gods? Can we not likewise base our norms, mores and laws upon them?
We should behave according to the “good person traits” not because we are hell-bound if we do not, but because it is in our collective best interest to do so. I certainly know what my life is like when I associate with good people, and what it is like when I do not.
So far in this country, thanks largely to our founding fathers, we are permitted wide latitude in terms of our behavior, and we may practice whatever religion we choose, or no religion at all, without being decapitated, boiled in oil or thrown into prison, provided that we adhere to the “good person traits.” Is this not how it should be?
Certainly, as Leininger seems to believe, “faith and law are not mutually exclusive,” but please, let us stop equating religion and morality.