Monday, 4 July 2016

Do You Need God to be Good?

Here are a couple of questions I was independently asked recently about whether you need God to be good, and why a person can't just lead a decent and kind life without having to worry about spirituality or whether there is a Creator or not.

Q. I often encounter 'decent,' well-meaning humanist types who disarmingly suggest to me that in the absence of a clear verifiable affirmative for the existence of deity, then surely it's reasonable just to believe in love and do good deeds: charity, putting others before oneself, etc?  What is wrong with just focusing on the core messages of the spiritual traditions instead of worrying about whether God exists or not? Sometimes I find myself sympathising with this perspective and asking myself how do I really know if these things are real?  How would you respond to these doubters? I ask for myself but also through a desire to be better armed against uncertainty and doubts along the spiritual path. 

A. Here are a few thoughts on this. Aren’t such people just saying obey the second commandment (love your neighbour) but ignore the first which is love of God? But the second only has any basis or reality to it in the light of the first.  There is no love in the real sense outside God.  He is the tree and it is the fruit. No tree, no real fruit. There's only human emotion which can be nice and warm and friendly but is not divine love because at root it is self-centred (not necessarily the same as selfish) even though it may appear otherwise. True love only comes from going beyond yourself, or even other people, to a higher, transcendental truth and that is God. In effect these people are counselling the horizontal path without acknowledging the vertical but the horizontal without the vertical keeps you firmly in this world with its falsehoods and illusions, and you will never find height or depth.

So I would counter them by saying their approach is based on nothing more substantial than good intentions and will never last without something deeper to support it which can only be acknowledgement of the reality of a higher power. In the absence of an absolute standard of goodness and truth (which can only be God) everything becomes relative and conditional which means subject to change.

And even if their humanism helps them do kind things in this world where does that really get them or anyone else? They still remain in this world and the true spiritual aspirant can never be satisfied with this world because it is not his real home. Any truth here only exists as a reflection of the reality of the higher spiritual world. 

Even Jesus (in Mark 10:18) denied being good of himself when he said "Why do you call me good? There is none good save one, that is, God". If Jesus could not be good without God how on earth can anyone else? Is there any individual who can really look into his heart and say "I am a good person"? All goodness flows from God. As the Masters told me "The Master Jesus and all the Masters of old knew they were as nothing and that all they were came from the Creator." Where does the assumed goodness of the humanist come from? Is it a reality or an aspiration?

So the answer is that certainly you can lead a good life, up to a point, without a sense of a higher reality but how good will it really be and on what is it based? Goodness which does not have God as its foundation is not real and can never last.

And, by the way, the core message of all spiritual traditions is that God exists. That is the central truth of them all and the rest depends entirely on that to have any meaning. Even Buddhism, the one exception, points to the Unborn, Unmade and Uncompounded as the reality beyond this world. The Buddha may not have talked about God possibly because he was reacting against the mythological speculations of the Brahmins of the time but the fact that it does not acknowledge the Creator is the great flaw of Buddhism and why it is not really suitable as a religion for people in the West unless it is supported, supplemented and seen in the light of Christ.

Here is the second question with just some additional points in my response so as to avoid repetition.

Q. Why does it matter whether you believe in God or not? Why can't you just be a good person, care for the sick, feed the poor or whatever it might be? What extra would believing in God add?

A. The extra is critical because it has to do with the work of spiritual transformation. Only if you believe in God can this spiritualising work start to take place within you and you be recreated as a spiritual being rather than a limited earthbound material one. Of course, you already are a spiritual being but not in full consciousness. You are spiritual in your origin and potential but not in your current state. Belief in God is necessary because without it you cannot be pulled out of earthly darkness and into the spiritual light. It is like the sun that makes a seed planted in the earth grow.

Q. But many believers aren't transformed. They remain they same petty, selfish people.

A. True but I would say two things to that. Firstly, the process is a long one and depends on the base level at which you start. And secondly, many people only believe in their heads but it is the heart not the mind that matters. Theoretical belief is of little use if the heart and the imagination are not involved. That is because only belief in the heart and the imagination affects the whole person.


ted said...

I really liked how you unpacked this issue, and it is a common argument that secular people like to bring up.

It even inspired a blog post for me.

Came across your blog a couple weeks back via Bruce Charlton. I plan to read your book soon too. I relate to your spiritual trajectory & metaphysics, and parts appear familiar to me. I'm a former Catholic who sought out east (Tibetan Buddhism: Mahamudra/Dzogchen), and now returning to Christ in a different way.

William Wildblood said...

Thanks Ted.I do think that if secular people honestly follow their morality to its source it's got to peter out in nothing because there's nothing real to support it.

I wrote my book a few years ago and, though I see things substantially in the same way now,I wrote a post slightly updating my position which is here

As it happens, it's quite similar to yours as you put it above!

Bruce Charlton said...

@ William - I have been thinking about this since you posted it - but can't really condense my thoughts.

When people ask this question, they seem to look at the situation in a cross-sectional fashion, rather than in terms of a person's life trajectory; and they look for apparent individual exceptions - and tend to ignore strong general trends.

As (more or less) an atheist until my late forties, I found that I got less and less 'good' (more selfish, expedient, and short-termist) from my middle teens until I married, and then I was again made better by having children (both while remaining broadly atheist) - but that it became harder and harder to explain or defend choices and actions that I felt were certainly good - against constant, escalating, pressure towards the destruction of good (destruction and inversions of truth, beauty and virtue - especially in the workplace and dealings with officialdom).

I found that I had no 'argument' stronger than 'well that is how I feel about things, and I won't change my mind' - in other words, what seemed just an act of pure self-assertion, prideful selfishness and arrogance - against an overwhelming majority, social consensus, fashion, or power bloc. Perhaps due more to an innately abrasive personality than any virtue, I did hold out against *some* bad things that others capitulated to - but it didn't lead to anything general and had purely personal consequences.. and tended to feed the sin of pride.

Also, those who ask this question often implicitly have a particular idea of 'good' which is itself already assuming a secular perspective - their idea of good is usually broadly 'utilitarian' - the greatest happiness/ least suffering of the greatest number.

Whereas the various religious ideals of the highest good vary considerably - but are all something other-than aiming at some kind of psychological state like happiness.

In sum, there is no 'neutral ground' from which to answer these questions - the answers follow from the prior assumptions.

William Wildblood said...

I see what you mean, Bruce. What is good? There can, I suppose, be secular goodness but it's a shallow thing with no real substance and consists in obeying the secular dictates of the day. But true goodness does require the recognition of a higher reality because it requires the acknowledgement of divine love as a fundamental principle of the universe plus the attempt to coordinate one's self-centred self to that divine love. Perhaps that's why having children helps to a degree. It's something that does force one to be slightly less self-centred. Another argument in favour of the family!