The holy and the good …

May 11, 2005
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Published in The Times, 11th May 2005

Can you be good without being religious? The simple answer is: of course. Whoever thought otherwise? There is nothing inherently “religious” about the moral sense. The Bible takes it for granted that human beings know the basic difference between good and evil. You don’t have to be religious to know that murder, cruelty, theft or violent crime are wrong. But that does not mean that religion is irrelevant. Even if you conclude that you don’t have to be religious to be moral, religion does make a difference to the moral life.

The first difference is hope. There are no logical grounds to believe that tomorrow will be better than today. The alternative — the tragic sense of life — is equally coherent and consistent with human history. However, Judaism is a religion of hope. Even after the early narratives of failure — Adam, Cain, the generation of the Flood, the tower of Babel — God does not give up, and because of that, neither do we. I find it astonishing that after all the catastrophes of the past Jews did not despair.

Where does hope come from? Hope is not a mere feeling, something we share with non-human forms of life. Nor does it exist in every possible culture. It comes from a specific set of beliefs: that the Universe is not blind to our dreams, deaf to our prayers; that we are not alone; that we are here because someone willed us to be and that our very existence is testament to the creative force of love.

The human story can be told many ways. The Hebrew Bible could be turned into Greek tragedy without changing a word. Instead of creating the just society, Israel would be seen to have failed and been reduced to anarchy.

Hope and tragedy do not differ about facts but about interpretation and expectation. But they make a moral difference. Those who hope, strive. Those who are disillusioned, accept. A morality of hope lives in the belief that we can change the world for the better, and without theological beliefs it is hard to see where hope could come from.

The second difference is that the existence of God changes the moral equation. Divine ownership of the world means that the worldly goods we enjoy, we do not own, we merely hold on trust. The fact that human beings are made in the image of God means that life belongs to Him, not us. Hence, in Judaism, infanticide, murder, suicide, active euthanasia and most forms of abortion are forbidden. These equations are fragile without the existence of a transcendent source of moral authority. The existence of a covenant with God means that all human sovereignty is delegated, conditional and constitutional. If there is a conflict between the laws of humans and the law of God, the latter takes priority. This is the greatest single safeguard against tyranny and the rule of might over right. The existence of God solves problems that are otherwise intractable. One is the leap beyond solipsism and egoism. How do I know that there are other minds? Why should I consider others? Monotheism solves this problem because it represents the reality of otherness. God, who knows me, knows others also. He cares for me because He cares for us and cares for those who are not me. The parenthood of God turns humanity into a single extended family.

The third difference, though, is the most significant. Philosophy has tended to present ethics as the problem of What and Why: what should we do, and why should we do it? But the real question is: what does it take to make people moral given all the distractions, temptations and alternatives?

The short answer is that there is nothing inevitable about human virtue. Marx, Darwin, Freud and others remind us that there are other forces at work: conflicts of interest, competition for resources, hostilities and aggression. The moral sense is a flickering flame in a strong wind: hard to light, easy to extinguish. A philosophical treatise on ethics bears the same relationship to the ethical life as a medical textbook does to being healthy. Health is less a matter of what we know than of how we live and unless we develop healthful habits, practised daily, all the medical knowledge in the world will not save us from ourselves.

The fundamental task of ethics is not only to know the good but to make it part of our lives. The Bible is less a philosophical treatise on the nature of the good than a choreography of human actions: commands, judgments, statutes, rituals, observances and prayers. We become ethical not just by what we know, but also by what we do. Too little attention has been paid to the role of ritual in the moral life. Yet it makes a difference by turning abstract rules into living practices that shape ethical character. The fact that each day I must pray, give to charity and make a blessing over all I eat and drink; that once a week, I must stop and spend time with my family and community; that once a year, during the High Holy Days, I must atone for my sins and apologise to those I have offended: these things transform life.

Ritual is to ethics what physical exercise is to health. That requires discipline, a ritual — and religion is the matrix of ritual.