Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Good God

And the Lord spake unto the philosopher, "I'm the Lord thy God, and I'm the source of all that is good. Why does thy secular moral philosophy ignore me?"
And the philosopher spake unto the Lord, "To answer I must first ask you some questions. You command us to do what is good. But is it good because you command it or do you command it because it is good?"
"Ur," said the Lord. "It's good because I command it?"
"The wrong answer surely, your mightiness! If the good is only good because you say it is so, when you could, if you wished, make it so that torturing infants was good. But that would be absurd, wouldn't it?"
"Of course!", replieth the Lord. "I tested thee and thou hast made me pleased. What was the other choice again?"
"You choose that which is good because it is good. But that shows quite clearly that goodness does not depend on you at all. So we don't need to study God to study the good."
"Even so," spake the Lord, "you've got to admit I've written some pretty good textbooks on the subject...", (Source: Euthyphro by Plato)

This has been the age old debate - the role of religion in morality. And it somehow seems all the more fitting when in today's world morality is being blatantly violated in the name of religion. This chapter also questions one's faith and belief in a supernatural being - God. Being a very sensitive subject, I hope to not offend anyone with my views. This is my little disclaimer :).

My views on God and religion have been evolving for many years now and they continue to evolve and change with every passing year. I have also come to realize that some phenomena in the universe are beyond the comprehension and reasoning of my current state of mind, and I'm ignorant of how to train my mind sufficiently to stretch its limits of comprehension. Be that as it may, I gave a whole week to ruminate on this chapter; to collect my views, question them again and arrive at some conclusion.

In my view, religion is one form of judicial system to keep society in order. It holds the strength to be a robust form of judiciary, because the one who framed the laws is a supernatural power - God (or so it is claimed). One who is omnipresent and omnipotent, unlike us mortals who try to frame laws on morality. It's ironical that a principle which tries to keep society in order, now wreaks havoc. Morality derived out of religion is called the "Divine Command Theory". There are no questions, no confusions... the laws are in the scriptures.

God is our collective belief and faith of everything positive and good around us. A belief in a supernatural being who looks after us, who knows how and when to punish the bad and reward the good. In that sense, since we attribute every possible good attribute to God, God is a personification of everything Good...

When I was young I believed in an actual God sitting up on His throne and looking down at earthlings and engaging his messengers to ensure good wins over evil. I had no doubt that if someone did something wrong, they would be punished. As I grew up, I realized there is no such clear line between good and evil, and the good did not always win over the evil; especially if the Divine Command Theory were followed. What is good in the Hindu moral code is bad in another religion and vice versa. This confused me. This, in my opinion, is the reason why Religion cannot guarantee good; it enforces morality that is not absolute. As the universe comes together and populations and cultures get homogenized, we are in need of a moral code that is more absolute and objective. But, this is one part of the argument.

If there were no God associated with good, would that work? I have my doubts. I started with a spiritual/religious grounding that perhaps is at the bedrock of my decisions. There have been many many times when I have succumbed to disregarding my faith in God and the balance of good and evil... and it threw my world out of focus. There was no more any meaning to existence, to life and our decisions. It seemed to pluck away the meaning of Hope. I no longer understood why some babies were born blind and some healthy, why some "good" people were put through horrendous tortures while the "bad" thrived.  The explanation of randomness playing a role, did not appease me; it further confused me. I didn't understand why one had to do good if life was just a matter of survival. Isn't the lion hunting the deer for it's survival justified? Why then should I be the deer in my society, why can't I be the lion? Why then should I try to be moral all the time when there are those who play a wiser game?

And therein comes the belief system that seems to restore order, serenity and comfort. A common thread of spirituality across religions that begs us to look into ourselves, search for our true peace within ourselves and to detach from the mundane of the material society. It is a tonic for the tortured mind... be it true or not. Not every person on this earth is blessed with a good family, a good upbringing, a good exposure to knowledge, intellectual stimulation and hence a clear mind to reason with clarity on morality for the sake of society.

If there were no rules from scriptures, no belief systems in a higher authority, a mind that has gone through violence in tender ages and abuse to intellectual growth, cannot be expected to reason with clarity, or be expected to apply absolute moral codes that asks one to be good for the sake of the society. For such millions, good can rarely exist without a spiritual grounding, and a belief system to hold on to. In many ways, it's a tribal culture. Fear is instilled in the name of religion and God, Hope is infused through inspiring mythologies, Peace is brought about through rituals like prayers that try to discipline the mind.

Sadly, this is also one way for people to stop reasoning, to stop applying their minds. Every situation in life is looked at through religious codes... most of which tend to be heavily misinterpreted. Wisdom fails to grow, barbarism is festered. Herein lies the responsibility of religious leaders to clarify the principles and ideologies. But sadder it is, to realize many such leaders lack openness of mind. And therein lies the flip side of religious fanaticism.

I still don't know enough about spirituality to claim the real presence or absence of God. But I do know that while good can be studied without God, applying moral decisions at all times without a grounding of God is only possible for a mature, strong and pure mind. Such a mind is found in every one in a million of us.

To me, religion and God are belief systems to reinforce wisdom, sort of like training wheels on a bike to help us balance.. but something from which we all should graduate, as our minds mature....


SecondSight said...

Interesting ideas.. :) But even though 'God' is a means of making people do 'good', it still doesn't entirely define what is good, does it? And since there are multiple gods, can you always decide what is good based on what religion/morality say?

Neeraja said...

Thanks for the comment Second Sight :)

Yes, I agree God as a belief system is one means of making people do good, when their minds are troubled. But it doesn't define good. And as I mentioned in the post, religion cannot guarantee morality for the main reason that morality is not defined in an objective sense, and this is the reason for gross misinterpretations and fanaticism. That is the sad, flip side of the argument.

I wish the religious leaders acted more as guiding lights to surface the principles behind the verses than let the ritualistic crude beliefs to perpetuate.

SUMI said...

Somehow I don't tend to associate 'God' with morality. I seem to associate 'God' only with empowerment. And that empowerment is sort of all inclusive, in the sense that, it includes the power to, for e.g., not be destructive, even in trying circumstances, and that's where it borders on morality, but not direcly. To make people not perpetuate crimes, we have civil laws today. But of course, the notion of 'crime' is different from the notion of 'sin', the former being pretinent to legal contexts, and the latter to reigious contexts. I for one, don't find myself thinking too much in terms of the latter. In that sense, sins and virtues are perhaps not part of my ontology... I can't get myself to think that some all powerful entity up there is going to punish us or reward us, but this may be true in an indirect sense; i.e., there are laws of nature and causality, which may cause a criminal to get into trouble or be pathologically disturbed due to his actions, and it may be that 'God' came up with those laws, but direct punishment and reward from 'God' don't seem very compelling to me.
Another question is: shouldn't a person *want* to do 'good' things (whatever that is), rather than merely follow the letter of the law (as per the scriptures)?

SecondSight said...

Further questions- How do you make someone perform task A without defining the term A? In the same sense, how does a belief system make people do good without defining what good is? Most religions do, in fact, have a 'code of conduct' of some sort or the other.
More than interpretation, how far that code can be termed morality is the question.
Morality and instruction come as they will, but essentially most people do only what they want to do, and then attribute it to religion/higher orders/an Imperius curse :)
People do what they want to do, and if they choose

Neeraja said...

@Sumi/ Second Sight - God as an empowering source comes to one who has graduated beyond studying the codes and following the rituals :-). According to me that is the next stage towards which one should ideally graduate. But when i was young, I did see God up on his throne and I feared being punished for doing something immoral. Fortunately I graduated from that phase, or so I think :)

And yes, ideally every person should want to do something good than merely follow the scriptures. But following the scriptures is the start. We all initially rely on textbooks, before launching out on our own. So in my view that is the next step....realizing the essence of doing good and wanting to do good. The mind has to evolve to that state, and scriptures is the mere beginning... but a reasonable start according to me.

If I were to have been born into a downtrodden family, unequipped to provide any real nourishment or education to me; if I witnessed my family being slaughtered in front of me; If i were abused; If I had no exposure to knowledge of any pure form; no schools, no books, no inspiring teachers, no role models; would my mind be equipped to do good for the sake of society, or with the desire to do good for the sake of good? The mind can only mature so much based on the environment and inputs. Would I at such a state understand Kant better or is it easier for me to accept that there is a higher authority to take care? A belief system that tries to sublimate my tortures through hope and discipline. It asks me to forgive sinners and refrain from being a sinner for my own good, not for the sake of society... for my own good of reaching Heaven.

There are criminal laws, but it's known that these punishments can be evaded, for they are after all man made. And what happens if they are evaded? Will the disturbed mind understand it?

And yes, in my view religion does not define good in an absolute manner that I concur with. But it does define codes of conduct that basically asks one to refrain from being a sinner to reach salvation or heaven. I personally don't believe in heaven or hell, but the mention of such concepts such as the Judgment Day and inevitable punishments to sinners forms a basis of wanting to do "good", the fear of "sinning" and a staunch belief that doing good will eventually pay off, and in that sense defines morality. It also provides hope and some form of meaning to those tortured minds. Even if justice hasn't prevailed in the real world, their belief in justice eventually prevailing is a strong medicine, a pillar of closure and comfort. None may be really true but it's comfort nonetheless. Especially for a disturbed and dented mind... it's at least a start.

Religious codes are not absolute... but every religion does emphasize that murder, rape, dishonesty, cheating, stealing, greed etc are sins. Don't they boil down to moral codes in the end? Be it fear of sinning, fear of violating the law, eventually the purpose seems to be served.

Eventually no one can control anybody's actions or will, and each person does what he wants to, but the hope is that through enough exposure towards wisdom and the need to do "good", people's reasoning might evolve better :)

SecondSight said...

To play devil's advocate... have you heard of the Milgram experiments at Stanford? How do you reconcile the idea that exposure to morality/religion can still cause people to behave 'immorally'?

Neeraja said...

Second Sight - thanks for pointing me to this interesting experiment. Quite scary to realize such dangerous potentials of the human mind.

And this is indeed the reason for such communal riots and barbaric acts in the name of executing God's actions. Those claiming to be second men/voice of God manipulate such people. And i reiterate that these are causes of misinterpretations of the "codes" and the lack of strong religious leaders to help people differentiate between literally following the codes and understanding the principles underlying them.

Why do people continue to act immorally? Especially if there's evidence that people tend to ignore their morality and reason, due to blind obedience towards a higher authority be it God or man? I think the obvious reason is that most people stop applying their mind and reason when their reliance and trust on the words of a higher authority exceeds their confidence in themselves. It's then easier to follow orders than make decisions for oneself. Compounded to this is the level and kind of exposure these people had, in the name of religion or morality. In many places, religion is administered as a series of rituals and superstitions. All such people get out of religion is not essentially about morality; they might be staunch in believing that a widow wearing a bindi is a sinner, but nothing beyond that. I wouldn't call these people as having been exposed to morality. They were exposed to half baked interpretations of so called religious codes.

Everyone needs a guide of some sort at some stage of learning, or growth, to equip the mind to reason and question. Without that, misinterpretations continue to linger, and people don't graduate from their initial crude beliefs to mature well enough to reason independently. Of comfort was the fact that all participants of the Milgram experiment, questioned at some point of the experiment on the need to carry on.... they all had dialogues trying to reason... that's evidence enough that they tried, that their moral exposure surfaced... but sadly 61% still hadn't matured enough to reason all the way through.