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JEFF JACOBY

Being good for God's sake

By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / November 26, 2008
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Second of two columns

BILL MAHER is an atheist who derides not only religion, which he calls "a neurological disorder," but the good deeds of religious people. There is nothing moral about doing the right thing, he contends in his new movie, "Religulous," if you think God will punish you for doing the wrong thing. Early in the film, Maher visits a North Carolina truck-stop chapel so he can scoff at the drivers and pastor who worship there. "If you're being good just to save your" butt, he tells one of them, "that's not a good reason."

The argument has been framed more thoughtfully. In the last of his "Letters to a Young Lawyer," Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz puts it this way:

"It is easy to understand why a person who believes in a God who rewards and punishes would want to try to conform his or her conduct to God's commandments. A cost-benefit analysis should persuade any believer that the eternal costs of hell outweigh any earthly benefit to be derived by incurring the wrath of an omniscient and omnipotent God."

Consequently, says Dershowitz, "doing something because God has said to do it does not make a person moral: It merely tells us that person is a prudential believer, akin to the person who obeys the command of an all-powerful secular king."

So what does make a person moral? Answers Dershowitz: Doing a "good act . . . simply because it was deemed by the actor to be good." To be truly moral, he suggests, one should act as if there is no God, no punishment, no reward. "You should be a person of good character because it is right to be such a person."

To someone who denies the existence of God or the legitimacy of religious authority, this is an understandably appealing argument: Not only don't we need God to be good, it's better - it's moral - to be good without God.

But the argument doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

For one thing, most religious people don't go through life subjecting their every move to a calculus of divine justice. The belief that there is ultimate reward and punishment in an unknowable afterlife does not convey immunity from the temptations, fears, and desires of this life. If it did, the behavior of religious people would always be exemplary - which, alas, it isn't.

Moreover, many Christians believe that salvation is won through faith alone - that their good works, however commendable, will not get them to heaven, and their sins will not keep them out. And even for those who believe that behavior in this world does determine reward in the next, there is always atonement - the ability to earn God's forgiveness through repentance.

What is it, then, that accounts for the good deeds of believers? If dreams of heaven and fears of hell don't motivate them, what does?

"I have known religious people all my life," writes Rabbi David Wolpe in "Why Faith Matters," his new book on the joys and gifts of religion. Some are unpleasant or selfish, but "most . . . engage in innumerable activities of kindness, charity, and selflessness. They set up soup kitchens, create networks of volunteers to visit the sick, contribute money and skills to help the poor, and pray for others in need. Few of them do it because they fear death. Far stronger is the impulse to responsibility, to living a sacred life, a life of service."

This is what so many secularists fail to understand about religion: Its greatest power to change lives comes not from promises and threats, but from closeness and love. The deepest purpose of religion is to inculcate decency in human beings - to encourage behavior that is ethical and compassionate not because God will reward it, but because God wants it.

That is a calling as contemporary as this morning, and as ancient as the ages. "What does God require of thee," the prophet Micah urged long ago, "but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?"

At its best, religion elevates men and women, prompting them to do good out of an ennobling sense of obligation - and with the joy that comes from acting in harmony with God's transcendent design.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com.

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