Sunday, 25 May 2014

Righteous or Good?

Believe it or not, I am careful about controversy. Yeah - ME!

There are many things I totally enjoy discussing, and really no topic is taboo, but when and where I do this is another matter.

You will have heard people say that it's never a good idea to discuss religion and politics (I find sport far more likely to cause a swift argument, but I take their point) and therefore in "polite" society we avoid these topics. But they are fair game online.

And yet, even here there are better places than others.

So, when the topic is raised in a non-suitable place online, I often sidestep it. Even if it's a suitable place (i.e. a conversation in social media already begun with nobody objecting) I will pick and choose as to how much I dive in.

I'm not shy, so why the caution?

Well, one of them is a maxim I live by that it's better to be kind that it is to be right. If it is clear to me that somebody's opinion/beliefs are very precious to them, and that for me to take them apart would involve hurt, then what I have to say really isn't important. Even if I'm 100% certain that I'm right. Individuals are not ideas, they are people with feelings.

But more often than not it's because I know a "going nowhere" discussion when I see one. Repeating oneself is not fun. OK, trolls think it is, but they have some sort of disorder. Personally, if I'm going to spend time in debate it's in the hope that somebody will learn something. It may even be me. But I do put forward ideas and opinions that I consider enlightening, or I wouldn't bother. Life is too short to try to educate pork.

(By the way, after years of hearing my husband talk about educating pork, a sort of variation of Heinlein, I found this longer variation which is rather good for today's topic:

The fact is, some people are so set in their beliefs that nothing you say will change that, and it's just a complete waste of time.

And sometimes not only the venue is wrong, it would be unkind AND fruitless.

It was such a situation I found myself on this occasion, at a business forum. Not an ideal venue for religious discussions, but it was an off-topic open question. And it was "What do you think of the Bible?"

I responded very briefly, that it is mythology, that I like mythology, and find it all equivalent.

I've said this a few thousand times, it is always taken the wrong way, but it was an open question, and that was my honest answer.

The original questioner responded to this by asking the basis for my answer, claiming her opinions were based on truth and evidence. This is where I depart because I know that rabbit hole only too well. Done that one plenty of times, oh yes. When belief is is offered as truth or evidence, there is absolutely no point in discussing it. It's a discussion destined to go nowhere, or worse, to descend into argument.

Plus, trashing somebody's dearly held beliefs is not my objective. There's a reason people hold these beliefs, and it's none of my damn business. Sometimes this is called respecting beliefs. No. I don't think there's any justification for that. But I respect the person.

But somebody else responded. They said that in their opinion all that mattered was that a person was a good person.

And the original responder asked whether it was good people who went to heaven, or whether it was righteous ones.

Oh my.

Without realising it a very large can of worms just opened up. Of course it's not the first time I've heard such ideas, but it suddenly made it awfully hard for me not to dive right back in.

I know well enough however not to touch that one with a ten foot pole. Not in a less than suitable venue, anyway. But I do think it is a massive issue, which is why I brought it here instead.

So, let's consider what has just been thrown into the ring here.

It is the suggestion that good and righteous are two different things. This is despite the dictionary offering them as synonyms. I know exactly what is being said, and it's exactly why I have a problem with some religious people (not just Christians, I hasten to add).

The people in question base all their morality on their own interpretation of their holy book. I stress "their own interpretation" because there can always be found, within the same religion, others whose ethics are quite different, and yet also based on the same book. Interpretation is absolutely the key factor. I've seen this over and over. It's why schisms occur, it's why clerics argue, it's why we can never tar all adherants of the same church or sect with the same brush, no matter how much of a sub-sub-sub-section of a religion they belong to.

I believe that more often than not, people who think their ethics are coming from said book are simply searching for justification for their actual ethics. That is to say, their innate personality, life experiences, upbringing, and personal choices have led them to a very individual morality with which they then try to find accord in either their family religion, or a different one, if necessary.

People who think that good and righteous are different, further think they are proven correct in this, because they can point to words in their chosen book that "fit" their idea of righteous.

The problem is, you can easily find two people within the same religion, who can have opposing beliefs on a morality issue, and they can both point to chosen words that fit perfectly.

As an extreme example of those who think anything can be justified by being "righteous" we can look at the Westboro Baptist Church. They have a twisted idea of love, based on their interpretation of holy writ.

I hope you watched that. It's painful to watch. As an interview, it can be criticized on many points, but what you are seeing there (we assume) are people who genuinely believe what they are saying. It's not enough to smile benevolently and say they are mistaken or misled. There is great harm done by these righteous folk, to good people.

I know it's too easy and rather obvious to mention it, but the Inquisition were also led by righteousness.

But these extreme examples are not the only examples. On a lower level, in homes and schools, children are harmed by righteous parents and teachers, women are harmed by righteous husbands, and all manner of small "everyday atrocities" are carried out by those whose idea of righteous is another person's idea of cruel, inhumane, and dangerous.

If religion suddenly went away tonight, this would not stop. These bullies would find another justification instead. I do not, as many do, blame religion for all this harm. That is almost to excuse the perpetrators. No, these bullies seek justification for their acts in a safe place, in a higher authority. They were only acting under orders. This is a massive cop out.

But before the religious folk relax, just as I do not blame religion for the bad behaviour, I do not credit it with the good, either. Because you can't have it both ways.

Just as I believe cruel people seek justification in their interpretation of righteousness, I think kind people are often drawn towards religion because what they see as holy simply fits their personality. It's almost traditional. "He's such a good man, he should be a priest". Somebody with a natural tendency to minstering to the needs of others seeking an opportunity to do so.....there aren't that many options.

But it doesn't have to be traditional religion. These days you run into people who call themselves "lightworkers". Their beliefs are complex and I won't go into that, but what they often seem to have a need to do is to be incredibly kind and helpful to others. Some of them are already in careers that allow this, such as social work, but they have what used to be known as a "calling". They associate this urge, this drive to be Very Nice with a metaphysical aspect. It works for them, and it's none of my business.

At the same time there are people with no religious beliefs, or certainly none of any specific kind, who do extraordinary amount of charity or community volunteer work, who never have a bad word to say about anyone, who are always honest, kind, helpful, and all round thoroughly ethical, just off their own backs because that's who they are. They base their ethics not on a book, but on a combination of who they are and everything they've ever learned. Nature and nuture.

I propose that the link between religion and ethics is tenuous at best, and for the most part that the cause and effect is opposite to the way it is generally assumed to be.

As for righteous? I think it's at best a useless and at worst a possibly dangerous concept. Ethics is best kept as a concept that is constantly discussed and re-examined. Because you can't set it in stone, and even if you did, sooner or later it would be intepretated badly.


  1. I see you've captured the connotation of righteous very well, in that there is an extreme and fundamental way that we have come to label those who seek to not only be right, but spiritually right; as if that justifies whatever level of extremism they happen to espouse. Well done!

    You are also wise to pick and choose your battles. There is a lot of wasted energy online (sorry, but there is) when it comes to these 'righteous' arguments. It can be like battling a brick wall sometimes. I choose to respect the wall in those instances and, as you said, be kind enough to let it be, than be right. Consider it a version of 'energy conservation.' ;)

    Oh, and not to tell tales out of school (but I will, anyway), there are those who feel there are many experiential layers that our souls must travel--various dimensions or incarnations--to either allow for a variety of experiences out of choice, or to correct assigned, karmic interactions that go awry. Gives a whole view of the afterlife some consideration that "maybe" the 'righteous' ARE more deserving of going to whatever version of 'heaven' might be awaiting them after this place. ;) ~ Blessings! :)

  2. Wrote long comment. Tried to preview it. Server ate it.

    Bottom line: what works for you might not work for me. Same thing would apply if our positions were reversed. "An thou harm none, do what thou wilt." is worth thinking about.

  3. Righteousness, I have seen, is just this: it is your interpretation of what your Holy Book says about what you must do in this world. I think that Religion, in general, and mostly when reinterpreted by individuals, takes a very simple concept and wraps it in layers of self-serving bureaucratic, hierarchical double speak. Really, I think that it is just this simple. Practical compassion. Compassion that leads to actual actions. I ran across a quote the other day that says a lot about this.

    "I don’t like when people say ‘I’ll pray for you…’. You gon’ pray for me? So basically you’re gonna sit at home and do nothing? That what your prayers are, you doin’ nothing while I struggle with a situation, so don’t pray for me. Make me a sandwich or something. Because I’m very upset right now and I can’t make my own sandwiches, so that’d be cool if you made me a sandwich instead of prayin’"
         ~Hannibal Buress

    1. I'll never know if the prayers I have offered for other people have changed anything. But I do know they changed me.

  4. I've been down that rabbit hole a few times myself, and I also know that it's not pretty. I respect the opinions of others, but I certainly don't appreciate it when they try to alter my opinion of the subject by using a figurative battering ram. These days I try to stay out of any sort of religion-related discussion.