Invitation to the Study of Religion Chapter 6 -
“I try to be a nice person.” Is it enough?
Evil exists. What are we going to do about it?
People who are practicing members of a religion find an answer in their faith. Their faith teaches them how to identify, avoid, and oppose evil. Possibly their answers are divinely inspired. But even leaving God and divine inspiration out of it, it is fair to say that the answers offered by the religious faiths have been carefully thought out by generations of people working from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives. Often, the answers taught by different faiths overlap. Where the prophets and teachers of two or three different religious traditions have followed their own paths and reached similar conclusions about how to identify and oppose evil, this looks like reliable guidance.
Secular people do not benefit from religious traditions. If you ask them, What are you doing to fight evil? They will look at you nervously, like you are a bit strange, and edge away from you muttering something along the lines of, “I try to be a nice person.”
At the conclusion of Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, the heroine, Lady Brett Ashley makes a personal sacrifice in order to help someone she cares about. Talking to a friend, Jake Barnes, afterwards, she explains that she feels better for what she’s done.
Brett Ashley: "You know it makes me feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch."
Brett Ashley: "It’s sort of what we have instead of God."
Lady Brett has, in fact, been generous. She has made a real sacrifice. There’s a lot to be said for “deciding not to be a bitch”, or, to use the more common phrase, “trying to be a nice person.”
But “nice” is a pretty amorphous concept. What does “nice” actually mean, anyway?
As far as I can see, “being nice” means, trying to remain on friendly terms with friends and neighbors and co-workers, following the customs and rules of good behavior as generally understood in one’s community, not offending anybody.
The problem with this is, the phrase “I try to be a nice person” doesn’t give us any firm principles. It’s another way of saying, “I try to fit in and avoid offending anyone.” When there’s a division of opinion among the people around us, when there is conflict, one has to choose sides. It is not possible to fit in or avoid conflict. “I try to be a nice person” doesn’t tell us what to do.
“I try to be a nice person,” is not a solution to the problem of evil.
Many secular people have tried to construct ethical systems separate and apart from religion. They believe they can find a stable ethical system based on logic, science, human psychology, an ethical system which exists separate and apart from any supernatural belief system.
This is pretty hard to do. Just for starters, people from different cultural backgrounds often disagree sharply over ethics. Why should one culture’s view of ethics be deemed superior to another culture’s view?
Many secular people choose to accept multiculturalism: each culture chooses its own belief system, one isn’t better than another.
The problem with multiculturalism is the same as the problem with “trying to be a nice person.” Multiculturalism works great in theory, as long as each culture exists in its own separate compartment where its own rules are enforced on the members of the culture. But cultures don’t exist in separate compartments. When there’s a conflict and one has to choose sides, how do we choose which culture’s rules to follow? Are we bound to always accept our own culture’s rules and always reject the rules of other cultures? If not, then when are we free to disregard our own culture’s rules?
Some seek to find meaning in political action, working for a more just society. The problem with politics is that, in practice, political action is 5% about justice and 95% about seeking power, money, and status for oneself and one’s allies.
In the real world, we are under great pressure to recognize the differences between good and evil and make choices accordingly. Secular ethical systems developed by philosophers aren’t very helpful, as far as I can see, multiculturalism is equally unhelpful, and politics is disappointing.
“Being a nice person” only works as long as you aren’t responsible for anything, don’t have to make decisions that affect other people’s lives, and don’t have to make choices.
For a person who takes responsibility and makes choices, it seems to me that an ethical system based on one of the world’s great religions is by far the best guide to action.
“I try to be a nice person,” is an inadequate response to reality. Those of us who wish to avoid evil find ourselves pressured, by logic and by practical considerations, to choose a supernatural view of the universe.
In simplest terms, as far as I can see, the best way to avoid or oppose evil is to choose to believe in God.