“It doesn’t matter what I believe…as long as I’m a good person.”
How many times have you heard that? As our society trends more and more to the secular, this type of thing becomes more common. We’ve gone from a society that, at the very least, paid lip-service to communal worship and having moral standards set by a higher authority, to “I can worship God on my own; I don’t need a church to do that” to “It doesn’t matter what I believe, as long as I’m a good person.”
Is that right? Can a person believe “whatever” and still be good. Fr. Robert Barron disagrees.
I would imagine that, if pressed, most people in our society would characterize “being a good person” as treating others with love, honoring the dignity, freedom, and inherent worth of their fellow human beings. And most would agree that ethical violations—stealing, lying, sexual misbehavior, infidelity, cheating, doing physical harm, etc.—are correctly seen as negations of love. But what is love? Love is not primarily a feeling or an instinct; rather, it is the act of willing the good of the other as other. It is radical self-gift, living for the sake of the other. To be kind to someone else so that he might be kind to you, or to treat a fellow human being justly so that he, in turn, might treat you with justice is not to love, for such moves are tantamount to indirect self-interest. Truly to love is to move outside of the black hole of one’s egotism, to resist the centripetal force that compels one to assume the attitude of self-protection. But this means that love is rightly described as a “theological virtue,” for it represents a participation in the love that God is. Since God has no need, only God can utterly exist for the sake of the other. All of the great masters of the Christian spiritual tradition saw that we are able to love only inasmuch as we have received, as a grace, a share in the very life, energy, and nature of God.
Once God is taken out of the equation, Barron says, then the idea of human dignity goes with it. Why bother treating your fellow humans with dignity? There’s nothing special about them. He points to the evidence of secular totalitarianism of the 20th century:
…societies in which God was systematically denied, human dignity was so little respected that the piling up of tens of millions of corpses was seen as an acceptable political strategy, Lenin’s “cracking of some eggs to make an omelette.”
The next time you hear the “…as long as I’m a good person” line, remember this:
In our commitment to love and to human dignity, we are, whether we know it or not, operating out of a theological consciousness. When the doctrines and practices that support religious consciousness are dismissed—as they so often are in contemporary secularism—the moral convictions born of that consciousness are imperilled. This is the massively important point missed by those who so blithely say, “it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re a nice person.”
This authoritative, accessible survey traces the development of the worldviews that underpin the Western world. It demonstrates the decisive impact that the growth of Christianity had in transforming the outlook of pagan Roman culture into one that established virtually all the positive aspects of Western civilization.