Does being religious make someone a good person?
No. Being good is a choice that we can make or not make.
Some religious people are bad, and some non-religious people are good. That’s beyond dispute.
But I’d like to ask a different question:
Can religion help us to be good people?
I think that it can.
Obviously, a lot depends on the religion. And a lot depends on its clergy and members taking the religion seriously.
If we take them seriously, Judaism and Christianity help us in four ways to be good. With variations, other faiths can be similarly helpful.
First, stop and think
Judaism has 613 laws that govern every area of life. To 21st-century people, some of the laws seem arbitrary and pointless. But even the “pointless” laws have a hidden benefit.
Before taking any action of consequence, a serious Jew must first stop and think:
- Which laws cover this situation?
- What am I required to do?
- What am I forbidden to do?
Regardless of what the laws say, they inhibit acting impulsively. People must think about what they’re planning to do. They must think about the consequences of their actions. If they do something, it must be with full awareness of what they’re doing. In Buddhism, that’s called “right mindfulness.”
Even good people sometimes do bad things because they act impulsively or aren’t paying attention. A religious “stop and think” requirement takes away that excuse.
Second, promote social harmony
A shared religion implies at least some shared moral beliefs and shared customs. Those help to promote social harmony in two ways:
- They set expectations about how people will behave in certain situations. As a result, conflicts become less likely.
- By following shared beliefs and customs, people show that they belong to the same in-group. As a result, they are inclined to trust, help, and cooperate with each other for the common good.
Third, do what’s worked
I admit that this one’s not always true, but it’s often true.
Religions usually claim that their moral rules came from God. Whether or not that’s true, it’s certainly true that their moral rules have been tested for centuries in various kinds of societies. The rules worked well enough for the societies to survive and often to prosper.
Some of the rules will be better than others. Most will have costs and benefits. But overall, they’re more likely to work than new and untested moral ideas made up by some academic theoretician who’s just trying to get tenure.
Fourth, remember the moral order
Serious Jews and Christians tend to pray a lot. Jews pray at least three times a day, and usually more often than that.
An important benefit of such prayer is to remind us of the moral order. In prayer, we remind ourselves that there’s a difference between right and wrong. We then re-commit ourselves to doing what’s right. Prayer reminds us that our actions matter, so we should make them count.
Sure: you can be a good person without doing any of those things. But they can help.
And when we hit life’s inevitable difficulties, we need all the help we can get.