The Good that Men Do

02/05/2009 04:51 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I was watching a feel good story the other day in a feel good current affairs program on a feel good television channel (so, no clues there). It was about one of these wonderful people who spend their lives doing good deeds, looking after the poor, the homeless, the alcoholics, the runaway children, the victims of disaster. A jolly good fellow. Much was made of the fact that he was a catholic priest, and had "heard the call" in his mid teens and that was that - stuck with superstition and celibacy for life, poor fellow.

And much is always made, on the rare occasions when I say something slightly critical of religion and its noxious effect on human well-being, of the fact that there are people, from Mother Theresa on down, who are religious and who do good deeds. I am intended to feel guilty, though I don't, for ignoring these good people. And I am intended to feel stupid, ditto, for not having understood that religion is therefore not just a force for good in the world. but indeed the only force for good, that without religion the homeless and sick and abandoned would live lives that were nasty, brutish, and short.

But it is a very odd argument indeed, reminding me of the debate about whether smoking marijuana makes you mentally ill, or whether you smoke marijuana because you are mentally ill. And another question - do rich philanthropists only make donations for the tax benefits?Take my good priest. Is he good because he is a priest, or is he a priest because he was initially good? Are we arguing that he is doing good, in the religious context, because he gets some reward? Does he set out on his life's work, having done a cost-benefit analysis that confirms that 100 homeless children rescued equals 100 years in paradise? If he does, the values represented by him are not those I taught my children.

But I don't think he did do that (though I have no doubt that precisely that sort of analysis underpins much religious good work). Instead I think he would have been a good man whether he had finished up a Christian or Muslim, Jew or Hindu - or a non-believer. The goodness is incidental to the religion, not dependent on it. In fact this is another one of those tautologies that bedevil religion -- people who want to do good join religions because they think they do good. A cost benefit analysis though would show that the bad stuff done in religion's name far outweighs the good stuff, and whereas the good stuff would get done anyway, by good people, the bad stuff almost always results from the religious impulse, not in spite of it.

So next time you catch me being rude about religion, in spite of whatever resolutions I might make (the road to hell being notoriously paved with good intentions), don't bother telling me again that Mother Theresa and my priest were good because they were religious. Applaud goodness all you like, I'll join in with you, but don't use it as a religious alibi. That's just an indulgence.

I will keep trying to do good on The Watermelon Blog, though I expect it will be interred with my bones.