09/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011


One of my moments of understanding about the Bush administration happened when George W. said, a year or so into his term, that religion is the source of moral behavior in society - that without religious faith, there was nothing to keep humanity from acting unethically. Implicitly, we need the threat of hell to motivate us to earn our heavenly reward.

This was one of many assumptions in the Bush years that ran absolutely counter to my worldview. I thought it absurd at the time. I continue to disagree with it. But I wonder if I understand it more.

I grew up in a decidedly non-religious household. There was no belief in God, no belief in an after-life, no faith that any reward that would come "later" for moral or ethical behavior now. However, far from discouraging ethical behavior, our family seemed to have a deep-seeded sense of right and wrong, and a powerful drive to do and be good.

I believe that, to a large degree, there is a genetic basis for ethical behavior in human beings. The simple fact that most of us can distinguish between "good" and "bad" - that we have a sense of right and wrong - suggests to me that we are intrinsically good. Otherwise, the concept would be meaningless to us - we literally would not understand what "good" meant.

But I now suspect that our family life strongly influences whether we believe good behavior comes from inside - our choice to be good, our recognition that it is in our higher self-interest - or is forced on us by the threat of punishment from the outside. There was no gift guaranteed us in the end. In fact, the human race as a whole will survive or perish in large part on the basis of the choices we made.

To me, the Democratic and Republican parties are the feminine and masculine of American politics. Neither party is a good mother or father - they divorced years ago, and have been abusing the children ever since. But Republican rhetoric tends to mimic the role of the disciplining father - the one who tells you what's morally right, who disciplines you to spend your time and money with care. Democratic rhetoric, on the other hand, tends to mimic the mother archetype - it tells us we are intrinsically good, and deserving, and that mom will do whatever she needs to do, to insure that we are well fed, housed, educated, and cared for - money is no object.

Of course, the reason to have a masculine and feminine force is that these two perspectives need each other - they are mutually dependent. We may be good, but ultimately we have to take care of ourselves - be disciplined, live within our means, choose ethical behavior. There is no "other" out there that can swoop in to save us, if we behave self-destructively.

Growing up without religion - and in a family where masculine and feminine forces were very well integrated - we were not conditioned to believe that we needed to be punished in order to do good. We were not without conflict - we three kids battled, and often did things that we knew were wrong. And we were punished, in clear but wise ways, when we did wrong.

But growing up without believing God would forgive our sins was a powerful motivator - not only to do good, but to encourage others to do so. If humanity is to survive, in an age where we have manifold ways to destroy ourselves, we have a compelling need to raise our whole civilization to a higher level. God won't do it for us, nor will He give us a pass to heaven anyway, if we screw up. It's all up to us.

That was, quite literally, a compelling early motivator for me. It propelled me into politics, activism, and business. The sense that the future of the species was in our hands - and that I had to do all in my power, to motivate others to work to secure our future - drove me to do the work I still do today.

My brother and sister grew up the same. Bob is now Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education in the Obama administration, and Soozee founded a charity to help orphans in Latin America, then adopted two children from Columbia to complete her family of five. We did not need religion to discover our desire to do and be good. It was within us, and our parents helped us bring it out.

Today, I no longer consider myself to be non-religious. I detest the hypocrisies of much institutionalized religion, just as I detest those of almost every institution. I believe that religious institutions are particularly vulnerable to corruption and abuse, because they claim the power to determine our everlasting fate.

In fact, let's face it: the most powerful forces of hate and destruction on the planet use institutions of religion to justify their acts and mobilize their forces. They abuse the role of the father, by telling us that the Father demands we destroy those who are different from us.

But, just as I believe there is an intrinsic value to being a Republican - and hence have been one all my life, despite finding few candidates I can support - I believe there is an intrinsic truth in religious belief, and that, if you take away the literal interpretations that bastardize the spirit of faith, you discover that there is, indeed, a force that is before, during, after, and beyond us, encompassing us, and that is the essence of good, and of God.