by Stella Ramsaroop
(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 04 July 2007)
Can I be a good person without religion? Hamilton Green does not seem to think so. In a letter to the editor of this newspaper, which was published last Sunday, Mr. Green left us with a sense that apart from a religious revival, there is no cure for the moral ills in society.
Like Mr. Green, I once connected morality with religion, believing that apart from religion there was no way to define morality. However, the longer I live the more I realise there are bad people who claim to be religious and there good people who do not believe in the existence of a god.
To go one step further, some of the meanest and most depraved of mind that I have known in my life were religious. Moreover, I know a man who is one of the most honourable humans I have ever met – and he is an agnostic. This fact alone breaks down the argument that humans need religion to be moral.
Mr. Green presented the reader with these questions in his letter, “Are our leaders wedded to religious beliefs which will allow them to help secure a morally strong society? Or, is it to fool as many people as long as it is possible?”
If I had a preference, I would rather choose leaders without any religious affiliation. Just look at what George Bush has done to the world with his brand of Christianity. Look at what Osama bin Laden has done with his version of Islam.
Mr. Green seems to believe that a revival of religion could help rid Guyana of its moral ills. However, I cannot help but wonder if religion is not what helped to usher in these moral ills in the first place.
I grew up in a very conservative Christian home in Middle America. The church I attended was so strict that women were not allowed to wear pants, makeup or jewellery. Those in my church were not allowed to go to the movies, drink any type of alcohol or dance to music. As I said, it was a very strict church.
The fear of hell was preached from the pulpit should I stray from living “right.” Of course, anyone who rejected this very narrow way of thinking would never make it to paradise. This is quite a guilt trip to put on a young woman growing up in a big city.
As the years passed, I moved further and further away from that conservative stance and that framework of morality, which was near to impossible to maintain. I do not know that I ever truly believed this staunch dogma in the first place, but it was imposed on me from infancy so it was all I knew for decades.
Even as I came to the end of my religious journey, I feared whether my moral compass would fail because I was always taught that my religion defined my morality. I was so wrong. After stepping outside of religion, I took on far more responsibility for my actions.
Outside of the context of religion, I could not lie, cheat or steal and think that some god would forgive the deed, which would make my sin not really count. I could no longer wait for some unseen hand to supernaturally feed the poor or to help the weak.
Moreover, I could not sit idle when I see others do evil because I no longer believed they would get their due in the next life or burn in hell. If anything, my religious upbringing held me back from being a truly moral person.
I am a far more moral human today than at any point in my life when I practiced religion. As such, I do not see a decline in religious practice as the cause of a moral decline in society. Guyana is probably one of the most religious nations I have ever encountered, so I do not think it is short on dutiful teachings about morals.
However, as I have said before, even religious people do bad things. I have spent so much time around very religious people that I have seen them use their theology as a way to justify their evil deeds – much like how George Bush justifies his war on Iraq.
If not justification, then humans can use their religion to dismiss their immoral actions by simply asking for forgiveness or paying penance. Moreover, even apathy concerning universal issues like global warming, AIDS in Africa and genocide in Darfur can be excused by a religious person if she/he believes that an all-powerful god will one day intervene.
Although fear of hell or desire of paradise might turn an immoral person around for a short period of time, fear and desire are fleeting emotions and not proven to be a long-term remedy for morality. Therefore, I do not believe the religious state of the Guyanese people has anything whatsoever to do with the nation’s dilemmas.
Guyana’s dilemmas are human problems that can and should be handled through human intervention. I believe with everything inside me that if humans were not so distracted by things such as mythologies, racism, sexism, petty rivalries and power struggles that we would be capable of accomplishing miracles.
We could feed every mouth, cure every disease and rid the world of war. I believe we could end racism. I believe we could end sexism. I believe every child could receive an adequate education. I also believe we are capable of instituting a moral system outside of the framework of religion.
I still believe and I still have faith, but my trust is not in any religion – it is in humans. Mr. Green sees a revival of religion as the answer to Guyana’s woes. I see it as a distraction from the miracles Guyana could achieve if it were to ever to pool all of its human assets.
I believe that if the Guyanese people were capable of ridding themselves of its many distractions, they could do more good than any religion humans have ever created.