Our go-to good guys

When you’re trying to describe something bad or wrong, you might look to a comparison with one of the iconic “bad guys” from history, totalitarian dictators like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, or Mao. The commonness of this conversational trope is what brought us Godwin’s Law. Similarly, if you want to illustrate the goodness of something or someone, you might draw a comparison with the “good guys.” Who are those? Three names immediately come to my (American) mind as people who would be almost universally identified with moral goodness: Mohandas Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

(Disclaimer: From what I have read from several sources about Mother Teresa, I wouldn’t personally identify her with moral goodness. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, Christopher Hitchens’ documentary Hell’s Angel is a good place to start. All I mean to say is that, if you said “Mother Teresa” to a random person on the street, I think they would be overwhelmingly likely to see that as synonymous with “good person.”)

I don’t think I’m the only one who would put those three names together. Here’s a Fox News article about a Harris poll in which Obama ranked “more popular [among Americans] than Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.” — hilariously, “Jesus” was the second place answer “on a list that includes God” as an apparently separate answer, but I don’t really have time to talk about that here — and it’s noted that Mother Teresa also made the top ten. In fact, if you strike American politicians and mythological figures from the list of names they mention, you’re left with Gandhi, MLK, Mother Teresa … and U.S. Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger. (The poll was done in January 2009.)

While searching the internet to check if my list of go-to good guys was shared by others, I was a bit surprised to find links between all pairs of them. Plenty of people compare Gandhi and King as two very successful non-violent protesters, of course. But here’s Mother Teresa praying at Gandhi’s tomb. Here’s Martin Luther King III visiting Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, and praying at her tomb. A choice quote (please forgive the weird phrasing, I think there were some transcription errors):

“I am blessed that to get this opportunity to visit the place from where Mother Teresa carried out her service to humanity. World needs peace and humanity as Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi provided,” Luther said.

“We came to pay tribute to walk in the areas and steps of Mahatma Gandhi and my father but also to reacquire inspiration because our world needs a message of non-violence and peace,” Luther added.

We discussed the religiosity of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. yesterday. Now we add Mother Teresa, a Roman Catholic nun and missionary, and Mohandas Gandhi, a devout Hindu (though admittedly his particular theology is complicated) known as Mahatma, meaning “great soul.” The three big names in goodness are all very closely identified with religion.

So what’s an atheist to do, make obtuse conversational analogies? I mean, I’d love to cite Baba Amte, but I doubt his name would be recognized. Margaret Sanger is another option, but even if she were to be recognized, her work is seen as morally controversial (and even I don’t agree with all of her advocacies). So in general, I just let it go. As I explained in my last post, there’s plenty to honor Martin Luther King Jr. (or Gandhi) for, even if you don’t agree with the religion parts.

Being openly atheist has been a pretty rare trait — outside of Communist countries — until relatively recently. It’s not really surprising, therefore, that there aren’t many atheists who are recognized for doing anything besides arguing for atheism. In order to be one of these obvious “good guys,” one probably has to do some enormous work for social justice — drastically improving the conditions of the poor, stopping or at least greatly reducing the oppression of a marginalized group, etc. — and that’s an extremely rare achievement among all people. I expect that, at some point in the future, there will be some universally-praised hero of society who just happens to be an atheist too. But I’m not holding my breath.

Still, I think this is relevant to talk about, because so many people think of faith as a virtue. The fact that the good people who come most readily to mind are so strongly associated with religion makes it seem like religion must be part of what being a good person is all about. One tries to emulate one’s role models, after all. Yet the same way that “Hitler did it so it must be bad” is a stupid argument, “Gandhi did it so it must be good” is a stupid argument. We have to look at the thing itself to decide.

I definitely don’t think that good things done by the faithful is evidence of that faith’s truth. I’ve said before: children who believe in Santa Claus may be on their best behavior so they’ll get lots of presents, but this is not proof that Santa Claus exists. But does religion motivate people to do good things in the first place? Certainly it’s possible that Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were enthusiastic enough to go to such great lengths with their activism because of their religious beliefs. Some atheists will probably disagree with me on that, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that when someone believes certain actions are mandated by a supreme being or beings who oversee all of existence, and/or that their personal fate depends on whether or not they please the supreme being/s, that person would be especially motivated to take those actions. While it’s true that Kiva Atheists has been awesomely successful and that does make an important statement about atheist generosity, you’d be hard-pressed to find an atheist who was willing to give until they were beyond destitute. Making radical personal sacrifices like that is something that a small but significant portion of religious people do feel called to do.

But there’s no guarantee that the actions which theists believe are mandated by their god/s are going to be good ones. Religion motivates people, but sometimes it motivates them to go to war, to enslave people, or to commit all manner of other atrocities. Religion just plain motivates people. If not for religion, MLK would probably not have had such extreme racism to fight against. If not for religion, Gandhi’s fight for India’s independence would probably have been much easier (or, conceivably, unnecessary).

I think, ultimately, religion is a polarizing force in the world. That means that, at least for now, some of the best people we can come up with are religious people — but so are some of the worst. That doesn’t really say anything about whether believers or nonbelievers are more moral people on average. I suspect that there isn’t much of a difference at all.

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  1. I believe that religion ALLOWS some people to do good easier then being an atheist. One thing to notice on the 3 names is that they could spend the time doing what they did cuz they got paid to do so. MomT was a nun, Matma was a holey guy, & martin is a preacher. I do good as I can in my locality. But I cannot do good generally because the state insists that I pay my taxes, etc. Most religious do not ‘do good’ any more then anyone else, cuz as individuals they have to pay their taxes, etc.

  2. Aristarchus

     /  January 26, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    I’m pretty sure that “holey guy” is not a paying position… and, btw, I don’t know what you think you’re accomplishing with the “MomT” slang and the bad spelling, but all it does is make your comment hard to read.

    This is part of the problem with people who aren’t really religious just faking it as Unitarians or Reform Jews or whatever. Those two groups, for example, have tons of famous and highly admired people. They also include a range from Deists and other non-literalists to atheists, and judging just on numbers I’m sure that there must have been several of those people who didn’t actually believe in God. You can’t use them as atheist heroes, though, because society forced them to never formally label themselves that way.

  3. L.Long: It’s certainly stupid that a religious group automatically counts as a charity, even when it’s not actually charitable. Our tax laws definitely give special advantages to these groups, and that sometimes extends to ministers/pastors/etc. But I disagree that non-religious people can’t get paid for doing large-scale good work. Nonprofit organizations do have employees. Certainly the head of Amnesty International gets a salary; if they had to have another job they’d never get any Amnesty International work done.

    On the other hand, nobody would recognize the name of the head of Amnesty International. The founders of those sort of organizations are sometimes known, like Clara Barton and the Red Cross. (Although she happened to be a Christian.) But I think it’s a lot harder to become a major public figure from that angle. Maybe because you don’t have any built-in audience like a congregation to start with. That explains a little bit of it, at least.

    Aristarchus: Yes, yes, yes. I agonized over Susan B. Anthony while working on this post for exactly that reason.

  4. I wouldn’t exactly take anything Hitchens says completely seriously – Mother Teresa included.

    After all, he also includes Gandhi in his list of “reprehensibles” (apparently you do not share his views there).

    But on the other hand he’s not a total misanthrope, since he considers Trotsky a “great man.”

    Ummm…. sure….

    Not much more you can add to that.

  5. Well, I haven’t heard what Hitchens’ objections regarding Gandhi are, and I don’t know your objections regarding Trotsky. Honestly, I don’t know that much about the particulars of either of their lives, and if I learned about them, I’d be willing to see either of them as great or reprehensible. What I know about Gandhi makes him seem like a pretty good guy, and what I know about Trotsky leaves me neutral — he was a fierce opponent of Stalinism, which is good, but looking good in the USSR doesn’t necessarily speak volumes.

    I’m not really sold on the argument, “He claims that a guy we think was good was actually bad, so we shouldn’t listen to that or anything else he says.” Are there any particular factual claims Hitchens makes about Mother Teresa that you think are incorrect?

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