The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Doing Good in a Godless World

I begin with the premise there is no god, no supreme being, no deity. I begin with that premise because I have found no persuasive evidence to indicate such a supernatural being exist.

What does that leave? Apparently it leaves us in a godless world, one with natural, not supernatural explanations. That would mean existence is impersonal, without care, concern, or any emotion.

A lecture I was listening to, about debates between skeptics and believers throughout the ages, put it this way: Maybe there are just some people doomed to go their whole life without being happy. And the universe just doesn’t care.

But does that mean we live in a universe devoid of caring, concern, love or similar things? It does not. My very first thought was this means for such things to exist we must create them.

Prayer is useless when action is needed. If there are people in the world who hunger we can’t appeal to a god, we must find a way to feed them. If there are people who are oppressed and mistreated, then we must work for justice.

But just as my thoughts went in that direction I realized I was engaging in another fiction, one not dissimilar to the assumption of a deity. We can’t do anything. There is no us. There is just me, at least in my case. In your case there is just you. There are only millions of “I’s” not one big We.

There is no collective brain, no one body shared by the many. If action is taken then someONE takes it. SomeONE wills it. SomeONE encourages others, who then cooperate but each of them chooses to act as another ONE. Working in harmony does not negate the fact that individuals, not collectives, choose to act.

I am not saying some sort of collective action is impossible. Politics is the attempt to make non-consenting collective action possible. True, some degree of collective political action can achieve a smattering of the objectives those who coordinate it wish to achieve. But, it is too easily corrupted. As I have argued the concentration of power, which is what politics is, works to the benefit of the powerful, not the powerless. When we cease to act as individuals we corrupt the very good we are attempting to do.

The system of coercive coordination is inherently counterproductive and riddled with perverse incentives. Not even the best of intentions can save the process. The problem is systemic in nature. Having the right desires will not change the system. It is not a matter of changing personnel, it is a matter of changing methodologies from that of coercion to that of cooperation.

State action is not cooperation, but the opposite of cooperation. The slave didn’t cooperate with his master; he obeyed him. A woman doesn’t cooperate with a rapist, she is subdued by a greater force. Cooperation, that is non-coercive coordination, exists only because individuals consent to act together.

Not only is the god concept a fiction of a similar kind to the collectivistic concept; they also share another trait in common. Both are attempts to evade responsibility. If action must be taken then I must take it. If injustice is to end then I must work to end it. I can’t pass this responsibility off to a deity or to the collective “we.”

A godless world does not mean a loveless world, it means what love exists in the world must come from each of us as individuals. It is not possible for me to love everyone, but I can love where it is possible. It is not possible for me to develop the whole world and create universal prosperity. But it is possible for me to help one small part of the world to develop economically and to help make that portion of the world a better place. I can’t heal the sick, but I can help make healing possible. I can’t end all injustice, but I can fight it where I see it. I can’t be all-things to all-people, but I can be something to someone.

True, when famine sends children to bed hungry, or worse, the universe doesn’t care.

But I do.

When that great collective action, known as war, rips families apart, rains devastation on vast numbers of people, and sends young men to premature and senseless deaths, the universe does not care.

But I do.

When bullies beat someone for being black, gay, Jewish, or just different, the universe doesn’t care

But I do.

When organized bullies of moral majoritarians do the same to those they hate, through the political process, the universe does not care.

But I do.

And because I do, I must act. I can’t pass that off to a god who isn’t there, or the collective “we.” I must make the choice to take action.

I can hope that everyone will act the same way, but I must act as if no one will. I can’t choose for others, I can only choose for myself. And I choose to act.

What choice do you make?

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.