Why Is Joe Lieberman Dissing My Mother?

articles
Sept. 1 2000 8:30 PM

Why Is Joe Lieberman Dissing My Mother?

If you take all his God talk seriously, it's insulting. Also wrong and a bit un-American. 

(Continued from Page 1)

But Joe Lieberman has always made a big deal about saying the right thing rather than the popular thing. So surely it's fair to take him seriously for expressing an opinion about morality and religion that seems so clearly confused. At least to this agnostic.

Advertisement

First off, what exactly does Lieberman mean by saying that morality cannot exist without religion? Does he mean that no irreligious person displays moral behavior? Or that nonbelievers are immoral no matter how they behave?

Lieberman obviously thinks that religion offers a consistent set of rules and principles of how to treat other people. Let's set aside the fact that religions differ around the margins about these ethical rules and assume, with Lieberman, that there is such a thing as a religious way to act. As generally agreed, these rules include treating everyone with respect, applying the golden rule, being merciful to the unfortunate and kind to those who are different, and so on. Is Lieberman suggesting that no person who lacks faith follows these religious ethical rules? Surely he doesn't believe that. My own dear mother is an agnostic, and she's about as ethical as they come. Does Sen. Lieberman have a problem with my mother?

Maybe Lieberman's exact words are a politician's hyperbolic way of saying that, as a statistical matter, religious people are more likely to act in an ethical way than nonreligious people. Is this true? While hard data is sadly lacking, it seems pretty uncontroversial to note that the world has seen plenty of religious sinners and upright nonbelievers. And how would Lieberman explain the fact, if he concedes it, that at least some nonbelievers manage to be ethical? Are there some people who are naturally ethical and others who need the help of religion to be ethical?

On the other hand, perhaps Lieberman is saying that if you act as God wishes but not because of a belief in God, then it somehow doesn't count. That seems awfully fussy. By requiring faith as a prerequisite for morality, Lieberman is dismissing a lot of philosophical thinking that grounds itself in reason, not faith, and still manages to arrive at the same conclusions that Lieberman would probably endorse. In any event, if people do live by the rules of decency and honor, the question of whether they do so with or without believing in God is surely not a concern of the government, of the vice president in his official capacity, or a concern that belongs in a national election campaign. 

Bruce Gottlieb is a former Slate staff writer and chief counsel at the Federal Communications Commission; he is currently general counsel at the Atlantic Media Company.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.