Doing good. We all want to do it, aside from a small number of people with a highly me-centered worldview. For I see the essence of morality as act toward others as you'd want them to act toward you.
When there's no sense of mutuality, of relationship, of reciprocal give and take, morality (such as it is) is reduced to act toward others however you want. It's all about me, me, me.
So goodness, like Tango, takes two. Otherwise, it's selfishness.
However, most religious believers want to complicate morality by adding in a middleman.
The idea is that unless you're doing something for the sake of God or the guru, it isn't really good.
So you could be volunteering at soup kitchens, giving money to charity, and taking care of a sick neighbor. But if you weren't thinking, "This all is for you, _______ [name of divinity]," it wouldn't rate high on the goodness scale.
Pretty strange. Christopher Hitchens' The Portable Atheist includes an essay by George Eliot that critiques the dogmatism of a Christian fundamentalist of her day, a Dr. Cumming. (Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans.) Elliott quotes Cumming:
The "thoughts" are evil. If it were possible to human eye to discern and to detect the thoughts that flutter round the heart of an unregenerate man – to mark their hue and their multitude – it would be found that they are indeed "evil."
We speak not of the thief, and the murderer, and the adulterer, and such-like, whose crimes draw down the cognizance of earthly tribunals, and whose unenviable character it is to take the lead in the paths of sin; but we refer to the men who are marked out by their practice of many of the seemliest moralities of life – by the exercise of the kindliest affections, and the interchange of the sweetest reciprocities – and of these men, if unrenewed and unchanged, we pronounce that their thoughts are evil.
To ascertain this, we must refer to the object around which our thoughts ought continually to circulate. The Scriptures assert that this object is the glory of God; that for this we ought to think, to act, and to speak; and that in thus thinking, acting, and speaking, there is involved the purest and more endearing bliss.
…If the glory of God is not the absorbing and the influential aim of their thoughts, then they are evil; but God's glory never enters into their minds.
Now, one would expect this sort of fundamentalist message from a Christian.
But Eastern religions can be just as obsessed about thinking of God all of the time, no matter what you're doing (leaving aside the not-so-minor problem, common also to Western faiths, that it's tough to think about something imaginary).
I thumbed through a few issues of a Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB) newsletter and found these thoughts from a representative of this India-based spiritual organization.
While working, whatever you do to earn your livelihood or maintain your home and family obligations, remember God and your Master throughout the day as your main preoccupation…Serve others with your spare time and work in the name of the Lord.
When I was hot and heavy into RSSB, I used to try to do this. But as mentioned above, I found it difficult to do. And distracting, because doing everything "for the glory of God" or "in the name of the Lord" is the antithesis of chop wood and carry water.
That is, when I was washing dishes I'd do my best to visualize this as being for the Master's (guru's) benefit. But he wasn't in the house – just me and my wife were.
So adding in an imaginary middleman between me and whatever I was doing eventually came to seem entirely unnecessary, and more than a little weird.
I knew people who'd say, "Thank you, God" or "Thank you, guru" when they'd find an empty parking space on a crowded street. What's up with that? Why not simply pull in and park?
Similarly, some RSSB initiates would go to considerable trouble to travel hundreds of miles, or even halfway across the world to India, in order to do volunteer work for their religious organization.
They seemed to feel that doing good didn't count unless it was done without a thought of the guru in mind, who is a stand-in for God in many Eastern faiths. George Eliot persuasively argues otherwise:
Dr. Cumming's theory, as we have seen, is that actions are good or evil according as they are prompted or not prompted by an exclusive reference to the "glory of God." God, then, in Dr. Cumming's conception, is a Being who has no pleasure in the exercise of love and truthfulness and justice, considered as affecting the well-being of His creatures.
He has satisfaction in us only in so far as we exhaust our motives and dispositions of all relation to our fellow beings, and replace sympathy for men by anxiety for the "glory of God."
…A wife is not to devote herself to her husband out of love to him and a sense of the duties implied by a close relation – she is to be a faithful wife for the glory of God; if she feels her natural affections welling up too strongly, she is to repress them; it would not do to act from natural affection – she must think of the glory of God.
Observing both myself and other God/guru obsessed devotees, I began to see how this misdirecting of natural impulses leads to a three's a crowd syndrome.
Meaning, religious believers reach a point where just about all of their human interactions include a third party: a conception of the divine entity to whom their fealty truly lies. They actually believe that Jesus, God, or the guru is present with them and is aware of everything they're doing or thinking.
Which, of course, also is the case with another supposedly omnipresent being: Santa Claus.
George Eliot speaks about how destructive it is to have an imaginary middle man intrude himself in such a fashion:
The idea of a God who not only sympathizes with all we feel and endure for our fellow men, but who will pour new life into our too languid love, and give firmness to our vacillating purpose, is an extension and multiplication of the effects produced by human sympathy; and it has been intensified for the better spirits who have been under the influence of orthodox Christianity, by the contemplation of Jesus as "God manifest in the flesh."
But Dr. Cumming's God is the very opposite of all this: He is a God who, instead of sharing and aiding our human sympathies, is directly in collision with them; who, instead of strengthening the bond between man and man, by encouraging the sense that they are both alike the objects of His love and care, thrusts Himself between them and forbids them to feel for each other except as they have relation to Him.
He is a God who, instead of adding His solar force to swell the tide of those impulses that tend to give humanity a common life in which the good of one is the good of all, commands us to check those impulses, lest they should prevent us from thinking of His glory.
Well, screw that. And to hell with that God. Or guru.
There's already enough divisiveness in the world. No need to add to it by interposing a conception of a non-existent being between us and what we do.