10 July 1991

On Moral Purity

The Desire to be Good

We all want to make a little money, and have a little fun. But most of all, we want to be good. Good doctors, good mechanics, good cooks, good conservatives or liberals, good at doing or being something. Which, if you stew it a bit, boils down to morally good, as if being valuable or excellent in some way absolves us of the accumulated petty shames of childhood. In other words, we commonly strive to attain a condition of comparative moral purity. Or at least, we seek the right to feel that way about ourselves.

Now the desire to be good is a queer thing. On one hand, it motivates us to do things which actually are good, and which create a mostly orderly and humane society. On the other, it motivates us to deny badness in ourselves, and to convince ourselves that we dont have that badness by conquering it whenever we see it in others. For example, if a boy believes it is bad to be weak, he may prove to himself that he is strong by beating up boys who are weaker than he. Then he can say, together with the Pharisee in Luke 18:11, "Thank God, I'm better than that!" The distance from trying to be good (in this case, strong) to becoming a bully is a small step for a young man.

And, to steal a phrase, a giant leap for mankind. Human societies have commited damnable crimes in what is ultimately the mindless quest of moral purity. Incidents like the Inquisition, the Holocaust, Stalin's artificial famine in the Ukraine, Pol Pot's killing fields in Kampuchea, and the "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans come easily to mind.

We are usually more moderate in our quest, however. Consider the relatively benign power politics of America, which lurches left and right, trying to achieve stability by clinging to opposing packages of liberal and conservative thought. Each side clutches its bad ideas as tightly as its good ones, because embracing the whole package is the path to a kind of moral purity -- to being a good conservative, or a true liberal. Each side is pulled off balance by its Inquisitors, from those who seek to ban the fetal tissue research that could heal spinal injury or cure diabetes, to those who wage puritanical war against religion in schools or second-hand smoke. Meanwhile, the ship of state rolls on, rudderless for lack of generally credible moral authority.

It's time to clear the air. It's time to pause in our quest to be good, and to try being honest. Which, if we mean to be good, means being honest about what we believe, before we continue our various cockeyed crusades.

Therefore, at this website I dig at what are still the well-springs of conventional belief — religion and science, and draw cold water to throw on conventional wisdom about some of our favorite things — politics, sex, business, UFO’s, education, and war. I speak as a Christian, American, scientist, and sometime corporate intrapreneur. If occasionally I pass from irony to outrage, I hope that I speak "the truth in love," that I entertain most readers, and that I offend only those who desperately need it. May my efforts provoke more thought than rage.