I picked up an interesting book at a library book sale the other day: An Introduction to Catholic Ethics by Longtin and Peach. Among other things, this book compares secular and religious ethical systems. One of the most interesting parts, to me, was the treatment of the question, “Can’t one be a good person without religion?”
The book explained that even without religion, a person can develop virtues such as the Cardinal Virtues. These are the earthly, human virtues that people can “figure out” by the power of reason. As an example, I’ve written about the many wonderful virtues I witnessed in Japan in the Virtues section of this blog.
However, there’s also another category of virtues. These are the Theological Virtues: faith, hope, and charity. These virtues cannot be deduced by the power of reason–they have to be revealed by God.
I can testify that, during my atheist phase, I was miles away from faith, hope and charity. I was one of those bleak, the-universe-is-going-to-collapse-in-on-itself-someday kind of atheists. (I wonder if there are different kinds of atheists the way there are different kinds of drunks. Maybe it has something to do with temperament. But I digress.)
The book points out that some people are content with the earthly virtues, like a caterpillar might be once it had figured out the rules by which one could live a good caterpillar life. In order to transform into a butterfly, though, the caterpillar has to do something completely different (i.e., develop the Theological Virtues), and that’s where religion comes in.
This explanation helped me to put together some of the puzzle pieces of my journey from atheism to Catholicism via Japan. Several writers have pointed to Japan as an ideal pagan society. It’s a place where one can experience life in a society organized around the earthly virtues–and also feel the longing for something more.