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Asking the clergy: Is it necessary to believe in God to be a good person?

Professional football players often kneel in prayer after scoring a touchdown, but Arian Foster, the Houston Texans running back who is rated among the National Football League's top players, recently revealed to ESPN that he doesn't believe in God. About 7 percent of Foster's fellow Americans also identify as atheists, or as agnostics, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. This week's clergy discuss whether the majority of Americans who profess belief in God hold a monopoly on virtue.

The Rev. JoAnn Barrett, Gathering of Light Interspiritual Fellowship, Melville:

A belief in God is one thing, an actualized moral capacity is another issue. There are plenty of people who say they believe in God and do unethical, immoral things. And there are people who say they are atheists or agnostics and have very strong ethics and do wonderful works in the world. Our congregation is charismatic by nature. We focus more on spirituality than religion. Because we emphasize the heart more than the head, we do not have many who say they are atheists. We tend to attract people who don't believe in a traditional concept of God, or what a basic Judeo-Christian or Islamic version of God would be. Broader concepts of divinity can be the basis of a belief in a higher direction for living. If people own their belief systems and their interpretations of a higher power, they are more likely to behave in a way that causes them to be their best selves. The bottom line is ethics, not beliefs. You should be judged by your actions, not by what you say you believe. That said, I believe that in addition to separation of church and state, there should be a separation of church and sport. It's really nice when people can identify with a sports star who has the same faith, but that's no guarantee of the quality of behavior.

The Rev. Jerome D. Taylor, Adelphi University Protestant chaplain and pastor, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Roosevelt:

There is basic goodness in all people. A lot of people give money to colleges and foundations and hospitals, but they do it because they think it's a nice thing to do, not because they are following God's will. The motivation for people of faith to do good and continue to do good comes from God, not a selfish motive. We want to help those in need. We don't have to like them, but we do have to love them. Matthew 22:37-40 says "Jesus replied: 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." In my experience as a chaplain at Adelphi University, I often meet young people who are questioning. However, if you want to know about God and religion, you have to ask someone who is a believer, not a nonbeliever. We have Bible studies to clear up these issues and questions the students may have. John 3:16 would be the catch all: "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believe in him will have everlasting life." What that means is that God didn't just die for some people, he died for all people, and those who believe will be saved.

Rabbi Mendel Teldon, Chabad of Mid-Suffolk, Commack:

We are a finite species. We see with only two eyes and only as far as the horizon (or the technology of the day) allows. We understand our own reality based on the societal or scientific norm of the time. We are subjective beings influenced by the winds and whims of the moment. Many times it is based on an emotional standard, which can be tainted by anything from ego to pleasure. That is why the word "good" can mean something so different to people from another generation, fiscal bracket or place of residence. Compare Long Island to sub-Saharan Africa or the year 2015 to 1840. Atheists can be nice and good people, based on their or society's understanding of nice and good. But they are still stuck in the limitations of their world views. To truly understand what is good, it has to come from an objective third party. God is infinite. God was before us and will be after us. God's idea of good doesn't change with time or a recent op-ed. From the vantage point of a true higher power, reality takes on a whole new perspective. Only an entity that saw it all and also wrote the DNA of existence can define what is up and what is down. An infinite intellect has the ability to take that vast wisdom and communicate it to a limited human. We just have to open ourselves up to that message. When God asks us to do a good deed, God is giving us an opportunity to connect with the infinite. We can rise above our limited world view and become one with a timeless message of not only goodness, but Godliness.


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