Do you need faith to be a good man? Tom Matlack and others weigh in.
Two experiences with faith stand out in my memory, one involving human faith and the other with the Divine.
In college, I rowed eight-person boats—poorly—for most of my career. My senior year, Will Scoggins, a Shunryu Suzuki–quoting, tobacco-chewing wolfman messiah, took over as our coach. Our physical training was tough, but he always reminded us that nothing mattered more than our faith in our teammates.
Our first race was against Coast Guard, a crew we had never beaten. In a crew race, you can’t see where the other team is when you are behind. You face the stern as you row, so your opponent might be a few feet or a few miles ahead. Not knowing means it’s easy to give up. We always had.
Scoggins told us the race didn’t begin until the halfway point—1,000 meters. When we got there, we were already a length down. Then something miraculous happened: all eight men started pulling harder. Propelled by a single purpose, our boat jumped out of the water. We passed Coast Guard with a couple hundred meters to go. We ended up winning with open water between our stern and their bow.
Faith in ourselves had made us unbeatable that day—and the days that followed. We were undefeated the rest of the year.
A decade later I found myself lower than I’d ever been. My personal life was a mess. I had two babies, but I was only allowed to have at my house once a week. I was worried for them and for myself.
Morning and night I would kneel at my bedside, my head in my hands, pleading with God. During the day when I found myself overcome with pain, I would seek out a bathroom stall to pray. My knees on the linoleum floor, my face in my hands, I talked to God as though he was the love of my life and my long-lost friend.
In those days, talking to God brought me the only solace I could find. I have no idea if my daily petitions were heard, but the crisis passed. I learned how to father my babies; they grew into happy kids. Joy slowly returned to my life.
Here’s what some other guys have to say about faith and goodness.
I have been taught that to manifest anything—including being good men—we must have the courage to accept limitation. Faith has the potential to train us in that sort of courage.
—Rolf Gates, yogi
I am not a man of faith, nor are many of my friends, but I am certainly more likely to trust someone who has thought through religious issues, who has grappled with the source of moral authority, with right and wrong. I can’t have—and here’s an interesting choice of words—faith in a man unless he has done some thinking about the big questions.
—Michael Thompson, author of Raising Cain
Goodness and faith are not necessarily connected. Some of the best men I know don’t pray, attend church, or believe in God. They are good because being good feels good.
—Neil Chethik, speaker and author
I don’t view faith as strictly religion, but rather as some commitment founded in personal values. It should be pursued with integrity, which I would define as being true to one’s experiences. Goodness isn’t fully attainable, but aspiring to it is what counts. And so establishing a goal—one that’s moral and reflective of your personal values—and advancing it with integrity is the best way to seek goodness.
—Peter Canellos, executive editor, Boston Globe editorial page
I think of faith as spores that were shot out in the 15th century and resulted in me. In the 15th century in Africa, these spores had much less of a chance to survive than today’s spores, yet survive they did, and they have done amazingly well. The spores I send out today are going to triumph beyond the apocalyptic imaginings of the most perfervid acolytes of doom. Viva faith.
—Kofi Blankson Ocansey, entrepreneur
At West Point and in the Army, I learned that goodness comes from our ideals; our capacity to live according to those ideals requires faith. True faith, unlike blind faith, comes from experience and evidence. Whether our ideals are service, selflessness, compassion, liberty, or justice, people from Eisenhower to Gandhi showed that we cannot be the change we want to see in the world unless we have faith in our ideals.
—Capt. Paul Chappell, author, Will War Ever End?: A Soldier’s Vision of Peace for the 21st Century
The longer I work with boys—and it has now been over 30 years in boys’ schools—the more I believe that faith plays, or can play, a vital role in the lives of good, healthy boys and men. “Faith” has myriad meanings; I choose here to consider it not in a formal religious sense, but rather in two broader ways: in relation to the world and in relation to others.
In relationship with the broader world, faith helps men gain or maintain perspective—to realize that we are not in charge (even though we are male and strong), that there are greater forces out there, that at some point we need to trust the universe. In our relationships with others, faith brings a willingness to believe in others, to trust them, to bond with them. On the road to loyalty, often a great virtue among good men, faith can prove essential.
—Rick Melvoin, headmaster, Belmont Hill School for Boys
Of the virtues to avoid, faith trumps even patriotism. Why distrust it? Because it should be private. When it is proclaimed—or trumpeted, as the Republicans prefer to do—it is always cover for bad intent and blatant self-interest. And the ‘”faith” these self-appointed good men profess is Christian in name only; I can’t think of one of these public figures who isn’t, at bottom, a hater. Give me an atheist who wants to do the right thing for the right reason!
—Jesse Kornbluth, former editor in chief, AOL; Head Butler, HeadButler.com
We may be brothers and sons, fathers and husbands, but we are all also children of God. This brings up questions, not least of which are: “How does it feel when we hear that God loves us? Does it make us uncomfortable? Is that intimacy unsettling? Or does it gives us confidence and strength? Does it inspire us to be more courageous, to live out purposeful lives, good lives? Can the gift of faith in a loving and compassionate God allow us at our best to be like clear panes of glass through which the love of God can shine out into the world?”
—The Rev. John H. Finley IV, headmaster, Epiphany School
I don’t believe that goodness follows from faith. Goodness grows from two sources: you and your perception of how others see you—the combination of self-awareness and capacity for embarrassment and shame. If your own gut doesn’t tell you to do the right thing and you can’t recognize your misdeeds or you don’t care about or can’t appreciate how others perceive your actions, then no amount of faith will lead you to do good. When you let yourself down in either respect, then faith—believing in some sort of forgiveness, redemption, absolution—only serves as a band-aid, the kind that peels off only to be reapplied the next time you screw up.
—Brian Pass, lawyer
I grew up in a Muslim household in India. The division of labor seemed clear to me: the men went out and wrestled a living from the harsh world, while the women stayed home, raised the children, said their prayers, and were keepers of the faith. For the women in my life, goodness and faith were intertwined; for the men, goodness was something optional, something domestic.
—Amin Ahmad, author and architect
I don’t really think of myself as a person of faith. In fact, over the last several years—since my father died—I have been studying Torah, but I do so without faith. A few times rabbis have asked me to speak to the congregation on why I study Torah, and I confess with some embarrassment that I am not the right person for this kind of talk because I’m not a believer. My Berkeley rabbi said with a chuckle, “I didn’t ask you to talk about belief, I asked you to talk about study. God doesn’t care whether you believe, as long as you are doing the right things.”
I once heard that Niels Bohr was visited by some friends who were shocked to see a mezuzah hanging in the front door of his house on the Danish coast. They asked whether he believed in such things. Bohr replied that he’d heard that a mezuzah worked even if one didn’t believe in it.
—Michael S. Roth, president, Wesleyan University
Most spiritual traditions, at their roots, promote peace, even if later practitioners have fought “religious” wars. Jesus taught peace; Buddha taught peace. And in the early Greenpeace campaigns, we were aware of this spiritual tradition in the peace movement.
Likewise, when we launched campaigns to protect nature, we were inspired by a new spiritual awakening. We felt that humanity had failed to worship the one miracle that keeps us all alive and healthy: Earth itself. Nature is the only real access we have to the miracle of the universe. Some of us were Buddhists, some were Christians (fans of St. Francis), and some were agnostics or atheists, but we believed in the sacredness of nature.
This was not really about “faith,” but more about awareness, attention to the gifts of the universe. We notice also that the great historic leaders of social movements—Jesus, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Aung San Sui Kyi—possess deep spiritual awareness. Successful social activism arises from love.
—Rex Weyler, Founder of Greenpeace
My faith in God has made me a better father, husband, and citizen of the world. I am more compassionate and open-minded because of it.
—Felix Rodriguez, author of Dad, Me, and Muhammad Ali
During the eight years I’ve written and edited for POZ magazine, I’ve met so many men who’ve told me their stories of how their faith—in God, in goodness, in whatever gets them through the day—merely intensified after their diagnosis [with HIV]. In circumstances that could lead them away from the notion that there’s something larger out there, that it’s still worth doing what is good and what’s right, many express thanks for this life-changing event, calling it a gift. This enduring faith, in the face of every reason to doubt it, and their choice to go out into their communities to do good, to educate others about the disease, has taught me that one needn’t be a catechized, rules-obsessed member of an organized religion to be good and of faith.
—Bob Ickes, writer and editor, POZ
As a Christian man, I believe I am to carry out the gifts that God has blessed me with. Gifts that are born from our imperfections that become lessons for others. Each morning I begin my day reading scripture, being in prayer and thankfulness for the day ahead. I’m not an evangelist but do live my life as a true believer in Jesus Christ and worship all that he has sacrificed for us. I’m a steward of what God has blessed me with and as a man it’s my calling to lead and keep my house in order. I truly believe that through God’s sovereignty, living as close as we can to his liking makes us better men.”
—Mark Jacobs, television director
Faith alone does not make a man a good man. Many have claimed to have a strong faith, and yet did not live their lives as good men. However, I firmly believe a strong faith is the foundation on which we can build ourselves into the good men we all strive to become. As the father of two young boys, I believe that sharing my faith with them helps to begin that building process early on, and by working to live as an example to them I can provide them with the tools they need to build themselves into good men.
—Chris Webb, associate publisher, John Wiley & Sons
[My wife’s sudden death] never shook my faith. I never felt alone. And I think it’s expanded it, for sure. It challenged it. But I never stopped believing. It was never, ”How could God do this to me?’
My priest, who went through this very same thing, said God didn’t want Lisa to die. That’s not God’s plan. How God works is that he always creates a space where good can come out of any tragedy, and that I believe. I don’t know what I was thinking that day, but I remember thinking that sometime, very quickly, that good had to come from this, and my job is to look for it, and to be open to it. I think that’s what saved me—someone saying, “I know exactly what you’ve been through.” And not just one person, but six. I had six men who had lost their wives, who had been through it. And that’s a miracle.
—Ron Cowie, photographer
For me, the bridge between existential certainty and unsettled alchemy gets easier with age. Faith is a reflection of hope, and hope is the optimism built from love. As Kierkegaard might teach, either/or is a choice, but it is a human act of free will ultimately resolved in necessary trust. Take comfort in love and the unanswered does not require argument; you are embraced in the act of giving and thus committed to unearthing reasonably good answers that are fluid and tolerant. Faith, then, is not so much absolute as it is a dialogue that refutes mandates and reinforces the true selflessness of love.
—Ken Goldstein, CEO, Shop.com
At the essence of any faith is goodness. Whether it’s a belief in a tangible deity—Jesus, Mohammad, Vishnu—or a more abstract belief where a man believes in something good and pure, but cannot touch the actual identity, it all begins and ends with love and being good. I continue my journey of belief, but have always remained firm in living a life that is not necessarily about God, but rather about being good. When a man has faith in being good, he is, to me, godlike.
—Paul Kidwell, public-relations consultant
I think a lot of guys these days question if having a personal faith in God shapes life. Well it does—big time. Men are inclined to look for God only in the extreme moments of life—when things get really tough. All the other times, good or bad, we are in control. It is when we yield control to God in everything, everyday, all the time, that God transforms who we are as good men.
—Brad Bloom, Publisher, Faith & Fitness Magazine
A good man will be a good man whether he has a faith tradition or not. If he has one, his sense of honor, his work ethic, and his determination to protect and care for the people he loves and who depend on him can only be enhanced by that faith tradition. If he gives glory to some higher power while he lives a good man’s life, I’d see that as an enhancement that frames his goodness. But I don’t believe that a man’s moral compass needs to come from a faith tradition. If the man is fundamentally a selfish asshole who lives selfishly and thinks nothing of letting others carry his weight or take responsibility for his mistakes, no religion is going to make him any sort of a good man.
—Michael Rowe, journalist
Everyone on that squad busted their ass and could be trusted. Everyone was worthy. I coached very hard the idea, the truth, that when everyone did everything he (or she) could to make the boathouse faster, we all got better. I don’t believe that there is that much difference between a team and a country in the sense that if everyone is treated fairly, we get better. If everyone knows that each of us is important to our collective well being, then we all get better. And it is this moral understanding that is our strength.
—Will Scoggins, crew coach
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Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.