I think it’s about time I got back onto the topic of religion. So next under consideration is the idea of religion as serving some moral purpose.
Many people have recognized that we now have some far more reliable systems to fill the roles that religion used to fill. We have science, which does a much better job of explaining the world around us than religion ever did, and gives us technology to boot. We have modern political systems that most people recognize as far superior to the oppressive theocracies of the Middle East. We have “melting pot” communities to provide cultural identities that aren’t centered around forms of worship. We have historians who paint a more cohesive and sensible picture of our past than you could ever find in a holy book. And yet despite all of this lost ground, many of these same people will insist that religion is still a crucial necessity for humankind.
I want to really stress this point. The idea that the core of religion is the promotion of good morals is a very recent development, as far as human history is concerned. Only a few centuries ago, religions were about human government, human history, and phenomenological explanation. And it is important to understand this context when discussing the relationship between religion and morality. Because most vocal atheists aren’t pushing for a flat removal of religion-based morality, we’re pushing for a replacement. We see religion’s relation to ethics the same way we see its relation to politics. Outdated.
Now there are three primary ways in which people link religion and morality. I will therefore take three posts to address religion and morality, one for each type of link. The first, which I address here, is the idea that religion serves as the best source of morality. Many religious people (and hell, even some atheists) argue that religion informs our species of what is morally right and what is morally wrong. At the very least, they argue that religion is the best way to obtain this information, though many will even argue that it is the only way.
This idea has already been addressed by my more general comments on the topic of faith-based epistemologies. Faith-based initiatives suffer the same problems when tackling questions of morality as when tackling questions of phenomenology. If you tell me you have faith in the wrongness of murdering innocent people, I can counter by having just as much faith in its rightness. The lack of convergence confirmation leads us to a level of arbitrariness that is hugely problematic for the development of good moral systems.
Despite this, I want to take some time to examine this idea in more detail, because it is so infuriatingly common. So I’ve developed a simple exercise that should work well at highlighting the flaws of using religion as a source of morality. But first, we’re going to have to find a moral that supposedly comes from one’s religion. Out of the blue, I’m going it pick killing people. But don’t let this stop you from coming up with your own example. If you believe you get some morals from your religion, but that “don’t kill” isn’t one of them, then just repeat this basic exercise with whatever moral you do believe you’re getting from your religion.
So let’s take killing as our example. Suppose you have a holy book or other religious doctrine that tells you it’s wrong to kill people. The first step we’re going to take involves probing the circumstantial dependence of that moral. Ask yourself a series of questions about unusual circumstances in which the prohibition against killing isn’t quite so obviously right. For example, if by killing one person you could save the lives of ten innocent people, would killing that one person still be wrong? Is it okay to kill in self-defense? In defense of another? In defense of property? Of freedom?
Now you may be able to peruse your religious material to find answers to many of these questions, and you may be able to find some passage or other that you can interpret as an allegory which indicates answers to some others. But the goal here is to find a moral quandary where your religion’s answer makes you feel uncomfortable.
It’s is well-established that many people will reject religious ideas that don’t resonate well. We have plenty of people who “shop around,” trying to find a religion they’re comfortable with. We have self-proclaimed Catholics who use birth control, atheist Jews, Muslims who don’t pray towards Mecca, and many more. Millions of religious people will recommend their chosen holy text as a source of moral guidance while flat-out ignoring its treatment of slavery as commonplace, its portrayal of women as second-rank persons, or its frequent genocides. They will insist that this passage is allegorical while that passage is literal. And it leaves the skeptic to wonder; just what method are they using to make those judgments?
Most any given religion teaches a whole lot of crap. Yes, there are gems in there. There are some great religious teachings and some great passages that serve to provide insightful lessons. But there’s also a bunch of crap. And in order to ignore the crap and embrace the good, you have to know what to look for. You can’t just read the bible with zero prior moral understanding and expect to come out a decent person. Even if you could sort the jumble of teachings into something remotely coherent, you’d still have enormous problems. You might be against killing and lying, but you’d also wonder why we don’t have slaves anymore, or why we use lethal injections instead of stonings. In order to get any good moral system out of most religions these days, you have to already have a good moral filter before going in.
And even if someone did present a religion with a completely unflawed moral system, it would still take a good, previously-existing moral filter to recognize that fact. You can’t just tell me to get my morals from religion, you need to tell me which religion. And in order to determine which religions give good morals and which give terrible morals, you need to come up with a moral system which you can employ before picking your religion.
So take that moral lesson you find uncomfortable and ask yourself why you find it uncomfortable. Find an alternative religion that teaches a more agreeable lesson and ask yourself why you aren’t following that religion instead of your current one. The very fact that you can disagree with your religion’s teachings indicates that you have some kind of moral filter which isn’t based in your religion. In fact, it is mostly a combination of instinct and intuition.
Even if your religion were completely turned off, your instinctive moral filter would stay on. And by and large, our instinctive moral filters are pretty good at preventing us from becoming total monsters. This is the answer to many of the theists’ most silly questions. If you don’t believe in God, what’s keeping you from killing, or thieving, or raping, or pillaging, or committing any manner of other heinous crimes? In reality, atheists don’t do these things on any significantly grander scale than theists. We aren’t substantially more likely to do these things because we have those innate moral filters, just like the theists.
The thing that keeps atheists from becoming total monsters is the same thing that causes you to stop going to the homophobic church and start going to the church that just plain ignores the “Thou shall not lie with a man as with a woman” passage. It’s the same thing that tells you that it’s okay to use a condom even when the pope says it’s a sin. It’s the same thing that let many people denounce slavery even while others were reciting bible verses in its support. It’s the same thing that allowed for a women’s suffrage movement in a society whose most popular religion taught that women should stay out of politics.
Now it is true that the mere existence of an alternative source of morality does not necessarily mean that we ought to abandon religion. One might still maintain that religions can do a better job than moral instinct. But this was only the first step, the recognition that there are non-religious methods for making non-arbitrary moral judgments. Because it is only after you realize that there is more than one possibility that you can begin thinking about optimization.
I’m not up for building a system of ethics right now. Besides, there are many intelligent people throughout history who’ve put in quite a bit of work on that front. If you’re interested, read up on “philosophy of ethics.” Maybe I’ll tackle the subject at some point, but for now I’ll let my prior arguments stand. Faith-based systems lack key epistemological qualities, most notably convergence. If the moral conclusions of “read a holy book” are highly dependent on where you start, then you don’t have an objective method. But if you want to produce an overarching picture of human morality, one that can be applied across multiple cultures, that everyone can recognize as functional and useful no matter where they come from, you’re going to have to build an objective system. And that’s not something you can do with faith.