There’s tons to blog about and now I’m a day behind. Let’s start off with a Sunday morning religion post.
There’s an outstanding column in today’s Boston Globe by Sam Harris, titled “Bad reasons to be good.” Harris argues against the common idea that religion is the best arbiter of morality. Harris is an atheist who seems to have made a project out of exposing the shams and inconsistencies of religion. This should keep him busy.
Most Americans appear to believe that without faith in God, we would have no durable reasons to treat one another well. … The problem, however, is that much of what people believe in the name of religion is intrinsically divisive, unreasonable, and incompatible with genuine morality. The truth is that the only rational basis for morality is a concern for the happiness and suffering of other conscious beings. This emphasis on the happiness and suffering of others explains why we don’t have moral obligations toward rocks. It also explains why (generally speaking) people deserve greater moral concern than animals, and why certain animals concern us more than others. If we show more sensitivity to the experience of chimpanzees than to the experience of crickets, we do so because there is a relationship between the size and complexity of a creature’s brain and its experience of the world.
I’ve long believed that good socialization, not religious belief, is the real key to moral and ethical behavior. Emotionally healthy and well-socialized people, religious or not, nearly always treat other sentient beings decently. Sociopaths can quote the Bible all day long and still get their kicks out of bashing bunnies.
The bare-assed fact is that human history and everyday life are overflowing with empirical evidence that “religion” and “morality” don’t always hang out in the same ball park. Yet unthinking people (which is most of ’em, alas) continue to believe that religion is somehow a necessary prerequisite for morality.
Unfortunately, religion tends to separate questions of morality from the living reality of human and animal suffering. Consequently, religious people often devote immense energy to so-called “moral” questions — such as gay marriage — where no real suffering is at issue, and they will inflict terrible suffering in the service of their religious beliefs.
Under some circumstances our marriage laws may inflict real suffering on gay couples, but let’s put that aside for the moment. There is no better example of what Harris talks about that the embryonic stem cell controversy. To my mind, anyone who puts a higher moral value on saving frozen blastocysts than on alleviating suffering and disease is self-evidently screwy. Yet in our current sick culture the Screwjobs are respected for their “values,” and the rest of us are told we’d better straighten out or no one will like us.
I suspect a great many people have a gut-level queasiness with this view of morality, but they haven’t found a way to drag this queasiness into their heads to think about it and explain it. Language and logic seem to fail us. If killing is “bad,” then killing a blastocyst is “bad,” we are told. Is that not logical?
The “logic” of morality fails the “values” side, too, sometimes. The famous “rape and incest” exemption to abortion bans comes to mind. Logically, if abortion is murder, then it’s murder no matter how the conception took place. Yet many who oppose abortion can’t bring themselves to take that last, logical step and extend the ban to rape and incest victims. Some twinge of sympathy for the victimized women holds them back. To anti-abortion rights purists, on the other hand, that sympathy is moral weakness; the righteous must harden their hearts and stick to logic.
Perhaps you see the problem.
The purists painted themselves into a “logical” corner with Terri Schiavo, IMO, because too many of us these days have personal experience with making end-of-life decisions for loved ones. And most of us know in our hearts and guts that, sometimes, it’s selfish to cling, and loving to let go. The Schiavo episode revealed the “values” tribe to be a small, hysterical minority.
But the worst problem with religious morality is that it often causes good people to act immorally, even while they attempt to alleviate the suffering of others. In Africa, for instance, certain Christians preach against condom use in villages where AIDS is epidemic, and where the only information about condoms comes from the ministry. They also preach the necessity of believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ in places where religious conflict between Christians and Muslims has led to the deaths of millions. Secular volunteers don’t spread ignorance and death in this way. A person need not be evil to preach against condom use in a village decimated by AIDS; he or she need only believe a specific faith-based moral dogma. In such cases we can see that religion can cause good people to do fewer good deeds than they might otherwise.
Last year a “creationist” testifying in the Dover evolution trial perjured himself by lying about using church money to buy “creationist” books for the public schools. A “Christian” organization called the Alliance Defense Fund routinely fabricates lies — such as the claim a California school banned the Declaration of Independence because it mentions a “Creator” — as part of its crusade to break down the separation of church and state. ADF and the perjured creationist have, apparently, decided that lies are OK if they help spread the Gospel (and they call us “moral relativists”).
Last July I wrote a three-part series explaining why the purists are wrong on the embryonic stem cell question; here is Part I, Part II, and Part III. Parts II and III in particular focus on the disinformation about stem cell research being spread by the purists to defend their “logical” opinion. I wrote,
The fact is, opponents of stem cell research routinely lie — to themselves, to each other, to anyone who will listen — in order to defend their belief that embryonic stem cell research is immoral. This suggests to me that the real reasons people object to stem cell research have less to do with moral principle than with some deeply submerged but potent fear. And this takes us back to elective ignorance. Something about flushing all those blastocysts makes the Fetus People uncomfortable in a way that condemning Henry Strongin to death does not. The arguments they make against stem cell research, which are mostly a pile of lies and distortions, are not the reasons they are opposed to stem cell research. They are the rationalizations created to justify their opposition.
I’m hypothesizing here, but everything about the “logical” morality of the purists seems ass-backward to me. Very often their “logical” arguments seem post hoc, and assembled to provide a pretty cover for opinions that actually were dredged out of the murky depths of their ids. The fact that most of their “moral” causes involve sex and death seems to be a clue.
And the problem with their “logic” is that it is based on assumptions about matters like life, death, beingness, selfness, etc. that are rigid and narrow and make no sense to me. As I argued here, if you change the assumptions the “logic” falls apart.
Sam Harris is arguing for a secular morality — fine with me — but throughout the ages many religious people also have expressed the view that true morality — “goodness,” if you will — is based on compassion. This is central to Buddhism, which teaches that the two eyes of enlightenment are wisdom and compassion. And, ultimately, wisdom and compassion depend on each other, because true compassion (metta) arises from the wisdom that all beings are One, and true wisdom arises from the desire to realize enlightenment (bodhi) to benefit others (bodhicitta). The actions of a genuinely wise and compassionate person will always be moral.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 comes to mind also —
If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.
The word for love used in the original Greek text is agape, which I’ve been told meant something like “affection” or “concern for others” before Christian scholars got hold of it.
And, of course, several of the Heavy Hitters of Religion — Rabbi Hillel the Elder and Confucius, for example — independently came up with the Golden Rule. Although seems to me a truly compassionate person follows the Golden Rule without having to think about it as a rule.
As it says in the Tao Teh Ching —
- Thus, when the Way is lost there is virtue
- When virtue is lost there is humaneness
- When humaneness is lost there is rightness
- And when rightness is lost there is propriety.
(Verse 38, Charles Miller translation)
I guess if you’ve lost propriety, the final fallback position is “logic.”
Update: Dinesh D’Souza is “logical.”