Monday, February 13, 2012

Morality Does Not Come From Religion

How many times have you heard the argument that religion is responsible for our morality and ethics? Some people who don’t even identify as religious say that when they have children they will raise them with some aspect of religion or will take them to church in order to instill them with morality that they otherwise would never get. Perhaps in a dialogue between two religious people this is an assumption that is never directly engaged in. However, atheists, secular humanists, scientists and on occasion, non-theists, are thankfully challenging this absurd argument.

I wish to start a series of blogs to address this and tangent issues, such as absolutist truth claims, scriptural infallibility, in-group/out-group dynamics, religion as child abuse and various other human rights issues such as family planning, AIDS and homosexuality. For this blog entry I want to talk briefly about the holy trinity of atheists: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and what they have to say on this subject of religion and morality. Later on I’ll be reading Karen Armstrong and Ken Wilber among others and will be continuously adding to the debate.

We are all familiar with the “scary” parts of scripture in the Old and New Testaments and the Koran. It would be lengthy indeed to list them here. Suffice to say we are all familiar with the fact that these scriptures are full of genocide, murder, xenophobia, rape and misogyny.

Any religious moderate will simply chuckle and say that you have it all backwards. These passages aren’t meant to be taken literally! They are metaphorical, symbolic or allegories. But this statement raises an interesting point. That religious moderates simply pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories, or simply, which ones to ignore. Pick the nice bits and reject the nasty. What’s wrong with this process? Well, for one it simply shows perfectly well, that our sense of morality does not come from scripture. Just ask yourself, what criterion do you use to decide which passages are symbolic and which are literal? You will employ independent criteria divorced from scripture in which to judge which aspects of scripture to take as literal and which as symbolic. But what are these independent criteria? And where do they come from?

In Dawkins book The God Delusion he speaks about a changing or evolving moral zeitgeist or “spirit of the times”. He says, “There seems to be a steadily shifting standard of what is morally acceptable. Donald Rumsfeld, [for example] who sounds so callous and odious today, would have sounded like a bleeding-heart liberal if he had said the same things during WW2” (304). Wildlife conservation, the conservation of the environment and our many, taken for granted, human rights have become adopted values and are similar to the same moral status as was once accorded to keeping the Sabbath and shunning graven images and other various dogmatic morals of the pre-modern era. For example, in the context of first commandment against rival gods, the statement that God is a jealous god is a bit of an understatement. “God’s monumental rage whenever his chosen people flirted with a rival god resembles nothing so much as sexual jealousy of the worst kind, and again it should strike a modern moralist as far from a good role-model material” (Dawkins, 276). To our modern morality it seems to be a rather miniscule sin to have another god than to stone homosexuals, sell your daughters into slavery or offer them for a gang rape. Our attitudes towards slavery, women’s suffrage abnd race have all shifted dramatically, especially in recent times largely due to liberalism, globalization, mass communication and improved technology. Dawkins says, “Religious people don’t think in a biblical way anymore…our morals, whether we are religious or not, come from another source; and that other source, whatever it is, is available to all of us, regardless of religion or lack of it” (289).

Apologists and religious moderates simply can no longer claim that religion provides them with some sort of privileged guide to morality that is unavailable to atheists and secular humanists. Modern morality does not come from scripture. The zeitgeist progression itself is more than enough evidence to disprove the claim that we need God in order to be good, or to decide what is good and what is morally reprehensible. The shift has no connection with religion and more than likely, as history has shown, it happens in spite of religion. More to come...

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