Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Religion Does Not Make You Behave

Anyone claiming to act ethically merely for fear of punishment or hope for reward (presumably in the afterlife) is completely bonkers. And they (or you) know it. Kant discusses this very clearly; that any sense of ethical behavior must be based on treating people as ends in themselves, and not as means to an end. Meaning that ethical acts should not have any other motivation than the ethical act itself. They do not seek reward and they are not done out of fear of punishment.

Nonetheless, faith is seen by the majority to be the source of our morality.

In his book, God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens asks, “Where would people be without faith? Would they not abandon themselves to every kind of license and selfishness? Is it not true, as G. K. Chesterton once famously said, that if people cease to believe in god, they do not believe in nothing but in anything” (184)? Hitchens answers by first speaking of a debate between Professor A. J. Ayer and Bishop Butler. In this debate, Ayer asserted that he saw no evidence whatsoever for the existence of any god. Bishop Butler broke in to say, “Then I cannot see why you do not lead a life of unbridled immorality” (185). This is an interesting claim and leads one to wonder, was Bishop Butler suggesting that if he personally did not have his beliefs that he was then choose to live a life of “unbridled immorality”? That his beliefs are somehow the cornerstone of his ethics?

“Faith”, according to Sam Harris, “drives a wedge between ethics and suffering” (168). A rational approach to ethics, he says, must come about questions about the happiness and suffering of sentient beings. With these concepts as our starting point, the vast majority of what people consider moral today is seen to have no bearing on the subject at all. For example, certain actions that cause no suffering whatsoever, religious dogmatists say, are evil and worthy of harsh punishment such as sodomy, homosexuality and smoking pot. Yet in cases of direct suffering and death, the causes of religious dogmatists are seen as being “good” such as withholding funds for family planning in the developing world, prosecuting nonviolent drug offenders and denying homosexuals their human rights. Even as Obama announced that religiously affiliated programs such as hospitals must provide employees with contraceptives, religious conservatives such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum claim that its an attack on the freedom of religion, an attack on Catholicism and on the first amendment itself. This inversion of priorities, as Harris says, only victimizes people and wastes valuable time and resources that could be spent trying to alleviate the suffering and increase happiness. “It is time”, he says, “we found a more reasonable approach to answering questions of right and wrong” (169). More to come...

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