JR'S Free Thought Pages
"You are not able to serve man; how can you serve God?" - Confucius
"One of the reasons a morally serious person must reject Christianity is this: in return for your coerced confession to a crime you could not possibly have committed, it offers you absolution for all the crimes that you actually have committed" - Christopher Hitchens
Morality, Religion and Hypocrisy
The genuine moral questions – the most important, relevant and urgent – are not about sex, drugs, premarital sex, euthanasia or abortion. They are, on the other hand, about human rights, poverty, war, the arms trade, inequality, oppression and injustice. The areas of concern involve truly staggering depravation and human suffering. In comparison to them, the parochial and largely misguided anxieties over sex, drugs and other matters that consume the corporate media and agitate religious conservatives are reduced to the trivial and banal. It is itself a moral scandal that these questions preoccupy debate in comfortable corners of the globe while real atrocity, oppression and violations of basic human rights occur elsewhere. This is not to say that these “parochial” concerns are not important but their importance lies in what is invariably the opposite of what the religious right thinks.
So much of the “conservative” moral outlook has its roots, at least in the Western World, in Judaeo-Christian religious tradition. There are no doubt sincere believers who find comfort and inspiration in their faith, and who do good works because of it. To them the spectacle of religion's contemptible record of bloodshed, cruelty and intolerance - throughout history and still in this present day - must be lamentable and onerous. But religious beliefs do not rely upon logic and rationality for their acceptance. Consequently, it is not surprising that faith inflicts violence upon its heretics and opponents, for its roots lie in raw emotion. These roots, more than anything else, lie in ignorance and fear. Religion began as the science and technology of earliest man who, surrounded by a menacing natural environment, desired and devised explanations of the universe ('it was made by an agency like us, only invisible and much stronger'), and a means of controlling (by prayer and sacrifice) its phenomena - especially the weather, so vital to sustaining life. The moral directives that were spawned to soothe human relationships came to be enshrined as divine commands, disobedience to which was seen as a threat to the precarious abeyance of storm and earthquake which, as God's anger, always threatened. This phenomenon is the primary source of much contemporary moral conservatism. But religion is in fact either irrelevant to questions of morality, or it is positively immoral. This claim undoubtedly seems contradictory at first, but a little reflection shows otherwise.
In an individualistic society, where personal wealth is the primary if not the sole measure of achievement, a morality that tells you to give all your possessions to the poor, that says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter heaven, that preaches selflessness towards one's neighbor and complete obedience to a deity - such a morality is wholly opposed to the norms and practices accepted and extolled in Western society. The Catholic Church, by far the largest Christian sect, is the biggest multinational business corporation in the world and controls mind-boggling interests in real estate, commerce and industry. How such gigantic wealth can be reconciled with the Biblical teachings of the central importance of poverty and humility as the one true path to God and salvation remain a mystery.
Most people however simply ignore the glaring contrast between such views and today's comfortable materialism and acquisitiveness, and pursue the latter. In this way religious morality is an irrelevance. But when fundamentalists fulminate against gays, subjugate women, mutilate genitals, amputate hands, bomb abortion clinics, terrorize and kill in the name of their faiths, religion becomes positively immoral.
Much religious energy seems to be devoted to controlling our sexual behavior, either by disallowing it (or thoughts or representations of it) other than in strictly limited circumstances, or by preventing the amelioration of its consequences once it has happened. Thus, the self-righteous write disparaging letters about televised nudity or same sex marriages, while huge shipments of armaments are exported from the factory next door to regions of the world gripped by poverty and civil war. And they are conspicuously silent, and it fact generally support, their own country's military attacks on those same countries for reasons that can only at best be described as self-serving. With such examples and contrasts, religion has little to offer moral debate.
Some think that a deity is required to provide grounds for morality: 'such and such is good (or bad) because God says so'. But as Bertrand Russell succinctly argued, 'Theologians have always taught that God's decrees are good, and that this is not a mere tautology: it follows that goodness is logically independent of God's decrees.' It might be added that if the will of God is the ground of morality, one's reason for being moral is merely prudential; it consists in a desire to escape punishment. If there is an independent criterion for moral conduct, I can judge what is good and bad on my by appealing to my own mental faculties and do not need to be instructed by anyone else, least of all some metaphysical entity living in the sky. Prudence however, though sensible enough, is hardly a satisfactory basis for the ethical life - and threats are never logically compelling premises for any argument. If it were argued that religions set moral examples unparalleled by secular faiths such as political movements, the claim would be easily refuted; but religions fare no better than most secular world views and much worse than some – humanism, for example, has killed no one for disagreeing with it. Moreover, if a deity conducted himself in the manner described in the Old Testament such as in the Book of Job and the eternal punishment of all of mankind for Adam and Eve's indiscretion of curiosity, it would be in violation of the most fundamental articles of international human rights conventions forbidding excessive, cruel and inhuman punishment. Any moral progress we have made beyond the mindless adherence to crude divine command of religion has taken place not because of what religion itself has done but rather the from the impact of the concepts of freedom and fundamental notions of human rights and dignity arising from the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolutions of the past four centuries. If someone looked to the violent history of religion to provide moral direction he would have to sift through a huge morass of immorality to find it.
A C Grayling in his book The Meaning of Things (2001) had this to say about the Christian approach to ethics and religious morality in general:
Leslie Stephen pointed out that while religion flourishes, ethical enquiry is restricted to casuistry, that is, the science of interpreting divine commands. The ultimate justification of these rests on a logical fallacy with a forbidding Latin name, the argumentum ad baculum, which can be explained as follows. The religious reply to the moral sceptic's question, 'Why should I behave in such-and-such a way?' is simply 'Because God requires it of you.' But this is merely a polite way of saying, 'Because you'll be punished if you don't.' This is what the argumentum ad baculum comes down to: the use of a threat, literally 'an appeal to force'. But a threat is never a logical justification for acting one way rather than another. If there exists a deity with the punitive vengefulness of the JudaeoChristian variety, then it might be prudent to obey it, and thus avoid the flames of hell; but the threat of punishment is not a principled reason for obedience.
Religious apologists claim that our motive for acting morally should not be the threat of divine vengeance, but love of God and our fellow man. But this is pious camouflage, however well meant. For in the religious view, if someone chooses not to act on the prompting of such affections, or fails to feel them at all, he is not therefore excused exile in the place of wailing and gnashing of teeth. He will suffer the fate of the fig-tree which, we are told in a pre-environmentally-sensitive biblical text, was blasted for bearing no fruit out of season.
A secular moralist would say: If love (in the sense of the Greek term agape: in Latin, caritas, hence 'charity') is the reason for being moral, what relevance does the existence or non-existence of a deity have? Why can we not be prompted to the ethical life by our own charitable feelings? The existence of a god adds nothing to our moral situation, other than an invisible policeman who sees what we do (even in privacy and under cover of night), and a threat of post-mortem terrors if we misbehave. Such additions are hardly an enrichment of the moral life, since the underpinning they offer consists of fear and threats of punishment: which is exactly what, among other things, the moral life seeks to free us from.
This prompts the question: Why are the churches given a privileged - almost, indeed, an exclusive - position in the social debate about morality, when they are arguably the least competent organizations to have it?
If this claim seems paradoxical, it is because we have become used to giving, as if by reflex, a platform to churchmen when moral dilemmas arise. This has come about in an odd way. The churches have always been obsessed with a small range of human activities, mainly those associated with sexuality. They have always sought to channel and constrain sexual behavior, and it is their vociferous complaining about human turpitude on this score that has somehow made them authorities on moral matters in general. But it can easily be shown that they are either largely irrelevant to genuine questions of morality, or are positively anti-moral.
In modern developed societies approval is given to such values as personal autonomy, achievement in earning a living, providing for a family, saving against a rainy day, and meriting rewards for success in one's career. Christian morality says the exact opposite. It tells people to take no thought for the morrow - 'consider the lilies of the field, which neither reap nor spin', and to give all their possessions to the poor. It warns that it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye than for a well off person to enter heaven. It preaches complete submission to the will of a deity, which is the opposite of personal autonomy and responsibility. Such a morality is wholly at odds with the norms and practices of contemporary society. Most people simply ignore the contradiction between such views and today's ethos, and the churches keep quiet about it. But if anyone bothered to examine what a Christian - or indeed any religious - morality demanded, he would be amazed by its diametric opposition to what is regarded as normal and desirable now, yet he would see - independently of whether it is the Christian or the contemporary morality which is 'right' - the reason why the former is irrelevant to the latter.
But religious morality is not merely irrelevant, it is antimoral. The great moral questions of the present age are those about human rights, war, poverty, the vast disparities between rich and poor, the fact that somewhere in the third world a child dies every two and a half seconds because of starvation or remediable disease. The churches' obsessions over pre-marital sex and whether divorced couples can remarry in church appears contemptible in the light of this mountain of human suffering and need. By distracting attention from what really counts, and focusing it on the minor and anyway futile attempt to get people to conduct their personal lives only in ways the church permits, harm is done to the cause of good in the world.
But religion is not only anti-moral, it can often be immoral. Elsewhere in the world, religious fundamentalists and fanatics incarcerate women, mutilate genitals, amputate hands, murder, bomb and terrorize in the name of their faiths. It is a mistake to think that our own Western milk-and-water clerics would never conceive of doing likewise; it is not long in historical terms since Christian priests were burning people at the stake if they did not believe that wine turns to blood when a priest prays over it, and that the earth sits immovably at the universe's centre, or - more to the present point - since they were whipping people and slitting their noses and ears for having sex outside marriage, or preaching that masturbation is worse than rape because at least the latter can result in pregnancy. To this day adulterers are stoned to death in certain Muslim countries; if the priests were still on top in the once-Christian world, who can say it would be different?
(A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford - and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker) He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com)