Monday, March 8, 2010

Stupid Arguments part II: Religion and Morality

The priest seemed nice enough. "You're here with Tom, aren't you?" he asked me.

I was standing in the hallway outside the sanctuary, examining the art on the walls. I admitted that, yes, Tom had brought me. I think he wanted to see if I was interested in joining the Young Adults group.

The priest studied me. I don't know what tipped him off - whether it was something about my posture, or my clothing, or whether Tom had said something to him; but he asked, "You're not actually a Christian, are you?"

I shook my head. "Not really."

He smiled. "It's okay. I'll tell you a secret: it doesn't really matter where you get your morality. Read the Bible, follow the Golden Rule... the real difference between a good person and a bad person lies in how much attention they pay to the effects of their actions."

We chatted for a little longer, and then I went to look in on the Young Adults group. The priest's words stuck with me; that was the first time I'd ever run into that line of thought. It really was a shame that the priest turned out to be an evil ghost, sacrificing the souls of his congregation in order to raise a massive, multi-headed demon. It was disappointing to have to kill - or, well, disperse - someone who seemed so nice.

That was just a dream, obviously (and obviously I'd been watching just a little too much Buffy at the time). But the priest's words really did stick with me - and to the best of my knowledge, I really hadn't heard them anywhere before that.

All of that is really just a complicated lead-in to the idea that religion and morality are not the same thing. Now, if you're reading this and thinking something like, Yes, and the sky is blue. What else is new? ...Then skip on down and make some suggestion for things I should do when I become Emperor. If, on the other hand, you're spluttering with outrage and preparing a long and heartfelt comment about how there is no morality without religion... well, take a deep breath and hear me out.

The idea that morality is dependent on religion is extremely pervasive. I've come across it in all sorts of flavors, from the relatively harmless ("Kids should go to church so they learn about morality") to the ridiculous ("All this crime and violence is a result of taking prayer out of schools") to the downright offensive ("I'd never trust an atheist, because there's nothing to stop them from lying or cheating or stealing or anything"). I've also run into the argument that without God you cannot have true morality; at best, you have a human-created facsimile of true morality.

Obviously, I don't believe this is true. I think there are secular moral paradigms that work just as well as religious moral paradigms. The Golden Rule ("Do unto others...") is a perfectly good starting point for figuring out how to deal with other people, and predates extant religions by millenia. Various strains of Humanism help flesh out the details - but, as the priest pointed out in my dream, it's basically a matter of paying attention to what you do, why you do it, and what consequences your actions cause. For that matter, the idea that religion offers a model for moral living strikes me as a little dubious, too: we can argue about the moral implications of Abraham's apparent willingness to sacrifice Isaac, but Jepthah's sacrifice of his daughter (Judges 11) doesn't set any sort of example that I'd care to follow, and the Book of Job basically makes God look like a monster, morally speaking.*

The other reason that I don't believe that morality requires religion is equally simple: in my personal experience, people who self-identify as Jews and Christians (the ones who claim that G-d is the basis of their morality, in other words) are not any more trustworthy, honest, or reliable in general than people who self-identify as Atheists, Agnostics, or Wiccans (etc.) To be fair, I don't find that Jews or Christians are particularly less moral, either. It's just that in terms of day to day behavior, I don't see much difference. I therefore conclude that the important thing is how much attention someone pays to their actions, rather than the underlying paradigm that they're using as a guide.

To put that another way, even if we assume that G-d's morality is perfect, down here in the real world it gets applied by human beings - which is to say, imperfectly. As a result, I don't see any practical difference between someone applying a perfect morality imperfectly, and someone applying an imperfect morality. Obviously, if your experience is different - if you find, say, that Christians are more trustworthy and reliable than unbelievers - then you're not going to agree.

And that's pretty much it. Let me leave you with some of the best moral advice I've ever run across: "Be excellent to each other. And... PARTY ON, DUDES!"

* I don't really mean to single out Christianity, here. It's just that most of the we-need-more-religion-so-people-will-be-more-moral folks that I run into happen to be some strain of Christian. Also, since I was raised Episcopalian, those are the examples that come to mind most readily.


  1. Maybe there are no 'heartfelt' comments because no one disagrees on the main statement. It is just a matter of semantics whether you call it morality or something else based on its origin. I really think that the idea that most religious people think there cannot be moral persons without God is the biggest misconception that atheists hold. Those who legitimately think that are a minority.

  2. "I really think that the idea that most religious people think there cannot be moral persons without God is the biggest misconception that atheists hold."

    I'm not sure it's as big a misconception as you think it is. Granted, nowhere near all religious people think that you can't have morality without religion, but I run into it often enough to make me think that it's a fairly common view.


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