Sunday, 6 May 2018

“Finding Morality and Happiness Without God” [updated]

This morning's Sunday School reading comes from Onkar Ghate's article “Finding Morality and Happiness Without God”:
The basic reason religion remains such an esteemed aspect of ... society is that it is considered important, even indispensable, to morality. The strongest form this idea takes is that morality depends on religion—that without God, the distinction between good and evil loses meaning, and anything goes.
What most differentiates religion from philosophy, however, is how religion arrives at its answers. A philosophy seeks evidence and logical arguments for its conclusions. A religion, no matter how much theologians may argue back and forth about points of dogma, remains just that: dogma. A religion advocates its basic tenets on faith, which means in the absence of evidence and logical argument, and even in the face of counter-evidence and counter-arguments. This is why a synonym for a religion is a faith: we speak for instance interchangeably of the Jewish religion and the Jewish faith.

A religion is a worldview that espouses some version of the supernatural on faith. To claim that morality requires religion, therefore, is to claim that morality requires faith in the supernatural.
What makes murder wrong, then, according to religious morality, is only the fact that [a supernatural being] currently forbids the act. If He commands murder, murder becomes good. In philosophy, this is called the Divine Command theory of ethics. This—and only this—is what the distinctively religious approach to morality means.

The true champions of religious morality understand this—and to drive the point home they offer the story of [God telling Abraham to kill his son]  ... [A] s a disciple of religious morality, Abraham must not demand reasons. He must believe and act on faith—that is, in defiance of his reason. His rational mind must scream out at him—“It’s monstrous to murder my own son!”—and yet he must nevertheless obediently perform the action.
    It is far from an accident that Abraham has for centuries—in Judaism, in Christianity, and in Islam—been revered as the great exemplar of the man of faith, of the moral man, of the religious man. This is exactly what he is. He reveals the essence of what it means to accept the idea that God is the source of morality.
    For all those who accept this approach, to quote Tennyson’s haunting words: “Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die.”
    Observe how incredibly non-absolutist this approach to morality is. Theists like Prager decry moral relativism and subjectivism. Moral values, they correctly say, are not determined by personal or social opinion, that is, by whim. For example, if a person thinks it’s okay to have sex with children, his opinion doesn’t make the action right. And if a society disapproves of a woman working outside the home, that doesn’t make her action wrong. But what is the religious alternative to personal or social whim?
    Supernatural whim.
[An] indictment of the distinctively religious approach to morality should not be read as an indictment of religious individuals. There are good people who are religious. But they are good despite the religious approach, not because of it. Authoritarianism, even in small doses, never produces positive results.
    Indeed, there exists here a tragedy. Religious ethics undermines our understanding of and dedication to a proper morality. And it does this by means of something good within us: a desire to be moral and to live up to moral principles and standards.
    There is no doubt that ... some of us are attracted to religious teachings because they offer some valuable guidance. We sense that we should comport our lives by reference, not to our internal feelings, but to external fact. When we hear a religious teacher say that we should not murder, or that we should be honest and keep our promises, or that we should live with integrity, the advice makes sense and is welcomed because there are factual reasons to live this way. In today’s non-judgmental, morally agnostic age, religion is one of the few places we can find explicit, sustained discussion of good and evil.
    But by telling us that we must accept such moral advice on faith, our desire to be moral is used against us. The result, in the field of morality, is to slowly incapacitate our rational judgment.
But what about those of us who still desire to be moral?
    We want moral principles that prohibit murder and require honesty and integrity because we sense that these things make sense. But religious morality places these principles into one conceptual package with genuinely irrational rules like: don’t have sex without the possibility of procreation, and love your enemy. According to religion, these all rest on the same thing, faith, and therefore we must accept all of them or none of them.
    So in the name of our desire to be moral, we close our eyes and swallow everything. To be sure, we may cheat on the more irrational of the rules. If someone deliberately injures our friend, for instance, we may demand justice, not mercy. Or, in the bedroom, we may choose to use contraception. But as a result of such cheating and to the extent we take our own moral views seriously, we will experience as a persistent feature of our lives one of the blackest of emotions: moral guilt. And we will be feeling guilty for doing what is in fact reasonable.
    Now you might wonder, why don’t more followers of religious morality try to break apart the package? Why don’t we openly accept the principles of religious morality for which we see reasons, and openly reject the ones for which we don’t? Because, we’re taught, that would be immoral.
    “Who are you to judge?”—religious teachers declare. The field of morality is not the province of reasons, evidence and arguments, it’s the province of faith. In morality, you don’t think or ask questions—like Abraham, you obey.
    The number of intelligent people who believe,... that but for a supernatural stone tablet which happens to say “Don’t murder,” there would be no reason to refrain from killing the innocent, is shocking. But this is what religious morality does to a mind. By blending the rational and the faith-based into one conceptual package, religious morality makes every moral principle a matter of faith

As followers of religious morality, we don’t reason about the matter, gather facts, and carefully apply a principle to decide whether aborting an embryo is murder. We simply await further orders.
There must be a better way. And fortunately, there is. 
A secular morality.
Read on to discover more, and therefore to rediscover morality.

UPDATE: Time to grow up ...

[Cartoon by Paul Kinsella. Hat tip Atheist Republic]


1 comment:

  1. Abraham was never going to be allowed to kill his son and that is a key aspect of the story. That three monotheistic religions take the story and use it does not make the end products equal or equally relevant. In Islam the use of the older Jewish and Christian theologies was simply as a marketing tool in an appeal to the locals to see the product as a newer and better model of something already in use.

    I guess when you talk about a secular morality its not of the type found in effectively secular places like the Nazi Germany, the USSR, China, Cambodia, Cuba, Venezuela, Africa, North Korea etc... where life is cheap and at the whim of the police or other corrupt people.

    I don't think the path to morality is as easy as you like to proclaim and certainly it can be hard to legislate for.



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