Friday, December 3, 2010

Religion and Morality V

      “The greatest contribution of atheism is the provision of a
    firm basis for ethical conduct. Atheism explains that morality
    is a social obligation but not a passport to heaven and salvation.
    The theistic belief in divine retribution sidetracked moral
    behavior. Believers were more prone to please the god of
    their imagination by prayer and ritual than to conform to rules
    of moral conduct. Consequently immorality and anti-social
    activities spread wild wherever people were absorbed in the
    worship of god and in the propitiation of fate. Atheism brings
    about radical changes in the outlook of people in this context.
    Truth, tolerance, love and equality are the basic needs of
    social harmony.”
— Gora, Note on Atheism

Worldwide atheism would not be a panacea for inherent human evil.  I think, however, that it would have a salubrious effect.  It would remove a major stumbling block to rational decision making in the minds of many people, including many with power:  Religion's stunted and twisted views on morality. 

Every moral worth having is based on rationality and empathy.  Religion interferes with both.  

Moral values such as not engaging in violence or theft simply make sense.  It would not be good for anyone for such notions to be ignored.  Human society couldn't function and wouldn't exist unless its members were confident that there were rules that applied to their dealings with each other.  What actually enforces such rules is not fear of god but fear or each other--or, rather, of how others would react.  We instinctively fear a disruption in the social fabric and the probability that those who break those rules would end up paying a high price either socially, economically, or otherwise.

Without that expectation every individual would have to put a great deal of effort into simply protecting himself from others.  There would be no human society.  If we existed at all in such a state, it would be only as armed hermits.  Humanity implicitly rejected such a fate long ago, before we were even human.

Religion replaces this rational morality with morality based solely on authority--ostensibly the authority of god, but in reality the authority of those who claim to speak for god.  An obvious effect of this is that the religious often don't know what is truly immoral.  They may commit immoral acts simply because they don't realize what they are doing.  More obvious is that they don't recognize evil when they see it--especially when it is being perpetrated by their fellow believers allegedly in the name of their religion or the behest of their leaders.

This not only makes it easier for those spokesmen to order immoral actions, it makes the rules inflexible in the minds of believers.  They apply their rules rigidly on to those situations where the clergy have told them they should.  Because the religious do not see the rules as their own internal rules and do not understand or care about the underlying principles, they feel no inclination to generalize their application.  They feel that they are supposed to simply obey rather than think about what the rules mean and how they could or should be applied in other situations.

If a person feels empathy for others, then he doesn't harm others for the simple reason that he can imagine what it would feel like to be that other person.   Religion blocks the formation of morality based on empathy towards one's fellow man in many ways.  Religions (especially the Abrahamic ones) teach "moral" and other lessons that are not just devoid of any sign of empathy but are actually antithetical to notions of empathy.  Christianity, for example, teaches that anyone who hears of Christ's message but doesn't choose the right church will suffer an eternity of torture.  (Similarly, the holy writings of Judaism and Islam contain horrific examples of gross injustices perpetrated or threatened by god.)

This is, of course, a literally horrific injustice--if it were true, as believers think it is.  An eternity of torture because a person chose to remain in the religion taught to him by his parents rather than convert?  Or because he was too honest to apply different intellectual standards to competing supernatural claims?  Anyone with the slightest sense of decency has to be aware that this is a monstrous notion and could only be the the product of (or harbored by, for that matter) a monstrous mind.

One of the most important notions in any system of justice worth the name is the notion of proportionality:  The punishment should fit the crime or an injustice has been done.  Religions tend to introduce the opposite concept:  Any transgression against the authority is punished with as much disproportionate viciousness as possible.  Such excessive punishment would be considered intolerable were it visited upon the religious person who is so ready to see it visited on others.  This reveals a clear lack of empathy on the part of believers and a violation of the "golden rule".  This sort of thinking about justice is taught to believers as children--deliberately perverting whatever natural sense of justice they might have developed.

One of worst ways in which religion interferes with rational thought and empathy is by replacing a worldview based on facts with a worldview based on fantasy.  Instead of using their minds to figure out how to behave in the real world, believers think about the "more important reality" of eternal life after death.

If one believes that this life is but a very small part of one's total existence, then issues related to the "rest" of one's existence (i.e., that fantasy afterlife) become much more important.  If you believe that competing religious viewpoints represent a threat to the eternal life of your children and others, then killing everyone who belongs to those competing religions and refuses to convert makes moral sense.  You would think you were protecting your children from an extremely harmful influence.

This belief also makes killing seem less serious by making it seem impermanent--not an ending but merely a transition.  Only someone who believes such a thing flies an airplane into a building to protest a country's foreign policy or says "Kill them all; god will know his own" when asked how to distinguish "good" Catholics from heretics.

(Furthermore, as I have pointed out before, when different groups are formed, the members are encouraged to indulge their natural tendency to care only about the feelings of those related to them.  Those not of their group are not really seen as people but two dimensional constructs without real feelings (or, worse, as potential prey).)

Merely lacking a belief in life after death makes atheists more peaceful by making death and killing far less acceptable.  And, in fact, to the best of my knowledge, there has never been a homicide motivated solely by atheism. There have been quite a large number, however, solely in the name of religion.  Lacking a belief in religion allows us to develop a true morality based on reason and empathy toward our fellow man.  When you aren't concerned about mythical, magical men, then your mind is uncluttered with twisted notions of authority and retribution and can focus on the real people around you.

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