Saturday, December 4, 2010

Religion and Morality VI

The other day I posted a comment about Chris Hedge's book "I Don't Believe In Atheists" pointing out how he engaged in a combined "straw man" and "ad hominem" argument by accusing the "new atheists" of believing that religion was the source of all evil and that a utopian society can be created through violence.

Although I like Hedges' other work, this particular book is such a perfect example of bad reasoning based on religious thinking and, more important, the emotion and egotism that is behind religion that it is useful to return to the subject.

First, it is a classic example of what happens when an atheist bests a believer in debate.  The believer reacts in a way that clearly shows his ego is wounded, which also reveals that it is his ego that drove him to engage in the debate and to believe in the obviously incorrect viewpoint that he tried to support. This blog post on "The Bad Idea Blog" entitled "Newfound Anti-Atheist Chris Hedges Doesn't Believe in Coherent Arguments" does an excellent job of pointing out the ample evidence that Hedges' book is obviously an incoherent diatribe driven completely by his emotions.

As such, Hedges book is simply a highbrow version of the type of reaction I and many other atheists have experienced many times and which I have previously mentioned.

In his unseemly haste to argue that religion is the source of morality and that the "new atheists" are somehow evil he accuses them and the enlightenment of having "dropped the wisdom of 'original sin'".  (I will put aside for now the many comments bubbling up about the idea that the notion of "original sin" was in any way wise or good and focus instead on what the "new atheists" actually think.)

Harris and Hitchens both advance the view that morality comes from within us and not from any invisible man in the sky.  They are arguing, correctly, I think, that religion causes people to behave badly.  They are not arguing that religion is the source of all human evil and that people don't do bad things without the outside influence of religion.  Hedges seems to deliberately misunderstand their point.  Their point is not that people are "basically good", but that our notions of kindness and good behavior are logical and to some extent inherent--not dictated to us by god.

In my experience, some people insist on seeing humans as "basically good" while others insist on seeing them as "inherently evil".  I have heard both of these viewpoints espoused by atheists and by devout believers.  In other words, neither is necessarily tied to a particular viewpoint on the existence of god.

I think that the truth (and the viewpoint of the "new atheists") is more nuanced than either extreme on the "is man good or evil" spectrum.  Scientific observation and experiments indicate that there is a sort of "inherent morality" that appears to be, in a sense, instinctual.  This instinctual morality appears (though perhaps not as strongly) even in animals that we consider to be "lower" than us.

Does that mean we are born "good"?  Of course not.  This instinctual morality has inherent limitations that require us to use our greatest gift, our minds, to recognize and correct.  It suffers from three major limitations:  1. it is incomplete (especially in our new and more complex world); 2. it generally is felt to apply only within the individual's "group"; and 3. it is not fully present in all individuals.  Because of these limitations some mistakenly conclude that it is nonexistent.

This natural framework of basic morality gives us a basis on which to build a true morality.  And, in fact, we are doing so--piecemeal and in fits and starts, as anyone who has studied history knows.  Usually, religion does not help this process but hinders it by attempting repeatedly to prevent any changes in the "received" morality that was passed to us by the immediately preceding generations.

Religion also hinders this process by denying that it even exists.  Self-examination and self-improvement are necessary for any person or society to grow and improve.  Religion always acts as a roadblock by stating that we don't need to do anything of that sort.  Religion tells us that it's all written down for us already and that all we need to do is slavishly follow the rules from the past and all will be well.  That is why it took centuries for the idea that slavery is immoral to take root and change what was morally acceptable in our society.

By hindering the development of a healthy morality based on facts in our society, religion poisons the third great source of morality (aside from logic and empathy):  community standards.  Because our basic moral sensibilities are not complete and not fully present in every person and because we do not all have the logical abilities, empathy, and experience to develop it fully, we must rely to some extent on community standards to flesh out our morality

As I pointed out before, religion seeks to keep people locked in the lowest state of moral development, where fear of punishment is the only basis for morality.  This, essentially, keeps individual believers in a state of morality that is difficult to distinguish from that of a psychopath.  If the growth of community standards is similarly stunted by religious dogmatism, then individuals will be deprived of an essential tool for cultivating their own morality.

(Religion does the same thing in other fields as well, which is why physicians were still bleeding people nearly 2,000 years after Galen was dead.  Galen, unfortunately was THE medical authority at the time of the rise of the Christian church and his methods were never examined until the Enlightenment--simultaneous with the examination of the church and many of the idiotic ideas it had perpetuated for centuries.)

Even more devastating to morality than its hindrance on the development of moral thought is the way religion affects human societies.  What moral sense we do possess instinctively seems to be applicable only to those within the individual's group.  In fact, our natural tendency is to feel actively hostile to those from other groups.

Religion makes our moral sensibilities almost worthless by dividing us artificially into mutually hostile groups.  This nullifying effect applies to both instinctive and learned morality.  The hostility is guaranteed by religion as well because these artificial groups each believe mutually incompatible things and feel very strongly about them.  These beliefs become part of their identities and cause the person to feel that his or her ego is threatened by those who disagree.  Because these viewpoints are adopted by rejecting reason (faith), there is no way to resolve the conflicts that arise as a result except by force.

Humans instinctively feel a moral duty only to those within their group and only toward those within the group who conform.  If you want to increase moral behavior, the solution is simple:  increase the size of the group--preferably to include all of humanity--and make it easier for everyone to belong.  (That is the essence of humanism, by the way.)

In addition to stunting our moral growth, individually and as a group, then pointlessly dividing us into irreconcilable groups, religion makes our moral sense worthless in another way by trying to force everyone to conform to often unreasonable expectations within the group.  It does this by convincing people that their sense of moral outrage should be triggered in circumstances in which there may be no real harm.  Usually, this is done to empower the leaders of the religion in some fashion.

A graphic hypothetical from the wonderful article linked above by Stephen Pinker, which appeared in the New York Times a couple of years ago, illustrates this perversion of morality to empower religious leaders:

"Consider this moral dilemma: A runaway trolley is about to kill a schoolteacher. You can divert the trolley onto a sidetrack, but the trolley would trip a switch sending a signal to a class of 6-year-olds, giving them permission to name a teddy bear Muhammad. Is it permissible to pull the lever?

This is no joke. Last month a British woman teaching in a private school in Sudan allowed her class to name a teddy bear after the most popular boy in the class, who bore the name of the founder of Islam. She was jailed for blasphemy and threatened with a public flogging, while a mob outside the prison demanded her death. To the protesters, the woman’s life clearly had less value than maximizing the dignity of their religion, and their judgment on whether it is right to divert the hypothetical trolley would have differed from ours. Whatever grammar guides people’s moral judgments can’t be all that universal. Anyone who stayed awake through Anthropology 101 can offer many other examples."

Clearly such moral insanity can only occur when religion is allowed to control the majority of minds in a community.

Another example of the perversion of morality to serve the priesthood is the way in which Christianity has declared us all to be sinful simply for being human.  This is the "wisdom of original sin" that Hedges alluded to above.  That "wisdom" is the insane notion that all humans are evil and destined for Hell because our remote ancestors allegedly disobeyed god and ate an apple. 

While it is true that we do have evil impulses, the notion that we are so evil as to be deserving of a trip to Hell, seems bizarre rather than wise.  Once this notion of our inherent "sinfulness" is coupled with the notion that our sexuality is sinful and "dirty" makes us all seem like hopeless cases in desperate need of priestly intervention with the one entity that, allegedly, can keep us from our "just" desserts.

To understand this, as with so many other seeming conundrums, one need only ask:  Cui bono?  Who does it benefit?  Clearly, all these things add up to benefit the leaders of the religion.  This stunted, controlled, and perverted morality results in a captive, cohesive, obedient flock firmly in the control of the clergy and other leaders in the church.  This captive flock is ready to do their bidding even when it is objectively immoral to do so.

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