Sunday, December 12, 2010

Religion and Morality VII

I have discussed previously the nonsensical proposition that one must believe in god to be moral.  Believers and those who merely believe in belief continually say this even though evidence and logic show that it is not true.  In part, I think they believe this because they fear their own sexuality.  Those who only believe in belief say such things because they fear the true believers.  For true believers, however, part of the reason they harbor this bigotry is that their own morality has been stunted--or even twisted--by religion so that they simply do not know what morality is; they think it is obedience to authority.

In Stephen Pinker's article in the New York Times in 2008 he wrote about recent research indicating that there exists in humans a discernible moral instinct.  Of course, this instinct isn't equally present in everyone.  Nor is it going to be sufficient by itself to endow us all with the necessary morals to allow us to live together in harmony.  But, its presence and the parameters of it revealed by the research give us an objective starting point for defining, measuring, and then building a morality that is both rational and useful.

The article tells how researchers were able to tease the parameters of this moral sense out of test subjects using carefully designed hypothetical questions.  The following is an excerpt from the article:

"The exact number of themes depends on whether you’re a lumper or a splitter, but Haidt counts five — harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity — and suggests that they are the primary colors of our moral sense. Not only do they keep reappearing in cross-cultural surveys, but each one tugs on the moral intuitions of people in our own culture. Haidt asks us to consider how much money someone would have to pay us to do hypothetical acts like the following:
Stick a pin into your palm.
Stick a pin into the palm of a child you don’t know. (Harm.)
Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it at no charge because of a computer error.
Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it from a thief who had stolen it from a wealthy family. (Fairness.)
Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in your nation.
Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in a foreign nation. (Community.)
Slap a friend in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit.
Slap your minister in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit. (Authority.)
Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like idiots for 30 minutes, including flubbing simple problems and falling down on stage.
Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like animals for 30 minutes, including crawling around naked and urinating on stage. (Purity.)
In each pair, the second action feels far more repugnant."

Many people can and will quibble with these themes (or the examples given to illustrate them) and their relative importance, but the fact remains that research across cultures shows that these themes appear consistently in the test subjects' sense of morals.  In particular, many non-believers will bridle at the use of a minister to show a respect for "authority", but the use of that particular example is telling because it illustrates the way in which religion uses (some might say abuses) these moral instincts to control people.

Not only has religion made a concerted effort over centuries to convince people to see it and its representatives as authority figures, it has successfully skewed the moral instincts of most believers to elevate the importance of authority as a moral theme over all the others.  Religion does this through the simple trick of maintaining that it is the ultimate and only authority with regard to morality itself.  (Also by playing on the last theme:  Purity.  By setting themselves up as more pure than others and emphasizing the "impurity" of all the things that are natural side effects of being human, such as sexuality and negative emotions like anger and jealousy, the clergy separate and elevate themselves from the rest of us.)

The end result is to give the clergy and their secular allies almost complete control over their flocks.  Given that most societies are dominated by religions of a certain stripe, this means that those who call the shots within those religions also call the shots in that society in general.

For the clergy, the obvious benefit of this arrangement is to increase the cohesiveness of the flock both by setting it apart from the great unwashed masses who don't believe the same things and by convincing the individual members that they need the church to save themselves from their own immorality.  In some cases this immorality is manifest and manifestly true and the parishioner feels a psychological need to cleanse himself of guilt over very real infractions.  In other cases the guilt feelings are merely those induced by the clergy who use their status as authority with regard to morality to convince people that even normal, harmless human traits are sins that require their intervention with god on behalf of the sinner.

This creates a barrier between the flock and those who would undermine the con game being played by the clergy, such as us "evil" non-believers who would clue the sheep in regarding the trick being played on them.  It also directly supports the con game (and the protection racket) being run by the clergy by causing non-believers to suffer adverse consequences from the flock, such as social and economic boycotts, etc.  Thus ensuring that not only do members of the flock shun non-believers, the non-believers themselves are often bullied into silence or even belief. 

This system leads inevitably to intolerance.  If a person thinks the only possible authority in moral matters is god, then it impossible to have obedience to authority by someone who thinks god doesn't exist or believes in the wrong version of god.  Thus, anyone outside the religious group is not merely suspect but necessarily guilty.

It also inevitably leads to intolerance by ensuring that there can be no development of any universal sense of morality.  Naturally, those who haven't had their morality stunted and twisted by the ridiculous moral and "factual" notions of religion are going to differ in their views on morality from the religious.  This inevitable difference makes it much easier for religions to label nonbelievers as immoral.  The perversion of church members' sense of morality makes the "immorality" of those outside the church a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Finally, this system leads to intolerance by elevating authority over the usual checks on intolerance and its ill effects to be found in the innate sense of morality that manifests itself as an aversion to harm, to unfairness, and to a sense that all of humanity can be one community.

The harm this system causes flows directly from another moral theme mentioned elsewhere in Pinker's article:

"The other hallmark is that people feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished. Not only is it allowable to inflict pain on a person who has broken a moral rule; it is wrong not to, to “let them get away with it.” People are thus untroubled in inviting divine retribution or the power of the state to harm other people they deem immoral. Bertrand Russell wrote, 'The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists — that is why they invented hell.'"
Convincing your flock that merely thinking of immoral temptations is just as bad as committing them may help keep them coming back to church to assuage their guilt feelings over being human, but when that sense that normal but negative human feelings are themselves horrible sins collides with the moral sense that those who do bad things must be punished we have a recipe for violent intolerance of anyone who doesn't conform eagerly and diligently.

1 comment:

  1. This is a superb summary of organised religions. It is tragic that all adult religionists wouldn't read this - reflect on it & discuss it calmly & objectively with an unbeliever. On the day that would happen hell would not 'freeze over', it would simply disappear from the minds of believers.