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Monday, October 11, 2010

Why Religious Morality is Insufficient and Sub-standard

Having just finished listening to the audio book of Sam Harris's "The Moral Landscape", a few of the recent podcasts from Common Sense Atheism, watched Matt Dillahunty(Of the Atheist Experience t.v show fame) deliver a talk entitled, "the superiority of secular morality", and uploaded many of my episodes for "Religion Sucks" onto youtube which involve morality(the most recent of which, was just uploaded),I figured I'd have another epic post here.(They probably all will be such)

What I've tended to notice is that it's often the case that morality derived from religious sources is often lacking and left wanting despite the claims of many religious adherents that "you can't be good without God" or that societies will fall into moral chaos and disarray if "we don't turn to God". Secular morality is indeed superior for reasons I shall delve into in the following paragraphs.

A point which converges with the main thrust of Sam Harris's new book(The Moral Landscape) is that facts are relevant to morality, more specifically, scientific facts. No respectable and reasonable code of morality/ethics or even philosophy in the 21st century can ignore or dismiss the findings of modern science. But one of the pitfalls of primitive, superstitious, religiously based morality is that it more often than not, doesn't take any of the relevant scientific facts into consideration when forming the foundation for values, and moral discourse.

Such a failure is not a minor one, rather a monumental error which can lead to moral failings of the type which result in the misery, suffering and deaths of innocent human beings. My aim is by no means to be a doomsayer, and offer up a pessimistic, "doom and gloom" scenario at every turn here, but one needs look no further than the horrors of the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, The crusades, inquisitions, pedophile scandal in the Catholic Church, bigotry and the intolerance towards homosexuals perpetuated by the christian right(Most prominently at least)etc. to see that religions have and still are getting morality wrong in profound ways.

When facts are not the foundation of a moral/ethical system, any arguments made in the name of "morality" tend to be anything but moral. Dogmatic, authoritarian/totalitarian commands, and unjustified bias, prejudice and emotional intuitions are what remain to confuse the moral domain. It should be quite obvious to anyone reading this blog that neither of those things are good nor adequate ways to form a system of morality that can live up to the standards which in the 21st century are set much higher than in the ages of the past in which the majority of the world's religions came into being.

The failure to consult facts regarding potential harm to fellow human beings and other animals or even the ecosystem(Or perhaps the planet as a whole)is to neglect the requisite knowledge one must have for behaving morally and responsibly.

To say that something is "immoral" means that facts demonstrating potential and actual harm must exist in relation to that which you would label as such. This does not mean however that as human beings with emotions, intutions etc., that we will be able to totally divorce ourselves from them and their impact and strictly, and logically, make moral calculations. We can however minimize their negative effects by reducing or eliminating biases whenever possible and as I mentioned in my latest "Religion Sucks" episode, "hone our moral intuitions". What I mean by this is that by attempting to reduce our biases, our prejudices and only trust the intutions which remain and are verified by the facts, we can maximize our moral/ethical potential.

This enterprise however will shatter if those facts are not sought, considered and implemented when making moral decisions.(Especially those in which the stakes are high) Thus this is one of the main reasons religious morality fails. Such morality or pseudo-morality as it probably should be called, relies on either the notion of following orders perceived to come from God, or simply resorts to primal emotions of digust, indignation or fear. It is hard to imagine how the former could even pass itself off as morality, as simply following commands from an authority(supernatural or otherwise), requires no relevant facts, nor any introspection, thought or discussion pertaining to any moral stances. The problem with the latter is that as human beings who have fallible minds, our intuitions can fail. They aren't to be blindly trusted as being the "end all, be all" final indication of what's right and wrong.

More specifically, these approaches toward morality show demonstrable harm as is evident in American politics. None of those alligned with the Christian Right for example, have anything of substance worth saying in regards to their opposition to gay marriage, or gay rights in general. They simply spout bible verses(which reeks of the commands from authority problem already discussed), or offer reactionary, and emotional intuitions.(Finding gay sex disgusting. etc.)

It's only in religiously derived morality that you see people labelling things which have no facts demonstrating actual harm to individuals or society as a whole, as immoral. This makes no moral sense whatsoever. That which is merely taboo, goes against personal preferences, or violates societal norms(if without negative consequences) cannot be said to be immoral.

A good example of this would be the claims that masturbation, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, or even bizarre sexual fetishes are immoral. Since morality cannot be reasonably defined in such a way as to include things which to use Sam Harris's words, don't "involve the suffering or well-being of conscious creatures"(something I can't seriously see anyone disputing), there cannot be any reasonable arguments made which would classify such things as immoral behaviors.

Now, all the examples just given are merely things a person might find in bad taste, or find either strange or personally offensive(or both). There is however no grounds for saying that a person who cross-dresses, or likes to engage in sexual intercourse while wearing any number of costumes and/or outfits, is immoral because of it.
Morality arises from social animals who have sufficient cognitive awareness to the point where they have empathy and have some "theory of mind". In other words animals that can recognize that other members of their own species or of other species can experience things they experience and thus can potentially harm or help them.

Technically speaking it arises from the rudaments of morality that are rooted in kin selection, reciprocal altruism, maternal instincts, etc. but for the purposes of this topic, such issues of intermediate sophistication need not be invoked here any further.

With this as the backdrop, I can now offer up a hypothetical situation which makes use of these facts. Imagine a solitary individual on an isolated island paradise. For the sake of this scenario, all considerations of how this person will feed themselves, find shelter and survive are set aside. We only need to concern ourselves with his or her everyday behavior. There aren't any indigenous animals to potential harm other than perhaps insects. (which is besides the point)

I now ask you, can this person do anthing that can reasonably be considered immoral? I hope you answered with a resounding, "no". Considering that no other human beings or animals with a complex enough awareness of their surroundings(thus real potential for suffering)exist on this island, and no technology exists in which to damage the ecosystem, there is literally nothing this person can do that would converge with the domain of morality. Morality is a concern only when human beings and other animals exist together, thus creating the possibility of potential changes in well-being in either a positive or negative direction.

Our hypothetical Homo Sapien could run around naked, masturbate to the point of exhaustion(not recommended however)and accidentally swallow numerous amounts of tiny insects and still have done nothing worthy of moral judgement. In this situation, this person could even take a sharp rock and dig shallow lacerations into their arms and legs, or even commit suicide without being immoral.
Normally, the act of taking one's life, when in the context of society and other people who would be negatively affected by it exist, this behavior would certaintly be considered immoral.(with the exception of euthanasia for the terminally ill)

On to the second main point in which religiously derived morality fails miserably. In addition to the lack of consulting the relevant facts, or following unguided intuitions or authority, it tends to oversimplify things into a nice and neat package of right and wrong, black and white, with no grey areas and no spectrum of degrees. This has terrible implications for any system of morality/ethics as a nation's justice system would fall apart without containing the necessary distinctions between cold-blooded murder done with malicious intent and manslaughter.

When the religious claim that abortion, euthanasia or stem-cell research are immoral, they do so by oversimplifying the situation and instead of placing these things onto a moral spectrum with some things being more moral or less moral than other things, they place them into two unwarranted categories, the simply right and the simply wrong.
To deny that circumstances can affect the morality of a given action or inaction(if it leads to harm etc.)would be to miss the obvious fact that there are factors to be taken into consideration that would mitigate or possibly excuse what would normally be regarded as immoral behavior.

It's clear that a child for example does not and cannot posess the cognitive faculties required to fully assess the impact of one's own behavior to the point where we can hold them fully accountable for their actions. Thus a five year old child who plays with the gun they found in their fathers drawer and shoots himself in the foot(an example used rather than a more grim and depressing one), cannot be said to be behaving immorally. A Catholic priest however, who fully understands his own capacity for doing right and wrong, can and should be held fully accountable for abusing an innocent child.

Oversimplifying moral issues does not do society any service. The reality we all face in this increasingly connected world is that new situations which don't have a precedent in past centuries or even in past decades will emerge and only through political and cultural discourse can any moral issues be met head on. When people, through religious delusion list their highest priority of moral concern as abortion, stem-cell research or stopping gay marriage, I think it's safe to say that they've forfeited any rightful claim to morality that one must be obligated to respect, condone or perpetuate any further.

The only way forward is a secular form of morality/ethics. Even those who are religious and will remain so, will not be able to evade this necessity. The new paradigm that will be forced is simply that religious people, while having their own private, and mostly irrelevant, personal beliefs, will have to adopt secular values. In fact, it could be argued that this has been done to a large extent already, being the reason that in the western world, religions have been tamed and changed time and time again to fit better with modernity.(As opposed to the predominantly Muslim nations of the world)

It is abundantly clear that anyone who strictly holds the morality of Christianity, judaism, Islam or any other ancient religion which contains primitive, barbaric and archaic concepts of right and wrong, will be left behind so to speak.
The problems that currently afflict our world cannot be solved by attitudes towards morality that dominated the bronze age or medieval times. The failure of religious moral systems is self-evident and cannot be shrugged off as my own opinion or a bias against religion. Unlike such flawed and harmful moral systems, I do not ignore the facts and they suggest, that religious concepts of morality are insufficient. Whether a nation or the world as a whole gets onboard with secular values and systems of morality and ethics or not, will undoubtedly make or break civilization.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Defining Religion, Religion as a Generic Concept

This post is basically what should have been the first video of my "Religion Sucks" series.(But the south park mohammad "controversy" was relevant at that time) Also, considering the pervasive ignorance about religion in general(See the recent Pew research poll), I thought I'd start by trying to establish a reasonable definition of what constitutes a "religion".

This will actually help in a few ways. First off, it seems many people throw the term around in inappropriate ways, labelling atheism, science, and political ideologies as religions. With a proper definition established, it will then be clear why these things aren't religions.

It will also help solidify traits that all specific religions will necessarily have in common. The idea of religion in a generic sense, will contain criticisms then of all religions. (Since the definition for what constitutes a religion will have been established, leaving no wiggle room to avoid this conclusion)
This "generic" religion, is what you get when you strip away the specific theologies and concepts from any religion and are left with the basic shared traits which are near-universals among all religions and cultures.

Lastly, upon examining the positive, neutral and negative qualities that this abstract concept of religion contains, we can see if it's indeed possible for a religion to ever be reasonable enough to not be a detriment to the society in which it is contained. (Remember now, that these things will be automatically things any specific religion will have by virtue of the definition of religion established)

So let's get started. Based upon my fair amount of knowledge about specific religions, past and present, I define religion as "a system of beliefs which involves ritual, belief in the supernatural
in some form, and an emphasis on a code of moral behavior." This is not an arbitrary definition which would simply be designed to serve the arguments I put forward in this blog, rather it's one that covers all types of religion from what us Homo Sapiens have had in neo-lithic times(In which we were hunter-gatherers)up to Wicca and even Laveyan Satanism.

Whether we're dealing with ancient feritility cults, ancestor cults, folk religions, polytheistic religions or today's monotheistic religions, they all involve some sort of beliefs regarding human beings and our place in the cosmos. They all have either formalized or perhaps less formalized rituals designed to both pass down traditions and/or invoke some kind of supernatural force.

Now the amount of supernatural claims or beliefs can vary, but to count as a religion there has to be at least a minimal amount of what we would call "supernatural".(It matters not whether the adherents/believers of that religion, use the term or even consider what they are doing to actually be invoking the supernatural) So it should be clear, that both Wicca and Catholicism to use two random examples, both contain rituals. The fact that Catholicism has priests and an orthodoxy/hierarchy of organization and Wicca does not (unless I'm mistaken on that)has no bearing on this fact.

Anything that counts as a religion will have the aforementioned things, plus some code of emphasized moral/ethical behavior. (which needs not be codified in written form) In this regard the religions of primitive tribes living in South America or Africa today, and even Laveyan Satanism fit the established definition.

So to both recap and get more detailed on the matter, what religions have in common and what our "generic" concept of religion will contain is the following:

1.) Rituals that are superstitious or invoke supernatural forces or entities
2.) Superstition in some form.(prayers, invoking spirits etc.)
3.) A code of morality/ethics which involves the supernatural in some way(and need not emphasize the connection to it at all necessarily)
4.) Beliefs that were invented to try and explain things in a pre-scientific era
5.) Shamans, healers, priests, or any"spiritual leaders" who have a role in performing rituals and so on. (no institutionalized, orthodoxy is required however)

Now with that defined, the following things are NOT required for something to count as a religion, and any belief system which has met the requirements discussed above, will still count as a religion despite lacking the following things:


1.) Belief in a deity or deities
2.) Belief in th afterlife
3.) Prayer or any other culturally specific sub-set of superstition
4.)Any specific "values" related to a particular culture
5.) An official, organized hierarchy in an institutionalized form
6.) A sacred text, as opposed to just oral traditions.

So by now it should be abundantly clear why neither science, atheism, or environmentalism count as religions. None of them can fully or even come close to satisifying the definitional requirements. None contain superstitious rituals, belief in the supernatural or stress a set of moral codes.(It could be argued that envrionmentalism does fit the latter, but since it does not satisfy the other two, it does not get to count as a religion.)

Atheism contains no baggage beyond the lack of a belief in any deities. While many atheists are secular humanists, that is a seperate but compatible philosophy, which does not get to count as religion either, because it at best, only satisfies the requirement of an emphasis on morality/ethics and not the others.

Science is the most removed from the definition. Although most scientists(if not all) personally are very moral, with a respectable code of ethics, science itself does not have nor emphasize any moral/ethical precepts. It's a neutral way to learn about the universe in the most accurate way possible.

Now before we continue, I will address a couple of foreseable objections. Mainly the possible argument that no. 4 of the requirements for something to count as a religion above, are not met by later religions such as Mormonism, Scientology or any other obscure religion made up fairly recently, long after science(or at least the rudaments of modern science) were well underway.

The actual date of origin of these religions is not relelvant, since they carry beliefs which are variations, continuations of those in ancient religions, or have been influenced heavily by religions which were constructed in a pre-scientific world.
For example, The Book of Mormon bears the influence of both the hebrew bible and the New Testament. The belief in angels, prophecy, etc. were conceived of in the ancient world, despite Mormonism being a more modern phenomenon.

Scientology perhaps is trickier, and comes the closest to being an exception, however, the concept of "thetans" is nothing more than a repackaging of original sin. It states that human beings are intrinsically corrupted and must seek the remedy provided for them. The belief in the soul predates scientology. In fact any of the "spiritual" elements of this more modern, and sci-fi influenced religion, are just remnants that religions far back into the ancient world touched upon to some degree.(Souls, humans having fallen from grace in some way, and some sort of "salvation" being needed to "purify" them)

Now for another potential objection. What if there are rituals but they do not constitute what is generally considered to be "superstition"? At first, this seems like a possible exception. It is not inconceivable in theory for religions to not have superstition in their rituals.(It is however, very, very unlikely)

In practice though, it seems any religion I can think of right now, even If I might not know every detail about that particular form of religion, definitely has rituals which to some degree are superstitious. Superstition is invoked clearly in any christian mass, vodoo ritual, pagan or neo-pagan celebration etc.

This is not to say that all rituals are superstitious and that secular rituals aren't possible. Secular versions of both funerals and marriages take place, yet when atheists/agnostics take part in them, there is no invocation of the supernatural. (Their religious counterparts are however, chock full of superstitious invocations)

Rituals which have become entwined with any religion, generally invoke superstition to at least some degree, even if in some cases minor and not with much emphasis. To further clarify, I'll work with superstition as defined as belief that the spoken word,(magic)ritual, or invocation of unseen forces(through or beyond nature) can affect the world in some way, despite not having any immediate causal influence.

Thus believing that rain dances can make it rain, that sacricing an animal or a person can guarantee a bountiful harvest season are superstitions. Prayer, inscribing a stone or weapon with runes believed to have some power derived from spirits or some entity associated with nature(which needs not necessarily be anthropomorphized)would also fit this definition.

Now back to the main topic. With the pre-requisite conditions, and allowable absence of certain attributes already described above, the necessary conclusion that is left is that the generic religion, and thus all religions contain the following:

1.) Superstition to some degree in belief and ritual practice.
2.) The rituals to some degree will be irrational.(If not completely so)
3.) Belief in the supernatural.(Even if not emphasized, nor invoked specifically)
4.) Pre-scientific ideas which can't truly be reconciled with modern science.
5.) At least some emphasis on moral and ethical behavior designed with social cohesion in mind.(Even if only for a tribe or small community)


Now for the analysis of generic religion itself.

The Good:

Only number 5 would fit any reasonable definition of good.(Although I'd really like to see someone truly argue otherwise)

The Neutral:

Although, many specific pre-scientic ideas can be harmful, many are simply neutral. Take any native american creation myth for example. On their own they are neutral, just as in any qualitative sense even the creation myth in Genesis would be, if not for the political harm and the injury done to the minds of children by getting creationism/intelligent design taught in public schools. These beliefs certaintly aren't good nor do they help make successfull societies but they are neutral, albeit irrational and outdated beliefs.
I suppose in most cases the rituals of any religion are neutral as well.(although not very rational nor based on a scientific understanding of the universe)

The bad:

Well, its clear that superstition is undeniably negative and not merely netural. Beliefs which stem from superstition and lead to action, and from where values are derived which shape political and moral attitudes, are not healthy for any society.
The belief in the supernatural also is not neutral as it can serve as a basis for anti-scientific attitudes, and get in the way of critical thinking which any intellectually honest person should value. When people believe in demons, spirits, angels, and gods that intervene in the world as causal agents, all kinds of harm can and does follow. (I don't think I need to list examples as they are plentiful)

So this unbiased (or as unbiased as I can possibly be as a human being) look at the generic concept of religion, establishes that religion in the most abstract and stripped down form, is still more harmful than helpful. Now when you add attributes specific to any particular religion on top of these things, the bad stuff and the neutral stuff will surely pile up with the good things not enough to balance them out.
If this is indeed the case and I think it is, based on the information I put forth above in this blog, then no religion will ever be reformed or reshaped enough to not be more of a detriment to society as opposed to a boon. They will only get perhaps less extreme, and made to be less hostile to modern science(through creative and convoluted theologies etc.) but since anything defined as a religion already starts off imbalanced in favor of the negative before any other specific attributes unique to any particular form of religion are added, no amount of making them more reasonable can completely save them.

So does this mean I'm not in favor of religions evolving and reshaping themsevles to make themselves relevant and consistent with modern science? No of course not. However, we should not delude ourselves and think that religion itself isn't part of the problem in achieving global stability. Religions carry so much baggage which is mostly an obsolete remnant of the ancient, pre-literate, pre-scientific world. The point then is that simply stopping religious extremism is not enough. Religions are made up of things which largely are anti-thetical to any reasonable societal goals of the 21st century and beyond. No matter how much change any particular form of religion undergoes, the need for it to be critized and opposed will not dimish.