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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.

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