Tuesday, February 28, 2006

62. Morals deeper than religion

In my interview with the Amherst News-Times, I mentioned that I believed morality to be humanistic rather than religious. Such a testament, especially in today's conservative environment, is deserving of both an explanation and a discussion. The problem is, and the reason I have not written specifically on the subject previously, is that religion has been labeled as a "conversation stopper." This ideology, that religion cannot be critically examined and discussed, is not an original idea of mine, rather the theme of Sam Harris' popular book, "The End of Faith." He writes, "Observations of this sort pose an immediate problem for us, however, because criticizing a person's faith is taboo in every corner of our culture. On this subject, liberals and conservatives have reached a rare consensus: religious beliefs are simply beyond the scope of rational discourse." I emphatically agree with this quandary, for it is not acceptable, on a personal level, to criticize the religion of another. To do so is an individual attack, to the extent that friendships are lost, and families torn apart.

There are, of course, national issues of morality such as abortion, stem cell research and the death penalty. But the issue of morality is much deeper than this. And to discuss morality, and the claim that it is derived from religion, is therefore only fairly considered when religion itself is examined. Two points further trouble the discussion. First, there are thousands of religions, religious beliefs, and religious interpretations. Thus, specific arguments of morality will often be regarded as a misinterpretation or not applicable to one's specific belief. Secondly, there is the issue of defining morality, which is often formed and based on religious belief- not an independent examination. Mark Twain wrote to this problem, "In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing."

So, for example, when I quote an Associate Press report that, "nearly a quarter of the grants handed out by the Bush administration's $15 billion program to fight AIDS in Africa have gone to Christian religious groups that oppose teaching people the use of condoms," I have crossed moral boundaries, interpretations and definitions. Christian groups that oppose birth control do so based on moral religious beliefs. However, I would adapt the moral philosophy that by opposing the use of condoms, these religious groups are aiding in the transmission of the very deadly disease that they have specifically been funded to prevent. In this disagreement, there are two assumptions made by the religious groups. The first is that the use of birth control is a mortal sin, subject to an eternity of damnation. The second is that abstinence is a realistic approach in the fight against AIDS. I cannot prove or disprove the first assumption, since it is based on faith (and not subject to examination); however, I can argue scientifically that programs that promote abstinence and birth control are the most successful. Regardless, how is it decided which moral standard is superior, especially when I cannot challenge the issue of birth control as a sin?

As difficult as individual issues can be in the discussion of morality, there are general moral judgments that need to be considered in my assertion of humanistic morality. The first misconception is that one needs religion to act morally. I do not think that anyone needs to rely on religious guidance to understand that killing another person is morally wrong. Secular morality may be best defined by Paul Kurtz in the affirmations of humanism, "We believe in the common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility. Humanist ethics is amenable to critical, rational guidance. There are normative standards that we discover together. Moral principles are tested by their consequences." There is the argument to this debate that a non-religious person acting ethically is more moral than a religious person who acts ethically. The reason behind the argument is that a religious person acts morally because he or she has been instructed to, fears the consequences, or has been promised an afterlife in exchange for; conversely, the non-religious person acts morally completely on his or her own ethical values.

The second misconception is that religion maintains absolute moral ideology. Religious theory, especially among religions, is filled with contradiction, hypocrisy and extremism. How does it that religion endorses war on other faiths? How does a religion maintain credibility when the very priests selected to delivers God's message are committing, in mass, some of mankind's most horrendous acts? How is that hatred and discrimination is tolerated in any moral ideology? Of religion's long history of violence and hatred, Blaise Pascal wrote, "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." These questions will undoubtedly test the willingness of an individual to objectively examine religious morality.

Furthermore, my opinion is that if an individual is going to adopt a religious ideology, then he or she ought to read it, understand it and act to it. It is not a credible moral argument to pick and choose religious ideas that apply favorably to one's own life or beliefs. If the moral teaching of one's religion is derived from The Bible, then all teachings from The Bible should be regarded as moral. I do not believe that one can use The Bible as moral support for the discrimination of homosexuals and then say it does not apply when the same book calls for rebellious teenagers to be stoned to death. Sam Harris notes that if are to judge the moral guidance of The Bible, then atrocities such as the Spanish Inquisition must be interpreted as a precise and faithful following of God's word- for the book of Deuteronomy clearly explains, in detail, that anyone suggesting the worship of an alternative God must be put to death. Ann Coulter, a leading conservative author, was morally consistent to this idea when she said, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."

From a philosophical standpoint, we must note that religions define morality based on their texts, teaching and beliefs. To do so, one must reject some of the moral ideology taught and practiced by other religions. This again leads us to the question, which religion is correct? Which religion is moral? Thus, from the question itself, "religion" cannot be the sole basis of morality when moralities differ among religions. In terms of faith, it is best explained this way by Stephen Roberts, "I contend that we are both Atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

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