Religious people in the major religions regularly contend that authoritative morality comes exclusively from whatever god they espouse. Religion-based moral codes do contain some sensible rules of behavior, but are awash in shibboleths more damaging than helpful. In terms of benefit to humanity, much of religion-based morality is itself immoral.
Given religionists’ credulous dependence on superstition, that is strange but understandable. It is less understandable that “bystanders” (those aware of—often subject to—religion, but not adherents) are so willing to allow religionists to define proper human behavior for everyone else. Thus it is that primitive belief systems—like Christianity and Islam—are granted virtual hegemony on the topic of morality merely because they claim it.
We’ve all seen television discussion panels assembled to contemplate some community moral dilemma. Such panels are frequently composed of a priest, a rabbi, and a minister, as if these occupations bring commanding knowledge of ethics. Morality as conceived by Christianity, Islam, or Judaism is given the benefit of the doubt, then, despite its having far less integrity as a morality system if one considers its human effects and its resistance to updating as time would otherwise sharpen human sensitivity.
The way we inherit morals from primitive sources is prone to all the difficulties of oral histories and ancient manuscripts. The simple transmission of stories passed down through the ages was not unbiased, affected as it was by nationalism and tribal proclivities, along with the need to satisfy powerful rulers and presumed deities. By no means were they updated with the integrity expected of modern historians. After all, how could believers presume to correct their gods? Taken as a whole, then, whatever morality messages the ancient sources contain are fraught with inconsistencies and the harsh treatment of their times.
Even if the morality messages within a given religion were unambiguous, their primitiveness—bizarrely considered a strength by the faithful—doomed them to be developed within cultures steeped in superstition and devoid of scientific understanding. We would think it ludicrous in the 21st century to accept the primitives’ notions of astronomy, geology, and disease as informative, much less authoritative. Christians wisely dismiss biblical misconceptions in those areas, but many of them act as if there are no biblical misconceptions about morality (e.g., homosexuality, divorce, picking up sticks on the Sabbath). But without an authoritative, supernatural source, they lament, how otherwise are we to know right from wrong? How are we, in the words of Genesis, to have the “knowledge of good and evil”? (The story of the Eden tree and seductive serpent is a telling comment on how Abrahamic religions view intellect: as a threat then and even now to credulous faith.)
Incidentally, all three Abrahamic religions are immensely focused on sexual behavior in building their compendium of sins. (The shame of nakedness was not the first downfall of man, but came quite close.) The religious point of view is, in effect, that being preoccupied with sex is wholesome, whereas being occupied with it is sinful. As with other sin topics, much of Christianity has benefitted from the Enlightenment, while Islam remains mired in its 7th century primitiveness. Still, even today when a person is said to be immoral, the first immorality that springs to mind is sex related. (I addressed aspects of this genital-based morality in my posts “Lust,” Jun. 16, 2015, “The sin of sin,” Jan. 2, 2015;, and “The moral neutrality of extramarital sex,” Mar. 28, 2015.)
Actually, when not hindered by religious motivation to please an ancient god, humans can be pretty good at figuring out morality. We don’t need old texts and bronze-age creeds to tell us that murder, cheating, oppression, spreading falsehoods, and similar behaviors are not good. In fact, most moral verities that make sense have been developed across numerous religions and civilizations without the necessity for any given religion’s divine revelation. When guided by a philosophy focused on what is good for humans rather than on what is said to please a phantasm, our natural proclivities can be honed still further, resulting in a morality built around fair and kind treatment of each other.
Even if we develop and continually improve a human-based morality, it is true that many humans cannot or will not live up to it. (I distinguished secular humanism from atheism in my post “Secular humanism goes beyond atheism,” Oct. 24, 2015). We are likely to transgress whatever code is agreed to just as it happens to religious concepts of morality. That is unfortunately true. But my point goes beyond that consideration. I am contending that religion-based morality is flawed even if followed to the letter.
In making a rigorous effort to design and teach a moral code by and for humans rather than slavishly copying ancient, flawed ones, we can attend to what would benefit humans or even all sentient beings. (See my posts “Morality in secular humanism,” Mar. 16, 2015 and “Morality is too important to be left to religion,” Jan. 2, 2014.) Christians have complained to me that such a code would forever be relativistic rather than authoritative. We could never get all humans to agree; in contrast, the “Word of God” stands forever. Wrong. It isn’t as if all humans agree about that “word or god” claim and even when they do, their interpretations are widely discrepant. In other words, religion-based morality is quite as relativistic as one that makes no such claim.
Christians have been taught that relativism in morality is a bad word, and that something is right or wrong once and for all. Yet Christians themselves don’t adhere to that judgment. Yes, some American Christians in 2016, for example, would stick to their position that if sex between men was wrong, it still is wrong. On the other hand, but they are unlikely to say that if slavery was once not wrong, it must still be not wrong. But how about less blatant examples, such as whether the male is the head of the family? Was it the moral choice twenty centuries ago, but not now? Or did the world and status of women change, but only the really good Christians continued to observe it? How about cruelty toward sentient animals? Is morality of no effect just because biblical morality is silent on the subject?
Christians have a long history of declaring what their god approves and disapproves, only to adjust the reputedly divine message years or centuries later. They seem unable to consider that the dogma of today may itself need to be changed later, for that would mean their faith yields as many flaws as any other human activity. For example, while the morality of slavery might have escaped their notice a millennium ago, it would not have two hundred years ago. While the cruelty of racial prejudice might have escaped notice a century ago, it would not have fifty years ago. While the hurtfulness of bias against gays might have escaped notice a hundred years ago, it would not have three decades ago. While the inhuman treatment of “fallen girls” by the Catholic Church could be overlooked a mere couple of centuries ago, it would not be today. Christians apply the same cafeteria approach to morals that they utilize in focusing on some biblical prescriptions and ignoring others. From what little I have learned about Islam (upon which I am still to write a follow-up post), the same piecemeal observance of holy books is not unknown.
A religion that promotes or even condones a morality frozen in the distant past may in some cases be brought into the present, but that requires a tortuous reinterpretation of sacred scripture. During the period of change, at first most, then many, then only some religionists argue against humanistic values in favor of the ancient ones. Just consider where the bulk of Christianity stood with respect to any one of the terrible conditions I mentioned above. If there were a devil, these Christians could be said to be piously on his side, dragged only kicking and screaming to a higher morality. Only because humans are often more humane than their religion, can greater morality at long last win out…well, until the next such struggle. Religious morality thus in so many instances impedes the ethical progression of humanity.
So it can be said that humanist morality changes over time as human understanding and sensitivities change, while religious morality is so fixedly moored to ancient beliefs that, at best, appropriate change is slowed by their struggle to adhere to the old while painstakingly accepting the new. To use (and possibly misuse) John Stuart Mill’s phrase in On Liberty, whatever biblical proscription has been in effect for a long time becomes part of the “despotism of custom.” The cruelty and immorality of humans whose considerations of morality have been informed by religion go far to detract from whatever influence that religion has been for good.
As I’ve repeatedly said in this blog, many, maybe most, Christians are more moral than their religion (see post “God is love? Nov. 23, 2014) and more moral than their God. (Due to my greater familiarity with Christianity, I’ve written with that source in mind though the phenomenon I’ve noted is true in religions generally.) The same can be said of their morality, for Christians in enlightened settings tend at least in part to be more humanistically moral than their Christianity would have them be.
It is in light of these factors that I marvel at intelligent Christians’ acceptance of such a damaging form of morality. But I am astounded by non-Christians’ unwarranted grant of respect to the peddling of religion-based morality and unending theocratic efforts to force it on others by social and legal action. The world needs morality, to be sure, but it deserves a morality untainted by superstition, informed by science and compassion, and continually updated by the progression of human sensitivity. Neither theism nor atheism ensures so estimable a moral code, but theism—unlike atheism—actually prevents it.