Friday, May 29, 2015
Religion and morality
As regular readers here will probably be aware, I am an atheist who is sympathetic to Christianity. I regard the Bible as a great source of wisdom and I endeavour to apply its precepts in my life. I do that because every time I do the Christian thing I get a reward. Christian teachings work for me even though I don't accept the metaphysical attachments of such teaching. Christians would probably say that Christian teachings work for me because God is looking after me but in my view Christian teachings simply embody correct assumptions about human nature and how to behave socially in a constructive way.
So I happily read a lot that is written by Christians. Not being a Leftist, the happiness of others does not diminish my happiness. The happiness of others makes me happy and I rejoice in the inspiration and comfort that Christianity and prayer gives to its adherents. I am moved by faith even though I have none. It helps people.
So I am well aware of the common Christian claim that Christianity is what keeps America civilized: Without Christianity, behaviour would deteriorate and become "red in tooth and claw". I don't think that claim is wholly true though anybody who has attended an evangelical church will be aware that some people who have lived a foolish and destructive life testify that Christian conversion has turned their life around. I do think that happens.
But I don't think there is a NEED for Christianity for a society to be civilized. Razib Khan looks at the evidence for that claim below but I would like to add something to what he says. I would like to point to the evidence from Australia. Australia's church attendance rates are among the lowest in the world and in continuing decline. And most of those who do go to church are elderly. So is life in Australia nasty brutish and short?
Far from it. Australia seems to me more civilized than the USA. The constant American scrabble for money, for a start, has only the faintest echo here. Some decades back, when a million dollars really bought you something, Australia had, proportionately, the world's highest number of half-millionaires. Once they got to have half a million dollars, many Australians gave up work and just went golfing. Leisure has a much higher priority in Australia. And I don't need to mention that gun deaths in Australia are the tiniest fraction of the American figure. Life in Australia is much safer than in the USA.
So Australia is a very relaxed place where most people are pleasant and friendly to one another. American visitors often remark on how friendly Australians are. And you don't have to press "1" for English, either.
I could go on to analyse why Australia is better off than the USA but that is a big essay in itself so let me simply point out that standards of behaviour are at least no worse than in the USA despite our negligible rate of churchgoing.
Most Australians do believe in the existence of a creator but they are very doubtful about whether the churches know anything about him. For historical reasons many Australians do have a nominal religious identity. In the days when you had to put down your religion on forms, my late father would always put himself down as "C of E" (to my mother's amusement), but in all the time I knew him he never once set foot in a church. And he was a real gentleman too, despite his lowly occupation (lumberjack).
So most Australians are aware of the Ten Commandments and have some respect for them, but they don't regard them as binding. Far more influential are Australia's own five secular commandments. I discuss them here
I reproduce Razib's comments on religion and morality below"
Probably the biggest blind spot on the cultural Right in the United States is the "family values" Uber Alles stance. As documented over 15 years ago in The Nurture Assumption shared family environment, basically your parents' non-genetic influence, is relatively minor in affecting behavioral life outcomes (this is not to say that the issues aren't subtle, but a simple projection from family home to individual outcomes is not viable).
But there's another major confusion when it comes to the religious Right in particular, and that concerns the origins of morality and ethics. Most people are probably aware of the Josh Duggar fiasco at this point. If you aren't, Google it. There isn't much to say that hasn't been said, but this post from his father-in-law has been raising eyebrows:
".It is a mercy of God that he restrains the evil of mankind otherwise we would have destroyed ourselves long ago. Many times it is simply lack of opportunity or fear of consequences that keep us from falling into grievous sin even though our fallen hearts would love to indulge the flesh. We should not be shocked that this occurred in the Duggar's home, we should rather be thankful to God if we have been spared such, and pray that he would keep us and our children from falling."
This attitude is entirely unsurprising to me, I've heard it many times from evangelical Christians. The theory is that without religion, and particularly their religion, they would be "a rapin' and murderin'". Why? Because that's what people do without God. Believe it or not, I have never believed in God, nor have I raped and murdered (or molested). Nor do I think that raping and murdering would be enjoyable. Nor do I think that the evangelical Christians who proudly declaim that without their savior they would rape or murder with abandon would actually rape or murder.
This idea that without religion there is no morality is very widespread in the subculture, to the point of being an implicit background assumption that informs reactions to many events in concert with the idea of original sin and fundamental human depravity (thank you St. Augustine and John Calvin!). I have a socially liberal friend from an evangelical background, who is still somewhat associated with that movement, who confided in me that to did look forward to debauchery in a post-Christian life on some occasions. I had to convince him that even if he was not religious life was not likely to change much for him in the sex department unless he shifted his standards somewhat. Without God all things are not possible, believe it or not.
The fundamental misunderstanding here is actually one of intellectual history. Many evangelical Protestants in particular envisage the world before the revelation of God to Abraham, but sometime after the Fall, as a Hobbesian one of "all-against-all." This is not limited to evangelical Christians. Many Muslims also conceive of the pre-Islamic jahiliyya in Arabia as one of pagan darkness and debauchery. The root misunderstanding is conceiving of morality and ethics as a historical human invention, as opposed to formalizations of deep cognitive intuitions and social-cultural adaptations.
Broadly, I agree with Peter Turchin that the origin of modern organized religions has its ultimate roots in the social and institutional needs of pan-ethnic imperial systems during the Axial Age. The synthesis of a supernatural Weltanschauung with the nascent enterprise of philosophy and the older intuitions of tribalism allowed for the emergence of the multi-textured phenomenon which we now term organized religion. Religion co-opted and promoted morality, but it did not invent it. The Israelites put in their Lord God's mouth their own morality that was existent before his invention! Prior to the development of organized religion it seems likely that the connection between supernatural agency and morality was more tenuous and conditional (and even then, the angry and jealous petulant Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible has plenty of glimmers of the amoral gods of yore).
That is why even with the diminishing of organized religion in the modern West there has not been a correlated rise in crimes such as murder. The connection between ethical monotheism and ethics is not nearly as necessary as the religious would have you believe. The chart at the top does not prove at all that irreligion leads to decrease in crime (on the contrary, there is modest evidence that religious involvement results in mild prosocial tendencies when you control for confounds). But, it does show starkly that over the last 25 years in the United States there has been a simultaneous decrease in violent crime, and, a massive wave of secularization. This contradicts a model which proposes that religion and ethical behavior are necessarily and deterministically associated.
So no, in the case of Josh Duggar it isn't a matter of "there, but for the grace of God, go I." I'll let others psychoanalyze his behavior, but it isn't a normal human impulse which has to be constrained by the teachings of religion. If religion has to teach you not to molest your sisters you've got a problem, son! And it has nothing to do with your soul.
Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).