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Old 11-08-2006, 10:53 AM   #1
celedine169
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Default Religion and ethics as competing values

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Originally Posted by Hugh Thompson
The Gay Science
By Hugh Thompson
November 08, 2006

It is so commonly assumed that there is a necessary connection between religion and morality that most of us hardly even notice when someone claims that renouncing the former explains the latter's absence.

More commonly, this claim is employed as an attack: How could someone who doesn't share "our" religious values be a moral person? Even if one is fairly comfortable with this sort of rhetorical cant, there are reasons why one might be wise to disagree with the going view.

The first is comparative. While it is common knowledge that those who view religion as the sole source of morality will disdain "secularism," it is also true that the same people usually abhor, equally, the religious views of those who follow other faiths.

The next time a preacher claims the secular world is a world without values, you might imagine, as I do, a hypothetical Imam of the Islamic faith, preaching to his flock a message so strikingly similar that it bears repeating: "How could those who aren't Islamic be moral? They are all blind puppets," he might continue, "of the Great Satan."

And, indeed, the Sharia law imposed by religious authorities in many "Islamic" nations is the embodiment of the idea that morality is determined by religion.

The second reason is empirical: It is simply not true that those who are not religious have diminished ethical sensibilities.

Just as importantly, hard statistical facts show that lack of religious belief is not correlated to the commission of crime. Take Norway, for instance - despite its anachronistic economic policies, it nonetheless is both the nation with one of the lowest incidences of church attendance and with one of the lowest crime rates (a disproportionate number of the violent crimes it does experience are committed by Islamic immigrants).

But what will fill the gap left by lack of religious belief? This is a trick question. Gods do not create moral truths. If gods or a God exist, then they or it would not arbitrarily choose things to be good and bad.

God would rather know the difference between good actions and bad actions and, were He the talkative type, tell it to us. To suppose that God could make an act moral or immoral by decree is to fundamentally misconstrue the concept of morality.

Certain acts are immoral because of physical facts about performing them and, because of that alone, we are able to reason about what makes things like torture, killing and theft normatively wrong. These acts share a common physical feature - they unjustifiably harm another's interests.

More importantly, we have exceptions to these rules, like self-defense. We do not condemn someone from defending his or her own life from an attacker, even if they must kill the attacker to do so. Any exception to a moral rule is also based on the physical circumstances attending to the act in question.

Thus, the importance of religion to figuring out what is normatively right and wrong vanishes. We do not of necessity need God to tell us what our own faculties make evident. We only need to understand the specifics of an act, namely, its context, and then we may proceed with moral philosophizing.

There is a further concern because sometimes, religious beliefs tell us that an act is wrong despite the absence of harm to others' interests. For instance, we are told, pre-marital sex is "immoral," even if it is consensual and responsible. Homosexual sex is another usual suspect. We are sometimes told that lying, even to save the Franks from the Nazis, may be wrong in spite of the extenuating circumstances.

It is instances like these that force me to conclude ethics and religion are often values in competition with each other. When the right thing to do is blocked by one's commitment to a dogma, religious or otherwise, one is not praiseworthy. One is blameworthy.

Any act rightly prohibited by faith is also prohibited by reason, and if someone cannot give reasons for his or her actions, one refuses to engage in moral deliberation at all. A more corrupt use of human faculties may never be discovered, and with all my heart I recommend against it.
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