Sunday, July 16, 2006

Unacceptable dinner-table conversation Part One - Open Thread

The three biggies you aren't supposed to bring up in polite conversation are of course: Sex, Politics and Religion.

To which many people, including me, have asked, 'What else is there worth talking about?'

Politics is discussed here fairly often, but I'll be re-addressing it at some point in the context of this series - I might make this a weekly event - this will also be an open thread albeit with my usual rule against anonymous posters.

Today's subject is religion, more specifically the idea that ethics and morality can only derive from God and Religion. I'll be presenting the contrary view.

It's a common argument we've all heard, sometimes very forcefully, that ethics, morality - the basic ideas of good and evil derive exclusively from God and Religion. Among the many problems with this idea is the inherent assumption that if you are an atheist or agnostic you are incapable of being ethical and moral - or if you are, you learned it from a religion you no longer have the foundation of.

The other problem of course is that you also cannot be ethical or moral in the eyes of some, but by no means all, of the faithful if you're following the wrong religion. This kind of thinking of course leads us down the path towards viewing anyone not of the same tribe as not even really human.

So first: the idea that ethics and morality derive from God and Religion and that without them humanity can have no notion of Good and Evil.

Studies of pre-verbal infants and primates have shown empathy and co-operation are inherent, instinctive even biological traits. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, as cooperation may have taken a back-seat to competition in most peoples understanding of the principals of evolution but it's there and for fairly obvious reasons an important species survival trait.

It's really not hard to discern the path from instinctive feelings of empathy and cooperation to human constructs of morality, ethics, law and of course basic good and evil. Feeling what others feel and wanting to help others takes you more than halfway there already.

Are there humans without any sense of empathy or cooperation? Certainly, they're called psychopaths and seem to be exclusively the result of severe childhood trauma. You have to beat empathy out of someone almost from birth to get rid of it. The tribalism that allows a group member to view all or some non-group members as less than human and not deserving of human protection can be described as large scale psychopathic ideation. Often the result of religion as any study of history clearly shows.

There are excellent arguments for morality, ethics and purpose coming from within ourselves rather than any structure or entity outside ourselves. Equally as good if not better than those promoting the opposing view.

If you want to be really provocative, you can make an argument that the ethical agnostic has superior morality to the ethical believer; 'I don't do good because I'm afraid I'll go to Hell if I don't and I hope I'll go to Heaven if I do, I do the right thing because it's the right thing to do.' Of course many thoughtful believers would make the same argument that good and evil exists independently of fear of punishment or hope for reward, but part company with humanists only at the source of the ideas of right and wrong and good and evil.

So much of our ideas of good and evil, ethics and morality are bound up with ideas of God and religion merely as a result of human history coming to a point of codifying such ideas at a time when religion was the dominant actor in human society. The religious do not have an exclusive license on these concepts and the idea that they do is frankly having a stunting effect on human moral development.



Matthew The Astrologer said...

Personally, I believe in God. I know: every time I have a full-blown migraine I am acutely aware of the presence of The Divine.

Go ahead and laugh: when I'm having a migraine, I'm also actuely aware of the presence of light and sound. Am I hallucinating those, too?

Just stop me if I tell you God wants you to bomb Iran or not put your penis in anyone...

Faisal said...

Well written post. Even though I am a person of faith in God. Yet I do not believe necessarly that with religion comes morality. Nor do I believe that Athiests or Agnostics are incapable of being ethical.

I also would like affirm my agrrement with Matthew in saying stop me when I tell you God wants you to Bomb Iran or the World Trade Center for that matter.

One last point I'd like to make is this, while you attribute morality to nature/evolution. " Studies of pre-verbal infants and primates have shown empathy and co-operation are inherent, instinctive even biological traits"

People of faith will use that argument to say that God created all beings and hence he instlled morality in his creatures as a result.

Cliff said...

Or maybe he created the evolutionary process that made empathy a biological advantage?

; )

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