Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Can Religious People be Moral?

We’ve come distance since the time of Pierre Bayle, the early Enlightenment philosopher and journalist who got in trouble by suggesting that atheists can, after all, be decent people; but the concept of a moral atheist is still paradoxical to many—I heard the historian John Lukacs on CSPAN a couple of years ago expressing his astonishment that some of the atheists he had met over his lifetime turned out to be people of good character. Nevertheless, for many of us, the more salient question these days is becoming whether belief and morality are antithetical. It’s not just that bad behavior and religious fervor may be statistically associated. It isn’t encouraging for the apologist that Mississippi is the most religious state in the Union, but correlation isn’t the same as causation. The deeper suspicion is that religiosity, at least in its AM radio form, is intrinsically anti-ethical. There are several reasons to think so, none of which require you to think that dear old Aunt Maude is a moral monster:

1.Many religious people claim that actions are good because a transcendent power says they are good. Of course one can claim that shooting a doctor or flying a plane into a skyscraper is not actually praiseworthy behavior but only by asserting that the television preacher or Imam who sponsored this behavior was not really reporting God’s wishes. Thing is, though, it all becomes a game of theological he said, she said since, ex hypothesi, there is no way to judge the authenticity of revelation by reference to a rational standard of right and wrong. For all you know, Osama has been right all along.

2.Religious ways of thinking about morality promote the notion that ethics is some profoundly mysterious subject and that there aren’t sound and rather obvious reasons for most of the norms of civilized behavior. While there certainly are times when it is hard to decide on the right thing to do, focusing on dubious instances creates a false impression. For the most part, it’s quite obvious what the right thing to do is, which is why it is legitimate to hold people responsible for their actions. Pretending that ethics is rocket science just provides a second handy excuse for bad behavior that hasn’t already been blamed on original sin.

3.Religious people commonly suggest that we ought to try to be good; but this way of thinking, though an inevitable stage of moral education, confuses doing right with pleasing somebody. It’s a moral fault in a grownup that has more than theoretical consequences since it routinely leads people to abdicate responsibility to the nearest authority figure.

4.Religious thinking corrupts practical reasoning by introducing infinities into moral calculations. Pascal’s wager is a good example. It doesn’t matter how low one estimates the probability of the truth of religion so long as the postulated reward for accepting it is infinite: .0000000001 times infinity is still infinity. The bet will always be worthwhile. In fact, this kind of reasoning was the conceptual recipe for fanaticism long before Pascal, though in practice 72 virgins is apparently close enough to infinity for practical purposes. (I note, parenthetically, that the insistence of religious people on the infinity of rewards and punishments is more evidence of the profound vanity that underlies faith.)

5.Traditional religiosity leads to political immorality because it abdicates to God and the next world our responsibility to create a space for ourselves in this world in which good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior punished.

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