[Bumper sticker, late 20th century.]
A position oft expressed goes: if there is no god, there is no meaning or direction to life and consequently one can behave however one wishes. It’s said so often and so matter-of-factly, that in most discussions about morality and its origins, that position is virtually a given. It is, one can safely say, the official American political opinion. There may be more enlightened countries around the globe, but if you want to get elected in the United States, you’d better adhere to the principle that morality is directed from above.
Which means, of course, that our country is run by arrogant fools and liars, but that’s another story.
The problems, though, go beyond electioneering. The curse of monotheism has been to create a race of zombies willing to do anything the power structure asks of it, including killing people who are in its way, for one reason or another. It’s not just a theoretical discussion, we have here. The pervasive claws of monotheism scratch at the tiniest corners of our society. They leave no mouse unscathed. The great bulk of our prison population, for example, is not a mass of murderers and mayhem, but of people there for cultural differences, not crimes. We criminalize many things in our society which in and of themselves are not crimes; consequently, the overwhelming majority of people in prison in this country are there for drug offenses, and drug choice is strictly controlled by religious content. They are not arrested for the effect the drug has upon them or society, but merely upon its illegality. One can safely say that all drug offenders in this country are there because of the illegal nature of their product, and not because of anything their product caused people to do. Almost all crime related to drug use is caused by the illegal nature of the drug—and this goes for any illegal drug—and not its pharmacological action. In and of itself it’s rarely a criminal issue and almost as rarely a societal one, other than one man’s meat being another’s poison. But as soon as one starts declaring, simply because they can, that another man’s meat is illegal, all hell breaks loose.
You’ll note that prohibition of alcohol—known in the Muslim world as the “Christian diversion”—lasted only a few years, while the prohibition of other drugs continues in this country to this day. At the rate we’re going, we’ll humanize our laws only slightly before Singapore. (You’ll note that Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico have decriminalized personal drug use across the board, following the European examples of Portugal, Holland, Switzerland, and on.) But one thing you can be sure of about Americans, we might have the last band in the parade, but it sure as hell will be the loudest.
But I digress.
Nonetheless, the claim of religious origins for morality is so ingrained in our culture that even humanists worry sometimes that there might be a “god” gene in there somewhere that necessitates religion; and they often have trouble knowing where everyday, drugstore morality could come from. As if it were a great mystery. How do we know how to be good, unless someone tells us how? Besides our moms and dads, of course.
Well, OK. Bears and wolves and lions and tigers have no religion, right? They can’t possibly “know God” in any meaningful sense. There’s nothing stopping the top-dog lion, as it were, from killing all his rivals, right?
Except that there is. For the most part, lions and tigers and wolves and bears don’t kill their rivals. Certainly nothing at the rate that humans do. When it comes to killing their own kind, we are the masters.
So, what’s stopping them? The religious response would be that God has programmed the animals to behave as they do. It’s all part of the great design. The humanist response is deceptively similar and simple: animal behavior is innate and was worked out through evolution. In either scenario, the animal has no choice. But here is where the problem gets sticky. The assumption is made that humans are fundamentally different from all other animals; and that because we intellectually realize that we can make choices, we assume that our behavior is governed by that ability and not by innate patterning. It’s that belief which dictates the academic stricture to not anthropomorphize, assuming that we are fundamentally isolated from all other species.
Needless-to-say, the assumptions don’t survive scrutiny.
The fundamental problem with a religious origin for morality is the question of what happened pre-religion? What happened when we were a “mere” animal like all the others? Were we naught but wanton killing machines (not that we aren’t now)? Did we only propagate by rape? How did we manage to not eat all our children, if we didn’t know right from wrong? Or, did the desire to eat ones children only come with the epiphany of right and wrong? I realize that these question edge upon the absurd, but they point to the complications of equating religion with morality (or is that vice-versa?).
On the other hand, you can be pretty sure that tool use predated religion (I don’t think chimps have religion), and it’s hard to know how tool (read “weapon”) use affected the balance of environmental forces. It’s hard to know at this remove how sudden, vast increases in weapon power affected killing rates, but it’s equally hard to imagine that it was negligible. Once it’s easy to kill a buffalo, it’s easy to kill a rival. Perhaps religion evolved as a counterweight to big, sharp rocks, something to curb our wanton tendencies. But my best guess is that religion was invented to fill the gap between practical information and wondering where the hell this all came from. Religion as a byproduct of self-reflection. Its use in society is much more complicated than that, but I believe that is its genesis.
Morality, on the other hand, existed prior to cognition. Morality is inherent in all animals. Probably all plants, too, for that matter, but I can’t vouch for that. But there’s no question each species is governed by its own set of rules as to what it can and can’t do. Mainly eat. And most of the time it excludes ones own species (except for guppies and sometimes other competitors’ children). It only makes sense that each species has evolved with a strict code of cooperation which insures the maximum survival of ones species; to be otherwise would be inherently impossible. Deviation from those rules, one could argue, is impossible; at least not until self-reflection surfaces. One can argue that evil only exists because we can think of it. Prior to thought, it was impossible for evil to exist; it is a strictly human construct.
But the rise of self-reflection didn’t eliminate the power of inherent intra-species rules, i.e. morality. Simply because one was suddenly capable of thinking that, “Gee, I could kill my nasty neighbor,” doesn’t mean that they would automatically do so. Surely, even from the very beginning of cognition there were deeply felt urges compelling one to specific behaviors. What one should and shouldn’t do existed long before anyone gave it any thought. All thinking did was give us the power to do what we shouldn’t.
And we’ve been arguing about it ever since. Needless-to-say, this entire argument is arcane to anyone who believes we were created in situ, as such, by God; and offhand I don’t know of any way of getting through to people like that. If you believe we were all plunked down here, fully formed, 6000 years ago, there’s nothing I can say that will alter any argument we might have.
Yet even a belief in evolution doesn’t prevent some people from thinking that evolution itself is divinely inspired and that the recognition of morality was programmed to coincide with the recognition of self.
The answer to which is: well, yeah, maybe, but I wouldn’t bank on it quite yet; and at the very least it doesn’t answer but only postpones and confuses the issue. After all, if you don’t have a personal god, you don’t have much of a god at all. If all a god does is set the rules and the ball in motion with a Big Bang, what kind of god is that? If the god doesn’t care about life on earth because it’s such a minuscule part of the universal story, how is that a god? And if the god really does care about what you do here on earth, how believable is that?
Once one has accepted evolution and the tenants of observational science, the question of god’s existence becomes moot. But the question of from whence morality is not moot and is open to all manner of interpretation. To begin with, it’s essentially tautological to say it’s inherent. The question then becomes, how do inherent moralities play out in the confusion of self-reflection? Certainly, religions step in early on as arbiters of what’s right and wrong, but they forever remain a gloss over our inherent natures. We know what’s right and wrong without anyone telling us. If you don’t believe me, ask any little kid. (After that ask any teenage girl.)
As we’ve already noted, without self-reflection it’s impossible for a member of a species to act contrary to the species’ rules, as it were. The underlying compulsion, however you want to look at it, is to get along.
And that compulsion does not go away simply because we become self-reflective and capable of acting contrary to our compulsions. Our compulsion is to cooperate and get along, but the confusion of self-reflection, especially when poorly understood, allows us to act contrary to our best interests, sometimes with disastrous results. The compulsion to cooperate and get along drives all of our behavior from fundamentals, such as speech and mannerisms, to cultural overlays, such as style and religion; and it’s not hard to twist a desire to conform into a tool dividing us from them. Once you corner the market on good, you can commit all sorts of evil in its name.
Which brings us to the sanctity of religion.
Let me observe that there is no such thing as a religious war. No god has ever told anyone to go kill anyone else. It has never happened. All decisions to kill people are made by people for people reasons: i.e. control/power. The reasons may be couched in religion and the combatants might think they’re going out there for the defense of religion, but someone always knows its a bunch of hooey and that they’re doing it for them. The person pulling the strings always knows it’s poppycock.
So why does religion get a free pass? Why does it get sanctified, if all it does it turn people into meat puppets?
Because it does it so well.
It does it so well that lots of people can’t imagine life without it. In fact, they’d rather kill than go without it. In fact, they’re often willing to kill you, even if all you want is to go without it.
Maybe now it’s getting clearer why monotheism was so important. Someone had to take control of the incredible power of religion. To leave morality scattered in the hands of multiple gods was not good for war. Better to have only one. Much easier.
The bottom line, of course, has always been the Golden Rule. The Ten Commandments are rather useless, being primarily concerned with religious power, and totally hit-and-miss with their few practical suggestions. You shouldn’t commit murder, that’s for sure (that’s number 6), and you shouldn’t commit adultery, steal, lie, nor—God forbid—even covet your neighbor’s riding lawn mower (that’s number 10), but apparently, if you’re not married, it’s perfectly all right to rape your neighbor’s wife, so long as you don’t covet her. It’s a fine distinction.
In any event, it’s easy to see where one’s natural urges, when it comes to right and wrong, are more reliable than religious prescription. The Golden Rule is ten times safer than the Ten Commandments. Trust me. Yet it doesn’t even make the list. Why is it not on the list? Because it’s not good for manipulation. It’s hard to convince people that they should make war on another people because they so much want war brought upon themselves. It’s a hard sell. On the other hand, with the current list, all you have to have is someone worshipping another god (or none at all) and your first commandment is to do something about it. You get to think of what to do. What do you think you should do to someone who violates the first rule in the list of “the ten most important rules”? Remember, this is six places above murder. What should you do, if a whole nation thumbs their nose at your god? (Actually, God doesn’t leave the choice of what to do about those nose-thumbers to you. He says kills them. Read Deuteronomy, if you’d like more of the same.)
You can see how important it becomes to have that god and protect its sanctity above all else. The blind compulsion to follow is the most potent organizing tool a society has. It’s inherent.
The real question then becomes, if it’s inherent, how do some people escape it? From whence rationalism and the Enlightenment? Are not rationalism and enlightenment as much a product of self-reflection as evil? Or for that matter, good itself? How does one escape the compulsion to follow the crowd?
Beats me, but it’s the great divide in the human race. Forget about race, religion, sex, country of origin. The great human divide is whether or not you’re able to give yourself over to someone else’s direction. Are you able to let someone else make your ethical decisions for you? If you are, you’re simply following the ancient necessity to fit in with the “the species”; it’s where you’re safe. How are people willing and able to abandon that security and make those decisions for themselves? For that matter, how does one get to the position of making those decisions for other people? Certainly, the clues lie in self-reflection. Eventually climbing the holy hierarchy, one comes to the realization that moral decisions are made by people, not holy writ. If you’re honest, you’ll eventually get to the point where you realize that the voices in your head are the product of your own imagination, not the outside voice of God.
But it’s not an easy realization to have or live with. Every person who realizes that morality is both an individual responsibility and a species necessity, has to make their own moral choices. They cannot rely on exterior authority. Guidance, yes, but authority, no. In the end, all moral decisions are personal. One can only make them for oneself.
Which is why that bumper sticker is so scary. Indeed, Christians can be absolved of their sins. They can have them washed away by the blood of Christ. Which means anything done in the name of God can be forgiven. War, torture, excommunication, burning at the stake; they’re all okay in the eyes of the Lord. And in the eyes of his believers. The people who run religions know that. They know they use their flock as canon fodder, if not just milk cows. They know that if you believe that the majority of the people believe a particular brand of religion, there’s good chance you’ll believe it too, unexamined.
The “unexamined” part is important. One constant of all religions is the requirement to believe in the absurd, because once you’ve accepted the impossible, nothing any longer is. Any realistic appraisal of any religion will immediately point up its absurdity, so it’s crucial that believers do so blindly. The choice, when the church has been able, is to kill people who examine their religion. No religion can withstand objective scrutiny, so it’s necessary to require believers to accept the absurd; to believe that God really is directing them when they speak in tongues. In any other instance, having voices in your head is a sign of insanity, but not if you claim that voice is that of God. That argument gets a special pass.
So, if you’re a Christian, you’re forgiven of your sins while the rest of us have to behave properly or suffer guilt. You, thank God, can avoid the suffering of guilt by simply believing you are forgiven for your sins. Sort of takes away the incentive not to commit them, doesn’t it. It’s nice to have a free pass.
In the end, it’s religions which encourage people to act barbaric, while non-believers are responsible for their own behavior. One understands that religious people behave morally by accident, not by conscious thought. The job of religion is not to make sure that people act properly, except in the sense of following its own special codes. The job of religion is to make sure people follow its authority. Monotheism in particular has little social value beyond population control. (You might, for example, think of the control aspects of charity versus insuring a decent standard of living for all. Charity is so much more powerful than developing self-reliance.)
We will quit this diatribe here. It’s a lonely diatribe, anyway.
But let me leave you with the admonition to be responsible. Don’t hand you soul to anyone else. Only you can prevent forest fires.
5 years ago