Monday, October 09, 2006

The Problem with Religious Ethics

Religious ethics is not always a problem. However, when it is a problem it is not because it is religious. It is because it is wrong. It is because religious ethics, written by a group of primitive tribesmen who had very little understanding of the real world, contains a lot of mistakes. When people today do not see those mistakes, they come to tell themselves that they are great and noble people when are, in fact, doing something evil and causing unjustified harm to others.

The problem with religious science (when it is a problem) is that it is sometimes wrong, and those who believe it have beliefs that do not fit in with how the real world is built. These false beliefs cause them to make mistakes. Most of those mistakes (the earth is only 10,000 years old) are trivial – not much of significance hangs on them. Some of those mistakes (diseases are caused by alienation from God and are best cured through prayer) are dangerous – and sometimes fatal to innocent people, such as children.

The problem with religious morality (when it is a problem) is that it is sometimes wrong. When people make moral mistakes – when they pursue and promote what they think is good but which is actually evil – innocent people always suffer.

It is the essence of being wrong on a moral matter that innocent people are made to suffer.

However, this suggests (though it does not imply) that when religious ethics is not wrong – when it correctly identifies that which is good and that which is evil – then it is not a problem.


I sometimes imagine a situation in which I am one of several survivors of a spaceship crash on a planet. We had been traveling through space for a while, and I had gotten to know the other passengers fairly well.

Brad believes in God. Brad also believes that his God tells him never to lie, or even to utter a claim that might be false without honestly reporting what doubts he has. He has no doubt that God exists, but he recognizes that he may not know exactly what God wants. Therefore, he divides his religious commandments up into two categories. There are commandments having to do with public morality - actions that affect others. These are commandments against murder, rape, theft, and deception. These, he thinks, should be forced on everybody. However, other commandments do not affect others - like prohibitions on homosexual relationships. If a person is not doing harm to others, Brad holds, "This is between you and God. It is none of my business."

Charlie also survived the crash. Charlie is an atheist. He thinks that this is the only life he has and he is going to make as much of it as possible. Charlie is completely selfish. He will tell the truth when the truth is useful, and lie when he thinks that lying is useful. He will help others who are useful to him, but cares nothing about others who are not useful. People have tried to tell Charlie that it is always rational to assume that others are useful because you never know what the future may bring. However, Charlie answers that this is irrational. The rational person plays the odds. You need to measure the chance that you will get away with lying (or killing) somebody and profit from it with the chance that you will not profit from it. It is stupid to assume that lying and killing is never profitable.

David is a religious fundamentalist. He has his interpretation of what God wants, and those who do not follow his interpretation are to be condemned. Since I'm writing about what I should do if I find myself in this type of situation, I am going to write under the assumption that there is no God. In this case, where does David get his 'moral principles'? They effectively come from David's own mind. He reads what he wants to believe into that religious text he carries around. He hates homosexuals, so he reads into his book that he may condemn homosexuals. He hates people who deny the existence of God, so he reads into his book that he may do away with those people who deny the existence of God. David is ultimately seeking to set himself up as dictator. He says that he is working for God, but he is actually working for himself.


Shortly after we discover that we are the sole survivors, the other atheist, Charlie, comes to me and says that we must form an alliance against the theists. After all, we are in a desperate situation here, and we cannot let their irrational thinking rule the day. They are going to pray for salvation, while those of us who are more rational will recognize that prayer is a waste of time and resources. Our rescue depends on discovering a way to send a signal to perspective rescuers.

I'm afraid that I am going to reject Charlie's offer. I cannot trust him to tell me the truth because he will lie to me the instant he sees an advantage in lying, and I cannot reliably tell when it is in his interest to lie. He will take my property when the expected cost of getting caught is less than the expected benefit of the theft. If a situation arises where my death will suit his interests, he will kill me (or let me die).

Brad, actually, would be the better ally. We are assuming, of course, that Brad is sincere in his beliefs. If he is, then he will not lie to me, rob me, or kill me the instant he sees an advantage, and may even seek to safe me at some personal cost. I will be able to trust what he says, even when it is not in his interest to tell me the truth. I can trust my property with him, even when he can steal from me without getting caught. I can trust him with my life.


My most serious problem would be convincing Brad to form an alliance with me, rather than David.

David is going to be telling Brad that I am just like Charlie. He will be saying that, because I do not believe in God, that the only thing I believe in is pursuing my own interests - just as Charlie does. He will try to convince Brad that it is in Brad's interest to form an alliance with him, David, rather than me.

My warning to Brad would be to look out for the first instance that he and David have a disagreement on a matter of religion. “Brad, David thinks that God has him on speed-dial for all important announcements. He thinks that he gets his truth straight from God. In fact, he gets his truth from his own mind. He is a dangerous combination of arrogant and intellectual recklessness that has no choice but to view any act you make against him as an act against God.”

I need to explain to Brad why I am not like Charlie. I hold that morality consists in promoting good desires and inhibiting bad desires. Those good desires includes an aversion to making false claims - an aversion that not only makes me reluctant to lie, but reluctant to accept and pass along anything that I have not checked to make sure that it is true. They include an aversion to theft, meaning that I will be no more inclined to take his property if I could get away with it than I would be to do any of the things that I absolutely hate doing, even when I can get away with them.

I need to explain to him that morality consists in promoting desires and aversions, so I am fully committed to promoting an aversion to lies, theft, and murder in others and using the tools of praise and condemnation to do so. Hopefully, our combined effects might have an effect on Charles so that his 'selfish' acts will come to include a personal revulsion at acts of deception, theft, and murder. Hopefully, they can also have an effect on David so that, when he reads his own desires and interprets them to be God's word written onto his soul, it will include personal dislike of deception, theft, and murder.

If not . . . if it turns out that we must defend ourselves from their violence, we can at least have the advantage of being united against a common threat. Meanwhile, the theocrat and the selfish atheist will be at each other's throats. Maybe, I would tell Brad, they will be too busy attacking each other and will leave us in peace.


The main point of this story is to point out why I do not see an important alliance between atheists against theists. The important alliance is with those who truly do hate dishonest against those who freely lie when they see an advantage to do so. It is with those who hate theft against those who will take from others when they can get away with it. It is with those who value living in peace with any who can live in peace with them rather than those who seek to attack those who do not think like they do.

This is why I write the blog as I do. I do not care whether the person I write about is liberal or conservative, atheist or theist. I care only about whether they are honest or dishonest, intellectually responsible or intellectually reckless, reluctant to do harm or willing to do harm, creating pockets of absolute power without checks and balances or creating systems of checks and balances to counter absolute power.

That, I think, is the best place for us to be focusing our attention.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great Blog and what a great article. I am a theist and I like to think that I am like Brad. I would shake your hand in alliance if I was a survivor with you. I shudder at my David-like co-religionists.