Thursday, September 20, 2007

Morality and Religious Culture

In this post I want to discuss the relationship between religion, morality, and culture. Specifically, I want to present a way of conceiving of this relationship that will make explicit the source of a great deal of conflict and ways to avoid that conflict.

The view that I will present will divide religious prescriptions into two classes. One class is properly and correctly linked to ‘morality’. This is a class that transcends different religions and even non-religious belief. This is the class of prescriptions that can legitimately be forced upon others. The second class consists of those prescriptions that belong only to a particular religion. I am going to call this class ‘religious culture’. These are prescriptions that cannot be legitimately forced upon others.

We can begin to figure out how to classify the beliefs in a particular religion by asking about a person who is leaving that religion and going to some other religion, or giving up religion entirely. Our imaginary person can go down the list of prescriptions in that religion and ask, “Which of these am I obligated to take with me if I am going to be a productive member of society, and which of these can I leave behind?”

We can easily classify the prescriptions against murder, rape, child abuse, slavery, assault, theft, lying, ‘bearing false witness’, breaking promises or contracts, recklessness, negligence, and similar kinds of actions as prescriptions that the agent will have to take with him as he goes into society. People generally (atheists included) have no reason to excuse any fellow citizen who commits these types of actions, regardless of any religious affiliation. These are the prescriptions that properly fall under ‘morality’. These are also the prescriptions that people generally have reason to impose on its members.

We can just as easily identify a set of prescriptions that an agent can leave behind – where the fact that one religion may require these types of actions while another does not is of little social consequence. These prescriptions include what to eat or drink, when to eat or drink, where to live (the concept of ‘homeland’), when to pray, how to pray, to whom one is to pray, which scripture to read, when to work (or not work), what to wear. These are the prescriptions that I will put in the category of ‘religious culture’. These are prescriptions that the members of a religion may not impose on others.

A great deal of the conflict we see in the world today comes from a failure to make this distinction – to collapse both of these categories into one, even though they really are quite distinct.

One way to collapse these distinctions is to say that there is no such thing as ‘religious culture’ – that everything that a religion prescribes falls into the realm of morality. However, ‘morality’ is still taken to mean ‘that which may legitimately be forced upon others’. As a result, people who make this distinction devote a great deal of effort forcing elements of what are, in fact, religious culture upon others. Where different religions have different religious cultures, each claiming the right to force their culture on others, we have conflict – sometimes erupting into outright violence.

The other way to try to collapse these two is to take ‘morality’ and to try to collapse it into ‘religious culture’. As a part of ‘religious culture’, these prescriptions are then assumed to be things that one people may not impose on others. Taken to its logical conclusion, this theory would hold that there is no way to condemn murder, theft, rape, or slavery – that these can be nothing more than ‘religious culture’ and cannot be forced on a ‘religious culture’ that rejects them. Somebody who holds this view may well condemn the woman who resists rape on the grounds that she is forcing her non-rape views on her attacker, who obviously has different view of this issue. In fact, people who accept this view often do stand aside while ‘religious cultures’ commit any number of murders, abuses, assaults, deceptions, and injustices.

One may think that this second way of collapsing ‘morality’ into ‘religious culture’ avoids conflict. However, it does not do that at all. In fact, it allows a ‘religious culture’ that thrives and promotes conflict to continue to wage warfare against everybody else. They cannot be criticized because battling everybody else is merely a part of their religious culture. Interfering with this religion’s attempts to subdue other cultures is immediately branded as ‘attacking religion X’.

Both attempts to collapse these distinctions are not only flawed, they are tragically flawed. They contribute to a large surplus of death, injury, illness, and other forms of harm that we see in the world today.

The route to avoid these harms is to recognize and embrace this distinction – to recognize that there is a difference between the prescriptions that somebody leaving a religion must bring with him, and the prescriptions that somebody leaving a religion may permissibly leave behind.

In fact, the prescriptions that fall into the category of ‘morality’ that I described above are prescriptions that a religion must incorporate into its teachings – somehow – for the followers of that religion to be an acceptable part of society. People generally have no reason to tolerate a religion that tells its members that they must kill anybody they meet who do not belong to that religion, or that the rape of a woman is a holy rite, or that they may freely lie or break contracts to others who are not of their faith. The idea that we must be tolerant of all religions is nonsense where those religions teach its members to do harm to others. There is a line that distinguishes ‘religions that we can be tolerant of’ and ‘religions that we must not tolerate’. That line is found in the category called ‘morality’ above, and whether that religion teaches its members to obey (can be tolerated) or violate (cannot be tolerated) those prescriptions.

This is not a new distinction. It has been addressed in earlier generations as the difference between ‘public’ and ‘private’ morality. ‘Public morality’ represented the morality that can be legitimately forced on others, while ‘private morality’ represented the morality that cannot be legitimately enforced on others. The problem is that ‘private morality’ is a contradiction in terms. If something is truly ‘immoral’ than it is wrong for everybody to do – not just those who belong to a particular religion. Accordingly, if it is okay for somebody who belongs to a different religion to refuse to behave in a particular way, then it is nonsense to say that it is immoral. There is no such thing as a ‘private morality’. There is, instead, ‘religious culture.

One of the ways to promote recognition of this distinction is to protest anybody who uses the term ‘morality’ then they mean ‘religious culture’ whenever they are talking outside of the context of their religion. Whenever a person belonging these religions enters a public forum (as opposed to preaching to its own members from its own pulpit), and uses the term ‘morality’ to refer to prescriptions that are, in fact, ‘religious culture’, it is necessary to call them on it.

No, sir. What you are talking about is not morality at all. It is religious culture. Morality concerns those items that we must require of everybody, regardless of what religion they belong do. We can require that they not murder, rape, steel, lie, break promises, or negligently or recklessly put others at risk – no matter what religion they believe in. Religious culture – what you are talking about – are those things that can be left behind and that you have no right to force on others. It belongs in the same category as what to eat, what to wear, when to pray, and when to work. There is a difference, and refusing to recognize that difference as you have done here today has been a great source of much of the world’s conflict.

When confronted with this type of claim, I expect that many theists will reject the idea of demoting some of their prescriptions to the level of ‘mere religious culture’. They will insist that all of these prescriptions represent morality, clear and simple.

The answer to this is as follows:

Look, you have two options. Either you are claiming that you have the right to force others to accept your religious practices, or you are not. To claim that ‘religious culture’ actually represents morality is to say that you have the right to force others into your religion. This follows directly from the fact that ‘morality’ is ‘that which can be legitimately forced on others’. If you are denying that you have the right to force others into your religion, then you can’t sensibly at the same time say that these prescriptions represent any type of ‘morality’. Prescriptions that cannot be legitimately forced on others are not moral prescriptions, they are merely cultural prescriptions. Which do you claim? Do you claim the right to force others into your religion, or don’t you?

This distinction goes directly to the core of how religion leads to conflict. It is precisely because religions take matters of religious culture and assign them the status of morality. This means they acquire the status of ‘that which may be legitimately imposed on others’, which then invites the followers of that religion to enter into conflict with those who do not belong to that religion. If, instead, a particular religion were to recognize that some of their practices are merely religious culture, then they should not feel such a need to impose those prescriptions on others.

I do not expect that this approach will actually answer any of the genuine moral debates. People will still debate whether abortion is murder – where murder is clearly immoral even under the distinction given above. They would debate whether capital punishment is justice. On the other hand, it would be hard to argue that prohibitions on homosexual relationships are anything other than religious culture, and prayers in schools and at civic ceremonies are clearly examples of religious culture, rather than morality.

What it will do is put the actual source of many of the problems that spring from debate over religion squarely on the table so that everybody can see it and everybody can recognize it for what it is. It will weaken the habit that we have lived under for too long of hiding this particular truth behind an unwillingness to upset people who believe that scripture gives them the right to call all of their prescriptions ‘morality’, and thus claim the right to impose those prescriptions on everybody else.

All it takes is a willingness to take a theist’s talk of morality and saying, “No. Morality concerns things like murder, rape, and theft. What you’re talking about isn’t morality. It is religious culture. Culture means that it is okay to be different. Morality means that it is not okay to be different. That’s the part that you are not understanding.”


Anonymous said...

I like your distinction and will perhaps try and use it in discussions with theists. However, it seems to me that religious people assume that the religious culture, their practices, is the source of their morality. So while we might make the distinction and they might even see a distinction in a sense they see them as linked. Linked in such a way to say, if we can presume our morality on others then the best way to do that we think is to force our culture and practices on others and that will bring them to our morality.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


There will certainly be those who will think as you describe. However, I would suspect that they are already seeking to impose their religious culture on others and justifying it by calling their religious culture 'morality'.

Nothing is lost here.

What is gained is that everybody else gets to more clearly see this distinction, and gets to more clearly see how those who fail to distinguish between 'morality' and 'religious culture' are significant threats, not only to their welfare and safety, but to their own 'religious culture'.

Martin Freedman said...

I would label the distinction slightly differently although with the same intent and, hopefully, as good as, if not better, effect.

Namely there are "moral rules" and "religious rules". Culture feels to loose a term and can incorporate custom and other informal practices and other aspects as well as rules.

What my suggestion does is more clearly distinguish different types of rules. Moral rules are those that are applicable to anyone, religious rules are those that are only applicable to adherents of that religion.

Religions contain a mixture of both types of rule and it is a mistake, we would argue, to confuse the two. In particular rules that are more likely to be agreed across religions and beyond can be classified as moral rules and the others are the religious rules. (This also has the advantage that we do not need to get into any moral thoery discussion to make this distinction :-] )

Brad Fults said...

"People will still debate whether abortion is murder – which is clearly immoral even under the distinction given above."

Quite a hasty conclusion given the rest of the post which was well-paced and thought out. I can think of a counter-example immediately, which means you should either devote much more time and thought to an argument to support your conclusion about abortion or drop the claim altogether.

The counter-example: there is a very real and distinct case where not allowing an abortion would "negligently or recklessly put [the woman] at risk", which is one of your moral prescriptions.

I enjoyed the post and the distinction, but advise caution when dealing with larger issues in a cursory manner.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Brad Fults

No . . . the above statement was not meant to be read as "abortion is clearly wrong" - but as "murder is clearly wrong". Whether abortion is murder remains a question. Whether murder is wrong does not.