Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Monday, December 05, 2005

The role of morality in religion

I've written a lot already on the intersection of morality and religion, including such topics as :
* the stages of normal moral development
* how morality develops and why Christianity goes against that development
* why Christianity cannot account for morality and why there is no morality in the subjectivist Christian worldview
* how "Christian morality" is nothing more than a projection of secular values on the religious
* why Euthyphro's Dilemma applies to the Christian worldview but not to realist worldviews
and so on.

I think I've pretty much tapped out the whole topic of moral development. In this entry, however, I would like to take a slightly different tack. I want to look at the role that morality serves as an appendage of religion and religious thought.

First of all, as I've established before, Christian pseudo-morality (more on this prefix later) is firmly located within the first stage, order-based morality (based on narrative-induced fear and obedience of parents). There are no moral principles because pseudo-morality is the product of divine subjectivism. This is what we observe in the Bible. The Ten Commandments (at least, the one set of Ten Commandments that modern Christians have chosen as the right one) are the most noted example, and fit perfectly within this framework. They do not appeal to a person's values or rationality, but to our fear of punishment, they derive their worth from the divine whim, and they include no moral context whatsoever, making them completely meaningless. Not to mention the threats in the Commandments themselves, Moses also gets the idea :

Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning."
Exodus 20:20

No values here, but pure action-reaction morality with the carrot and the stick, with special emphasis on the (infinite divine) stick. Or as the writer of Proverbs aptly puts it :

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but [the morally deficient] despise wisdom and discipline.
Proverbs 1:7

The role of morality for the individual is basically to find the best way to live, through the expression of one's personal values. It provides us with the tools to be purposeful, to analyze our own actions and that of others, and to act accordingly.

In religions, cults and collectivist belief systems in general, pseudo-morality takes a wholly different role. Like any other part of such systems, it must serve the survival, enforcment and propagation of the belief system. All notions of individuality and values are rejected within this framework. There is not one single value to be found between the covers of the Bible, and plenty of insults and retribution for anyone who dares to get out of step.

Note that throughout this post I use the terms "morality" and "pseudo-morality". Morality is the study of real-life actions, actions that exist in a context, and since Christian absolutism does not admit context, it cannot possibly pertain to morality. Rather, it appears to be about morality, but rather applies to the subjectivist Christian worldview, just like the pseudo-historical stories in the Bible are not historical but mythical. It would be confusion to let people assume that Christianity has anything to do with morality, and while I have not done so in previous posts, I use the prefix "pseudo-" within this post to make the proper distinction. I hope this is not too distracting.

Now, the role of pseudo-morality in belief systems is twofold. First, pseudo-morality is used in order to promote the interest of the system and its institutions - this we can call "religious utilitarianism". Pseudo-moral precepts survive because they are advantageous to the institutions that enforce them. One example is the prohibition of abortion, which I discuss in "The Memetics of Abortion". I also intend to write more such articles in the future.

Another example are commandments 5 to 10 from the Ten Commandments - honoring the parental source of indoctrination and enforce order-based attitudes (commandment 5), refraining from killing (commandment 6) or kidnapping other believers (the eight commandment being actually about kidnapping and not theft in general), keeping social stability high by refraining from adultery (commandment 7) or even coveting (commandment 10), and making sure innocent believers are not unjustly accused (commandment 9). There is a limited interest for religious institutions to have semblance of justice amongst believers, given that a totally unjust and irrational society would quickly crumble. Thus, the freedom of the individual is maintained only insofar as such freedom is conductive to the belief system.

Secondly, pseudo-morality maintains the strength of belief in individual minds. This is also utilitarian, but differs from the religious utilitarianism I descibed in that it pertains specifically to religious observances, such as the Sabbath, prayer, how to use the name of the god, and so on. Examples of this are given in the first four commandments - no worshipping of other gods (commandment 1) and no worship of idols (commandment 2), both forbidding the exercise of any other belief system, and the establishment of rituals in order to keep religion in people's minds (commandments 3 and 4).

A further indication of the utilitarian nature of the Ten Commandments, and Christian pseudo-morality in general, is that absolutist principles which are closer to the truth, but less desirable in memetic terms, are not listed. For example, the Ten Commandments, or the Bible for that matter, do not prohibit slavery, rape, child beating, classism or racism, capital punishment, or the concentration or abuse of power, all things which are highly devalued in Western civilization (while most of these are, in fact, encouraged in the Bible).

And depending on whether you consider the Ten Commandments as applying only to believers or not, you may also count genocide and war (which are both highly encouraged in the Bible) to be part of this list.

So we know that Christian morality is utilitarian for four main reasons :

1. Christianity is a successful meme complex based on belief, therefore its pseudo-morality must serve belief propagation, which is to say that it is utilitarian relative to the meme complex.
2. Christian pseudo-moral rules change because they adaptat to social conditions, not because new facts arise. We observe this both historically (in the past changes to what is accepted and what is not) and between modern communities (in the great diversity of sects that exist today in different parts of the world).
3. Christian pseudo-moral rules are clearly utilitarian in nature.
4. Pseudo-moral rules which are superior to the Christian ones, but are not utilitarian in nature, are not present.

We have already talked about point 3 and 4, but point 2 is also interesting. How, therefore, do Christians explain these changes ? I have already discussed the memetic mechanism of doctrine-belief independence. Christians justify their lack of adherence to Biblical rules by excuses such as "Jesus rescinded those rules" (in defiance of Matthew 5:17), "that only applied to those times, now it's different", or "those are ceremonial rules". In essence, any principle that is rejected today counts as "a rule for those times" or "a ceremonial rule", and those that are still observed are the good ones. There can be no consistent standard to distinguish the two because the standard of distinction is purely utilitarian.

I can already hear the objections from here : "doesn't secular morality follow the same pattern ?". The answer is, yes and no. Yes, at the second - "natural" - stage, as social conditions do influence our education and the input we receive from the media and people around us. No, at the third - "rational" - stage, where social conditions are only a modifier on our evaluations, not a determinant factor. In short, social conditions determine what we can or cannot do, they limit the expression of our own personal values, but they do not change the nature of values. Social conditions do not change facts, but they dictate which facts are accepted, which values are permitted, and which are not.

Post a Comment


At 12/05/2005 3:05 PM, Blogger Nielsio declaimed...

Great observations and analysis.

At 12/05/2005 5:29 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

"2. Christian pseudo-moral rules change because they adaptat to social conditions, not because new facts arise. We observe this both historically (in the past changes to what is accepted and what is not) and between modern communities (in the great diversity of sects that exist today in different parts of the world)."

So that's why there are no good stonings to go to lately. I might have known!

Thanks again for another great essay.

At 3/15/2006 1:27 AM, Blogger Genius declaimed...

1) In most (or maybe only some I cant vouch for them) religious people day to day obedience is shaped not by fear but by the fairly direct internalization of the rules.
I.e. they don’t steal things because that is just not what they do, rather like the same way in which atheists are socialized to obey the law through habit rather than fear (usually).

"they derive their worth from the divine whim"

2) everything derives it's worth from whim in some manner. What you have done here is tried to judge divine standards by humanist standards a religious person could equally say any standard you used was based on a whim.

"and they include no moral context whatsoever"
3) Not sure what this means although you might be saying they don’t simplify down to a single fundamental principle (like maybe a propertarian principle a utilitarian one or a libertarian one)

"but pure action-reaction morality"
4) The assumption is that the god is smarter than you are. A bit like if someone was to follow marx without questioning his economic analysis.

"Like any other part of such systems, it must serve the survival, enforcement and propagation of the belief system."

Surely this is the case with any meme. If it doesn’t perpetuate itself it will probably die. What it is that makes it perpetuate itself can vary of course.

"For example, the Ten Commandments, or the Bible for that matter, do not prohibit slavery, rape, child beating, classism or racism, capital punishment, or the concentration or abuse of power"

rape is usually adultery isn't it? (I’ll address the other sort later)
classism and racism are nonsense from a god's point of view - why should you prohibit any form of nonsense above any other form? You might as well have the commandment “one shall not discriminate against those who twitch”
capital punishment –
the key issue here is the ten commandments don’t seem to be directed at states – therefore it is nonsense to prohibit capital punishment or concentration of power. Since I cant cause capital punishment in my house (except for murder) and concentration of power in my house really amounts to respecting one’s mother and father.

I note the absence of a prohibition of the use of force to achieve things (e.g. rape of one's wife, slavery wheren it cant be considered as kidnapping, smacking your child etc) besides murder - but then again it would seem the prohibition would be contextual.

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