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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Faith versus morality

Sam Harris puts this so well. Here's a quote for the day:

"Faith drives a wedge between ethics and suffering. Where certain activities cause no suffering at all, religious dogmatists still maintain that they are evil and worthy of punishment (sodomy, marijuana use, homosexuality, the killing of blastocysts, etc.). And yet, where suffering and death are found in abundance their causes are deemed to be good (withholding funds for family planning in the third world, prosecuting non-violent drug offenders, preventing stem-cell research, etc.). This inversion of priorities not only victimises innocent people and squanders scarce resources; it completely falsifies our ethics."

What a lovely summary of the religious morality of misery. Harris is supremely quotable on subjects like this.

To be fair, what faith can do, sometimes, is motivate people to take action that we can all applaud: I'm happy, for example, when religious institutions devote their efforts and resources to looking after the needy.

But whenever we see a specifically religious morality in action, it is likely to be doing something deplorable. The trouble is that specifically religious moralities tend to do two things that are dangerous to moral health: first, they tend to preserve the mores of less enlightened eras, and to treat these as if they were timeless truths; second, they tend to explain whatever is good about morality in general, such as its responsiveness to suffering, on a false basis. As a result, a great deal of whatever is kind and generous in the human spirit is twisted and shriveled when touched by religious faith.

6 comments:

Brian English said...

Hey Russell. Hope you had a good squidmas and you're mum's OK.
Good post. I think sometimes the argument for or about morality that believers make infuriates (sometimes with palpable fury) me more than their assertions of revelation and refusal to logically argue how their "axioms" are any less unreal than competing faiths.
The whole "you can't live well without big sky daddy dictating mores" is not only demeaning, it's pretty hard to argue logically, even if we accept that a god exists. And yet, the media go to medievalists like Pell or his ilk, who'd happily see us suffer for the undemonstrated everlasting . And the Pontifex pontificates about the nasty little atheists while he presides knowingly over policies which will sentence the faithful to unnecessary suffering and death. That, apparently, is offering hope to a world that would be without hope without that message.....
I wish I had the brains and deep thinking, and research to debunk the rubbish these people can assert.
Oh well......

Anonymous said...

Hi Russell. Hope you are keeping well :-)

I found this interesting...
“But whenever we see a specifically religious morality in action, it is likely to be doing something deplorable.”

I have been considering for some time the possibility that the naive dualistic assumptions required by mainstream religion might be at the heart of this.

When you crudely separate the physical from the mental you end up denigrating the physical.
What are you left with when you do that? A denial, repression and demeaning of our physical selves.

Into that theoretical space comes the inculcation of sex with a sense of shame, a tolerance for the suffering of animals (for if they have no proper mind then how can they have any import at all?). Furthermore, at the very worst, comes a denial of the reality and importance of what happens to bodies when they are broken.

Maybe religious morality is hobbled by dualistic assumptions and “driving a wedge between ethics and suffering” because of them?

Too abstract??

Corylus.

Russell Blackford said...

Not necessarily too abstract.

I do think that religions can often be blamed for preserving and emphasising ideas of dualism; denigration of sex, the body, desire, and physical beauty; and human exceptionalism. Those ideas probably have some merits (dualism seems natural to our way of thinking, and let's face ... it all philosophical accounts of mind have problems; denigration of sex, etc., is certainly not what I'm all about, but it makes sense to downplay those things at least a bit in our morality, or those of us who are not beautiful, strong, sexy, etc., might have a rough time of it ... it's just that religious morality tends to take it a long way too far; human exceptionalism may be helpful for social solidarity).

It's when these ideas are seen as absolute metaphysical and moral truths, and all the other values - sexiness, pleasure, etc. - are subordinated, that things go wrong. Unfortunately, religious morality often does that, and then preserves moral ideas that are unrealistic and cruel, and construct as all as "sinners".

And then we have the purveyors of this life-denying, cruel morality getting such so much social deference, as Brian says.

All that said, I'm not all the way with Hitchens on this. A lot of the morality that religion insists on is about compassion, after all, and religion does have a power to motivate people who might otherwise not show much effort. The question is how we can get the balance right, continuing to motivate people to be compassionate to the weak, the needy, the unattractive, etc., without rationalising this in ways that produce a lot of stupid, and ironically cruel, results.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting response Russell.

I agree that getting the balance right is often the problem.

I also agree that there are big problems in the philosophy of mind...

My understanding of the subject is a continual work in process... bangs head on wall... yep that hurt but was that a pain? :P

Corylus.

Russell Blackford said...

lol, Corylus ... I know what you mean. Daniel Dennett has me convinced that even "pain" is a terriby tricky concept, though what could seem more familiar?

Happy approaching New Year to you and to all.

May we all have sexy, pleasurable, beautiful, healthy and compassionate times in 2008.

Brian English said...

Hi Russell. The RD site has an article from Bishop Harries saying atheists, and some atheist societies can be good. But it's because we're living on moral capital earned by our believing forefathers. Apparently, we can be good because we understand morality like someone understands an aria. Christians, however, have the big picture and understand not only the aria of morality, but the whole damn opera. Because god gave them the score. Lucky buggers.....