Can The Non-religious Be Moral? Well, Can The Religious?

Posted by on 3 March, 2018 | 0 comments

Recently the topic of the moral decline of society has reentered the public discourse. This unwelcome topic has again reared its ugly head in the wake of the horrific shooting in a Florida school. Much of the attention has rightly been focused on the incredible work of the impressive young adults bringing the fight to the politicians with fiery, articulate passion. However, these young people have been met with opposition that is almost comical in its absurdity. From lawmakers claiming perversely that only “thoughts and prayers” can stop mass shootings  to conservative commentators mocking the Parkland survivors.  It is the latter example that inspired this post. Conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza is a well known right wing Christian apologist and former Reagan adviser. He is known for taking part in several debates with the late atheist firebrand Christopher Hitchens. Besides being thoroughly underwhelmed by D’Souza’s performance in these debates what struck me most was how often he repeated the absurd argument that religion provides a moral framework that is missing from the lives of non-believers thus making the religious inherently more moral. This is a depressingly familiar argument and one I feel like dealing with here as much for my own frustration as anything else.

So, lets deal with this argument in three stages. Firstly, how much of the divine is in the modern religious moral rule book? The first argument that one may use against the religious apologist is to through up the countless immoral verses in the Bible, Torah, Koran etc…These deal with such fun topics as justifying genocide (1 Samuel 15:3) to justifying slavery (1 Peter 2:18). To deal with such clear immorality apologists like D’Souza often argue that the texts are as fallible as the humans who wrote them. It is, they argue, the underlying divine message to be good (as if goodness is an absolute concept) to your fellow man that is important. Clearly, such arguments are at best messy so it can be difficult to know where to start in refuting them. Of course, if you are not religious then all these moral rules are created by humans but I will argue here that even if you are a believer you must accept that your moral code has more human influence than divine. If you accept that religious books contain immoral messages then the act of choosing  what rules to follow and what not to at the moral buffet must be a human action. These choices are defined as much by society as personal choice and if you remove the top down authority of established religious moral dictation they are the same choices that the non-religious make. Unfortunately, the religious authority is not removed and therefore human choice often is. So, if the moral authority in religious texts is not absolute (therefore not absolutely divine) then the choices must be human. If a religious person gives this human choice to an authority then they are also removing their individual moral responsibility. To sum up this argument, the immorality in religious texts must mean the morality is not absolute. Therefore choices still have to be made by man or institutions. The religious and non-religious have to make the same choices. Neither has inherent superiority over the other in this regard.

The second part of this argument concerns moral motives. There is a branch of moral philosophy which balances the weight of an action’s outcomes against its motivations. I will not get into a long discussion of this rich vein of philosophy but to sum up, I argue from the position that for an action to be ethical it must have ethical intent behind it. Without intent any action could be a moral action no matter how dark the intent behind it (if there is intent). From this position you may ask how can a devoutly religious person ever be moral? Most world religions have a concept of an afterlife. Your treatment in this afterlife depends on your actions on earth. This must colour every action a devoutly religious person takes. Are they doing a good thing because it is a good thing or to get points for access into heaven? If their motivation involves access into heaven is the action even good? I am not denying that religious people can be good (nor that all non-religious people are morally superior). I assume that most religious people when they do good things don’t think about their appearance to heaven’s bouncers. However, when people like D’Souza claim that their religion by definition gives them moral weight I would counter by arguing that an action based only on religious doctrine by definition gives less weight. A religious person who removes himself from moral responsibility and expects a reward for moral action must surely be less ethical than an Atheist.

The final point I am going to make is a personal sticking point for me. What often bothers me about the claim that religious people are inherently more moral is the concept of hell. The idea that if you are not good, as some deity defines it, you will spend eternity damned to torture is deeply troubling. This concept relies on the branch of justice known as punitive justice and on moral absolutism. Bad people are bad so they deserve to be punished. Setting aside that good and evil are not absolute concepts, this idea of justice on its own is not enough for any modern justice system never mind one that makes claims to eternity. A complete justice system aims to rehabilitate, reconcile and punish law breakers. The concept of hell denies that a person can be rehabilitated so condemns them to eternal torture. What really bothers me about hell is that it is framed as just. Am I to accept that all the good people in heaven are happily living in the knowledge that there are people being tortured down below? I find it heinous that anyone on earth is being tortured. I don’t care how guilty a person is that they are being tortured is, in my view, evil. That this is a fundamental part of many religions tarnishes any claims of moral superiority.

Overall, while the likes of D’Souza question the moral ability of the non-religious the moral authority of religions can be questioned and the flaws in religious texts force even apologists to accept that humans play a role in morality. Once humans have to chose do they chose to accepts moral dictation from systems like the church or accept personal moral responsibility? While not all atheists are moral they have one less method of removing themselves from responsibility than the religious do. Moreover, when a non-believer does a good deed they may have any number of motive that calls into question the morality of an action but they will not be motivated by the potential of ever lasting paradise. A religious person will have all the same roadblocks to morality but has to add access to heaven as a potential cloud to ethical motivation. Perhaps the religious should be extra careful in examining their motives when they do “good” deeds. Finally, the concept of hell and damnation is such a deeply immoral idea that anyone who believes in it should question why they take any moral dictation from those making claims to absolute truth and divinity. Can an atheist be moral? Obviously yes. What about a religious person? Again, yes but arguably they have these extra roadblocks in the way of true ethical behaviour. So D’Souza if you have time between attacking teenage school shooting survivors and denying the morality of atheists perhaps you should examine your own ethics and your own motivations.


John Duncan


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