Friday, January 13, 2012

Religion & Morality

Religious folk, Christians in particular in the US, love to talk about how religion is necessary to maintain a sense of morality.  That without god and religion, everything would just go to shit.

Its an interesting hypothesis, one that I obviously reject, but interesting nonetheless.  There are actually two common interpretations of this generals sentiment that are employed by the believers depending on where you are in the argument with them.  So let's break it down.

Hypothesis #1: Without the construct of religion and the moral values it imposes, everything would go to shit.  That is to say, belief in and of itself is the primary force to keep everyone in check; without it, we would all be murderers and rapists.

This is simply a silly position, since atheists and agnostics exist in society and don't rape and murder any more than those that adhere to some religion.  While prison demographics are somewhat murky and their validity unclear, there isn't any evidence that atheists exist in prision in greater proportion to their non-incarcerated cohorts.  In fact, from the limited data that exists, Christians compose a greater proportion of prison population in the US than in free society.  On the face of it, this might lead one to conclude that Christians are more likely to commit crimes than non-believers.  But even assuming, for the moment, that these statistics are not representative, given the hypothesis that it is belief itself that imparts morality, one would expect that virtually all atheists exist in prison (assuming a fair justice system without bias against non-believers) and virtually no believers incarcerated.  Yet, religion is quite obviously pervasive in the prison system; just do a search for "prison bible ministry" and you will get some 32 million hits.  There certainly wouldn't be such a market for bible ministry in prison if there weren't any believers.

I once was having such a discussion with a friend about this hypothesis, and she worked herself into such a bind that she eventually came to the conclusion that any belief was better than no belief.  I asked if, in the light of the fact that the 9/11 terrorists clearly believed, to such point where they were willing to give their lives, if she found them more moral than atheists.  To my astonishment she replied, yes.  She had committed her argument so strongly to the idea that belief in a higher power is the lynchpin to morality, that even those that kill thousands in the name of their belief, are more moral than non-believers....simply because they believe.

This also brings up an obvious question that might be posed to someone that holds this position: If you could no longer believe in a divine being for whatever reason, would you then be compelled to go out an rape and murder?

At this point hypothesis #1 usually morphs into hypothesis #2: Regardless of one's belief system or lack thereof, they are moral because a supernatural power exists, thus justifying their belief and worship of such a being.

This argument is such a crock of shit that it really takes some convoluted mental gymnastics to justify it.  I say this for several reasons:

  1. You haven't established that a supernatural being exists
  2. Claiming that we couldn't be moral without a supernatural being begs the question: why?
  3. If your answer to #2 is that without a supernatural being and a threat of eternal damnation, then you're basically reverting back to hypothesis #1.
At this point, your argument has been reduced to: we must convince ourselves that a being exists that will punish us for all eternity if we don't act morally...whether or not that being actually exists so that we don't kill each other.

And this brings me to Tim Tebow: a sparkling example, and reflection of, the zeitgeist of Christianity in America: displays of piety are most important.

Of course, Tebow has made a name for himself, in part, due to his displays of faith.  Indeed, there is a site - - comprised solely of people in various places mimicking his on-the-field display.  For some reason, Tebow feels compelled to express his faith in front of millions of viewers.  His faith is clearly not a private matter.  If it was, it wouldn't be on such display.  

Religion has essentially become a proxy for the quality of one's character, however false such a proxy might be.  And the display of one's religion can engender trust and likability.  Conversely, anything criticizing religion is seen as an attack, not merely on one's beliefs, but on the community of believers.  When billboards go up around the country simply letting atheists know that they aren't alone, the religious outcry is deafening as if the mere existence of atheists made their blood boil.

And trying to remove a religious item from a publicly funded institution gets you threats of violence.  Take for example, a public school in Rhode Island which has the following display in the school:

Aside from being meaningless drivel, it is an endorsement of religion in a publicly funded school; a clear violation of the establishment clause.  So after gawd knows how may decades it had been up, a student noticed this violation.  She asked the school to take it down, and when they wouldn't took them to court.  The court has just ruled in her favor of the student and has ordered the prayer to be removed.

A great win for maintaining the separation of church and state.

Not surprisingly, Christians are none too happy.  Some are even making tacit, if not explicit, threats to the student that brought the case.

How about that for Christian morality.  Utterly disgusting vitriol.  Anyone who calls themselves Christian should be rebuking these assholes publicly.  Otherwise they're just hijacking the brand you're trying to convey as compassionate and loving and moral.

These reactions (and more that can be found here) seem to be a reflection of the fact that Christians, while claiming to be the pillars of society, are really most interested in displaying a facade of piousness.  Even the prayer that is to be taken down admonishes its students to "be good sports and smile when we lose".  The tweeters above, must have missed that part.

I could go on and get into the systematic raping of children by an entire religious institution or the specific examples therein, but I'll save that for another day.

Are Christians more moral than non-believers?  I'll let the evidence speak for itself.

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