Religion—Either Amoral or Immoral

In my opinion, one of the most popular arguments that religion has in modern, secular America is the perception (factual or not) that religion is a basis (perhaps THE basis) for morality. As time goes on and modern scientific research continues to pry intrusively at nature’s great secrets, religions that are unwilling to repudiate reason in the manner of Young Earth Creationists have found great comfort in Gould’s “non-overlapping magesteria”; the idea that religion holds sway into the meaning of existence, and as a basis of morality. But where does religion comment on morality that philosophy does not?

Since its beginnings in time, philosophy has sought through reason, argument, and appeal to offer systems for humans to morally interact with humans and other creatures. Religion has done the same, but with one essential difference; it has claimed the mandate of Heaven, becoming “fossilized philosophies” in the words of Simon Blackburn that would brook no argument regarding its central tenets. Would a Christian theologian dare say that Jesus was flat-out wrong when he instructed his followers “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Of course not! He may debate as to the details of Jesus’ meaning, but he could not say “I’m afraid Jesus was off his rocker in this instance.” By claiming the mandate of Heaven, the underlying moral philosophy is stultified, without prospects for improvement.

If, and only if, one is to grant that the source of the philosophy is divinely inspired, then this may be seen as a reasonable trade-off (although I am wont to agree with Lessing that “the true value of a man is not determined by his posession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth.”) However, this grant of divine revelation cannot be stipulated when applied to a subject as important as how a person should treat another. A person outside of the revelation does not only have the right, but the duty to demand justification from the believer of the authenticity of the revelation, bound as humans are in our ancient and continually updated social contract. Of course, such justification is impossible; the core of revealed religion is the revelation, and that cannot be shared or evidenced, only “witnessed”.

So the skepticism of the outsider is justified; what of the belief of the theist? The theist has the dubious benefit of the revelation; experiential evidence that is of little worth to an outsider, but of enormous visceral worth to the theist himself. While quite a number of people resist the draw of experiential evidence of the supernatural, many others heed it as valid evidence and deny all argument to the contrary. However, the concern of society is not the belief of its members, but rather their actions. As such, do believers owe justification to society for the basis of their morality?

It depends, and this contingency is the heart of the matter. Does the believer’s religion force them to perform an action which society would consider immoral? If not, then the believer owes society no explanation; it really is not anyone else’s business what goes on in the heart of a man (or woman). However, if the religion demands an action that society considers immoral, then the theist is required to evidentially justify his behavior to society. For example, if an Aztec lives in an Aztec society, then no justification is required for the practice of human sacrifice; his society does not find the practice immoral (even though I do). However, were this Aztec transported to modern Switzerland, he would be expected to justify his religious morality without appealing to the authority of his religion, which he would be hard pressed to do. To apply this principle to modern pluralistic American society, I would encourage a Christian seeking to compel a moral action to argue outside of his religion; just as no amount of appeal to Huitzilopochtli would justify human sacrifice outside of Aztec society, no amount of appeal to Christ will justify an action in secular, pluralistic America that is currently considered evidentially immoral.

However, this line of reasoning prompts a question, which I find foundational and utterly intriguing. I have argued why religion cannot justify an action considered immoral by society. Now we approach the question of the role of the believer in evaluating religious moral teachings. Is it moral for a person to commit an evil act at God’s command? The Old Testament is filled with instances in which believers commited incredibly evil acts at God’s command. Much of the Old Testament is written like a loving ode to genocide; Abraham would have killed his son as a sacrifice; an old man offers up two young women (including his own daughter) for a mob to rape to death. Is it morally right for a believer to commit what his inherent morality states is an evil act (genocide, murder, etc.) because his God told him to? While “just following orders” may in some very limited cases be a legal defense, is it a moral one? In a totalitarian system, is only the head despot morally responsible? Of course not; a person is responsible for his or her actions. Religion is certainly the ideal totalitarian system with God as the despot. Why should a theist not be morally responsible for all outrageous acts against his morality, whether commanded by God or not?

The theist may take refuge in self-preservation; knowingly defying God’s will leads directly to hellfire and damnation. A theist can legitimately claim that he must follow God’s will for his own preservation. But is this a moral act? No; the moral act is self-sacrifice to preserve the lives and well-being of others. Medals are not given to those who run from a live grenade; they are given for knowingly sacrificing one’s own well-being for the well-being of his comrades. Self-preservation is an amoral act, neither to be condemned nor praised. If the theist takes refuge behind the vindictiveness of God, he resigns himself to an amoral life, following the will of God solely for ultimate self-preservation. And the addition of Heavenly profit for the immoral act only makes it more tawdry and reprehensible, although strictly amoral.

On the other hand, the theist may take pleasure and pride in following God’s commands, believing that to be the highest form of morality. However, atheists, secularists, and many intellectually honest theists admit that humans have an inborn morality that is independent of religious belief, whether they think this morality is from God, evolution, or another source. I, for one, also think humans have this inherent morality that can usually only be overcome with some difficulty. If one agrees that humans have an inherent morality, then one agrees that it is conceivable that God could command them to do an act against their inherent morality. I would hope that every theist here would agree that genocide is immoral, rape is immoral, and human sacrifice is immoral; and yet God ordered all three from his human subjects. I ask again: is it moral to follow an immoral command, regardless of the source of the command? No, of course not; at best, despotic religion turns any action, moral or immoral, into an amoral act of self-preservation. At worst, the follower takes pleasure in violating his own morals, relishing an immoral act.

Now there is, of a necessity, two kinds of religions: those in which God admittedly commands immoral actions of His followers, and those in which He does not. In cases where God commands immoral actions of His followers, I have argued (I hope convincingly) that the resulting actions are immoral or amoral, and therefore the religion itself is not a suitable basis for moral action. In cases where God never commands an action that outrages human morality, then religion suddenly becomes unnecessary; it never commands us to perform an action other than that which our morality would allow without religion. Perhaps it can be said that religion encourages us to perform actions that we already consider moral, but the primary way in which it does this is by carrot and stick, which again turns moral actions into amoral self-promotion and preservation.

Religion offers fossilized moral systems that debase human moral action with tawdry rewards and outrageous threats. Philosophy allows for self-analyzing systems of morality that encourages moral action without inducements outside of the pleasure of doing right, and the natural rewards of morality (ordered society, approval of peers, etc.) Religion is at best amoral, and at worst encourages moral outrages for the glory of the ultimate totalitarian regime. If I cannot appeal to reason against the theists’ personal experiences, then can I not appeal to your human dignity? Do not debase yourself by requiring a heavenly secret police to induce your moral actions; do not defile yourself by allowing the usage of your human faculties to outrage your basic human decency in the name of the ultimate despot. Take your morality from your love of yourself and your fellow man, which I as an atheist share.