Religion and the restraint of morality

A common claim among religious conservatives is that morality is fundamentally grounded on religion–not necessarily on divine command, but at least on a religious worldview broadly conceived.  Atheist individuals, they grant, may be morally scrupulous, but this is because they have inherited a moral code from their residually Christian society, a code their own metaphysics cannot justify, and as this residual Christianity erodes, we can expect society to slide toward nihilism.  Atheists counter that they are more moral than religious people because religious morality is inferior–either it is unthinking bigotry and thus insufficiently rational, or it is motivated only by fear of punishment and thus insufficiently disinterested.

Neither claim matches my observations.  From what I see, atheists tend to be more passionate about moral issues than ordinary people.  Rather than being nihilists, a fairer accusation would be to say that they are themselves moralistic bigots, seeing every issue through the lens of presumed absolute evil and absolute good.  This suggests that the actual role of organized religion is not to instill moralistic zeal, but to restrain it.

This can be hard to notice because religious phenomena are so often described using the opposite assumption.  Consider the common claim that the Hebrew prophets and Protestant Reformers “purified” religion.  To purify something, one removes foreign, extraneous elements, so presumably what prophets and reformers removed was not properly religious, but some sort of non-religious accretion.  Now, what prophets and reformers usually want to get rid of is some degree of ritual, priestly mediation, and folk superstition.  What they want more of is morality.  It should strike us as odd that this is called a purification, because ritual, priestcraft, and superstition are ordinarily considered quintessentially religious.  Reducing religion to matters “of the heart” and moral rectitude seems more a dilution of religion; it is making religion into something less distinctive, something more like a combination of philosophy and moral instruction.

It is remarkable how little role moral disputes played in history prior to the rise of atheism. Pagans and Christians had ethical disagreements in ancient Rome, but the dispute between them always centered on the proper issue of whose was the true gods rather than the morality of infanticide or cousin marriage. The complete lack of social justice crusading by the medieval Church is a matter of embarrassment to Catholic apologists (but a cause of satisfaction to me).

How can morality be restrained?  Morality is itself the science of what should be done.  Is not restraining it necessarily immoral, indeed evil?  Yet, morality must be restrained.  Justice is a good, but it is not the only good.  Surely truth and beauty, science and art, must be given some consideration?  Not to mention innocent fun and happiness, wealth and comfort.  But morality is not only one competing good; it is the arbiter among goods–can we ever expect anything but for it to rule in its own favor?  Read about the effective altruists if you want to give yourself a fright, at the hell they make of their own lives, and imagine what would happen if one of these moral fanatics was to gain power over the rest of us.

To make life tolerable, religion has put a leash on morality, often by doing exactly the things atheists accuse us of doing.  We promote an ethics of rule-following–“don’t sin”–rather than an open-ended, insatiable benevolence–“eliminate evil”.  We don’t tell people to sin, but we tell them that they are sinners, a self-conception that makes it easier for them to admit their own faults and be understanding of others’.  Let’s not deny it, it also makes us more complacent about our sins, since we expect it of ourselves.  We grant a strong presumptive legitimacy to the status quo.  Religious men tend not to worry that they might actually be evil for doing what their fathers taught them is good.  Considering the pride of those with purer morality, we can even be grateful that religion, by filling our heads with ideas of eternal rewards and punishments, has removed our opportunity for pure self-sacrifice.  Finally, by introducing us to the sacred, religion has given us a hint of an order even higher than morality.

5 Responses

  1. I’m curious what you think is so ghastly about the lives of effective altruists (I am embedded in the broader EA community and so was amused to see the namedrop!)

  2. I recall reading an article about a girl who went to college and fell under the spell of Peter Singer and other atheist moralists and got the idea that her entire life had to be ordered to maximizing the good of strangers. She and several others decided it was their duty to forgo any personal interests and get a high-paying job so they could give all that money to the poor. She wanted to have children but decided (and told her husband) that it was her duty not to so she could give more money to the poor. One part of the article recounts how she was once wracked with guilt, in tears, because she was once selfish and bought herself an ice cream cone. Or maybe she was just tempted to buy it and was abhorred by her residual selfishness.

    The author of the article seemed to be impressed with this lady, calling her a modern day saint, although acknowledging that sainthood probably isn’t for everyone. I kept thinking that if this girl ever got power over the rest of us, she would be worse than Stalin.

  3. The broader EA community overlaps with the broader SlateStarCodex community a lot, so many EA people know Ozy personally or at least have heard of her or read her blog. At any rate, Ozy once blogged about exactly this problem – breaking down crying in guilt and self-contempt because she cannot give enough. My point: that girl Bonald mentioned is not necessarily an entirely different type than the EA people.

  4. Saint Paul did speak against the traditions of men, and Our Lord told us as well about that what mattered was not what we consumed at the mouth, but instead what came out of it. the early Christians and the Fathers also did have moral arguments to a degree when evangelizing, as their opponents attacked their morals, so they had to respond.

    do agree though, that atheism is the next logical step of Protestantism and eternal reformism in general (as opposed to Catholic organic development). after dissolving the lived institutional true Catholic faith and making it all personal interpretation of a biased translation, no wonder they eventually conclude religion is all in their head – that’s the only place where they kept it, living the freemason code otherwise in “secular” life.

  5. It is remarkable how little role moral disputes played in history prior to the rise of atheism. Pagans and Christians had ethical disagreements in ancient Rome, but the dispute between them always centered on the proper issue of whose was the true gods rather than the morality of infanticide or cousin marriage.

    Do you think this observation offers any lessons for modern Christian conservatives? Should we change the way we approach public moral issues like abortion or sodomy?

    I suspect part of the reason for the difference between early Christians and modern Western Christians is because early Christians may have viewed pagan Rome as more alien than modern Christians view America (or the West in general). Because of our Christian heritage, when America proclaims some moral abomination as a right or as something to be celebrated, we react the way a father would react if his son committed or endorsed some moral abomination. In contrast, the early Christians lived in a society that was not historically Christian. So for them it would have been more akin to seeing someone else’s son commit or endorse some moral abomination: you might still condemn it, but it doesn’t have the same salience and immediacy it would were it your own son. (Similarly, I suspect that if I were to become a citizen of a Muslim or Hindu land, any celebrated sins of that nation would likely not viscerally affect me the way the same celebrated sins in America might).

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