If we were to make an assessment from the following recent news headlines, we might say that religious morality is broken:
North Carolina Pastor Sean Harris: Parents Should 'Punch' Their Effeminate Children
'Several dead' and 41 injured in Nigeria as militants attack two Sunday church services
Taliban bombing kills eight in Afghanistan
Faith-healing couple from Okanogan County take plea in son's death
Broken Arrow Woman On Trial For Refusing Medical Care For Dying Son
Pastor calls for death of gays, lesbians
Afghan arsonists seek to enforce truancy from school
Israeli Girl, Bullied By Jewish Ultra-Orthodox Extremists
Florida Pastor Hangs Obama Effigy Outside of Church
Tony Perkins on LGBT Pride Month: Why not 'Adultery Pride Month' or 'Drunkenness Pride Month'?
Fischer: 'It is Altogether Right to Discriminate Against Homosexual Behavior'
While these headlines are associated with a variety of religious figures from a variety of religions in different parts of the world, they have more in common with one another than you might think.
In each case, common sense, compassion, and empathy have been outright rejected in favor of a flawed morality based on religious doctrine. In each instance, religious ideology dictates that the infliction of discrimination, oppression, suffering, or death is validated by the belief that these actions please a supernatural being.
There is something terribly wrong with this type of ideology. It is incompatible with the goal of lessening suffering in the world. It is incompatible with peace. It is incompatible with progress. It is incompatible with a humanity that values the well-being of living things.
The problem here is that holy books say some crazy things -- things that advanced modern societies know better than to embrace. We know that rape, theft, slavery, and murder are not conducive to maintaining a healthy, flourishing society. It does not take a holy book for us to know this.
Philosopher Theodore Schick writes:
According to Divine Command Theory, nothing is right or wrong unless God makes it so. Whatever God says goes. So if God had decreed that adultery was permissible, then adultery would be permissible.
Let's take this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion. If the Divine Command Theory were true, then the Ten Commandments could have gone something like this: "Thou shalt kill everyone you dislike. Thou shalt rape every woman you desire. Thou shalt steal everything you covet. Thou shalt torture innocent children in your spare time. ..." The reason that this is possible is that killing, raping, stealing, and torturing were not wrong before God made them so. Since God is free to establish whatever set of moral principles he chooses, he could just as well have chosen this set as any other.
In other words, human beings have the capacity to discern which religious edicts are ill-advised, inhumane, or antiquated. We do not require another religious edict to tell us this. We simply rely on our sense of compassion and our morality, both of which have evolved over millions of years (and which were evolving long before monotheism took hold.)
The Dalai Lama writes:
Certainly religion has helped millions of people in the past, helps millions today and will continue to help millions in the future. But for all its benefits in offering moral guidance and meaning in life, in today’s secular world religion alone is no longer adequate as a basis for ethics. One reason for this is that many people in the world no longer follow any particular religion. Another reason is that, as the peoples of the world become ever more closely interconnected in an age of globalization and in multicultural societies, ethics based in any one religion would only appeal to some of us; it would not be meaningful for all.
What we need today is an approach to ethics which makes no recourse to religion and can be equally acceptable to those with faith and those without: a secular ethics.
Many say that without religion, we would not know the difference between right and wrong. If a commandment is the only thing keeping us from murdering other people, we humans are a pretty lousy bunch.
As Michael Shermer states, "As a species of social primates, we have evolved a deep sense of right and wrong to accentuate and reward reciprocity and cooperation and to attenuate and punish excessive selfishness and free riding."
Sadly, however, we see stories every single day in the news in which humans use religious ideology to undermine cooperation, to reject reciprocity, and to validate selfishness, oppression, discrimination, and violence.
While it would be unwise (and incorrect) to suggest that all religious morality is inferior to secular morality, or that the above laundry list of religious moral failings is representative of all religious ideology (it isn't), we must accept that it is the religious ideology that which serves to validate the behavior in each example. Those individuals were not incited by reason.
Fundamentalism is the problem. It is the unwavering adherence to Bronze Age religious doctrine that allows hatred to disguised itself as morality.
Fundamentalists correctly perceive that universal moral standards are required for the proper functioning of society. But they erroneously believe that God is the only possible source of such standards. Philosophers as diverse as Plato, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, George Edward Moore, and John Rawls have demonstrated that it is possible to have a universal morality without God. Contrary to what the fundamentalists would have us believe, then, what our society really needs is not more religion but a richer notion of the nature of morality.
Where, then, you might ask, should we receive our moral code, if we are not to rely on scripture?
Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has a pretty simple way of approaching this problem:
“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You'd be surprised how far that gets you.”
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