Thursday, August 25, 2005

Religion, morality, sheep

I've been thinking about this some more given Robertson's comments the other day, and then his lies to try to twist out of the PR gaff. Patricia at Whirled View has some comments on this copied below. She wonders whether religion is actually an obstacle to moral inquiry and behavior. Take note also of the earlier post linking to a Foreign Policy study on the disconnect between church-going and generosity. America's public religiosity can often live a downright lie.

But, contrary to Nietzsche's thoughts on the matter, that doesn't necessarily have to be the case. The history of both religion and moral inquiry is bound together. However, many American religious leaders like Robertson or Dobson and demagogues like Bush make it seem as if religion and morality are one and the same thing. These figures function in the realm of casuistry, taking their cues more from Machiavelli than St. Thomas. Much of organized religion in the United States teaches and preaches mind-deadening rule-following. That's good politics too because there's nothing better for a political party's ability to maintain power than sheep who follow the rules the party makes and can't think their way out of them, whether they're right or wrong. So much for the personal God of Augustine and Jonathan Edwards. In many cases, these rules are purely political -- rather than moral or religious -- where the method of politics is not to inculcate and encourage good habits of thought and public deliberation but to follow rules set by figures posing as authorities of not only religion, but also morality and politics. These are then all taken to be one and the same thing made all the more powerful by their inextricable ties to the supernatural.

But, even if historically religion and moral thought and behavior are mutually influential and derive from similar sets of questions (the pre-Socratic "why is there something rather than nothing?", the Socratic "why be moral [just]?"), morality and religion are not coextensive, just as philosophy and theology are not coextensive. It is a capturing of the public dialogue in the US that has made them seem to be one and the same thing. Religious leaders constantly maintain that without religion -- and only their brand of religion -- one is at least amoral and likely immoral. This is flatly false. And we really don't need the Foreign Policy study or Pat Robertson's stupid comments to say this.

But it is also a political victory of sorts for the religious right in the US that needs combatting. Now and then, a moral imbecile like Pat Robertson publicly states something morally execrable. We should take the very fact that we can still see it as such and the present public outcry regarding Robertson's remarks as heartening and perhaps even promising for a better public capacity to separate religion from morality. We so need it.

One can't have ethics or morals without religion, some people say. That's why they want the text of the Ten Commandments to be plastered on the wall or carved on lumps of rock everywhere we look.

I'm not so sure. I know lots of people with no religion at all whose conduct vis-a-vis other people is at all times absolutely impeccable. They live exemplary, helpful and useful lives.

Maybe the people who fret about morals and family values should take a closer look at the pious types.

Islamic terrorism is a major problem today.

And the "reverend" Pat Robertson is all in favor of assassination, too. He wants to eliminate Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Now he's apologized, but he's planted the seed, just as certain Islamic preachers of hate do. Once the seed is planted, some follower is likely to take the hint and do the dirty deed.

Given examples like this, it seems to me that a good case could be made for saying that religion may be a very serious impediment to moral and ethical behavior.

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