Sunday, October 08, 2006

On Religion, Morality, and Government

One of our pastors today preached on Christians and civil law in Romans 13, which is always an interesting if controversial topic. However, the topic started me thinking.

Can a non-religious person act morally? Certainly. Can a religious person act immorally? Again, without a doubt. What, then, is significantly different? I would argue that a religious (i.e. Christian) person is less likely to act immorally. What does government have to do with this?

I think a good example might be the difference between western democracies and communist governments. All the communist governments I can think of work very hard to stamp out religion, or at least keep it hard-pressed under the government's thumb. This results in a society, or at least a government, that is mostly non-religious. The end result? Well, communist governments tend to be hopelessly corrupt, ruthlessly brutal, and ceaselessly paranoid. Is this a consequence of being non-religious or just communist? I suppose it's hard to say, given that the latter is always accompanied by the former.

This isn't to discount corruption in western democracies. There's a degree of corruption in every government, no question. I'd wager that communist governments end up being more corrupt than religiously neutral western democracies.

Not that that's a good argument for religion. I wouldn't find it convincing that the religious are 37% less corrupt than the non-religious (just making up numbers here). If you think about the philosphy, though, there's at least something worth grabbing onto here.

Plato wrote about a farmer who finds a ring that grants the wearer invisibility. With said invisibility, the farmer could commit any misdeed without fear of repurcussion. He could even, if he were clever enough, dethrone the king and set himself up as ruler. Plato wondered what it was that might prevent a man in such a position from acting out on the darker desires of human nature.

I think the religious person, thus, has the advantage there in that there is a moral system instituting a level of control in their life. Fail-proof, no, but it is there nonetheless to deter the religious man from doing whatever he can get away with. What deters the non-religious man from doing whatever he can get away with?

That's it. I'm just thinking out loud, so to speak.

33 comments:

steve the troll said...

Communism is essentially religion. You just have to worship your state.

As an agnostic, I believe that my set of morals is significantly higher than that defined by the bible.

Hal said...

Perhaps. But the question at hand is what enforces your morality?

Anonymous said...

I think the far more pressing and difficult question is what compells your morality? -Ryan.

steve the troll said...

The desire to live and let live, I guess. Why does it matter?

steve the troll said...

Also history, the constitution, etc.

steve the troll said...

The real issue is, religious moral guidelines are dangerous. Some of their guidelines support peace and progress, while others pit masses against each other which has led to killing.

The only way to stop the killing is to unite under a peaceful set of moral guidelines. We will never be able to agree on one religion, and if we did, there would still not be peace, because I can't think of any religion that is not defined by a text that is open to interpretation.

That's the inherent problem with religions of the book. Books are vague. It helps when the author can clarify something if you want to know what was really meant. This would require Paul or God to "come on down." This is the only way to unite Christians.

This is not going to happen, so what are we to do? Simple: learn to be comfortable with not knowing the meaning of life, or if there even is one. Unify under that precept. Nothing bad could come of this, and it's the only option that satisfies Occam's razor.

Somebody please tell me why we cannot get to this point?

Anonymous said...

(I think the far more pressing and difficult question is what compells your morality?)

"The desire to live and let live, I guess."

Why do you have a desire to live?
Why do you have a desire to let live?

"Why does it matter?"

Do all people share you desires to live and let live? If not, why should they?

-Ryan.

Anonymous said...

"... it's the only option that satisfies Occam's razor."

Human history is pervaded with a hunger for meaning. Is it really the simplest possible explanation to say that most people have a hunger that can never be satisfied in the slightest way (ie, totally unlike all of humanity's other hungers in that regard) ?

-Ryan.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but I don't have Hal's email address:

Hal, if you have the time and inclination, I'd like to discuss these two articles with you:

The first is by a Presbyterian pastor defending the reliability of the Gospels, and explaining why the "telephone game" doesn't apply. Long-ish by internet standards, but a surprisingly easy read considering the topic.

The second is a shorter article by a Catholic apologist, about what he calls "the technical statement fallacy."

-Ryan.

Hal said...

Steve - "Live and let live" won't cut it here. That doesn't answer my question.

The question was, "What prevents you from doing something you find wrong but could get away with?" Marital infidelity is a great example. Most people would say "That's wrong," and I hope for your wife's sake you do, too. But you might have a situation where you could be unfaithful without her ever having to know, facing few, if any, consequences. The question is, what keeps you from doing so?

And I can't buy your point about uniting under morals that aren't religious; if you look at those non-theistic communist societies, the State usually did its fair share of killing and pitting the masses against each other. I wouldn't call it a significant improvement.

Ryan - I read the second one, and will try to make time for the first. I'll see if I can write up some thoughts later on.

-Murphy said...

"What prevents you from doing something you find wrong but could get away with?"

His live and let live argument does answer this, though. He wouldn't want those things done to him, so he figures that other people won't want things done to them and refrains. You seem, almost, to be arguing that if one believes that God either doesn't exist or that He does but doesn't particularly care about human affairs, one should pretend there's a imaginary or concerned entity holding them to something in order to justify their values.

The reverse of this, of course, si that if no God exists and people who are religious find that out, their first actions would be to kill everyone they didn't like.

But, as you didn't answer Steve, why does it matter what makes him not kill people?

And I can't buy your point about uniting under morals that aren't religious; if you look at those non-theistic communist societies, the State usually did its fair share of killing and pitting the masses against each other. I wouldn't call it a significant improvement.

That's a false dichotomy, though. There's an enormous difference between atheistic communist regimes and secular government (the former works to stamp out religion, while the latter allows all religions to practice without interference, which includes avoidance of the establishment of an "official" religion, which may disenfranchise other religions of their right to practice), but the way you're presenting it, it's as though we're forced to chose between the abolishment of religion by the state and a theocracy. Moreover, it posits that the reason that communist regimes are brutal is because of a kind of state atheism with no real backup (as well as ignoring the purpose behind that enforced state atheism; to make the leader a deity to the people without having any other deities getting in the way) and runs with it. I don't know that that's the case, as atheism doesn't bring on communism (Ayn Rand being an extreme example as an Ubercapitalist who was also a militant atheist, along with many prominent figures of the Libertarian movement). If anything, atheism is a symptom of dictatorial regimes which seek to establish the leader as a god.

Marital infidelity is a great example.

It's an ok example, but people who are not religious probably also tend toward marrying less. And, as there is a state component of marriage in the U.S., infidelity does have repercussions outside of religion.

But you might have a situation where you could be unfaithful without her ever having to know, facing few, if any, consequences.

Because you value your wife in more ways than just sex and would know that you had done something that would hurt her and damage your relationship, even if she didn't know. That's psychologically damaging as you'd likely doubt the whole "she'll never know" thing and doesn't include the argument "God will be upset with me."

Also, it's from City Slickers, I think. I don't get TBS now, though, so I won't be able to check when it comes on for another two days at a time.


VGEVGC!

Hal said...

Ryan (Murphy) - You put words in my mouth, sir. I never made the dichotomy theocracy vs. communist. The original example was atheist vs. non-theistic. However you want to argue the application towards my argument, the point remains that the governments which are strictly atheistic (as compared to non-theistic) were communist and violent.

I just didn't think that his point about just getting rid of religion was a good one. I'd argue the closest thing we've had is those communist governments.

I guess "live and let live" wasn't satisfactory because I didn't think it said enough. The "I don't want someone else doing this to me" argument is a place to start, although it's hard to square against the "you can't be caught" aspect of the action. What makes "do unto others as you want them to do unto you" superior to "do unto others as long as they can't do unto you"?

I thought the infidelity was a good example because Steve mentioned he was married. Of course, the example can't be carried out completely; yes, infidelity has dire consquences, emotional and relational. I was just hoping to find an action that everyone could agree is wrong yet is committed frequently. Also, why I stipulated "few" consequences. Let's try a different example, one that doesn't have the potential for emotional damage to the culprit.

You're driving down a deserted road. You see an armored car crashed on the side of the road. The doors are thrown open and you see the money inside. The driver is miles away, trying to get to a phone. You could easily grab several armfuls of cash. Nobody would ever be able to connect you to the theft. They might just assume the money blew away.

What is it that keeps a person from taking it? I know of a few arguments to respond with. Of course you realize, I'm going to argue that "Because God says no" is the best answer (a simplistic but concise description of the argument).

meera said...

Of course you realize, I'm going to argue that "Because God says no" is the best answer (a simplistic but concise description of the argument).

but why does god say no? my god (i'm not sure about yours) says no because it is wrong to take something that isn't yours; it can hurt the people you are taking from.

so my question is, why do you need a god to enforce that? can't you just teach people that it is wrong to steal? isn't it, in fact, more effective to have someone know why it is wrong to steal that money than to use god's wrath as the enforcer? it's like cutting out the middle man and actually making the answer one step more simple.

and if not, then is part of god's purpose to be a scary enforcer of morality? is it because we as humans aren't capable of making these decisions on our own and need someone reminding us of the cost-benefit ratio every time we are about to do something wrong?

-Murphy said...

The original example was atheist vs. non-theistic.

The original example was this:
All the communist governments I can think of work very hard to stamp out religion, or at least keep it hard-pressed under the government's thumb. This results in a society, or at least a government, that is mostly non-religious.

Which you then equate with "atheistic communist regimes", which is incorrect.

I just didn't think that his point about just getting rid of religion was a good one.

It isn't, but that's not being non-religious. That's enforcing dictatorial control on religion, which, I agree, is what communist regimes have done in the past. Disallowing the free practice of religion is, from my point of view, unacceptable. I think we agree on that point.

The false dichotomy came in because it seems that you're allowing only two alternatives: a very religious society and one in which religion is crushed by the government. Those aren't the only two options.

I think Meera has said what I probably would have for the latter part. You know that taking the money is going to have repercussions past you just having more money. People who have been saving their money (or just some rich guy) are going to have less of what is rightfully theirs. Why do you need God to tell you that you shouldn't take what's not rightfully yours? If that was your money in the truck, would you be indifferent to someone making off with the cash? It's somewhat of a larger example of finding a wallet on the sidewalk on a deserted street and not taking all the money: do you really think that 100% of the atheists that happen by the wallet are going to take the money rather than reporting it simply because according to their beliefs, God isn't telling them not to?

And again, is the threat of Hell really the only thing keeping you from kicking puppies? What if you were somehow given a free pass to do so by God?

-Murphy said...

I wish this allowed me to edit posts:

My problem, if it wasn't clear in the beginning of the post there, is that you use the word "non-religious" as a defining characteristic of "communist regimes which stamp out religion." That's inaccurate as stated.

Anonymous said...

murphy wrote, "Why do you need God to tell you that you shouldn't take what's not rightfully yours? ... And again, is the threat of Hell really the only thing keeping you from kicking puppies?"

Personally, in my better moments I believe that I'm motivated by an eternal union by God. (Which I believe to be drastically different than being motivated by the threat of Hell.) But that's not what I want to talk about right now. What I want to say is:

You write as if these are universally held values. They may be near-universal, but there are people who kick puppies or take what's not rightfully theirs with a clean conscience. (Not to mention that there can be quite a bit of legitimate disagreement on "what's rightfully mine" in more sophisticated examples.)

What does "live and let live" mean? In the context of discussing moral codes to maintain a social order, and also based on discussions I've had with people who sound like steve (this is where I may be making an ass of myself per the pop proverb on assuming - but steve can correct me if I'm off) then it seems to me to mean "I'll follow your conscience, and you follow yours."

If we all always followed our consciences, would there be less actions in the world which violate my conscience? I believe so. I know that from time to time I act against my conscience for a variety of reasons which can usually be easily traced back to selfishness. And I don't think I'm alone in that. There are people who steal and people who kick puppies who believe that stealing and puppy kicking are wrong. But as I've said, there are people who do these things with a clean conscience. Throughout history, there are people who have practiced incest or cannibalism with a clean conscience. (To mention just two nearly but not totally universally held taboos.) Throughout history, there are people who have practiced human sacrifice and genocide with a perfectly clean conscience.

So if "live and let live" means "I'll follow my conscience, and you follow yours" then I think it falls short.

-Ryan.

-Murphy said...

Ryan,

I don't mean to imply that there are universally held values, and just picked an example that I'm pretty sure Hal doesn't actually do.

What does "live and let live" mean? In the context of discussing moral codes to maintain a social order, and also based on discussions I've had with people who sound like steve (this is where I may be making an ass of myself per the pop proverb on assuming - but steve can correct me if I'm off) then it seems to me to mean "I'll follow your conscience, and you follow yours."

I couldn't say, as I'm not the one who brought up the phrase and I don't want to misrepresent whatever was meant by that. But I don't know that it's necessarily an endorsement of anarchy, which is what the "I'll follow my conscience, you follow yours."

Of course, then, that leads to "do we as a society outlaw murder because it harms society or because God said we shouldn't murder." I don't think that outlawing it because it harms society is "without enforcement", which is what seems to have been implied.

steve the troll said...

Wow, this is an awesome discussion, but I fear I cannot catch up.

(1) I just want to say that "live and let live" is the perfect answer, because there is no afterlife. Our existence is all we have. Once you're dead, you cease to be. I'm not sure why anyone would want to end another person's consciousness, and I'm sad that religion undermines this in so many ways. Everyone should share this desire, because there is no evidence for an afterlife, but there is evidence of decomposing bodies and the law of conservation of mass.

(2) Communism is religion...are you forgetting that? You worship the state, you worship Chairman Mao, whatever. You worship something, and that's religion. Oh, and Mao (God) killed a lot of people, but only after he became God, and his followers did his killing for him.

(3) My application of Occam's razor says that humans are primates. There's plenty of evidence for this. We die, just like every other animal. There's plenty of evidence for this, too. Again, there is no evidence of an afterlife or a spirit/soul.

Anyhow, I don't understand your question ("Is it really the simplest possible explanation to say that most people have a hunger that can never be satisfied in the slightest way?"). Of course it is. Silly Ryan, just because most people feel one way doesn't justify their feelings. At one time, most people though the earth was flat, right?

(4) Marital infidelity is a bad example. If you want to sleep around, don't get married. However, since we're on the subject, if I could be promiscuous with anyone, it would definitely be Meera.

(5) Ryan said: "If anything, atheism is a symptom of dictatorial regimes which seek to establish the leader as a god." You stated an idea, then contradicted yourself before you even finished the sentence! Establishing a leader as a god is theistic, not atheistic.

(6) Communism is not the closest thing to an atheist society. Scandinavia and Japan are two (mostly) atheistic societies that are not communist and have high quality of life, broad social welfare, and uniform economic prosperity.

(7) Of course you realize, I'm going to argue that "Because God says no" is the best answer (a simplistic but concise description of the argument). How is that a good answer, Hal? You can't provide any evidence that God even exists. Where is God? When did he tell you this? What does his voice sound like? When you say "because God says..." you sound like David Koresh, or Joseph Smith, or Jesus Christ.

Hal, the best answer is "evolution." How do some monkeys know not to be sexually promiscuous? How do some monkeys know not to kidnap another monkeys' offspring? It doesn't benefit the species. It's a social norm. Again, Occam's Razor.

(8) Hal: I just didn't think that his point about just getting rid of religion was a good one. Ryan: It isn't, but that's not being non-religious. That's enforcing dictatorial control on religion.

I never said I wanted to force anyone to give up their religion. I don't. I want people to voluntarily give up their religion.

(9) Ryan: Personally, in my better moments I believe that I'm motivated by an eternal union by God.

That makes no sense, linguistically or logically.

(10) Ryan: If "live and let live" means "I'll follow my conscience, and you follow yours" then I think it falls short.

No, this is not what it means, because it has nothing at all to do with the conscience. Again, monkeys live and let live, as do many other animals, and they do this without a conscience. Explain that one.

-Murphy said...


(5) Ryan said: "If anything, atheism is a symptom of dictatorial regimes which seek to establish the leader as a god." You stated an idea, then contradicted yourself before you even finished the sentence! Establishing a leader as a god is theistic, not atheistic.


I phrased that poorly. I don't know that, in Stalinist Russia or Maoist China either Stalin or Mao ever claimed or had anyone claim that they were a deity. Their state-enforced atheism doesn't necessarily seek to place them as divine entities, but rather outlaws the belief that anyone could be better than the Leader.

If anything, it's somewhat slandering to atheism to link the concept to dictatorial regimes. Perhaps, for this discussion, the terms "atheism" and "non-religious" should be avoided for the reasons given above. Because it's not accurate; rather "repression of religious freedom".

Implicit, in that of course, is the fundamental right to not practice a religion and to believe whatever one wants.

Anonymous said...

I wrote, "Personally, in my better moments I believe that I'm motivated by an eternal union by God."

Steve wrote, "That makes no sense, linguistically or logically."

Sorry about the typo. I meant to write "I'm motivated by an eternal union with God," which is to say "I'm motivated by the hope for an eternal union with God."

Steve, please let me know when you read part of anything that I've linked to for you. I'll read anything that you link to of comparable length. - Ryan.

(the anon ryan, not the murphy ryan.)

steve the troll said...

Nah dude, I'm not reading anything by an "institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society."

Anonymous said...

If that's your reason (as opposed to being busy) then you are quite simply and unequivocally close-minded. - Ryan.

meera said...

However, since we're on the subject, if I could be promiscuous with anyone, it would definitely be Meera.

i win!


(i realize this adds nothing to the discussion - i'm just procrastinating at work.)

Anonymous said...

Wow, I was distracted by other things that frustrated me, how did I let this one slip by:

"... monkeys live and let live, as do many other animals, and they do this without a conscience."

Are you serious? If you think that animals live and let live, you've watched Bambi too many times. I mean, it should be so obvious that I don't even know how to beign to phrase a real rebuttal.

-Ryan.

steve the troll said...

Show me a group of monkeys who kill each other.

Anonymous said...

Violent Chimps

"... chimpanzees live in patriarchal groups in which males regularly rape, beat, kill, and sometimes even drink the blood of their own kind. ...

Perhaps the most revolutionary discovery that Wrangham and other researchers have made through patient observation of Central African apes is that warfare is not uniquely human. Scholars had long thought that it was. As recently as 1987, an international group of 20 distinguished scientists signed what they called the Seville Statement on Violence, declaring that war 'does not occur in other animals' and is almost entirely 'a product of culture.'

As early as 1974, researchers in Gombe National Park in Tanzania had been startled to observe chimpanzee males organizing gangs of a half-dozen or so members and launching lethal raids into the territory of neighboring chimps. These were clearly not food-gathering expeditions. The chimps did not stop to eat, and they did not make any of their normal calls and shouts. Instead, they crept silently into the territory of a neighboring group and hid until they saw a lone chimp. Screaming with excitement, they would ambush the victim, hold him immobile and beat him to death, sometimes twisting the victim's leg until the muscles ripped, or tearing off flaps of skin while he was still alive. In one well-documented case in Tanzania, a group of male chimpanzees used such ambushes to eliminate a whole band of neighbors.

Further research found that such violence was not limited to chimpanzees. Male gorillas, for example, were observed ripping infants out of their mothers' arms and smashing them to the ground in often-successful attempts to entice the mothers to mate with them. ..."

However, the article also states that "he found a glimmer of hope that humanity could reduce its violence and overcome its five-million-year rap sheet of murder and war. Wrangham bases his optimism on the discovery that bonobos create peaceful societies in which males and females share power ... Although bonobo males are occasionally aggressive, they are usually discouraged from killing or raping by tight-knit bands of females that gang up on and attack aggressive males. The glue for these closely bonded groups of females is regular female-to-female, missionary-position sex, Wrangham writes. Such female-to-female sexual bonding is thought to be unique in the nonhuman animal world.

Wrangham avoids drawing close parallels between bonobos and human beings. He doesn't believe, for example, that lesbianism is the answer to human warfare. Instead, he takes a broader look at the species' behavior patterns, seeing female bonding and alliance-building in general as a weapon against the dominance of violent males. 'I believe that Fyodor Dostoevsky got it right in The Brothers Karamazov, when he wrote that we all have a demon in us,' Wrangham says. 'And I can only hope that by understanding this, we can reduce this demon a little bit.'"

-Ryan.

steve the troll said...

What's your point?

Anonymous said...

The point is that I obliged your request: "Show me a group of monkeys who kill each other." The point is that I refuted one of your premises: "Monkeys live and let live, as do many other animals, and they do this without a conscience." The point is, one prequesite for credbility when stating that man is a monkey is that you need to have some grasp of what a monkey is. -Ryan.

steve the troll said...

Thanks for clarifying. I'm glad you were able to find an example...honestly, all the spider monkeys I've seen at the zoo were rather peaceful.

However, I still don't think that your exceptional example compares to the atrocities committed by humans (who should know better, right?) in the name of religion. To list a few recent examples:

Palestine (Jews v. Muslims)
Balkans (Orthodox Serbs v. Catholic Croats; Orthodox Serbs v. Bosnian and Albanian Muslims)
Northern Ireland (Protestants v. Catholics)
Kashmir (Muslims v. Hindus)
Sudan (Muslims v. Christians and animists)
Nigeria (Muslims v. Christians)
Ethiopia/Eritrea (Muslims v. Christians)
Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists v. Tamil Hindus)
Indonesia (Muslims v. Timorese Christians)
The Caucasus (Orthodox Russians v. Chechen Muslims; Muslim Azerbaijanis v. Catholic and Orthodox Armenians)

Millions of deaths in the last ten years, explicitly caused by religion; places I might otherwise travel to.

Now show me where ethical humanist atheists have killed anybody, ever. The finding might suggest that some humans have evolved more than others.

I'll quote Sam Harris, who happens to be a neurologist trying to find a physiological basis for faith:

Religious faith represents so uncompromising a misuse of the power of our minds that it forms a kind of perverse, cultural singularity - a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible.

Our world is fast succumbing to the activities of men and women who would stake the future of our species on beliefs that should not survive an elementary school education.

Anonymous said...

Now show me where ethical humanist atheists have killed anybody, ever.

It's apples and oranges (in other words, ridiculously unfair) to compare theists (with no qualifiers) with specifically ethical humanist atheists.

Nevertheless, here is one of several examples I could give you to honor your request.

-Ryan.

steve the troll said...

It is a fair qualification, because I'm an ethical humanist atheist. You guys seem to think all atheists are communist, so I was trying to prevent you from listing communist atrocities (because there are many, but communists aren't ethical humanists).

steve the troll said...

And by the way, I qualified theists with a list of religious conflicts and their participants.

I've seen the Peter Singer article before, and he is not an ethical humanist...he's a utilitarian.

Anonymous said...

I think we reached a dead end due to games with semantics. -Ryan.