What about morality — does it need religion?

This has turned into a week about the social roles of religion.

On Monday, I presented Scott Atran’s summary of the research into religion’s role in creating and, more important, it  turns out, supporting war.

And last time, I wrote about the contention of Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, that without religion, an enduring civilization is not possible.

Today’s last piece in the series considers the argument that is a favourite of believers:  without religion there can be no true morality. And many of today’s prominent agnostic and atheist thinkers accept that religion has served historically as the “social glue” that keeps us from expressing our selfish and violent human natures.

There are many ways to counter this claim, including the unwelcome but accurate observation that close observance of all of the rules and moral laws of the Koran or the Bible would quickly earn you a life sentence in prison. The Bible passes more death sentences than does a typical Texas judge.

Today I want to focus on the related arguments of philosopher and women’s studies professor Elizabeth S. Anderson, whose article “If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?” appears in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, selected and edited by the late Christopher Hitchens.

Anderson’s view of the Bible is that, “far from being a truly independent guide to moral conduct,” it is “more like a Rorschach test: which passages people choose to emphasize reflects as much as it shapes their moral character and interests.”

She asks first, “Why were the ancient biblical peoples as ready to ascribe evil as good deeds to God? Why did they think God was so angry that He chronically unleashed tides of brutal destruction on humanity?” Anderson’s answer is a version of the popular idea that “Theory of Mind,” or what Dennett calls “the intentional stance,” gives us an instinctive tendency to posit agency, to see all of the events that affect us as having the same kind of motivated cause that underlies our own actions. Anderson explains:

If no human was observed to have caused the event, or if the event was of a kind (e.g., a plague, drought, or good weather) that no human would have the power to cause, then they assumed that some unseen, more-powerful agent had to have willed it, precisely for its good or bad effects on humans. So, if the event was good for people, they assumed that God willed it out of love for them; if it was bad, they assumed that God willed it out of anger at them. This mode of explanation is universally observed among people who lack scientific understanding of natural events.

This tendency is part and parcel of what Anderson claims is the “deeply rooted cognitive bias of humans to reject the thought of meaningless suffering. If we are suffering, someone must be responsible for it!” A similar hypothesis, that we invented God to explain otherwise random suffering, was reviewed in an article here last year.

This is an important point, Anderson argues, for  once we recognize that “the same cognitive bias that leads pagans to believe in witches and multiple gods leads theists to believe in God,” it becomes difficult to deny that “the evidence for polytheism and spiritualism of all heretical varieties is exactly on a par with the evidence for theism.”

If, then, no one religion is “better” than another, since all are materially false if any are (on the basis that they all spring alike from the same cognitive root), on what basis can we assert the superiority of one or another divinely-inspired moral code?

Anderson proposes a different basis for morality, what she calls “a system of reciprocal claim making,” underwritten by “the authority we all have to make claims on one another.” Indeed, she argued, appeals to divine authority can be distinctly immoral, by driving believers to “feel entitled to look only to their idea of God to determine what they are justified in doing.”

It is all too easy under such a system to ignore the complaints of those injured by one’s actions, since they are not acknowledged as moral authorities in their own right. But to ignore the complaints of others is to deprive oneself of the main source of information one needs to improve one’s conduct. Appealing to God rather than those affected by one’s actions amounts to an attempt to escape accountability to one’s fellow human beings.

It is worth noting that Anderson’s moral imperative is based firmly in the assumption that the goal of social interaction is not to build a social unit but rather to protect the autonomous individual. This is a thoroughly modern, and predominately Western, view.

If Rabbi Sacks is right, it’s a recipe for disaster. If Anderson is right, it’s the way forward.

– * –

One provocative way of distinguishing between the two most prevalent ways of structuring society, what can roughly be labeled “liberal” and “conservative,” or “Enlightenment” and “traditional,” is to use Jonathan Haidt’s recent “atom-world” vs. “lattice-world” distinction, which I first encountered in the DVD of his presentation to the 2007 “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0” symposium. Haidt’s proposition is not accepted universally, but at least as a conceptual starting point it may be informative.

Briefly, Haidt argues that the liberal/Enlightenment approach to social construction seeks primarily to protect the rights of the individual, seen as a lone moral agent. The conservative/traditional approach, in contrast, seeks primarily to foster group cohesion. This bifurcation is consistent with Haidt’s assertions in The Righteous Mind (reviewed here recently) that the liberal moral stance is informed principally by considerations of care/harm and justice/fairness, while conservative morality emphasizes other values like loyalty and authority.

At its simplest, Haidt offers a “me” versus “us” contrast. Critics have rightly pointed out that Haidt’s conceptualization is too simple, as it fails to account for many examples of “liberal” concern with supposedly “conservative” values, and a like number of “conservative” concerns with assertedly “liberal” values.

The “Occupy” movement offers a number of clear exceptions to Haidt’s characterization. Some of the most obvious of these are that the “atomist” liberals of the movement practiced communal sharing of food, operated by largely leaderless consensus, and even joined together into a literal single voice whenever they used the “human microphone” means of communication.


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