Religion, Civilisation and Morality

God's Dubious Ethics

Those who speak for religious groups are convinced that a society without religious values experiences a decline in social morality. Robert Misik does not agree

A minaret of the Mohammed al-Amin Mosque and two crosses on top of the Maronite St George Cathedral are seen in downtown Beirut, Lebanon (photo: AP)
Is there a correlation between ethical values and the degree of religiosity? Not necessarily, says Robert Misik

​​When Man banishes God from the centre of his life, both culture and civilisation are damaged – that, at least, is the view recently expressed by the Catholic Caliph, the Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Joachim Meisner. He was only putting into words what the faithful mainstream already thinks:

If Man is not aware of a God above him, he makes himself into the measure of all things. And when that happens, as Joseph Ratzinger put it, "Tyranny becomes increasingly the reigning principle, and Man decays."

It is a general assumption that, where God does not exist, everything is permitted, and in the past there have certainly been people without religious faith who have been crazy egomaniacs, seeing themselves as rulers over life and death, justified in sending hundreds of thousands, or even millions, to their deaths.

But at the same time, there have been plenty of religious people who did similar things because they believed that their God required them to deal out death and destruction.

One does not need a God to commit mass murder. But when one imagines that God requires it, it makes mass murder easier.

Conditioned by the creator

All the same, the conviction remains that religious people tend to live a moral life. "Many religious people find it hard to imagine how, without religion, one can be good, or would even want to be good," writes Richard Dawkins in his book "The God Delusion."

And he adds in his typical mocking style, from this question it is not far to "paroxysms of hatred against hos who dont’t share their faith."

The Meisners of this world believe that people only behave morally because they hope for a reward from God or fear his anger. But, Dawkins goes on to ask: "Do you really mean to tell me ... that, in the absence of God, you would commit robbery, rape, and murder?" If so, "we would be well advised to steer a wide course around you."

Perhaps, though, they too share the view that people can remain moral without God always having His eye on them. But in that case they are already aware that there is no connection between morality and faith – or, if there is, it is a complicated and contradictory relationship.

Ethical convictions have a variety of sources. A healthy feeling of solidarity towards our fellow human beings does not need religious roots.

Awareness as the driving force for social action

Altruism is a good thing, but moral behaviour does not require altruism. It is perhaps a more stable foundation for a just social system if morality does not require people to be selfless.

photo: private copyright
Robert Misik, journalist and author based in Vienna, Austria

​​We human beings are social creatures and we know that we have to live our lives while interacting with others. That leads to the principle: "Do not unto others what you would not have done to yourself." A socially just society is good for all of us. I also benefit when not too many of my fellow human beings live in misery.

A society in which everyone just looks after himself and never after the others would soon become uncomfortable. Even those who were most fortunate would have to withdraw into the kinds of "gated communities" in which rich people in some countries already have to live to ensure their security.

According to the great thinker, Bertrand Russell, "enlightened self-interest," must lead to the abolition of slavery. In a state with many slaves, he wrote, one would continually have to fear uprisings.

Religion and aggression

None of this excludes the possibility of sympathy with the oppression of one's neighbour. In other words: morality is part of the human condition. God is not needed. The opposite is rather the case: religion is good tool for shutting off moral sensitivity.

There are enough examples, both from history and from contemporary life, to show that ordinary individuals cease to see others as fellow human beings once religious fanaticism separates them, but come to see them as enemies.

Of course one does not necessarily need religion to start wars or to invade and occupy other countries. But religion is a very useful tool for awakening the aggressive impulse and keeping it alive.

It is also a good tool for making oppressed people into moral inferiors, so that they can be grateful when they are given civilisation, the true faith or whatever. And religion is a good tool for giving an oppressor the certainty that his actions are justified by God. In addition, injustice which can be explained in religious terms is more likely to be accepted.

Martin Luther, Oscar Romero and Radko Mladic

We know that there have been many irreligious people who have abused human rights, but there have also been very many religious people who have done the same. And while there have been many religious people who have taken a stand against injustice, there have also been many irreligious people who have stood beside them.

Martin Luther King stood up for the descendents of the slaves; the man he was named after, Martin Luther, wrote polemics against the Jews, and blessed those in power as they slaughtered the "murderous hordes" of freedom fighters during the peasant uprising in Germany

The former president of Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, was a faithful catholic. General Radko Mladic, the leader of the Serbian army, is an orthodox Christian. Both of them were strong supporters of the policy of "ethnic cleansing" and genocidal mass murder which would never have worked without an obsession with ethno-religious identity.

After all, the only way you can tell the southern Slavic people apart is on the basis of whether they are "catholic," "orthodox" or "Muslim."

Thirty years ago, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, stood up bravely on the side of the oppressed people of El Salvador, and was shot by fascist death squads whose leaders were just as much faithful Christians as he was.

Faith and sensitivity for injustice

If one looks at the history of most freedom movements, one will see that it has been mostly secular forces which have refused to put up wth the injustice of the world, while the religious sought their salvation in prayer. Aside from that, many of the religious found quotations from the Bible which legitimated the conquest of a country, the repression of women or the continuation of slavery.

"The likelihood that someone who was secular or a freethinker would stand up against injustice was very high," writes Christopher Hitchens about the fight against slavery in the USA.

"The likelihood that someone would stand up against slavery and racism on account of their religous convictions was fairly small. But the likelihood that someone would defend slavery and racism on account of his faith was statistically extremely high, and that is why the victory over injustice took so long."

All of us, whether religious or not, know that we feel good if we have done something which conforms to our criteria of a moral life, and that we feel bad if we have done something which contradicts our moral principles. We all have bad consciences under such circumstances. And we don't need a God above us for that.

On the contrary: it is mostly people whose faces are directed at the world who find injustice particularly unbearable, while a person of faith often has the fixed idea in his head that outward differences here on earth don't make any difference, since everything here on earth is vanity.

God's video observation

Slave or citizen? It's irrelevant. More than that: it is sometimes assumed that the "good slave who accepts his role as a slave" (Michael Onfray) is doing work which pleases God. Like a good servant of his master, he remains in the place which God has given him on earth, and with this "attitude of humility" he will earn himself "a place in paradise."

According to the Luther translation of the Bible "Let every man remain in the calling (Beruf) to which he is called (berufen)," (1. Corinthians 7:20). The German word for profession or career, "Beruf", comes from this usage. Everyone should stay what he is, because he is "called" ("berufen") to that position.

The servant may not be free on earth, but if he knows that God is with him, than he is "a freedman of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 7:22). Wonderful advice!

The Holy Scriptures of the great monotheistic religions are indeed something like the table of contents of the moral imperatives of the human race. The prohibition against murder, love of one's neighbour, sympathy for one's fellow citizen, honesty and sincerity are all values which are central to the functioning of any community. It is no surprise that they are found in practically all moral catalogues, whether religious or not.

And even if, historically speaking, what we call "our values" have a religious origin, that does not mean that the force of such moral values in society will decline as people cease to feel God's video camera watching over them. Societies which are particularly religious are by no means more moral than societies which tend to be less religious.

It is a delusion that, even if religion is not true it is useful in that it strengthens morality. But as long as non-believers find something in this view, and are open to the argument, religious tricksters will continue to have an easy time of it.

© Robert Misik 2007

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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