Yesterday we finished our treatment the Myth of Independence with a discussion of how that Myth leads to the corruption of justice in society, and how it violates the fundamental principle of American justice, namely, all men are created equal. We also mentioned that the Mythers, who convince themselves through the Myth of Independence that they need no one else, try to substitute Religion for the ties that hold society together. Because the Myths feed them full of mistaken notions, they misunderstand the true nature of Religion, and so turn it into another Major Myth that is full of more mistaken notions.
Today we being our consideration of the Myth of Religion. We will see that, although Mythers believe Religion to be the source of good behavior, reliance on Religion for moral guidance actually weakens character.
The Myth of Religion holds that morality and decency depend on religion
Since we group together into communities so that we can live together, living in society requires faith in the willingness of people to keep their word. What would come of our efforts to provide a stable structure for daily life if people couldn’t be trusted to abide by their agreements? The very act of trying to establish a government by writing a Constitution would be futile, since no one could be trusted to act according to the agreement they made when they signed the document. Any attempt at trying to live together with utterly untrustworthy people would be chaos. That is why every society needs assurance that the people in it will act in good faith.
The Myth of Religion is this: Morality and decency depend on religion. This Myth asserts that Religion is the only effective assurance that people will behave honorably. Those who believe this Myth usually provide two possible reasons for its effectiveness. One is that people will act well out of love of God. The other is that people will act well out of fear of God’s wrath and punishment.
Of the two possible reasons, the first may be true in many cases, but it doesn’t really address the basic problem of ethics, which is that many people don’t act well. Anyone who acts well out of love of God is already a good person, will try to the best of their ability to behave honorably toward others, and doesn’t need to be feared by anyone.
The second reason is the one that believers in this Myth really pin their hopes on. They believe that a society that promotes Religion will be able to use the force of divine retribution to control the wicked tendencies of those who are not already good people.
Unfortunately, as with all the other Myths, this belief is wishful thinking. It does not actually work, except at the margins.
Why religious enforcement of morality weakens character
Trying to enforce good behavior by means of Religion doesn’t work because it tries to use fear to control people. (Notice the similarity here with the other Myths, which are also ultimately based on fear.) And fear, as we have seen, produces a timid and uncreative person. These are not the sort of people who are very helpful to society. The timider the person, the less likely they are to do the right thing in a difficult situation, when the wrong thing may well seem less painful to them.
Why do so many people, then, seem to believe that Religion can guarantee morality in society? Perhaps because they only look at the more childish aspects of behavior. Perhaps because they developed their ideas about how people behave when they were six or seven, and haven’t considered them more deeply since then. Perhaps because they applied these simple beliefs to their own six- or seven-year-old children, and they seemed to work.
But just as fear produces a timid person, it also prevents people from developing the sort of character that is immune to the allurements of wickedness. The fearful person, the one who restrains himself from wickedness for fear of punishment, is divided in his soul; he has one part that would be happy to do the wicked act if he could escape punishment for it, and another part that holds the future pain of punishment up to the first part in an attempt to dissuade it from to the wicked thing. As we saw in our discussion of the Myth of Competition, these internal dissentions weaken a person, and make it impossible for him to act with full force.
A soul that is divided like this cannot attain its true power, which comes from integrity, from a whole soul acting in accordance with one principle—the principle of reason.
Tomorrow we will see why Religion is not needed to police decent behavior in society, and we will show that Religion cannot, indeed, establish virtue in society.
Until tomorrow, then.
5 December 2012
by Alfred George filed under