Yesterday we began our consideration of the Myth of Religion—the belief that morality and decency depend on Religion—by pointing out that Religion is not a good basis for morality, and that using it to enforce morality generates weak and servile characters.
Today we will see why society does not need Religion to enforce morality, and we will show that Religion cannot create virtue in society.
Why society does not need religion to police decency
As Immanuel Kant pointed out long ago, there is another source of ethics and morals besides religion—a source that is even more reliable than religion. It is clear-sighted reason. A person attains the level of integrity mentioned yesterday by coming to understand that you should always do the right thing just because it is the right thing. Once a person truly sees that, all other internal forces and desires fall into line. Why would you do anything but the right thing if you really understood that it was the right thing?
(Kant lovers can see what he has to say by reading this paragraph. Others should skip down to the paragraph after the close parenthesis. See Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, trans. Theodore M. Greene and Hoyt H. Hudson [Digireads.com Publishing, 2011], 1st ed., 1793, Preface: “So far as morality is based upon the conception of man as a free agent who, just because he is free, binds himself through his reason to unconditioned laws, it stands in need neither of the idea of another Being over him, for him to apprehend his duty, nor of an incentive other than the law itself, for him to do his duty. At least it is man’s own fault if he is subject to such a need; and if he is, this need can be relieved through nothing outside himself: for whatever does not originate in himself and his own freedom in no way compensates for the deficiency of his morality. Hence for its own sake morality does not need religion at all (whether objectively, as regards willing, or subjectively, as regards ability [to act]); by virtue of pure practical reason it is self-sufficient. For since its laws are binding, as the highest condition (itself unconditioned) of all ends, through the bare form of universal legality of the maxims, which must be chosen accordingly, morality requires absolutely no material determining ground of free choice, that is, no end, in order either to know what duty is or to impel the performance of duty. On the contrary, when it is a question of duty, morality is perfectly able to ignore all ends, and it ought to do so. Thus, for example, in order to know whether I should (or indeed can) be truthful in my testimony before a court, or whether I should be faithful in accounting for another man’s property entrusted to me, it is not at all necessary for me to search for an end which I might perhaps propose to achieve with my declaration, since it matters not at all what sort of end this is; indeed, the man who finds it needful, when his avowal is lawfully demanded, to look about him for some kind of [ulterior] end, is, by this very fact, already contemptible.” [Emphasis added.])
The difficulty is that we don’t always see the right thing to do. But the truly ethical person can continue to live well even in the face of this innate ignorance. As long as you don’t see what the right thing is, you just don’t do anything, if that’s possible. And if it’s not possible—if the situation forces you to do something even though you are in ignorance of what is right—then your only option is act on your best guess, and deal with the consequences later.
This last rule of behavior may turn out badly, but there is no mending it, because we are not omniscient creatures. If we follow it, though, we can be sure that we will always be acting out of good will, which is perhaps the highest rule of all.
The Myth of Religion, however, does not provide us with any way of mitigating the roots of bad behavior. By relying on the force of punishment, it keeps bad people divided in soul, and gives them no training in trying to see what is right and act on it.
Hence Religion is a weak substitute for integrity. To try to use it to restrain bad behavior in society is an insult to one’s fellow citizens, and a debasement of Religion itself—the purpose of which is to reconnect each individual to their spiritual source.
Religion cannot establish virtue in society
In The Federalist, James Madison pointed out that men are not angels, (Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, The Federalist, No. 51: “[W]hat is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”) and that the larger the interest groups, the less any scruples—whether of religion or of morality—seem to curb their selfishness. (Ibid., No. 10. Madison is explaining how the tyranny of majority factions can be moderated: “By what means is this object attainable? Evidently by one of two only. Either the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time must be prevented, or the majority, having such coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression. If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control. They are not found to be such on the injustice and violence of individuals, and lose their efficacy in proportion to the number combined together, that is, in proportion as their efficacy becomes needful.” [Emphasis added.]) The reason for this, as we saw yesterday, is that using fear of divine retribution to control behavior does nothing to improve understanding of what is right. It only imposes rules and regulations, leaving people in ignorance about whether the rule and regulations actually are correct. If their fear is sufficiently great, some people will abide by those rules and regulations. But to the extent that their fear makes them susceptible, their character is submissive, and their personality is not integral. As a consequence, they will always be susceptible to a force that threatens a more terrible fear. Such people are not reliable actors in society.
Religion, therefore, is no guarantor of good behavior. The persistence of the Myth of Religion is a persistent bit of wish-fulfillment on the part of the human species. Despite more than enough historical evidence that Religion does not make a society moral, a great many people cling to the Myth that it does—probably because they don’t have the integrity themselves to see any other power but fear that can keep them in line.
A special category of these Mythers are constituted by those who believe they are decent people precisely because they fear God. Such people often act out their own personal tragedies. Unless their fear of divine retribution is very great, they will sometimes capitulate to more present fears without knowing why. And then, when their capitulation harms others and themselves, they will wonder why their fear of God did not keep them in line. The consequences can be devastating, both for themselves, and for their loved ones. Society certainly cannot depend on the likes of them.
Religion, when used to frighten people into compliance with supposed divine retribution, simply cannot make a society moral or virtuous.
Tomorrow we will see that Religion claims to have three sources of truth: revelation, moral sentiment, and right reason. The we will take up the first of these sources and show that it is not reliable enough for the needs of society.
Until tomorrow, then.
6 December 2012
by Alfred George filed under