Monday, 17 September 2012

The Agnostic Argument - 7 (For Good People To Do Bad Things...)

Steven Weinberg's quote is well-known:

Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things.
But for good people to do bad things, you need religion.

Parenting fail! Abraham gets ready to sacrifice his son Isaac because "God told him to". Somebody call the cops and Community Services!

My last blog post led to a discussion on Facebook with an old friend about a person's "moral compass" and where it might originate.

My friend said he knew many people who lived exemplary lives of compassion and good deeds, thanks to the inspiration of their religion. I know such people myself, but I couldn't help wondering about the source of their goodness. Was it really their religion or something more innate that made them such good people?

I can visualise someone reading in their holy book that it is desirable to give money in charity, and so they go out and do it. But what if they read in the same book that they must "slay idolators", for instance? Would they as readily obey? I'm sure they wouldn't, because otherwise we wouldn't consider them good people or as our friends, and we'd probably be reading about them in the news, and not in a good way either.

So what's really happening here when these good people read two different things in the same holy book, and they follow one set of instructions but not the other? They're cherry-picking! And the way they do that is by applying a higher sense of right and wrong to what they read, which tells them what to follow, and what not to.

So it's really a chicken-and-egg question. Is religion bettering people, or are people bettering religion? I think I know the answer to that, and the corollary then is that we don't really need religion after all!

My friend pointed out that not everyone had the gift of discerning goodness, and many people therefore need  rules to guide them, and they need the example of other people who live good lives according to those rules.

I'll grant that, but in today's world, we already have a set of good rules to live by. Take the constitution of any modern democracy and read about the rights and duties of a citizen. These man-made laws are not perfect, but then, neither is any holy book! Holy books were written by human beings, and it shows. They're riddled with fallacies, contradictions and utterly outdated ideas. At least modern constitutions can be amended to stay in tune with the times. Sticking to an unchanging set of rules will only make us look stupid as the years go by. I'll take a modern democracy's constitution over a holy book any day.

"Race Mixing is Communism," said the banners 40 years ago. No wonder they call Obama a communist...

The picture above is a good segue into my next point. The best shibboleth of morality in modern times is a person's stand on homosexuality. All the major organised religions of the world are remarkably united in their stand, and they all spectacularly fail the humanity test. To a student of nature, homosexuality among humans is natural, because it exists in virtually every other species as well. It takes a degree of emotional maturity to set aside one's own preconceptions and prejudices and to accept a gay person as an equal human being. One could argue that this level of humanism is denied to the doctrinally religious. They are enjoined to condemn behaviour that is encountered in every natural species.

This is a demonstrable example of religion making good people do bad things.

"Love Thy Neighbour", a sermon now playing at the Westboro Baptist Church

"There are no gays in Iran," said President Ahmadinejad truthfully. (We hanged them all!)

Why Can't I Own a Canadian? is a humorous deflation of religious pomposity where homosexuality is concerned, but as the photos above demonstrate quite chillingly, this is no laughing matter. Religion is an enemy of morality.

I know I'm not going to convince my friend about the evils of organised religion. It's an irony that good people only see the good side of things, so the horror completely escapes them. Now this doesn't imply that I'm a bad person, just that I'm very cynical about the world ;-). As the years go by, my sense of justice and fairness only gets sharper, and I also move farther away from religion. I don't believe that's a coincidence.

I would like the next generation to grow up reading widely, thinking, debating, questioning, having doubts. Moral certainty is a source of terrible evil, and it is better for us to doubt and question ourselves than to be certain that what we're doing is morally right "because it says so in the book". It's only through reasoned argument that we can improve our world. I'll grant that blind faith is useful when you need to summon up the courage to overcome some personal obstacles, but using blind faith in a book or doctrine to inform the way we deal with other people can be quite dangerous.

Religions too know where the threat to their existence comes from. It comes from thinking people who ask questions. That's why there's so much emphasis on unquestioning faith.

This church sign betrays no sense of irony at all.

Amen, brother.

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