Religion has ruined morality. There. I said it.
I touched on this subject glancingly on my webpage Morality Without God, but here I want to treat it more directly. I toyed with other headline verbs: hijacked, twisted, stunted, subverted, etc. I think they all fit.
(Please note the three disclaimers/clarifications at the bottom of the entry.)
The first way in which religion has ruined morality is by clinging to a nonsensical, non-standard definition of the word. For example, Catholics can’t even define morality without talking about Creation, Original Sin, “the immortal soul”, God, “sin”, Christ, the Crucifixion, and other topics that aren’t within the purview of morality. Many Americans will be surprised that Islam’s definition of morality is much closer to the actual meaning of the word, at least in the first couple of paragraphs. Even so, Islam’s discussion of it also quickly devolves into unrelated topics: “The Islamic moral system stems from its primary creed of belief in One God as the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe… it is righteousness to believe in Allah…”
Try as they might to use reason to define good or bad behavior, religionists end up coming back to “sin”, believing in a god or gods, and obeying that god or those gods.
(The rest of us use something close to the dictionary definition, which simply talks about standards for right/wrong behavior.)
The inability to agree on the meaning of words prohibits measured and constructive conversation on any topic. Despite morality being a topic of prime importance to many — believers and atheists alike — discussions are derailed from the start because religion refuses to recognize what the word actually means.
An anecdote: Earlier this year, I conversed with a Christian about a blog entry on child-rearing. I said I agreed with the points made by the author, and that I applied the same strategies in my own parenting, but I added that the writer could have probably reached a wider audience if they had written without heavy doses of religious terminology. The Christian responded that it is “impossible” to raise children well without a relationship to God. (This person knows that I have children and that I do not believe in God.)
My first instinct was to take it as a personal insult, but I eventually realized the problem: the person actually does not know what morality means. The Christian’s thinking has been subverted by religion dogma throughout life and now is unable to define “morality” without squeezing “God” in there somewhere. When I substitute “desirable or undesirable behavior” in place of “morality”, the same problem arises; the Christian has been programmed to not understand these words without injecting stories of God, sin, and “the blood of Jesus”.
To them, nothing you do constitutes good behavior or moral acts unless the behavior and acts occur within a framework of belief in God.
The second way religion has ruined morality for believers is by asserting an unproven origin story, which becomes central to their ideas of morality. “Morality comes from God.” Period. End of discussion.
This means the differences between each religion’s morality standards can never be reconciled, because adherents to each believe their gods created moral rules before humans. For example: Religion 1 believes women are equal in status to men, but Religion 2 believes men should — by force of law — force women to be pregnant against their will. There can be no discussion or argument and therefore no agreement. Religion 1 will always strive to treat women equally and with full human rights, while Religion 2 will always treat women as disposable machines: mere baby incubators.
Of course, this isn’t entirely true in practice. In reality, every few generations, new leaders arise who grew up in a different generation with different mores, and they proclaim that previous church leaders were actually mistaken about what God wanted. “God has always been against slavery”, they will insist, contradicting the previous hundred generations in their religion who all insisted God was okay with slavery. This has been especially true with Catholicism over the years, as they eventually came to accept heliocentrism, non-Latin mass, non-Latin Bibles, and other subjects of great contention within the church (such as whether the priest should face away from or toward the parishioners during mass — seriously). It was a Catholic pope who began the Crusades in 1095, and a different Catholic pope 900 years later who apologized for them. Of course, the previous Catholics were “not in keeping with the Gospel”, said the new ones — though the old ones would have disagreed.
It is also true that within a single religion at any given time, people’s views differ, so that there never really is a consensus on any topic. For example, the Catholic Church’s official position on birth control has long been “against”, yet “the Pill” was invented by a devout Catholic and 98% of Catholic women have tried at least one form of officially banned contraception (source). Officially, Catholicism is against gay marriage, but 54% of U.S. Catholics say it should be legalized (ibid).
But each of these adherents who disagrees with the official view of the church, and each current leader of the church who officially disagrees with the previous official view — all of them still believe their morality comes from God.
This origin story is a moral problem for multiple reasons.
A. It feeds into my first section above, by obscuring the meaning of the word “morality”. If morality comes from God, then its definition becomes “the rules given to us by God” instead of a code of good behavior that we developed to improve society. Belief in God becomes a prerequisite for morality.
B. It accepts a rule at face value and only later tries to think up a justification for the rule. “Why execute people for working on Saturday?”, a skeptic might ask about the Old Testament. “We’ll think of a reason”, the Christian will answer, “because God couldn’t have been wrong.”
C. It doesn’t allow a moral rule to change over time, given new circumstances. (As I already noted, they actually DO change over time, in many cases, but only because God wasn’t clear enough in his original instructions.)
D. It attributes the rules to a being that isn’t known to exist. Imagine if a congressperson introduced a new law and claimed it was necessary because a character in a Batman comic book insisted on it. She would be laughed off Capitol Hill and rightly so. But if I use the word “God” instead of “comic book character”? Suddenly half the country thinks I’m a hero.
Some of these are larger points, expanded below.
• The Reason For The Rule
In an effective, desirable moral code there would be a reason for each rule. In religion, the underlying reason is always “God said so.” In society, we need a better reason than that. God said not to wear mixed fabrics (Lev. 19:19 and Deut. 22:11), but no one could think of a really good reason for that, so people who believe in this particular God go right ahead and wear mixed fabrics. (At the same time, they will still tell you their moral code comes from God.) God said “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard” (Lev. 19:27); a few people still obey this one today, despite no one ever being able to think of a good reason to follow it.
God said to kill every man, woman, child, and all livestock within a given city (Deut. 13:12-16). A moral person would refuse until a damn good reason was provided. A religion-follower already has his reason: “because God said so”.
Moral rules change over time because the reasons change. At some point in history it was moral to abandon or ostracize certain diseased individuals; contagious diseases could wipe out entire villages or even nations. In some cases it could be argued that it was moral to strike them down down on the spot — to save thousands of innocent lives. But today that isn’t the case; we have quarantine procedures, effective medical treatments, and world-spanning communication networks with which to warn distant peoples of a pandemic. So today it can no longer be argued that it’s moral to kill, ostracize, or abandon the same diseased individuals. The reason changed; the rule can too.
This will never be the case for rules based on “God said so”. When religionists change their rules over time — often due to outside influences — they first have to justify the change from a standpoint of “this is what God would have wanted”. In religions with holy scriptures, they scramble to discover among its pages something learned scholars of previous ages must have missed. How could a hundred generations of Judeo-Christian thinkers have so misunderstood the parts about marrying your rapist? (Deut. 22:28-29). It was the basis for laws all over the world, but clearly we think differently now; our morals have improved. But before a religionist can change his rule, he must think of a reason why it’s okay with God to change it.
It is also the reason behind the rule that makes the rule acceptable to others who haven’t heard of it before. If someone insists I wear a hat at a certain time and place but not wear a hat at another time and place, I will ask the reason. If they respond that “God said so” or “it’s just what we do” then I am unconvinced and will continue to wear (or not wear) hats at times and places of my choosing. If instead they can point out that “a certain time and place” is “under a giant tree where hundreds of birds are pooping” then I am suddenly convinced to wear a hat at that time and place.
(This is not a moral rule but I bring up a silly example of hats because many religions to have strict headgear requirements. Some of them might very well have begun for a very good reason like pooping pigeons in the rafters of their cathedral but over time it evolved into a “wear a hat because God said so”. My point stands: without the reason for the rule, the rule is unnecessary or wrong.)
• Ability To Change The Rules
In a moral code based on reason and empathy — with the twin goals of humanity’s survival and happiness — it is understood that specific rules can and will be changed. It is self-evident that old rules, no longer necessary or helpful, will be dropped, and new rules will be added as required by new circumstances.
But religions have long held that moral rules are “absolute”, “objective”, and unchanging. God instituted the rules an infinity ago, and there can be no bending.
As discussed above, they do change their rules to match modern morality, but only after a generation or more of outside influence. They will finally admit that they had previously misunderstood God’s laws or that previous leaders had acted wrongfully.
In reality, moral codes change frequently, both on a personal level and on a larger societal scale. I posit that it is immoral to hold to a rigid code despite new information or new experiences.
Take LGBTQ rights for example. Despite all manner of LGBTQ persons living in the U.S. since its inception, only in the 1960s did barriers began to fall. In the 1970s and ’80s — especially where I lived — it remained taboo to express sympathy for “homos”. But something changed. In the 1990s it suddenly became fashionable among my generation to add the words “not that there’s anything wrong with that” after any mention of homosexuality, even if you were in the midst of disparaging someone. Twenty years later, massive shifts in our society mean gays and lesbians now have the right to marry, serve in the military, adopt children, and so on. (We’re still working on rights for other groups, like trans people, and in some cases we went backward.)
What changed? Some say it was simply a generational shift, that no one changed their personal views but younger people grew up with different views than their parents. I disagree because I’m someone who changed my views on this. Raised incorrectly to regard every letter of LGBTQ as “sin”, I eventually asked myself “what are the reasons for these rules?” and couldn’t find any good answers. All the answers provided were bunk — lies, misconceptions, and undisguised bigotry. So I changed my view.
Had I still been stuck in “God said so” mode, I couldn’t have changed my view. The anti-LGBTQ bigotry remaining today is based almost entirely in religion’s twisted version of morality. (Please don’t misunderstand: Many religions have made great strides on this issue; even the Pope recently said “who am I to judge?” So I am NOT saying that all religious people are anti-gay bigots. I am most definitely saying, however, that almost all remaining anti-gay bigotry is based in religion.)
Non-believers — non-religious people — have no reason to cling to outdated moral standards. Only a person who believes the rules are unchanging, that they were brought to us by God, that they are unfailingly correct, finds it impossible to adjust her stance when presented with a reason to change.
• The Nonexistent Lawgiver
It is a dangerous precedent to take moral instruction from fictional characters.
Of course if an author uses fiction to express an idea, that is fine. If a fictional character gives reasons for a shift in moral standards, then the reasons are what changes our minds.
But if the author simply created a popular character and then that character began giving moral commands, no reader has any obligation to follow them. It would be absurd if an organization dedicated to this fictional character began insisting that others follow the moral code as laid out by this character entirely on its say-so.
Yet most of the world takes the opposite view, believing instead that it’s perfectly normal (not absurd at all) to get unexplained moral rules from a being that no one can show even exists. They think it’s necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. Not one of them has ever seen God or met her. Many claim to have heard the voice of God, but they have produced a grand total of zero audio recordings of God’s voice (they claim to have “heard” the voice inside a muscular organ known to not be useful for hearing). A great many of this number disagree with one another on what the rules should be, and even on which God or gods distributed the rules, but they agree with one another that moral rules must come from the supernatural realm (which is not known to exist).
Because I was raised in religion, and because it’s so normal for religion to permeate our society, sometimes I have to step back and repeat the above words to get a picture of how ridiculous it really is. Here we are, in the 21st Century, having put a dozen men on the Moon and hundreds into space, eradicating diseases with evidence-based medicine, and finally figuring out how to power our lives without burning stuff, but more than half the people you’ll ever meet get their moral dictates from an invisible being or beings that no one has ever met.
I think it would be just as good to put random words on slips of paper and shuffle them around, using any coherent sentences as moral rules.
What would be even better is if each person examined his or her own moral code and found an actual reason for each rule (and “God said it” isn’t a reason).
But instead we get some pretty nonsensical things passed off as moral.
• Why This Is Important
After all this, I must admit none of it is of any import if the moral codes of religious people have no effect on the lives of others.
To return to the inane hat example above, if I believe it is moral to wear my hat indoors but immoral to wear it outdoors, except on Thursdays when I must wear it at all times, and on Tuesdays when I must never wear it, and on Saturdays when I must wear two hats — it doesn’t matter. At all. As long as I acquired my hats honestly and as long as I don’t force anyone else into headgear rituals, it makes no difference whatsoever.
General rule of thumb:
Okay: “I must do X because my religion requires it.”
Not okay: “YOU must do X because my religion requires it.”
Religion has almost always tended toward the latter, not-okay behavior, and it’s no different today than it has been for thousands of years. Daily, religionists around the world insist that other people must follow their dictates. An astounding number of their rules have to do with regulating women — how they should dress, which kinds of jobs they can’t have, when they mustn’t talk, how their value is less than that of a man, which medical procedures are not allowed, when they must or mustn’t be pregnant, who they must or mustn’t have sex with, and so on.
It starts as social pressure, but any religion that gets large enough, popular enough, or wealthy enough suddenly begins to exert influence over the legal system.
This is why it’s important to examine exactly how religion has ruined morality, and to understand how their version of morality is a sick and twisted thing, unhelpful for human society.
Seen at a Christmas light parade on the grounds of Ft. Hood, Texas, a U.S. military installation.
(Copyright © 2014 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)
• Disclaimers And Clarifications
First, it should be clear that I refer specifically to the morality theories invented by religions and the people who get their ideas of morality from religion. Morality itself is just a word that refers to “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior” and/or “a particular system of values and principles of conduct”. I don’t think religion has ruined the word itself or even the idea — though religion has certainly confused a lot of people about what it means and what it’s for.
Secondly, when I say “religion”, I use the word in its general sense: an organized, codified belief system, typically involving belief in supernatural beings and/or forces — I’m not referring to one specific religion. (However, I do mention specific religions’ views as examples, and the one I’m most familiar with is Christianity.) I also do not mean all religions that have existed; there very well could be exceptions. Religion in general has ruined the idea of morality for adherents.
Thirdly, I am aware that religions — like any other groups of people — are not entirely homogeneous. I know each one encompasses a range of beliefs and that each individual’s beliefs might differ from another person within the same religion. I hope this is clear from the text above, but I include this paragraph just in case. Some individuals within religions don’t ascribe to the assertions of their leaders that God invented morality, or that morality is absolute, objective, and unchanging. This blog entry isn’t about those people; it is about the religions. Just as the statement “almost all serial killers and mass murderers are men” shouldn’t offend any man who isn’t a serial killer or mass murder, none of my statements about religion’s ruination of morality should offend any religious person who came about their morality honestly.
2017.10.29: This entry has been edited to correct multiple issues: (1) organization, (2) punctuation, (3) clarity, and (4) length.