06 June 2007

"Relative" Speaking on Morals

There is a double-standard that is inherent in any theist’s accusations against non-theists regarding the idea of “moral relativism.” I need not go too much into the argument itself, because it is particularly old hat. It argues in favor of the universality of religion-based morals, and is repeated ad nauseum by proponents of religious belief who, at most, read the Cliff notes for Plato’s Euthyphro and suddenly think themselves experts on moral philosophy.

Basically, the argument runs thusly: If you do not have God telling you what is morally right or wrong, and instead rely on society’s best efforts to enforce moral behavior, the relative difference from culture to culture and society to society creates an environment where potentially everything is permissible, to the extent that even the moral precepts against murder, theft, and child abuse (which are seemingly innate to every normal human being) can be sanctioned in some form or another.

But theists who foolishly put forward this trope walk blithely into the trap that illustrates the painfully obvious double-standard inherent in the argument. To be specific, religion is the best example of moral relativism that is ever to be found in the history of civilized culture. It is a fact that every religion legislates for its adherents what it declares to be “universal morality.” It is also a fact that every religion claims special exceptions to the very same universal, unbreakable moral code that everyone is supposed to follow.

Let me repeat: ALL of the major theistic religions claim exclusive declaratory rights to impose universal morality upon the whole of humankind while at the same time claiming special exceptions to or exemptions from truly universal adherence to its own supposedly universal morality.

I’ll go even further by stating unequivocally that it is religion, and not reasonable non-theistic beliefs, that have repeatedly justified exceptions to those innate human moral precepts I mentioned before. Namely, do not kill, do not steal, and do not hurt children.

Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all have committed atrocious acts of murder and genocide on each other as well as their own people so as to make even the paranoid-schizophrenic bloodlust of Ivan the Terrible seem positively benign. All have institutionalized torture in the past (as well as in contemporary times) in order to enforce each’s particular interpretation of the “Will of God.”

And all, too, have killed in the name of God’s will.

From the Crusades to the Inquisition, from Joshua's conquest of Canaan to David Ben-Gurion's Zion, and from Mohammed's sack of Mecca to the current (and numerous) fatwas calling for the destruction of Israel and the whole of western civilization, all of which point to the unbridled malice and wanton destruction wrought by religion’s callous disregard for any kind of universal proscription against murder, much less their own. Further, it is only by religion’s bloody hand that the innate biological proscription against murder (as well as theft and child abuse) is overcome. As physicist Steven Weinberg beautifully expressed it: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things; but for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

A brief digression must be made to counter the arguments of those who would point out that it is sometimes necessary to kill in order to defend one’s self and others from aggression. The most contemporary expression of this maxim is the favourite of bumper-sticker philosophers across America: “Freedom isn’t Free.” The truth of this statement remains undiluted by its clichéd status, and I would not try to argue against it. However, I will argue with all of my conviction that the wars of religion are nearly always aggressive in nature. That is, it is only conquest, plunder, and fresh converts to add to the ranks of the faithful (and woe unto those who resist) which are on the mind of religious leaders who sound the tocsin of war in “defense of the faith.” The “freedom” that religion seeks is always at the expense of the civil liberties enjoyed by whatever society it inhabits; a religion must have dominance in its host society in order to survive, it cannot otherwise exist. From this perspective, the ideal of “freedom of religion” becomes a sad contradiction, because every religion is inherently and explicitly opposed to the idea that individuals can believe what they wish. So much for the notion that the U.S. was founded on “Christian” ideals. Had the founding fathers allowed religion to have an official place at the table of government, the United States would never have evolved into the beacon of freedom and justice that it has become since its inception in 1776. With that being said, I will move on.

All three religions, too, have stolen in the name of God, with the Roman Catholic Church undoubtedly claiming the crown of greediest and most methodical in its acquisition of purloined and extorted riches. But Jews and Muslims, too, have stolen their own great treasures and hoarded them away. Jews have (twice) claimed land occupied by others: the original settlement of the “promised land” (found in the Torah) and the current “re-settlement” that has been taking place in the Levant since the late nineteenth century. Islam is notorious for supporting some of the most heinous examples of organized piracy and extortion in history, and the most famous of these would undoubtedly be the Sultanate of the Ottoman Turks. The Sultans charged incredible ransoms from non-Muslim merchants for the privilege of not having their wares seized and themselves enslaved, while at the same time skimming the profits of similar enterprises from lesser Muslim caliphs, most notably the Barbary princes.

I don’t wish to linger too long on examples of institutionalized child abuse by religious authority, because my own sensibilities recoil in outrage at the discussion of them (one need only read the newspaper stories about forced female circumcision or watch Amy Berg’s disturbing documentary “Deliver Us From Evil,” which focuses acutely on the Catholic Church’s nefarious conduct during the recent scandals involving pedophile priests). However, I do wish to mention that child abuse is institutionalized in religion because religious belief is, by its very nature, something that must be indoctrinated into adherents in order to ensure its own enduring existence, and there is no more susceptible and vulnerable type of person than a child. Religious authorities know this, and so focus much of their attention on the young, frightening them into submission with tales of hellfire and death in order to craft them into ciphers; willing instruments of God’s will, fanatically devoted to carrying out whatever God (or, more appropriately, “God’s” self-proclaimed representatives i.e. bishops, imams, rabbis) instructs them to do, up to and including murdering others and themselves. I am reminded of my encounter with the Phelps family of the Westboro Baptist Church in 2005, where I found it remarkable that, while they held signs that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags,” two of the young boys talked on about race cars. They were no different from any other pre-adolescent boys in America, aside from their indoctrinated religious hatred. Indoctrination into religion is the ultimate form of child abuse, and its virulence is omnipresent across the spectrum of contemporary civilization.

Religious morals are relative. They are relative not only to each other, as religions vary from culture to culture, but they are also relative in the context of each religion’s different iteration of declared universal morality. Don’t kill—unless they’re heathens or heretics. The maxim “Thou shalt not steal” has the same caveat. And the supposed “care” of the young that all three religions claim as among their chief responsibilities instead has led to the ritual mutilation of the body (particularly the genitals), the institutionalization of rape, and the enslavement of the mind. Given this, it will be only the most feeble-minded and willfully ignorant of theists who continue to argue for their respective dogmatic belief system’s exclusive claim on “universal” morality.

Morality is a human construction, just like religion. But unlike religion, morality does not suffer from the application of reason and rationality. As Sam Harris has repeatedly said, no society has ever suffered or committed evil because it was “too rational.” Rather, it is the absence or breakdown of reason and rationality that is often the chief cause of conflict and misery. And in all the breadth of human imagination and experience, there is nothing more unreasonable or irrational than organized religion.

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