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Monday, 8 June 2009

Why we can’t exist morally without religion

“Hostility to religion bodes ill for society”, reads the headline on a piece in Minnesota’s Star Tribune.

Really? I think we’ve seen how much ill religion – organised religion – can do for society. It wants to stamp on freedoms; it wants to push its way into all corners of public life; it wants to indoctrinate kids in their schools while their minds are still putty; many of its foot soldiers have abused children.

This piece by Katherine Kersten carries a standfirst that reads, “Without belief in a higher truth, people may give way to base impulses.”

People will give way to base impulses with or without religion. Why can’t people get it into their skulls that good and evil come out of people? Religion may be where some get their ideas (no one can really doubt that as a general rule loving your neighbour is a Good Thing), but that’s where it ends.

In the final analysis, a person decides whether to be good or bad, whether to pat dogs, see old ladies across the road, kick cats, shoot the boss. As we’ve seen from Christianity of old (I’m thinking of such delights as the Inquisition here) and Islam today (I’m thinking of gays being pushed off cliffs, of the 120,000 political prisoners who have been judicially murdered by Iran since the Islamic Revolution there – that sort of thing), religion is not exactly without “previous”.

In her article, Kersten has a go at the so-called New Atheists, particularly Dawkins and Hitchens, calling them materialists: “They are passionately committed to the idea that the universe is a random accident, that transcendent truth is a myth, and that man’s life has no inherent purpose or meaning.”

I’m pretty sure I’ve read Dawkins somewhere or other on the subject of the beauty of a symphony or a landscape, and the transcendent joy one can experience. That’s hardly materialism. And just what does she mean by transcendent truth? What sort of “truth” is that? And where would this “purpose” and “meaning” be stored? Those are the things man bestows on himself. These notions can’t be there at the beginning, since there’s no mind to hold them.

But, on the question of where we came from and what sustains the cosmos, there is evidence of material causes and no evidence of deities. That’s not to say we have all the answers, and I’m pretty sure the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens et al. would agree. Science is very much and always a work in progress; it has its fair share of arrogance and hubris, there are nutcases in white coats; there are people who do hold science, and hence materialism, above all else.

Judeo-Christianity teaches “that universal standards of right and wrong trump our personal desires”, writes Kersten, adding:

In addition, it raises troubling questions about the vision of scientific “progress”, so central to our modern age. The mere fact that we are capable of, say, genetically altering or cloning human beings doesn’t give us moral license to do so, it cautions.

There are many nontheists, your humble blogger included, who would say we don’t have a moral licence to do these things. If they are to be done at all, there have to be (a) good reasons, (b) good science and (c) benefits for humankind.

I can think of good reasons and benefits for some genetic alteration if that cures or prevents a debilitating illness and doesn’t produce unwelcome side effects, such as fangs, hairy palms or two willies.

Anyway, she goes on to question how we can possibly make the right decision without religion.

In my humble opinion, religion for some has been a guide. For some, it’s probably been a good guide. But, in the end, they have made the decisions that have affected their lives and those of others around them.

That a religion possesses ideas doesn’t mean the ideas are peculiar to that religion, that it can claim them as its own. Ideas emanate from the mind of man, not from a sky fairy.

While there’s a lot wrong with the world, much of that rests within religion and well as without. If people want to use religion as a guide to their lives, it’s little different – in principle – from using, say, the words of a lifestyle guru. Whatever floats your boat.

But to say that we can’t exist morally without belief in virgin births, divine visitations, resurrections, gods coming to Earth as humans and all the other twaddle is just arrogance on stilts.

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