How Does Religion
Enhance One's Morality?

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From: "Positive Atheism" <>
Subject: Re: PA-via_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: Saturday, September 02, 2000 5:50 PM

If "morality" is simply a set of rules that apply to all and in all situations, cultures, and times, then it seems that any one of the legalistic religions should tend improve that morality. Paul disagreed with that notion, and asserted that knowledge of the law made one tend more to disobey that law. I am not sure that Paul's assessment of legalistic morality is very accurate, but in any event I do not go along with legalistic morality of any kind.

True, a legalistic system of morality works when dealing with a society, because it presents a fair set of standards and punishes lawbreaking fairly -- if it is administered fairly. But I don't think this sense of morality is healthy as a personal outlook (while I do accept that legalism is how our society's system of law works and thus do what I can to avoid breaking any of society's laws -- unless I am willing to suffer the consequences of going up against "The People of the State").

Religious morality is usually premised upon a revealed "will" of a deity, either in the form of a Scripture (Bible; Koran; Vedas; Book of Mormon) or in the form of a living prophet or spokesperson (the Pope; the Mormon President; an Imam; a swami; a medicine man) or in the form of personal inspiration (that still, small voice; the Pentecostal "gift of knowledge"). However, since I cannot verify any of the past or current claims for the existence of a god, I have no business basing my sense of morality upon any revelation (unless the revelation has been established as the law of the land, in which case I am going up against the State, not a god).

If no gods exist, then all alleged revelations are human contrivances. In other words, I cannot distinguish between the so-called will of a god and human invention, so I default to seeing all claims of revelation as human inventions -- or at least acting as if this were the case. So, if, for all practical purposes, all morality is the invention of humans, then I would think that we do best to treat all public discussions of morality as one would a scientific claim. In science, all claims to knowledge are subject to revision, and all ideas are put before the public with the specific aim of encouraging the public to scrutinize those ideas. If an idea of mine should be shown to have serious flaws, I agree to follow the results of that scrutiny and reassess or even abandon my idea.

So, to address your question, I must point out that it is a trick question: it first presupposes that religion can or does enrich or enhance one's morality, and then asks how this can be accomplished or how this happens.

The real question, I think, would be can or does religion enrich or enhance one's morality? My answer is that it can, depending upon the religion.

I think the legalistic religions that enforce conformity in order to belong to the group (the tribal totem mentality) is passé; it worked for many centuries, but I think it can only harm us within the global community of science-based thinking. I also question the morality of doing something because one thinks God or Karma will issue rewards. Likewise, refraining from doing something because one thinks God or Karma will mete out stern punishment is no morality at all. This reminds me of when I was a kid and took my dog to obedience school.

The human communities have grown up, and science and rationalism and the global community have replaced dogmatism and superstition and the tribal totem. This severely affects how we look upon morality today versus how they looked upon it 300 years ago. Unfortunately, most popular religions haven't changed much since before the Enlightenment, and they are, to borrow a line from Jesus, putting "new wine into old wineskins": the new wine, here, is the entirely new situation that humankind finds itself in. The old wineskins are the outmoded outlooks and styles of thinking that worked when the Earth was still flat and when all physical laws were set in stone. This outdated thinking does not work in this post-Copernican age of the diverse global community (any more than it did during the diverse quasi-global communities of the Greek and Roman Eras, when it was known that the Earth is not the center of the universe).

To me, acknowledging that morality is defined by humans and is not necessarily applicable to all people at all times in all situations is the primary key to understanding morality and developing systems of morality.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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