Religion Doesn't Make One Moral, It Gives Cover for Being Immoral
A month ago, I asked whether it was more important to be moral or faithful. The theological argument is usually that morality is a result of faith. This is practically a given, even among agnostics who will send their kids to church to teach them morality. As Steve Benen says, "A variety of policy positions are generally associated with evangelical Christians. Abortion, for example, is a moral wrong. So is gay marriage. Pre-marital sex, pornography, and adultery are also all morally offensive, inconsistent with their spiritual values."

Is it true that church makes you more moral? I'm unconvinced. A new poll shows that, in addition to making you less likely to support abortion or gay rights, church goers are more likely to condone the use of torture.

Like so many issues, whether or not this demonstrates one is more "moral" comes down to how you define moral, but it also suggests something that has always bothered me. It seems that religion, at least in some ways, can make one immoral by giving you justifications and rationalizations for actions you might not normally approve on their own merits. Atheists are the least likely to support torture policies. Why? Because there is nothing for them to use to justify such policies; it is left entirely to their own conscience. (Actually, a cynical, Randian Darwinism by non-religious intellectuals like George Will can also be used to rationalize selfishness and deceit.)

This again reminds me of the stories I would run across of African missionaries who would lose their faith, but continue performing good deeds. And it also reminds me of the time I went to volunteer at the Astrodome to register the people as they came off the bus from the Superdome.

There was something uplifting about everyone from all economic levels and backgrounds pitching in to help these people, some shot, their feet rotting from standing in polluted water, others in need of insulin. Then, there was one young man who had brought a stack of religious brochures he was handing out to people as they came off the bus. His volunteerism was purely selfish, meant to exploit our collective good deeds to gain converts. It's saying, "Christians (evangelicals) are the ones helping you," when, in truth, the ones there to help them were actually helping them rather than handing out literature.

Once a missionary loses their faith and simply does good deeds rather than attempting to convert the beneficiaries of their good will, it is perhaps the best example of altruism: there is no motivation to do good, but to do good.

All this, of course, is assuming that accepting homosexuals as full citizens and maintaining our principles in crisis is the "moral" thing to do. If religion motivates people not to believe those things, then, I have to question how beneficial going to church really is in developing altruism and ethics.

(Non-theists think alike: Trina Hoaks beat me to the punch.)

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Comment by Rene Benthien on May 5, 2009 at 7:34am
Yes that is true. But I suppose they don't see it as exploiting. They probably see it as helping.
Comment by Angie Jackson on May 4, 2009 at 8:31pm
If you're gonna exploit people (and religions are) when they're at their weakest is the best time! Hence prison and hospital ministries.
Comment by Rene Benthien on May 4, 2009 at 1:04am
That guy handing out pamphlets was exploiting those people at their most weakest and vulnerable moment. It's quite annoying to see such practice.

On balance I think religion is currently promoting more immorality than preventing it. This may not have been the case historically where religion played a big part in sustaining civilizations, but it has long gone past its use-by-date.

However I do think there is merit in the argument that fear in God makes good people refrain from doing bad things under strong incentives to do bad things. You might find this talk by John Haidt interesting.



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