The Ethical Harm of Religious Morality
Morality is held up by many religious people as evidence of the superiority of their blind faith to the unbelievers. The claim, as old as religion itself, is that unless you live in line with the moral doctrines of a given faith, you are a bad, ‘immoral’ person. And while it is true that compared to their own, personal moral standard, you are immoral, that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Morality is relative
It’s plainly evident from the hugely varied morals within faiths and of the different faiths that all insist you obey their moral teachings that these morals are not universally agreed. Christian moral teachings have been used to argue both for and against slavery, some christians believe wealth and materialism are obstacles to religious salvation while others argue it’s a blessing from god for their belief and among christians there is a full spectrum of views surrounding homosexuality and sex before marriage. The jewish and islamic faiths advocate for specific foodstuffs to be excluded from your diet, and respectively have views on the shunning of menstruating women and a much contested ideal of jihad. Most religions advocate proselytising of course — that’s a large part of how they survived religious evolution. On the basis of religious morality many wars have been fought, in spite of which many religious people use their faith to advocate pacifism. Morality must be subjective because it’s a system of values that proclaim what is good and what is evil and therefore is intrinsically subjective, as without the subject to make the judgement call there can be no morality.
Morality is a social construct used to control the masses
Morality is an incredibly useful tool when used to control the sentiments of a populace. If you are able to paint a behaviour or demographic as ‘evil’, this categorisation can motivate people to go to great lengths to purge that perceived evil from existence. Whether in a religious context, such as during the crusades when the islamic cultures bordering on Europe were painted as evil by the pope in order to convince warring christian nations to turn their focus against muslims in a feud that to some extent continues to this day, or beyond the religious context such as in nationalism and racism where for instance early 20th century white supremacists like Hitler characterised modern art and jazz music as degenerate art forms. It should not be forgotten how morality has been used as a justification for atrocities committed throughout history and moreover, we should learn from these examples to change how we view ethics and take a more pragmatic and useful approach to behavioural problems in the future.
What is the root of morality and where do we go from here?
It’s no surprise that many humans consider morality to be a fixed and reliable basis on which to decide how we live our lives, at least before questioning what that means on a deeper level. It’s natural because we feel empathy for other people. When most people see someone else suffering they suffer as well, and want to do what they can to prevent that suffering from continuing or reoccurring. Even without that empathy there would still be a need for protective legislation in societies in order to foster their growth, and as a group is more powerful than an individual it is inevitable that these social contracts have been drawn up and widely agreed upon which dictate that murderers and thieves are put in jail to protect society. When we try to use morality to decide on the finer points of this judicial system rather than scientific, evidence based studies it can cause some to feel as though they are getting the justice they want, but in practice it results in an ineffective system which is less likely to prevent injustice and more likely to provoke it.
Empathy, the desire to prevent suffering and protect the people around us is healthy and useful. Morality is fundamentally a semantic gamification of those factors that rose out of the power it imbues in those who can convince their societies that they hold the moral high ground. Instead of looking to define good and evil, those nebulous concepts, perhaps it’s time to look to what is healthy and what is damaging, what is productive and what is destructive. That way instead of calling for evil to be destroyed, we can aim to change what is destructive for the mutual benefit of all.