Where morality comes from

I’m sometimes criticized for picking philosophical fights with the wrong kind of religion. I’ll say something unqualified along the lines of “religion is bad”, and I’m reprimanded for equating religion with its worst elements. No doubt there is something to that critique. Christianity is not monolithic. Neither is Islam. And Judaism certainly isn’t. And yet I want to insist that there’s something fundamentally wrong with religion as such. What gives?

What’s wrong with religion is its epistemology–where it says knowledge comes from. Traditional theism (and I’m thinking here, as elsewhere, of the Abrahamic religions) is based, if it is based on anything, on the assumption that God gives us knowledge. Whether it’s through the Bible or the Koran, through a certain tradition, through mystical inspiration, or whatever. The fundamental point is that God reveals truth to us.

Most empirically-minded folk have realized that religion cannot give us scientific truth about the world. The cosmology and biology of the Bible, for instance, are false. Only fundamentalists and other strong conservatives deny this. Nevertheless, religious moderates and liberals insist on viewing religion as a vehicle for ‘special revelation’ of moral truth. While the Bible can’t tell us about DNA, they say, it can tell us about who we are and how to live.

Exhibit A: Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has repeatedly given voice to the widespread Christian belief that it is God who gives us our rights (see here).

This contrasts sharply with the humanist view that morality is a system of norms negotiated in realtime by social animals with a wide variety of internally and interpersonally conflicting desires, values, and so on. On the humanist picture, it’s just us. We’re mucking about as best we can, coming up with ideas, rules, or whatever, that minimize violence, discomfort, humiliation, and other things we don’t like, so that most social interaction can be a positive sum game (as opposed to a zero-sum game where one person’s gain is necessarily another person’s loss, or a negative-sum game where everybody loses). We’ve come a long way, but we’ve also got a long way to go. And the way we make progress (again, on the humanist view) isn’t by consulting a divine list of dos and don’ts, nor is it by consulting with mediums, with the ‘Holy Spirit’, or with some ‘holy’ book or other. We make progress by becoming better listeners and by engaging in actual conversations with people who are harmed by our current social arrangements and then taking those insights and using them to write our best selves into laws, customs, and culture. It’s hard work, and there’s honest debate about how accommodating it’s realistic to be, but that’s the stuff of real life.

Religion comes in–and it’s religion of all stripes, mind you–and says “God says” or “the Holy Spirit says” or “the Koran says” or whatever. And sure, it’s nice when “God says” to legalize gay marriage, or “the Koran allows” women to vote/drive/etc. But just because alleged divine revelation coincides with our best and most humane insights doesn’t mean the claim about divine revelation is any less problematic!

Perhaps a sensible person might say: “but what about religion viewed not as a receptacle of truths, but as a way of life?”

And I’ll be honest–that sounds great! Imagine if Christianity weren’t about believing the right things, but about living in certain ways–living the Golden Rule, caring for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed, living simply and nonviolently… that would be great! And there are versions of Christianity that incorporate those insights. I’m told there are versions of Buddhism that aren’t about anything other than self-examination and self-knowledge (coupled with the claim that, the closer you get to know your ‘self’, the more you realize that everything you thought was you turns out not to be). So surely, religion can be a lifepath, rather than a dogmatic system.

But now it’s your turn to be honest. How many practitioners or theologians do you know who say: “our religious tradition has some insight into living–take it or leave it”? The Mennonite theologian Gordon D. Kaufman ended up saying something like that (viewing ‘God’ as the impersonal force[s] of creativity at work in the world, Jesus as an unusual ‘creative’ person, and Christians as those who found themselves drawn to Jesus for whatever reason), and most religious people thought of him as an arch-heretic. Why? Because his ‘religious’ views were fully compatible with naturalistic, atheistic humanism. Instead of replacing (partially or completely) a scientific worldview, Christian insight into living, according to Kaufman, could complement it. So Kaufman gave epistemological priority to science, rejecting everything in the Christian tradition that was incompatible with it. If all, most, or even just some religious folk thought of religion that way, I’d totally be on board. But guess what? It turns out that religious folk insist on coupling their particular tradition’s insights with additional claims, like “and everybody else got it wrong (or less right)”, “this information was revealed to us by God”, and so on. And that just reintroduces the epistemological problems all over again.

So for me it all boils down to this: where does knowledge come from? As an empiricist and a pragmatist, I say: from experience, properly scrutinized, and checked against the experience of others. This means that knowledge about the world comes from running experiments on the world with good hypotheses and a methodology that incorporates the hard-earned lessons of the history of science. It means that knowledge about how to live comes from living and talking about living with a wide variety of people (and when I say talking to people, I should note that reading about the experiences of others can be one way of coming very close to this where it’s not feasible to host a live conversation). And that’s pretty much it. I’m not aware of any other reliable sources of knowledge.

To recap: my unqualified judgment that religion is bad, unhelpful, or whatever–that it needs to be outgrown–is grounded in my observation that traditional religion has an untenable epistemology. Traditional religion views knowledge (or at least some forms of knowledge) as coming from God. This has the distinct disadvantage of making it unclear how to check that knowledge against reality, and how to correct it if it starts to be apparent that what we thought was true isn’t. Humanism doesn’t fix all our knowledge problems–we still have to do the hard work of experimenting (with our world, with our social structures), but at least it avoids the kind of epistemic dead end religion celebrates.


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