Religious entanglements

1. Ever since Plato wrote the Euthyphro, philosophers have known that ethics and religion are like oil and water. Or, more precisely, that divine commands as such add nothing to the distinctly moral force of moral prescriptions. Does God command the good because it is good? Or is it good because God commands it? If the former, then the goodness of things exists apart from their being commanded by God. If the latter, then the notion of goodness is vacuous–it is simply what God commands. I take it the standard religious response is to suggest that this is a false dichotomy, that, somehow, it is in the essence of God or of God’s commands to be good. But I don’t get it. So, with most philosophers, I conclude that goodness (whether moral or otherwise) is distinct from being commanded by God. I’ll also go one step further and say, this time with most secular philosophers, that God and religion are completely irrelevant to ethics.

2. That being said, it is nevertheless undeniable that, all throughout the world, ethics is religiously entangled. The world’s diverse cultures all have moralities that are in some way caught up with religious myths. There are gods, or ancestors, or the law of Heaven, to back up the most important moral prescriptions. So, all philosophical arguments aside, there’s a need for an explanation here. Why is ethics, the world over, religiously entangled? 

3. The most plausible story that I’m familiar with runs something like this: our hominid ancestors usually inhabited roughly partitioned environments–i.e. they were in competition with neighboring hominid bands. This is the context in which group selection kicks in. Groups that find ways of getting along at least well enough to reproduce, raise children, make tools, find food, and band together to fend off attacks, raid neighboring territories, or maybe just conquer them outright, win. We are the descendants of such “winners”. Religious entanglement, on this account, is a function of the fact that, being already predisposed to see occult agencies at work in the world, those bands of our ancestors that took the further step of connecting those occult agencies with the enforcement or monitoring of social rules would have had an edge in cultural competition. If you and your tribe already believe there are unseen spirits at work in the world, and if you come to believe that these spirits are watching you constantly, and that they can reward you for being “good” or punish you for being “bad”… chances are, you’ll abide by the social code more consistently than your godless neighbors. And if the conditions are right, that means you’ll also outcompete them. (The basic account here is borrowed from Philip Kitcher, The Ethical Project. The bit about being predisposed to seeing occult agencies at work in the world finds substantiation in, e.g., Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained.)

4. So the religious entanglement of ethics is, from the perspective of our best guess, a function of the pro-social effects of religious belief. Thus comes the natural follow-up: shouldn’t we secularists be afraid that exorcizing God from ethics will result in widespread societal breakdown? If believing in God (or the ancestors, or…) helped our ancestors band together and survive to mate another day, won’t “killing” God result in society falling apart? 

5. Not to be too glib about it, but… : I don’t know. I hope not. There’s more that draws us together than just the fear (or love) of God–even if that has played an important role for us historically. So my hope is that we’ll be clever enough to find ways to encourage each other to take others into account. But there’s no guarantee it’ll work, I suppose. More fundamentally however, the key point is this: the cat is already out of the bag. There’s no going back. We can’t wish ourselves back into religious ethics. God is already dead, even if some haven’t gotten the memo. As a humanist then, I conclude that our considerable creativity is best put to use not in trying to revive God, in trying to resuscitate him briefly on his way out, but rather in figuring out how to live without him. 

6. In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein’s got this memorable image of kicking away a ladder once you’ve used it to climb up to some new insight. The humanist’s hope, I take it, is that, even if God and religion were necessary in human history to get us up to this point, we might still be able to kick away the ladder in light of the truth (that there is no God, and that none of religion’s substantive claims are true in the relevant way). But yes, I suppose alternatively, we could be unwittingly sawing off the branch we’re sitting on. Oh well.