You can now read this post in Polish at Racjonalista.
How many times do we have to say it in order to get it across? You don’t need religion to be a moral person. In fact, religion itself has very little if anything to do with morality. It may be, as Philip Kitcher suggests in his book The Ethical Project, that, at a certain point in the development of morality, religion served as a way of getting people to avoid altruism failures when they were all alone, and no one would know that they had not acted altruistically — which Kitcher takes as a helpful but dangerous stage in the ethical project — but the idea that we need religion for that purpose was discarded long ago. As long ago as Plato, and perhaps earlier. And people who assume that morality is bound up with religion often prove that it is not, for they themselves are prepared to make judgements about religious morality. If morality depends upon religion, this should be impossible, but it isn’t, so it doesn’t.
In fact, the truth seems to be diametrically opposed to the assumption that religion and morality are dependent on each other. Now, I know it’s difficult for some people to see this, because they’ve already done all the work necessary in order to sort out, from amongst all the possible prescriptions and proscriptions of their religion, those things that they consider bad or good. However, the truth is that almost everyone has done this sorting for themselves. Catholics, for example, don’t need the Church to teach them what is right and wrong, because large numbers of them don’t follow the moral dictates of the Church in the first place. They figure — and they figure correctly — that they can distinguish bad from good on their own. Of course, they may be stuck — if they’re at all serious about their faith — with telling some little white lies when and if they go to confession. After all, if the Church says that abortion is wrong, and a woman has had, for perfectly good reasons, an abortion, then that’s something she might find herself confessing, and being shriven for; but she’ll keep her fingers crossed, because she doesn’t really think she’s done such a bad thing.
I remember when I first got out on my own. My mother and father were fanatical teetotalers. My father would never use the words ‘alcohol’ or ‘drunk’, or any of the names for alcoholic beverages, like ‘beer’ or ‘whisky’ or ‘wine’. I don’t remember him ever using those words. He would use some periphrasis of some kind, if conversation got steered in that direction. Alcohol was so taboo, based on his religious values, that using the words was (or so it seemed) as if he were to place his foot on the banana peel that would send him careening down the slippery slope to alcoholism. So, when I found out that I rather liked beer and wine and scotch, and practically any other beverage that had alcohol in it, my initial feelings of guilt were pretty strong, and years later, whenever my mother and father came to call, I would always put the scotch somewhere they were not likely to look. In fact, I kept that up until I married Elizabeth, and one day she said to me, “There is no way you are going to hide that. You’re a grown man, for fuck’s sake!” And that was that, and from that point on my mother and father would just have to like it or lump it. They never mentioned it! Not once. But before that, there was in fact a moment of truth, for at our wedding, rather embarrassingly, the only liquid refreshment was champagne, because the caterer had forgotten to provide a non-alcoholic punch, as promised!
But we can distinguish between feelings of guilt, and the knowledge that we have done something that is genuinely wrong. As Sister Margaret Farley knew, people very often masturbate, though practically every religion holds masturbation to be a grave sin. Sister Farley pointed out that, not only is it not morally wrong, whatever the Church says — though she temporised a bit, I think, when her book was criticised by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — but that it can even be a good thing. Women, for example, can learn from self-pleasuring what really works, what really gives them pleasure, and they can tell their partners what would make sex better for them. But according to the Church, masturbation is gravely sinful and disordered. But we know that that’s just one of those hangups that religious organisations all have, and that, for historical reasons, they seem unable to rid themselves of.
Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church assumes (falsely, as it turns out) that Jesus prohibited divorce absolutely, so, for the Church, marriage is forever, no matter what happens, whether one’s partner is abusive, or gay, or regularly unfaithful, or controlling, or just someone you don’t like any longer. It doesn’t matter. Marriage is forever. Divorce is an oxymoron. However, it is possible to get an annulment. At one time, only the wealthy or the upper classes could avail themselves of this remedy, but now it is more readily available. Now, here’s a problem. Suppose that you are married, and, so far as you know, things are going well, the family seems a safe haven of love and happiness, and no serious problems loom on your horizon when, suddenly, your spouse says they are going to leave you and marry someone else. Presumably, they’ve decided to do this no matter what the Church says about it. However, think of where that leaves you. You didn’t want a divorce, but that’s what you’ve got, and you still want to be faithful to the Church and take part in its life. If you assume that your divorce gives you the right to get married — well, you’re only partly right. In law, there’s no problem; but the Church won’t recognise your divorce. So far as the Church is concerned, you’re still married.
If you want to get married again and get on with your life, you have two choices: (i) you can ignore the Church, and accept your excommunication; or (ii) you can seek an annulment of your first marriage — that means, you can get the Church to declare that you were never really married in the first place. For some people, this is a serious problem. Suppose you have children, and that you lived with your husband or wife for 20 years. Are you ready to say that there never was a marriage? And should the Church say this? Does it sound right to you that the Church should be able to say that there was never a marriage? It doesn’t to many people. I’ve met some of them, and they find this an impossible choice. Indeed, I think it is immoral of the Church to prescribe moral absolutes in this way, as if there were no situations in which a divorce and remarriage could not possibly be a good thing, and in which declaring that there was no original marriage would be not only false, but positively harmful and bad.
Of course, this is only a short consideration of the problems with religious morality. But the major one is implicit in the foregoing, and is as follows. Morality serves a human purpose. If, as religions assume, the purpose served is a divine one, then the question arises how we have access to a demonstration that precisely these rules — for any set of rules — achieves this purpose. And it leaves the end obscure. What purpose does it serve? The old Westminster Catechism said that the chief and highest end of man “is to know God and enjoy him forever.” The problem is that this leaves the way of achieving this end (even supposing this to be correct) largely obscure, and, if not obscure, it leaves it in the hands of those who are held to know the answer, obedience to whose word is necessary in order to achieve this chief and highest end. But this obscures the fact that the purpose of morality is mainly to make relationships amongst human beings go most smoothly, in the first place, to correct for altruism failures, as Philip Kitcher says, and then, beyond that, to improve relationships in progressive ways. The reason that we can sit in judgement of any of the gods so far imagined is that we know, better than the people who lived at the times when gods were constructed in imagination, what will best satisfy our desires, and what will make our relationships go most smoothly, consistent with a general improvement in human relationships.
Thus, if we simply take the question of divorce and remarriage, we can check to see how our marriage customs came into existence, and why it was thought that commitments “until death do us part” were thought to be either desirable or necessary in order to fulfil the purposes served by marriage. I have no intention of looking at this in detail here, but it is worthwhile mentioning two things. At the time that most marriage customs first came into effect, women tended to be looked upon (to a large extent) as property. There were probably good reasons for this in the context of the development of human societies, but it is clear that this is no longer a useful category under which to understand the status of women, if it ever was. Another point to notice is that, in the past, the time until death parted a husband and wife tended, on the whole, to be sooner rather than later. The commitment was, to a large extent, a short one, and was expected, by one of the partners or the other, to be repeated several times before death, if one survived the death of the other. Yet even then, as Roman society, custom and law indicates, there were still good reasons, from time to time, for the termination of the marriage relationship. Jesus is said to have said, on at least one occasion — and even then it is put in terms of the man — that anyone who divorces his wife and marries another, except for unchastity, is guilty of adultery. Even Jesus, in other words, saw that there might be exceptions to the general rule. But even that was not enough, and it shows that he still saw morality as a matter of divine commandments. But marriage, like other human institutions, is only a human good when it serves the purposes of human good, and many marriages do not accomplish that. To make it a rule, anchored in God’s command, that marriages may not be terminated except by death, is to make it necessary, either to create the polite fiction that there was never a marriage in the first place, or to bind people together until the death of one partner, no matter how much harm this bondage causes to one or both of the partners. This is clearly not a moral outcome.
Why do I raise this issue at this time? For the simple reason that, as Jerry Coyne tells us in recent post, another scientist has added himself to the list of those who fail to understand the relationship between science and faith. I address myself to the moral issue, while Jerry looks a bit more closely at the scientific one, but, whichever way you look at it, yet another scientist simply misunderstands the problem. David Tallmon, in a HuffPo piece called “Teach the Non-Controversy“, makes too huge mistakes. First, he thinks that it is the fault of scientists that religious people are fearful of science. Scientists have simply failed to teach clearly what science is all about. Listen:
Another important lesson from this newsworthy event is that it highlights what makes science, science. Namely, that one must posit testable hypotheses to do science. That is, if a question or theory about how the natural world works can be turned into a testable and falsifiable hypothesis, then it is a scientific question. If a question cannot be falsified, or disproved, it is not scientific. Science progresses by transforming raw ideas, however outrageous or iconoclastic, into formal statements that can be tested with results that either support or refute the initial idea.
Although this might seem a trivial point to some, I think we scientists have failed to teach the general public that falsifiable hypotheses lie at the core of science.
This may be faultless so far as a description of the nature of the project of science, but it is simply beyond reason to think that religious people are suspicious of science because they do not understand “that falsifiable hypotheses lie at the core of science.” I mean this is just weird! This is precisely why religious people are distrustful of science, because, in fact, it makes religious assumptions doubtful, since they simply do not measure up on the falsifiability scale. And religious people know this. We don’t need to remind them!
But just as serious is Tallmon’s idea — borrowed from Gould — of the NOMA hypothesis. He ends his article on this note:
We need to make sure the general public understands that science is about proposing testable mechanisms for how the natural world works. Let us teach evolution (and particle physics) in our science courses. Let us teach religion in our religion courses. Let there be no controversy; they address different topics. Science is a method of learning about the world that need not be threatening. To suggest otherwise is to add sound and fury that divert resources away from learning how the world works. Our students deserve better. Our society deserves better.
But if what he means by this is that morality is the preserve of religion — and he does mean this, as his immediately preceding sentence shows – then he is doing a disservice to all of us. Religious morality is, to a great extent, a failed hypothesis. If morality cannot provide the means for making our lives better — and religious morality fails in this along many different axes — then it is falsified, just as scientific hypotheses are falsified when our observations and experiments do not turn out in the way expected by the theory.
Morality is not, pace Harris, scientific, but it is empirical and naturalistic. We know that our morality is not working when it fails to provide the basis for living a good, fulfilling, meaningful life. Religious morality today has shown itself to be a failure in many different respects. That doesn’t mean that it was all wrong, but it does mean that we need to revisit our moral assumptions when we see that they are not working to provide the basis for good lives. And Tallmon does a disservice to morality when he suggests that it belongs to religion. It doesn’t. It may not work by way of theory and hypothesis, experiment and verification, but it does require testing in the fires of real life.
Tallmon, sadly, is mistaken in practically every way in his attempt to reconcile religion and science. He thinks the world can be neatly divided into two different realms of knowing. No, it can’t. Religious people are right to be afraid of science, because science, and empiricism or naturalism generally, are corrosive of religious belief. But the truth is that most people already know this. They already make moral decisions based on what makes life better, not on the basis of what a few men in dog collars or with long beards may say. And it really is time that we simply sidelined religion as a pastime for those who get a charge out of religious feelings and experiences. But the experiences that people get at a rock concert or climbing in the Himalayas or sailing or cheering for their favourite team or athlete are just as valuable, and perhaps even more valuable than the ones that some people think take them to the fountainhead of all things. For the fountain is in their own minds, and the illusion is built up on the basis of community. It is, if you like, a kind of communal delusion. Of course, if religious people like dwelling there, and having those experiences, that’s fine, but they should not come back and tell us that they know what their imaginary friend requires of the rest of us, because we all — well, almost all — some may simply lack the experience or the part of the brain that gives the rest of us – some insight into the good of things, and it doesn’t take communication with imaginary beings to accomplish it. It’s something that comes with being brought up in communities in which we can learn what human goodness is, and what we learn when we learn how to be good, and to desire what is good for ourselves and others, is that sometimes we can discover ways to make things better. And that’s an important part of morality that religions simply do not understand.