Religion and the Illusion of Moral Authority

This post in response to a comment I received about the source of morality in society:

But I realize religion, even with its negatives, remains a net positive in human endeavors because it supplies something that cannot be supplied by any other…a body of moral precepts that humans can rally around and use to guide behavior in society.

I don’t believe this, and neither do most people if they thought about it for a little while.  On a practical level, how do we figure out what is good and what is bad?

Let’s focus just on the Christian message, which is informed from the moral statements in the Bible.  This includes things like the Golden Rule, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Ten Commandments…or does it?  Here are a few quotes from the Bible, both Old and New Testament, and I ask which ones are good and bad, and how do you know?:

Deuteronomy 22:20-1 If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death.

Deuteronomy 20: However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.

Exodus 21:20-21 If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.

1 Peter 2:18 Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.

Matthew 5: 31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Leviticus 24:16 “And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death”  – penalty for breaking one of the ten commandments

Matthew 12:32 “Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come”. 

Now, I am not making any claims here that any of these are good or bad (although personally, I do have opinions on them).  What I am saying is that people look at some of these and say they are bad, some are just fine, but whatever reason people use, they aren’t using the religion as the authority to decide.  That’s the point.  People already pick and choose messages from the Bible, taking some of the more unpleasant things as anachronistic or metaphorical, other unpleasant things as exaggerations, and keeping the seemingly good things.  

In all of this, the religion isn’t the thing giving them guidance in their moral decisions.  The religion is simply giving a vocabulary to summarize the moral perspective someone has for non-religious reasons, in much the same way that the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” summarizes the feeling many have of being better choosing a more difficult path in life.  However, we come to that feeling for “non-Frostian” reasons.  It could even be said that for some, reading the Frost poem motivates them to see value in a difficult decision.  However, there is something “non-Frostian” motivating the decision to draw inspiration from this poem, and not another one.

We can take our moral messages from many sources, and in practice we do that.  Although many people claim that religion gives us our morality, or moral guidance, in reality it does nothing of the sort.

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About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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