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Religious Ethics or Secular Common Sense?

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Religious leaders are afforded great respect in society and often comment on matters of moral and ethical importance. They routinely offer opinions on family life, adoption, abortion, social values, and even scientific research.

But what is it that gives them that respect? Are they exceptionally gifted in matters of moral philosophy? Do they have extensive experience in family matters, or a deep understanding of the scientific issues? Before accepting someone as an expert, we would normally expect them to show a high level of competence, perhaps some evidence of exceptional ability or knowledge, some capability well beyond the average. A medical specialist will be expected to have worked in the field for many years, working with diverse cases, conducting research, consistently producing high-quality results. But do religious leaders get their credibility from their skills or from somewhere else?

When families are in crisis, we expect the therapist to have studied psychology, possibly even be a medically trained psychiatrist, with a deep understanding of conflict resolution. When working with troubled adolescents, again we expect the therapist to have expertise in psychology and in dealing with young people.

But religious leaders typically rise through the ranks of a hierarchy, attaining leadership by internal selection, with criteria that are religious rather than meritocratic. In the case of the Pope, his authority rests on his position in the hierarchy, attained through strict adherence to dogma. He is himself dogmatically claimed to be infallible.

In the case of Imams in Islam, they are experts in the Qur’an and the Hadith, and since these books define Islamic morality, they therefore are automatically seen as experts in morality and ethics. But the source is dogma, and not social and political practice.

For religious institutions, the morality to be defined and defended is derived from religious books. But is that where moral and ethical values really come from?

Suppose that a religious leader condemned a life-saving practice for dogmatic reasons. That creates a dilemma for believers. Do they follow the demands of the religion, or overrule them and act ethically and morally in the eyes of society? Does religious teaching overrule what feels socially and morally right? This is exactly the sort of dilemma that religious people often face, whether the issue is abortion, stem cell research, or the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS.

When the Catholic Church ruled against using condoms in Africa in the fight against AIDS, this dilemma affected hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions. It shows in stark contrast the difference between a morality based in religious dogma and what is socially and ethically justified in modern society.

In trying to pull society towards a dogmatically defined set of values, religion demonstrates its limited ability to respond to the changing world. Social values arise from social interaction and religion is just one factor. We all, including religious believers, validate our ethical values against social practice, our interaction with society as a whole. That’s why there are religious ethical dilemmas – religious people have to check that their religious beliefs are in ethical accord with society’s values.

Taking religion out of the mix can actually strengthen our ability to reason ethically, because our judgments do not have to accord with dogma. We don’t need religious beliefs in order to behave ethically and morally. Atheists are not by definition immoral, they simply have ethical and moral values rooted in society and their own practice. There is nothing about religion that privileges the believer in ethical matters, and therefore nothing that grants religious leaders any special abilities in moral matters compared to atheists.

Whether we are dealing with AIDS, stem cell research, abortion, adoption, euthanasia, or blood transfusions, religion offers little more than dogma. Religion brings no special expertise to the table of ethical debate and often limits it. And religious leaders have a seat only because it is an established social or political custom, as for example in the UK House of Lords.

Leaders, whether religious or atheist, have equal potential for informed and valuable contribution to ethical issues. Whatever their views, we should subject them to the same standard of rational criticism, and not assume that the religious camp has some sort of innate superiority. Both are judged by social values and our negotiated sense of fairness and justice. Maybe that way, we can avoid telling hundreds of thousands of people in Africa to put their lives at risk for the sake of dogma.

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About Bob Lloyd

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    I’m sorry, Bob.

    Your premises here are garbage. Where did you learn that inviting your neighbors over for lunch meant serving them instead of serving them up as food? I suggest that you learned it from whatever passed for Christianity in the society where you grew up. In short, you learned all these values from the Torah because your society leaarned these ideas from the Torah, no matte how they might have distorted them.

    The idea that certain things are carved in stone DOES come from the Torah, and it is typical of the arrogance of atheists to deny the source of their own basic values.

  • http://www.leavingthelandofwoo.com Bob Lloyd

    The actual source of our value are multitude, coming from our interactions in society, our accumulated knowledge, the ideologies of the society we live in, our ability to reason, and so on.

    It’s seems unreasonable to suppose that I have learned my values from the Torah. Of course religious books have an influence in propagating the values from a previous society, but they are just one part of the mix.

    As it happens, I’ve read the Qur’an, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Torah, though I find them less useful for ethical values than as anthropological source materials.

    I find that atheists are at least as capable of ethical and moral reasoning as anyone with religious convictions and in many areas, much more capable because they do not have to defend dogma.

    Far from denying the source of my values, I am explicitly identifying that source as the society I live in, complete with all the influences that affect it.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    [Entire comment deleted]

  • http://www.leavingthelandofwoo.com Bob Lloyd

    Sorry to rattle cages… I was hoping that this site had intelligent people willing and able to discuss sensible rational ideas and points of view. I realise that presenting rational, skeptical, or atheistic views can attract all sorts of abuse and insult from those unwilling to consider them but I was, perhaps unrealistically, expecting a more open exchange of views here.

    So for those who want to comment, I’d invite them to address the issues. For those enraged, distraught, or otherwise unable to keep civil, perhaps they might pause a while until they can. At least then, other readers don’t need to put up with the less interesting, off-the-point, insulting commentary.

    I can’t say I’m really surprised that some folks get abusive and insulting – some people deal with new or challenging ideas that way. I remain hopeful that there are others who can engage in discussion without becoming so.

    Editors might like to note that such abuse will put off new contributors if they feel they are not being met with common civility. And of course, we should never give in to bullying.

  • Observer

    This blog site, BlogCritics, appears to be partial to personal abuse. It seems that a controversial point is stated, an inflammatory response is given, and then some very complicated threads of personal denunciation follow.

    YMMV.

  • http://www.leavingthelandofwoo.com Bob Lloyd

    Yes, I think it’s incumbent on all of us to raise the level of this site well beyond the usual thrashings that are common on other forums.

    Part of the problem I think is that people so closely identify themselves with their ideas, that any criticism of them is taken as a personal affront and they react accordingly. That seems to affect religious ideas more than political ideas where the practice of relatively civil disagreement is well-established.

    It is important for us all to recognise that ideas and beliefs don’t deserve respect, people do. We are all free to disagree and challenge any ideas at all, including religious ideas, without exposing ourselves to personal abuse.

    By the same token, the more devout religious people should be encouraged to accept that an attack on their beliefs is not an attack on them as people. It is simply a challenge to their beliefs. Most religious people understand this only too well and have no problem with it. But some so closely identify themselves with their beliefs that they have difficulty considering criticisms of their ideas.

    Maintaining civility in the discussion I think will go a long way to encouraging open consideration of conflicting views.

  • http://home.comcast.net/~andersonandrew/site/ Andy and Cheryl (SwineInsanity)

    In the Late 80’s Africa wanted no part of condoms. We were trying to push condoms on them, not take them away. Back in that time, I don’t know if it still is… Africa had the highest rate of Aids in the world, loose morals basically.. Not talking about the Islamic parts, but the more Athiest parts of Africa.
    Alot of the dogma on all sides is not set in fact, but in motives…

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Not talking about the Islamic parts, but the more Athiest parts of Africa.

    Africa has never struck me as a particularly atheist sort of continent. Where are you getting your information?

    Alot of the dogma on all sides is not set in fact, but in motives…

    That’s what dogma is.

  • http://www.leavingthelandofwoo.com Bob Lloyd

    Andy and Cheryl, whatever makes you think that atheism is without morals? Atheists are arguably better able to make moral and ethical decisions than religious people because firstly, they necessarily have to take responsibility for their own values (not having them provided ready-made by a religion) and secondly because their ethical and moral decisions must necessarily be based on their interaction with society, rather than having to justify and abide by religious dogma.

    It’s curious that immorality is so readily attributed to atheism, and yet crimes like terrorism and even genocide are somehow distanced from the morality of the religious. Spain had an Inquisition which conflated morality with religion, and jihad is another obvious consequence.

    Ethical and moral decision-making is affected by lots of values, which we get from society, our family, our peers, our culture. Religion, for some, is a part of that, but not for atheists. That in no way diminishes their ability to make sound moral and ethical decisions.

  • http://corp-minamiji.typepad.com Christy Corp-Minamiji

    Many years ago, an English teacher of mine raised a question to the class. Paraphrased, he asked who is the better man, the one who does what he thinks is right based on his beliefs in God or the atheist who does what he thinks is right without any belief in or hope for an afterlife?