“People of Faith”: Religion as Ethical Misdirection


Ever since I started writing about atheism and religion, I’ve been troubled by the idea that being a strongly religious person, in and of itself, makes you a good person.

I’ve been troubled by the idea that phrases like “person of faith” or “man of God” are supposed to be understood to mean “good person.” Pretty much by definition.

Well, there’s a story in the news that’s turning this irritation into a full-flown outrage. And it’s making me realize what, exactly, it is about this trope that I find so troubling.

From the AP, via PageOneQ (via a comment on Daylight Atheism, where I got this story as well as the idea for this piece), we have the charming story of David Davis. Florida high school principal. Who, when a student told him that she was being harassed by other students for being a lesbian, told her that homosexuality was wrong, told her to stay away from children, and outed her to her parents.


And who, when the girl’s friends expressed their support for her by wearing gay pride T-shirts and buttons, interrogated them about their own sexuality and the sexuality of other students… and in some cases, suspended them.

And we have the story of the community who, when the school district was sued by the ACLU for this behavior, and Principal David was reprimanded and demoted, expressed righteous outrage and anger towards the girl’s family and the ACLU, and backed Davis up… because he was a Christian.

Saying things like:

“David Davis is a fine man and good principal, and we are a gentle, peaceful, Christian, family-oriented community.”

So today, I want to talk about religion as misdirection.

Carter the great

In stage magic, misdirection is a central skill in which the audience’s attention is focused on one thing to distract their attention from something else. You do something that looks big and interesting and important with your right hand; people don’t notice the less flashy but genuinely important thing you’re doing with your left.

I bring this up because I think religion often acts as a form of ethical misdirection. It creates an illusion of good, ethical behavior… which distracts the observer from the question of whether this person’s actions really are, in any useful, real-world way, ethical and good.

Think about the quote above. Think about what it means to look at Principal Davis’s actions, and call them fine and good, gentle and peaceful.


What is gentle and peaceful about responding to a teenage girl who tells you in confidence that she’s being bullied — by bullying her some more? By blaming the victim? By ignoring her complaint, betraying her confidence, and telling her that she’s a bad person who can’t be trusted around children?

And what is gentle and peaceful about using your position of power to silence the girl’s supporters — a.k.a. your detractors — by interrogating them about their own sexuality and kicking them out of school? It’s not even Christian; at least if you take the whole “Turn the other cheek” thing to heart. (And, as Ingrid points out, it’s more than a little sexually creepy as well. In any other context, a high school principal going around asking his underage students about their sexual practices would be fired so fast
it’d make your head spin.)

And yet, the people of this Florida community have been misdirected into thinking that Davis is a gentle, peaceful person. He’s a Christian, after all. And in their mindset, “Christian” means “gentle, peaceful person,” de facto and by definition.

Religion, essentially, is serving here as the big flashy gesture done with the right hand, that distracts from the actual moral behavior that’s being done with the left. It’s the shiny show of fineness and goodness, gentleness and peace, that keeps people from seeing that the actions being done are, in fact, brutal, hurtful, domineering, and evil.

And it creates a misdirection so strong that it can effectively replace the entire notion of right and wrong. When hard-line religious believers slander atheists by saying that we have no morality, insisting that there can be no morality without belief in God… well, what is that but a substitution of religion for ethics? What is that but a replacement of your own moral instincts and perceptions with obedience to somebody else’s code?

This is a point Ingrid keeps making. When religious believers accuse atheists of taking the easy way out, her reply is, “Do you know how hard it is to live the way I do? It would be so much easier to just do what some book says — or to do what some leader tells me about what the book says. And it would be so much easier if I could always convince myself that God wanted me to do what I do. To actually think about my hard moral choices? And take responsibility for them? And live with them for the rest of my life? That’s not the easy way out. That’s harder than you will ever know.”

I’m not saying all religious believers do this. There are certainly believers — usually of the more progressive, less fundamentalist variety — who think that God created them with a moral compass and bloody well expects them to use it themselves. I’m not saying all religion is ethical misdirection. I’m saying that some of it is. Way, way too much of it.

And I’m not saying this misdirection is conscious, either. Most of the time, I think it probably isn’t. I think many religious believers themselves are convinced that they are good people, and that the strength of their religious faith makes them so.


But in a way, that actually makes it more insidious. After all, if someone consciously knows that they’re being deceptive, there’s always a chance that their conscience will catch up with them. But if they’re completely mired in their own rationalization, it becomes a self-perpetuating circle that’s almost impossible to break.

Religion can create an ethical misdirection so powerful, it fools even the magician.

And that scares the crap out of me.

(These ideas were largely inspired by the Imaginary Virtues piece on Daylight Atheism, which everyone has to go and read right this minute.)

“People of Faith”: Religion as Ethical Misdirection
The Orbit is still fighting a SLAPP suit! Help defend freedom of speech, click here to find out more and donate!

27 thoughts on ““People of Faith”: Religion as Ethical Misdirection

  1. 1

    You didn’t even cover the part I found creepiest.
    “Davis embarked on what can only be characterized as a ‘witch hunt’ to identify students who were homosexual and their supporters, further adding fuel to the fire,” U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak recounted in his ruling. “He went so far as to lift the shirts of female students to insure the letters ‘GP’ or the words ‘Gay Pride’ were not written on their bodies.
    That’s beyond asking them about their sexuality, which may be termed sexual harassment. This was bordering on (if not actually) sexual assault. He was fucking raising girls’ shirts! And specifically the girls’ – not the boys.If this had been any other town where Christianity wasn’t default for good, he would have not just been demoted. He would have been kicked out and jailed.
    It’s despicable. And all he gets is, in effect, a slap on the wrist.

  2. 2

    ATHEIST ETHICS IN 500 WORDS. John B. Hodges, Dec. 21, 2007.
    How can you have any ethics if you don’t believe in God?
    The question must BE questioned. How can you have any ethics if you DO believe in a god?
    Religious folk misunderstand morality at its roots. Religion teaches a child’s view of ethics, that “being good” means “obeying your parent”. Just as religious faith is believing what you are told, so religious morality is doing what you are told. Religious morality consists of obeying the alleged will of God, an invisible “Cosmic Parent”, as reported by your chosen authority. But obedience is not morality, and morality is not obedience. We can all think of famous people who did good things while rebelling against authority, and others who did evil things while obeying authority.
    Religious folk may be Good Samaritans or suicide bombers, it depends entirely on what their chosen authority orders them to do. If a believer, or a community of same, wishes to make war or keep slaves or oppress women, all they have to do is persuade themselves that their god approves. This seems not to be hard, and no god has ever popped up to tell believers that they were wrong. They do not have a
    code of morality except by the convenience of the priesthood. What they have is a code of obedience, which is not the same thing.
    Atheism means looking at ethical questions as an adult among other adults. Civic morality is a means of maintaining peace and cooperation among equals, so that all may pursue happiness within the limits that ethics defines. This civic morality is objective. If you want to maintain peaceful relations, don’t kill, steal, lie, or break agreements. As Shakespeare wrote: “It needs no ghost, Milord, come from the grave, to tell us this.”
    Because we are biological beings evolved by natural selection, most of us value the health of our families, where “health” is the ABILITY to survive, and “family” is “all who share your genes, to the extent that they share your genes.” This is also called “inclusive fitness” by biologists. Essentially all living beings are going to seek this, because their desires are shaped by natural selection, and inclusive fitness is what natural selection selects for.
    Because humans are social animals, who survive by cooperating in groups, we have a “natural” standard of ethics: The Good is that which leads to health, The Right is that which leads to peace. A “good person” is a desirable neighbor, from the point of view of people who seek to live in peace and raise families. Most people understand this intuitively. Understanding the logic of it is better. “If you want peace, work for justice.”
    There is a long history of philosophical thinking about ethics. Morality is not based on authority, but on reason and compassion. If I had to recommend just one book on ethics, it would be GOOD AND EVIL: A NEW DIRECTION by Richard Taylor.

  3. 3

    I used this same metaphor the other day (a magician distracting people from one hand by waving a colored handkerchief in the other) when talking to a friend about why I was so pissed off that the DNC had decided to open with an “interfaith” church service.
    GWB was treated as the “moral” Christian candidate — in spite of his incredible illegal and unethical actions — because he made a big dog-and-pony show about his love for Jesus. I am absolutely disgusted that the DNC would respond by deciding they want in on that action too. What’s more, considering the damage that the politicians’ piety show has done to Christianity’s reputation, I would think even Christians would be clamoring to cut out this attitude of “he who prays loudest must be the most virtuous.”
    I’m very happy to align with people of faith in the political arena. If their Christian faith is what inspired them to care about social justice issues, then fab. But opening a political convention with a church service is a blatantly discriminatory gesture. There’s no reason people can’t hold their church services on their own time except to say “I must pray with you in order to work with you” — a discriminatory sentiment that has absolutely no place in a society that values freedom of religion.

  4. 4

    At the risk of hi-jacking a fantastic post, Greta, I wish to echo C.L.s comment. In April my local Democratic organization opened with a prayer for the first time ever. I didn’t know about it until the day before the convention, and since I was not yet an officer (I am now) I wasn’t going to get it removed. When I asked about it at the first meeting following the convention, the Chair said that even though he was a strong agnostic, he was tired of the Republicans claiming religion. It’s a reaction to that, yes, but the point is that if another group does something that disgusts us, why should we emulate them?
    Back to the thrust of your article, sociologists categorize religion as an institution with one function being to enforce social order. Laws and rules have far more effect when they are given to moral force of being the determinant of everlasting bliss or punishment.

  5. 5

    I agree on the general point that for some, ‘Christian’ equals automatically and unquestionably to ‘good, moral person’, one who is incapable of evil-doing. But in this case, these Christians who support Davies may not just support him just because he’s a Christian, but precisely because they share his own homophobia. Christians are as a whole quite homophobic, although there are exceptions.
    I don’t know very much about this case, however.

  6. 6

    Sounds like that girl and her family have a good case for prosecuting for sexual harrassment. Full stop.
    As we know only too well, being a Xian doesn’t stop people from being sexual abusers. (or stop them from anything, for that matter.)

  7. 7

    But in this case, these Christians who support Davies may not just support him just because he’s a Christian, but precisely because they share his own homophobia.

    That’s a fair point, Lorenzo. But my point isn’t that they’re overlooking the homophobia, which I consider wrong. It’s that they’re overlooking the domineering, brutal, sexually invasive way he expressed his homophobia… which they themselves would consider wrong, if they weren’t distracted by his Christianity.

  8. 8

    If Jesus was here now he’d belong in Vegas, that’s for sure! He was the greatest magician who ever lived. He puts Houdini, Henning, Copperfield, Blaine, and P&T all to shame !
    The first picture – is that El Greco? I don’t normally go for religious paintings but I like El Greco’s style.

  9. 9

    Thanks as always, Greta, for the kind mention.
    Another example of this ethical up-is-downism is the recent statement by a group of Catholic clergy expressing their outrage over PZ Myers desecrating a Catholic communion wafer. They said that:

    Attacking the most sacred elements of a religion is not free speech anymore than would be perjury in a court or libel in a newspaper.

    Apparently, their definition of “free speech” doesn’t include the right to say things that others find offensive, even outrageous. Which is funny, because I thought that was exactly what “free speech” means. Evidently, in their world, “free speech” means “speech that is limited to the topics and opinions we would prefer to hear discussed”.

  10. 10

    I’m curious about the use of the term “religion” in the title of this post. Consider the meaning of “religion” offered by Friedrich Schleiermacher, the 19th Century theologian usually credited with being the “Father of Modern Theology.” Schleiermacher defines religion as essentially a feeling, distinct from beliefs and actions. To be precise, it is the feeling one can come to have when one becomes quiescent, when one ceases to try to act on the world or conceptualize it, when one instead simply _is_ within the field of experience.
    (By the way, there is no indication that Schleiermacher had any familiarity with Buddhist meditation or other eastern spiritual practices—this was something he came up with based on his own experience).
    In his early work, Schleiermacher described this religious feeling as “the intuition of the Infinite in the finite.” In his later work, he describes it as “the feeling of absolute dependence.” In either case, while Schleiermacher thinks that immersion in this feeling can inspire the sense of connection with the rest of the world that deepens our capacities for empathy and compassion, he doesn’t think it has any strict moral content. We don’t get morality from religion in his sense, even if religious consciousness in his sense might expand our capacity to love across the gap of difference.
    My point, of course, is that “religion” in Schleiermacher’s sense has nothing to do with what Greta is concerned with here. There is no doubt that something that goes by the name “religion” is routinely used to throw a cloud of artificial righteousness over deeply pernicious acts—but what is it, precisely, that is doing this work? Not the intuition of the Infinite in the finite, clearly.
    My theory is that it is religion understood as a kind of “tribal substitute.” Since leaving our hunter-gatherer roots and the tribal societies in which we evolved, humans have sought a variety of alternatives to the tribe, to give us the sense of belonging and identity which we crave. Social institutions have arisen which create substitute tribes through a variety of mechanisms: doctrinal and behavioral membership requirements (which distinguish tribe members by their shared allegiance to a common creed), common rituals and traditions, initiation rites, etc.
    College fraternities fit this bill. As does the Elks club to which my wife now belongs. Even nationality can serve this tribal need when it is paired with a rich enough set of sumbolic and ritual touchstones and an appropriately worked-out understanding of what it means to be a “true” American (or Norwegian, etc.). And, obviously, there are communities organized around supernatural beliefs, which Schleiermacher would call “positive religions” (as opposed to religion in the singular), that fit this bill as well.
    What this kind of tribalism does is divide the world into US and THEM according to an agreed set of criteria, and attaches a positive status to those who are one of US regardless of what their actual moral character is like. Jean-Paul Sartre, in _Anti-Semite and Jew_, beautifully characterizes the allure of such us-them thinking. It gives us a sense of worth that we don’t have to work for. We are good and valuable just because we are members of the Chosen Group rather than members of the Other Group. But to preserve this easy sense of value, this automatic worth, we need to extend it willy-nilly to other members of the Chosen Group, regardless of how reprehensible their behavior.

  11. 11

    First of all, an athiest has no “hope”. Second, religion will not save you, only Jesus Christ, therefore it does not matter what religion “looks” like from man’s point of view. God is the one watching our lives. God called gays an “abomination”. He is truth. His opinion counts, not yours. He creator….you created.

  12. 12

    Eric, I’m not sure I see your point. You seem to be arguing that religion as I discuss it in this piece isn’t religion as Friedrich Schleiermacher describes it, and therefore… what?
    I do hope you’re not trying to make the “You’re Not Critiquing My Particular Version Of Faith, Therefore Your Critique Is Invalid” argument. Because it’s really not a very good argument.
    Among other things: Religion as I describe it in this piece is a form of religion that is extremely common. And it’s a lot more than just simple “us and them” tribalism. It’s tribalism that’s based on a belief in unseen (because non-existent, in my atheist opinion) beings, and on untested, untestable beliefs about what that being or beings want from us. And it is therefore both uniquely resistant to contradiction and counter- evidence… and uniquely hostile to them.
    Religion as you describe it in your comment is a very interesting concept… but it’s very far removed from religion as it exists for the overwhelming majority of people in the real world. In fact, by defining religion as any feeling of transcendent connection with infinity — an experience that many atheists have, myself included — you (or rather, Schleiermacher) are pretty much defining religion out of existence.

  13. 13

    Greta wrote: “Eric, I’m not sure I see your point. You seem to be arguing that religion as I discuss it in this piece isn’t religion as Friedrich Schleiermacher describes it, and therefore… what?”
    One of my points might be expressed in the following way. The phenomenon of religion as we encounter it in the world is a complex one, admitting of an array of features (social as well as personal, doctrinal as well as experiential, etc.). Scholars of religion have focused in on different elements of this complex phenomenon and often defined religion in terms of one or a few elements, abstracting from the others. Often, their purpose is to identify something of value that can and should be preserved even though it has historically been bound up with things that are of dubious value. That was Schleiermacher’s project in his first book, _On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers_. He didn’t want the Enlightenment critics of religion to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and he wanted them to see the central element of religion which they’d been ignoring, an element which he thought lay at the root of world religions even though the communities organized to nurture this element were quickly co-opted by tribal impulses and usurped by the privileged classes for the purposes of social control.
    Greta wrote: “I do hope you’re not trying to make the ‘You’re Not Critiquing My Particular Version Of Faith, Therefore Your Critique Is Invalid’ argument. Because it’s really not a very good argument.”
    There are, I think, multiple versions of this “argument.” To be honest, I don’t think your response to it is very persuasive, in part because it focuses in on one of the least defensible versions. This is a point I’d be happy to develop more fully in a venue that affords me the space to lay out your reasoning premise by premise and evaluate how well it works against alternative formulations of the argument you are attacking (probably not suitable in a blog post). In briefest terms, the argument I am trying to make, which may be seen as a species of the kind of argument you don’t like, is this: The complex phenomenon of religion has elements that can be seen (using fairly objective philosophical criteria) to be dangerous and harmful, and elements that can be seen (again using reasonable philosophical criteria) to be worthy of respect. In the real world, there are people (from diverse religions) whose religious lives are dominated by those elements that deserve respect and who share your disdain for those elements that are dangerous. The species of religiosity that they embody should be nurtured, rather than attacked along with those species that fully deserve the disdain of all reasonable and morally sensitive people.
    Greta wrote: “Among other things: Religion as I describe it in this piece is a form of religion that is extremely common. And it’s a lot more than just simple ‘us and them’ tribalism. It’s tribalism that’s based on a belief in unseen (because non-existent, in my atheist opinion) beings, and on untested, untestable beliefs about what that being or beings want from us. And it is therefore both uniquely resistant to contradiction and counter- evidence… and uniquely hostile to them.”
    Essentially, I agree with all of this. What I’d add (although I can’t do the argument justice in a blog post that’s already getting too long) is that the religious feeling in Schleiermacher’s sense is essentially at odds with both tribalism and the kind of false certainty about the transcendent that is cultivated in fundamentalist religion. To the extent that this is true, nurturing the religious feeling may actually make religion as you describe it less common than it is. And this highlights another point I was trying to make in my original post: in order to respond adequately to the worrisome phenomenon you describe (the invocation of someone’s religious credentials to blind us to their moral failings), we need a more precise analysis of the phenomenon. Saying that “religion” is being used as a smokescreen is too imprecise, given the different meanings that attach to the term. In at least one sense of the word, “religion” may prove to be part of the solution (although it takes some doing for those most hurt by religious abuses to see that there is something buried beneath all the crud which, if nurtured, could help to burn the crud away from the inside).
    Greta wrote: “Religion as you describe it in your comment is a very interesting concept… but it’s very far removed from religion as it exists for the overwhelming majority of people in the real world. In fact, by defining religion as any feeling of transcendent connection with infinity — an experience that many atheists have, myself included — you (or rather, Schleiermacher) are pretty much defining religion out of existence.”
    I wonder about this. By refusing to identify this concept with religion, even though it is a central element of the religious lives of those who respond to your angry atheism with a “Yes, but that’s not what religion is for me
”, aren’t you loading the terminological dice? Especially for these respondents to your angry atheism, Schleiermacher’s feeling is the essential element of their religious lives, and they (rightly) see that your attacks on religion don’t touch this essential something–but they typically lack the clarity of thought and expression to make this point very well. Einstein was, I think, recognizing something significant when he called his feeling of wonder in the face of a mysterious universe a “religious feeling,” even if he then had to do a great deal of explaining to avoid being misunderstood. This feeling is not universally shared. As you seem to admit yourself in the above comment, it isn’t shared by most of those who call themselves religious. But it does seem to be definitive of the most seminal religious figures in history, the ones who are revered by religious communities but whose ideas are systematically misrepresented or ignored. I want to challenge you to consider the possibility that you may have more in common with (some) religious people than you think—not with the great majority of those who profess to be religious, but with the mystical saints. I’m quite certain that Simone Weil was right when she called atheism a kind of spiritual purification. Where the spiritually purified atheist and the Sufi mystic (or Christian mystic, or Buddhist mystic) differ is not on the level of religious experience, but on the level of theology–that is, in terms of how the experience is understood when efforts are made to use our inadequate concepts to articulate its significance.

  14. 14

    Alas, Eric, I don’t have time to address this line by line and thought by thought. But a point I want to make is this:
    I don’t think atheism is throwing away the baby with the bathwater. A point I have made many times — and that many other atheists make — is that the good things religion has to offer are available elsewhere. A transcendent feeling of connection with the universe, a sense of sharing that experience with others, a shared sense of purpose, etc. etc. — the things I find valuable in religion are all things that can be gotten from other areas of life. And they can be gotten without the belief in invisible supernatural beings: a belief I think is not only mistaken, but harmful — harmful, if for no other reason, than because it is mistaken. (What’s more, to assume that these things are inherent to religion and only available within it is more than a bit insulting to atheists.)
    I’m not saying I have nothing in common with religious believers. We’re human, if nothing else, and that’s a big thing in common. I just think that the supernatural framework that religious believers put on their experiences is mistaken, and unnecessary, and does more harm than good.
    If you want to re-define religion as having nothing to do with supernatural beings, please feel free. But that’s not how the overwhelming majority of people in the world define religion; and it’s not how religion overwhelmingly plays out in the world. It’s a bit like saying, “You’re criticizing cheese, but I define cheese as any creamy pungent substance, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a dairy product. Therefore, your critique of the dairyness of cheese is invalid.”
    And you know what? I can’t critique every single form of religion in every single blog post I write. Sometimes I critique some forms of religion; sometimes I critique others. Sometimes I critique bigoted fundamentalism; sometimes I critique modern liberal theology; sometimes I critique woo; etc. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect every single thousand- word blog post that i write to address every flaw in every religion that exists or has ever existed.

  15. 15

    I’ll try to be brief, since I’ve probably filled up too much space on this blog already. I don’t think atheism as such discards the baby with the bathwater. But I do think that this happens for many atheists in moments of rhetorical excess (and in the grip of an anger that’s otherwise justified but fails to distinguish adequately between proper and improper targets). I THINK (don’t know) that you’re in danger of this—especially when you target “progressive religion” (which you treat as a singular thing, which it isn’t). And I’m really worried that your readers are in danger of being inspired to do this by your rhetoric, which is one reason I commented on your post.
    Let me concede something. I suspect Schleiermacher’s definition of religion hits only on the genus of “religion” in the sense intended by those who object to your angry criticisms of religion as not touching THEIR faith. A good philosophical definition includes both genus and difference. The “difference” in this case (what distinguishes religion from Einsteinian wonder at the majesty of the universe), is that the numinous feeling is interpreted as an encounter with something transcendent, something essentially mysterious but fundamental that lies “beyond the empirical skin of reality.” You think any such interpretation is mistaken and dangerous. I do not (although some specifications of this general interpretation may be both).
    If you want to know why, I’d invite you to read my forthcoming book (which I won’t name here, since I don’t want to use this post for improper self-promotion).
    Let me say, in closing, that I’ve used your essay “Are We Having Sex Now or What?” to great effect in my sexual ethics courses. It’s extremely helpful in inspiring critical reflection on the nature of sex. And this seems to be a general virtue of your writing: it’s good at inspiring critical reflection, especially among those who come to the issues with a different perspective than yours. If you want advice on how to avoid becoming cranky while being critical, mine would be this: always remember that your critical remarks on the views and practices of others should be invitations to conversation, not conversation stoppers.
    At its best, your writing remembers this. When you fear you’re becoming cranky, you might look to see whether you are trying to silence opposing views with the force of your rhetoric rather than inspire critical reflection and dialogue.

  16. 16

    Wow, sudden flash to Russell’s paradox:
    1) This post is a bad post because I define your bad writing as any piece that squelches conversation.
    2) I think this post squelches conversation which provokes me to comment about why your bad posts are bad and you respond.
    3) Therefore this post is a good post.

  17. 17

    Interesting. I have to agree, that guy sounds like a total shit, and it’s stupid and ridiculous when religious people think that other religious people ‘must be’ moral, or even are merely ‘more moral than any random atheist’.
    However, I think it’s a mistake to attribute that to religion, or a religious frame of mind, as opposed to merely in-group/out-group dynamics. There’s a fair amount of evidence that people tend to hold far more trusting and nuanced views of their in-group, versus more wary and generalised views of out-groups. I don’t think this is particular to religion in any way.
    For example, a religious person might think “If they’re an atheist, how are they going to know what’s moral? Religious people at least have guidance”, which completely ignores the fact that that ‘guidance’ might be ‘kill the unbeliever’ or anything at all. Whereas an atheist might think “Religious folk misunderstand morality at its roots. Religion teaches a child’s view of ethics, that “being good” means “obeying your parent”. Just as religious faith is believing what you are told, so religious morality is doing what you are told. Atheism means looking at ethical questions as an adult among other adults. Civic morality is a means of maintaining peace and cooperation among equals, so that all may pursue happiness within the limits that ethics defines. This civic morality is objective.” Which of course doesn’t take into account the fact that actually, that’s not the basis of plenty of religious thought, plenty of atheists don’t bother to look at ethical questions as an adult, and even less follow a code of ‘civic ethics’, in fact they could well be a nihilist (a la moi) and just kill you for the hell of it (not a la moi)
    So what I’m really saying is that, yes – religious people can be just as bad as anyone else, and are often deluded into thinking that that is not the case. However, that is nothing to do with religion, merely group dynamics, and atheists are just as prone to making the same mistake (if they have a group of atheists they identify with, obviously you can’t make group-based mistakes when you have no group) as demonstrated by one of your own commenters. Yes, that was an actual quote in my second example above.
    p.s. to that commenter – of course ‘civic morality’ isn’t ‘objective’, whatever you mean by that. Or at least no more ‘objective’ than any other coherent, internally consistent set of rules with no logical reason that we ‘should’ obey them. It’s the is/ought problem all over again. Just a little bit sideways.

  18. 19

    “If you don’t know what I mean by “objective”, how can you say that civic morality is “of course” not objective?”
    Yes, I know, that made me smile when I wrote it, so I left it in, despite the apparent contradiction. I don’t know any possible definitions of the word objective though that could made that sentence true, barring the one I referred to just after it, which would apply to many varieties of religious morals too, which made me assume that’s not what you meant.
    I’ll have a read of those links some time later and see if I understand what you mean.

  19. 20

    Well I had a quick look at the two links, and as far as I can see they’re arguing that ‘objective morality’ can be derived from a form of goal orientated thinking. It is moral to do things that “promote the health of your circle”. In fact it is apparently an ethic that is “consequentialist, objective, and Aristotelian.”
    However they offer no ‘objective’ reason for me to adhere to that goal. If I instead choose to ‘promote anything that benefits myself and my dog’, how is that any less reasonable a goal? They give no objective measure to choose between putative goals, and therefore, as I suspected, fail to bridge the is/ought gap.
    And, though I have no torch to carry for nutty literalist textual religious ethics, by the definitions they give, those ethics are ‘objective’ because they have “rules, principles, policies for behavior, with the goal of ______” where the goal is “obeying a set of instructions written in a book”. Which is “something in this world.” which therefore leads to “value[ing] something that is objectively measureable, [therefore their] ethics can be objective”
    I also note that the author of that second link notes that “We have our choice of what to value, so atheist ethics are also relative”. Which is exactly my point. You may be able to choose an ethic that has standards that are objectively measurable, but the choice itself is entirely relative. (And a religious person as I said can do exactly the same, so their ethics are exactly as ‘relative’ or ‘objective’ as the next persons)

  20. 22

    Both those links are my own writing, thank you very much. By Webster’s Collegiate, OBJECTIVISM: an ethical theory that moral good is objectively real or that moral precepts are objectively valid. I am taking the second meaning, that (for example) “civic morality” is objective if it’s precepts are objectively valid. And, if a consequentialist ethic has an ultimate goal that is objectively measureable, then it is an objective question whether it’s precepts are valid, they can can be tested for effectiveness by objective (scientific) methods. Oddly enough, in this way, even though values are subjective (things have value because, and only because, people value them), nevertheless, ethical systems can be objective. You are correct that there is no cosmic imperative why you, me, or anyone must adopt any particular ethical system, yet I think we can achieve “98% consensus” on certain values, because they are part of our human nature, as social animals evolved by natural selection.

  21. 23

    On the Is-Ought divide, originally pointed out by David Hume: I am not proposing to bridge that gap, I am proposing to avoid the problem. There is no cosmic necessity that we value any particular thing; there is also no cosmic mandate that we don’t. And most people do. Aristotle proposed that “the good life” was one “lived in accordance with human nature”. Most people prefer to live rather than die, and prefer that their kinfolk, allies and friends live rather than die. This is understandable and predictable for any social animal evolved by natural selection. So the health (defined as survival-ability) of their kin and adopted circle is a value that the great majority of people will find congenial. I propose an ethic made entirely, repeat, entirely, of hypothetical oughts, of the form “If you want X, then you ought to do Y.” If you want to promote the long-run health of your kin, friends, and descendants, then Seek Peace, Do Justice, Love Mercy, and Be Irreverent. And so forth and so on. We evade the Is-Ought gap by including the “If” clause.

  22. 24

    But how does that make that morality any more objective than say, following the ten commandments? If you want to follow the ten commandments, it is objectively measurable whether you do or not, and that is exactly as objective as civic morality.
    Also, that suggests that if you’re in an area like, say, the Deep South, where everyone is highly religious, and you want to follow your civic morality – you should become religious. Since, if you want to “promote the long-run health of your kin, friends, and descendants” and you live somewhere that’s highly religious, and intolerant of those who aren’t, then you’ll do best if you join that majority faith, and get your family to, too.
    And then that suggests that fundamentalists better get their act together, because if they want people to follow their faith (a reasonable choice, as there is still no good reason to choose “promote the long-run health of your kin, friends, and descendants” over “promote your irrational faith”), and they want to make it so that it is right (by your logic) for atheists to adopt their religion, they have to make it so the best way to “promote the long-run health of your kin, friends, and descendants” is to join their religion. Then you will have to.

  23. 25

    Ah, screw it. I have to confess, I’m just playing around with your ideas now, I’m not really putting in any effort. I didn’t really want to talk about why you think atheist morality is great and religious morality is teh sukk, since I didn’t see anything of value in what you wrote, and your understanding of religious morality is limited enough that if pushed I’d hypothesise you’re an ex-fundy, who’s never encountered any kind of intelligent religion.
    The posts you linked me to didn’t do anything to dispel that notion, since they spend a whole lot of time generalising badly about religious ethics, then attacking that strawman, and never actually deal successfully with the only question that needed to be answered “why choose to ‘promote the long-run health of your kin, friends, and descendants'”
    I really wanted to talk about the fact that religious ingroup/outgroup dynamics that cause the problems described in the OP are just as prevalent in non-religious groups, as demonstrated by your own belief that atheists look at “ethical questions as an adult among other adults.”, and that your ethics are objective (which you have comprehensively failed to demonstrate beyond ‘have an objective measure’ to which I direct you to my objective ethics that have the objective measure of ‘insert sarcastic objective measure here’).
    Sadly this has been averted by the all the text in our fruitless discussion, and I don’t suppose I’ll ever get a discussion going around my original point. So I’m bored now. Bye bye.
    (That doesn’t mean I won’t check back, but at the moment I’m no longer interested in this)

  24. 26

    By the definitions I am using, there are many possible objective systems of ethics, one for each coherent strategy for pursuing each objectively measureable goal. Civic morality, in particular, aims at maintaining peaceful and cooperative relations with your neighbors, therefore “don’t kill, steal, lie, or break agreements”, and more generally follow the Silver Rule, do not do unto others what you would not want done to yourself. This is sort of the basic ABC’s of everyday morality, and my point is that these basics follow from common desires that can naturally be expected to be cross-cultural, close to universal, and need no support from fairy tales.
    Religion is whatever you care to make of it. If you bring a compassionate heart TO it, you can make a broadly positive thing. “Intelligent” religion, however, has never impressed me as being other than rationalization, arguments that “sound good” for ignoring or changing the brutal and ignorant original text, while somehow pretending to be faithful to it. Fundies have bad reasons for believing that their cherished story is true, but at least they believe it IS true, in the same way that secularists believe that it is false. “Liberal” religionists have even less reason to think that their cherished story is true, and they don’t seem to care.
    Ender, I grew up attending an Episcopalian church, and in my 20’s I followed an eastern religion for five years; I’ve spent years attending Quaker meeting and Unitarian fellowship, I have known plenty of nice folk who were religious. I know that most folk are not theologians or philosophers. But I have not seen that the nicer, more “liberal” religions were any more “intelligent” than the fundies; Neither have I seen that the fundies were any more faithful to the original text than the liberals. They just selected and reinterpreted different passages.

  25. 27

    Took me a little time to get around to this, but I finally got a little time tonight to do it:
    Eric R.: “The ‘difference’ in this case (what distinguishes religion from Einsteinian wonder at the majesty of the universe), is that the numinous feeling is interpreted as an encounter with something transcendent, something essentially mysterious but fundamental that lies ‘beyond the empirical skin of reality.'”
    In other words:
    When you said, in your original comment, that religion was (paraphrasing for brevity here) a feeling of immediate presence and transcendent connection with the infinite… that wasn’t really correct.
    You don’t think that’s all religion is. You think that religion is a transcendent, immediately- present, infinitely- connected experience which is a real encounter with some sort of real, metaphysical or supernatural being or substance that really exists in the world.
    So here’s my point: When I argue against religion, that’s what I’m arguing against. I’m totally in favor of transcendence and epiphany and all that good stuff. I experience it myself. I simply think that this has nothing to do with metaphysical being(s); that a belief in the metaphysical being(s) is not necessary for the experience; and that the belief in the metaphysical being(s) is both mistaken and, on the whole, harmful… harmful, even if for no other reason, than because it is mistaken.
    What you’re doing here is a classic example of what atheists call “moving the goalposts.” You don’t get to say one day that religion is just this wonderful transcendent feeling with nothing to do with indefensible beliefs in supernatural beings… and then, two days later, insist that the belief in the supernatural beings is an essential defining characteristic of that experience.

Comments are closed.