Saturday, 10 December 2011

Religion and ethics.

I had a rather confusing conversation a while ago. I was discussing the fact that I was confused about ethics and was looking for something more firm to base it on. My friend suggested religion. My friend is very intelligent, which is why his comments confused me. He hadn't noticed something obvious to me. Which is that religion can never be a satisfying basis for morality. And that in fact no religious people derive their ethics this way.

My friend happens to be a Christian, but these comments, or ones equivalent to them, apply to any religion. He suggested his religion as a source for ethics. My first response was to interpret this to mean the Church, pick a big one and say "no, using condoms is a good thing". This isn't just a problem with the Roman Catholic Church. Anglicans have the whole gay thing. The various American Churches are all insane. I know nothing about Greek or Russian Orthodox but I'm going to guess there's something I can pick in their doctrines that is obviously immoral.

My friend replied that of course he didn't mean the Church when he talked about Christianity. He meant the Bible. The fact that he didn't see my response coming was surprising considering he has met me more than once. The bible is a fundamentally evil document. YHWH is among the most abominable and evil forces in the history of human literature. He orders countless genocides, enjoys the suffering of others, he is capricious, vindictive, unmerciful, compassionless and to cap it all, proud of each of these attributes. To derive ethics from such a source is a nonsense.

(Here is a step special to Christianity as having a bipartite holy book, for other religions I assume there is some section where divine power is closer to intuitive ethics than others, so this is still a fairly general conversation). Oh no, I have misunderstood, my friend tells me. The New Testament is the real ethical content of the Bible, that is the one that counts. Again, if you're a bible nerd the response is obvious. The keeping of slaves is a bad thing. "But the New Testament doesn't say keep slaves, it says treat them well." Except that is obviously unethical. It is not ethical to treat your slaves well. There is only one ethical action you can take towards a slave, free them. There are no exceptions, no qualifications, free them. This, and only this, is ethical.

The actual conversation ended around here. But the continuation of the pattern is obvious. Well that's not the real meaning of Christianity, that's just Paul, we all know Paul had ... issues. You need to look at Jesus. And so I point out "I come not to send peace, but a sword. I come to set a man against his father" and we finally hit the nub. That's a metaphor. He doesn't mean that.

The key question is why you believe this. Do you think this should not be taken literally because in fact you studied the Greek texts so you can work out what things were in fact said, and meant, by the historical Jesus? In all probability no. The though process runs much more like this. "Here is a text from Jesus. Jesus was good. This text seems bad. There is a contradiction here, this text must in fact be good. So he means he comes bearing a spiritual sword."

Notice this is not how to construct an ethical system. At the end, in the final analysis, a religious tradition must always pass through a sieve. Most people call this "the true meaning of the religion". The idea is that you take the holy book(s), the Church(es), the stories, the sayings, the art, the literature, the culture and you decide which bits to keep and which to reject. All religions of any good size have at least one contradiction or obviously immoral idea, you cannot take all of it. Then, after you have decided what to keep and what to reject, everything you keep becomes the definition of ethical.

The question is still left though. Where did you get the sieve? How did you know, instinctively, which bits counted and which didn't? Because others of the same religion disagree with you. To a vast number of people it is obvious that Leviticus 20:13 counts, but Leviticus 19:19 doesn't. Why is this? There's no difference at all, to my knowledge, in the textual validity of the two passages. They're found less than a chapter apart, both are clear commandments spoken in the voice of YHWH. There is only one distinguishing factor. The people making this distinction personally hate the idea of homosexuality and are nonplussed by the idea of mixed fabrics.

And that's the point. Religious people do not (thankfully) go to a religious text and churn it into an ethical system. They have an ethical system, given to them by the normal combination of genetics and societal influences. They go to the religious text and look at it through the glasses of these ethics. And then they produce a new articulation of the ethical system in religious language. This is why it's easy to share a religion with someone you share no ethical views with at all. (How does the average Westborough Baptist, 9/11 hijacker, Air India 182 bomber etc etc regard their co-religionists?)

This is not altogether a bad thing. There's a lot to be gained by reading some opinions on ethical issues to refine and modify your own ideas. This is a large part of what can be gained from sci-fi. It's exactly the same process. The Doctor is good, so anything is does that isn't good (like planning to smash a guy's skull in because he was slowing you down) goes in the "doesn't count" pile. (If you're a thorough nerd you have your own in-universe explanation for this that makes it all ok, if not, just pretend it's not there). That way you dont go around smashing people's skulls in but you do get to have wonderful thoughts. What if I did have two wires I could touch together to unmake the Daleks, should I do that?

But let us be frank with ourselves. We do not get our ethics handed to us on a stone tablet. No stone tablet is large enough to really explain a coherent ethical system. And even if it were, in practice you would always decide which bits of the tablet were most important. Yes, read religious texts (note the plural) in order to refine and strengthen your morality. But you must not approach them without an idea of ethics already established. 

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