“Name me a moral action made by a believer that could not be made by a non-believer.” This was the late Christopher Hitchens’ storied moral challenge against theists who claimed that it is impossible for atheists to be moral without gods. Hitchens turned this around by showing how ethics is prior to religion. He continued, “If I were to ask, could you name a wicked action made by someone attributable only to their religious faith? There isn’t a person here who would hesitate for a second.”
In a debate between David Wolpe and Hitchens, Wolpe countered the moral challenge by presenting a personal example. Wolpe recounted a story about his father, “When I think of the most powerful and intimate moments that I had with my father, it was when he put his hands on my head and blessed me on a Friday night.” Such an action is definitely unavailable to the logically consistent atheist. Hitchens dismissed this response, saying that he was not convinced that this was truly a moral action.
Even as an atheist, it is apparent to me that Hitchens’ skepticism was misplaced. You don’t need to believe in a supernatural deity to accept that mystical activities could possibly be conducive to well-being, if only for the false consolation that things are going to be okay. This is not to say that there is any evidence for the supernatural any more than there is evidence that placebos are universal cures. This is also not to say that the comfort produced by delusion is even worth the opportunity cost of being mistaken about the nature of reality. It is sufficient to show from this example that even delusion can be compatible with ethical motivations.
In the middle of the culture wars, it is easy to get lost in the absolutist narrative (I’m often guilty of such thoughts): conservative Christians are backwards Puritanical parrots, atheists and liberals are the height of pure rationality. The opposite view that Christians are the sole keepers of moral truth and liberals are mindless instruments of Satan is also a popular belief. Obviously, such black and white views are seldom accurate for any argument. By embracing such unconditional beliefs, we lose sight of the fact that we share a common human nature, regardless of our views.
The religious meme
It’s a common little jab by pro-RH activists against Catholic bishops that they are against the RH bill because they want more children—children that they can indoctrinate. This, however, is an unfair accusation. The Roman Catholic hierarchy has been more or less consistent about its sex negative stance for ages. This opposition to liberal views of sexuality comes from their own idea that sex was created by God for the purpose of procreation. Anything that falls short of God’s purpose is the privation (or the prevention of achievement) of the intrinsically good nature of creation. And anything that falls short of nature is evil. Having more children to indoctrinate is a bonus, but it does not come into their reasoning at all.
There can be, however, a naturalistic explanation for how the Church came to be so adamantly against contraception. We can appeal to the idea that the proliferation of cultural ideas, like religion, can follow a Darwinian analogue to genes called, “memes.”
Genes are selfish hereditary units. If they weren’t selfish, they wouldn’t be passed on. But this self-interestedness at the gene level need not be consciously held by the organisms they build. Animals, human or not, can exhibit altruistic motives, even though these behaviors are ultimately determined by selfish genes. Similar to genes, memes are selected for in cultures such that the ones that survive are those that exhibit characteristics that are conducive to virus-like proliferation in the minds of conscious beings.
To extend the Darwinian analogy to religion, the religions that dominate are predicted to have certain traits that are conducive to self-preservation—such as child-indoctrination and zealous opposition to change. Consider the Shakers, who prohibited any sort of procreation. They practically don’t exist anymore. Now, the Roman Catholic Church may have despicably self-preservationist doctrines (as in their protocol for shielding rapist employees) but this does not necessarily contradict with any benevolent motive. As in the selfishness of genes, the self-preservationism of religious memes need not manifest in persons as conscious malice. But, the road to hell, after all, is paved with good intentions.
It is important to understand that apparently evil actions can have thoroughly good intentions because the assumption of malice tends to be the root of misunderstanding and conflict. Relevant to this is a psychological effect called, “the moralization gap,” described by the psychologist Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature. It is a self-serving bias where injured parties tend to see hurts, no matter how small, as undeserved, permanent, and egregious, while offending parties see hurts, no matter how bad, as justified, temporary, and exaggerated. This is a consistent bias in human psychology that makes any sort of dialogue difficult. Parties on the opposing sides of disputes tend to hold distorted accounts of their own experiences.
Since this is a bias built into our brains by evolution, we must be constantly aware whenever it pops up so we can avoid such things. It is best to adhere to the principle of charity and steer clear of assuming malevolence in the motives of people.
The truth is, most people on either side, religious conservative or liberal, have well-meaning intentions and do not go out of their way to maliciously provoke. That is, both sides see an end that would be good for all parties concerned. The problem stems from competing notions of what “good” is.
Competing notions of good
Conservatives, such as Manny Pacquiao, Miriam Quiambao, and Toni Gonzaga, are learning more and more that moral indignation is no longer the sole turf of the religious. From seeing the horrors of sectarian violence and the petty tyranny of religious self-appointed censors, people are growing more and more skeptical of religion’s purported monopoly on moral claims.
What liberals can fail to see, however, is that religious conservatives truly believe that they have everyone’s best interests at heart. Whether it’s closing down sacrilegious art installations or protesting blasphemous pop stars, religious conservatives honestly think that they are preventing future harm on all people—the fires of hell that will welcome all sinners. However detached from reality this motivation is, it does not diminish in any way the sense of urgency religious conservatives feel about the escalation of irreverence in the social zeitgeist. Theirs is an earnest and well-intentioned concern that liberals simply must accept and deal with.
The change in social values led by liberals is denounced by religious conservatives as moral relativism—the idea that there are no objective moral truths, only subjective moral preferences. However, liberals are just as morally motivated as their conservative opponents. It is just that liberals tend to view “bad” in light of the suffering experienced by conscious beings. This view of ethics is just as objective as the conservatives’ natural moral law, even though it is open to revision and correction as we learn more about human nature. Compare this with how medicine is an objective exercise despite the definition of health constantly changing as the years go by.
In contrast, conservatives tend to detach suffering in this world from the meaning of “moral.” They see morality as prescribed actions that lead toward the accomplishment of what they believe is their god’s desire. This is how they can find the “perversion” of the sanctity (God’s “natural” purpose) of sex and marriage more abhorrent (and more worthy of their time) than abject poverty and maternal deaths.
More noble than the “middle ground”
I see, in this state of affairs, an impasse. It is very difficult to argue ethics when either side comes from such completely different premises—the conservatives’ duty to God versus the liberals’ concern for earthly suffering. There is, however, hope for those who despise the notion that homosexuals do not deserve equal rights and that mothers do not have the right to raise the kind of family they want. It is this: conservatives always lose. It is only a matter of time. Our change in attitude towards slavery and the rights of women and homosexuals, clearly points to the possibility and reality of moral progress, as hard as religious conservatism may fight the rising tide.
In the meantime, we must be sympathetic to the motivations of all parties: we all mean well. We all want to make the world a better place. It is just that we mean very different and incompatible things by “better.” There is, in the understanding of this fact, a place higher and more noble than the so-called “middle ground” built by flawed notions of “tolerance” and “respect”. Acknowledging where each side is coming from without tritely asserting that everyone is right in their own way is, to me, the real meaning of respect.
Hindu Prayer Image Credit: Lauren Pursecki