Ethics, spirituality and religious conviction

Intelligent atheists (Jonathan Miller being probably the most articulate) often remark on the asymmetry between religious evangelism and the lack of any equivalent voice from the ‘opposing’ camp (by which, here, I mean atheists rather than satanists…). It is, after all, to build a compelling PR campaign on the strap-line “You know all that stuff which you believe…? Well, I don’t”.

It’s articles like this which illustrate how easily that asymmetry becomes the default. Here we have a pro-Christian politician arguing that “Half a century of corrosive and aggressive secularisation has created a selfish, superficial and materialistic culture amongst decision-makers and opinion-formers that is appropriately reflected in those we have elected to Parliament” and proposing a more overtly Christian political option as the solution.

In the absence of an atheist voice, there is no-one to counter the argument that religion provides the only basis for an ethical system – or, indeed, to argue that religion is often as badly flawed a basis as any other. One need only look as far as the current revelations about the Catholic Church in Ireland for an example of that.

Please don’t get me wrong; I’m not arguing that either religion or secularism has a moral monopoly. But as far as Alan Craig’s argument goes, I’d want, for instance, a little more evidence of how many of the ‘secular’ MPs he mentions are regular church-goers, or gave the oath of allegiance by swearing to God Almighty.

Here’s my prediction of what a little research would reveal:

– some people who claim to be religious act in immoral ways;
– some people who claim to be irreligious behave strictly morally;
– some of those who claim to be either sometimes behave well, and sometimes badly…

and I don’t think that’s good or bad – it’s just the way things are.

Here’s my more pessimistic prediction: if you elect someone to political office simply because they profess profound religious belief, and expect the outcome to be better than if you elect anyone else capable of getting to the point of being elected, don’t expect a radically different outcome.

I also think that some people are essentially benevolent, and would be so if they were Christian, agnostic, atheist, aspiritual or anywhere in between. Others aren’t, no matter what belief system they profess or deny.

By a strange quirk of timing, now is a good time to assert that William Heath is one of the former. He happens to be a practising Quaker. I’m profoundly happy for William that he has found that spiritual community which best reflects his own view and motivation – that doesn’t come to everyone. But I also happen to believe that “being a Quaker” is more or less incidental. William could have been an agnostic ditch-digger and still hold the same core values – albeit possibly for different reasons.

And there’s the nub, I suspect. I, for one, think that the moral question is one of how people act, rather than of why they act one way or another. If someone acts morally because they believe in the Easter Beagle, so be it. If someone acts evilly because they believe that’s what something in the Bible tells them to do, then again so be it. I remain unconvinced that the way to sort moral human beings from immoral or amoral ones is to ask them about their religious convictions.

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5 thoughts on “Ethics, spirituality and religious conviction

  1. Anonymous says:

    How do people know what is moral or amoral?

  2. Robin Wilton says:

    Interesting question – and at the risk of “doing a Joad”, it depends (partly, at least) what you mean by “know”. If what you mean is ‘how do people decide which is the more morally acceptable of two actions’, then one way is to look at what happens as a result (consequentialist).One option is to base it on which outcome they would prefer… if you extrapolate that to “outcomes which would be preferred by the people affected” you get something like utilitarianism.I know this is over-simplifying, and that there are plenty of issues with utilitarianism, but it illustrates the principle.You might argue that religion-based ethics are, by this definition, consequentialist and utilitarian, and I would agree – up to a point. After all, the New Testament is based on the moral code of ‘love thy neighbour’ and ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. However, in a traditional Christian view, one ‘consequence’ which is factored in is the prospect of ‘life ever after’: a sceptic might argue that it is not rational to include that as a criterion, because there’s no evidence that it will ever happen.As ‘amoral’, I would classify those decisions which are made without any regard to criteria like these (for instance, by flipping a coin). And ‘immoral’ would classify those cases where I know that the outcome would be preferred by no-one affected, but I go ahead and do it anyway…

  3. Robin Wilton says:

    I’m grateful to Bob Blakley (Burton Group) for indirectly pointing me at the following quotation:”A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.”

  4. Robin Wilton says:

    I’m grateful to Bob Blakley (Burton Group) for indirectly pointing me at the following quotation:”A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.” (Shelley)

  5. Steve says:

    I would recommend reading the Kuzari, written in the eleventh century by a Spanish Jew living in Muslim Andalusia (translation of part 1 available here: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/kuzari.html.It is intended as an apology for Judaism against the contemporary argument that since Jews were stateless Judaism has been surpassed – but can also be read as a discussion of the dichotomy between appropriate belief and universal morality.

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