Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Faith vs. Morality - Part II

This is the problem with faith. While it comforts the afflicted it sometimes appears to prevent them from becoming part of the solution. Instead of looking for rational answers they are looking for confirmation of their views of the supernatural. Years ago an older friend told me that if he didn’t believe that there was a reason for everything – that God had some kind of plan – then he would not be able to get up and face his life day to day. At the time that seemed reasonable.

Believing that a supernatural being has a plan and in the end it will all be revealed fails to comfort me. It doesn’t eliminate the suffering and terrible injustices across the world. To be fair there are many good people with religious beliefs who reach out and work toward making this planet a better place for all of us. I have seen various non-believers try to skewer religion unfairly as nothing more than a den of vipers bent on evil in the name of God. That’s just not true. Good and ethical people exist everywhere.


Today I would ask my friend why he doesn’t he just create his own plan? Faith deadens reason. He could continue to believe in a potential return or second coming of Christ or he could turn his attention to the here and now and create a life for himself. Part of the problem why may Christians, especially Catholics, have a hard time living affirmatively in the now is that suffering is believed to a necessary part of spiritual perfection.

Catholics are encouraged to mortify the flesh. However, these mortifications or self induced punishments do not compare to times past. Most are content to give up chocolate during lent or fuss over minor inconveniences they have to endure. Meanwhile across the world and in our own country people suffer at the hands of others unfairly.

I don’t believe in supernatural evil. Human beings in their selfishness and avarice are capable of all manner of wickedness. Most often the suffering of others is brought about by their fellow humans. Poverty, starvation and sexual abuse have nothing to do with Satan or any supernatural cause. It is people inflicting pain on other people.

The most outwardly Christian nation in the world – the United States – has some of the biggest disconnects between morality and its supposed faith. The homeless and poor in this country are blamed for their own misfortune. Something is wrong with them and they need to be more accountable. The system is fine. We balk at universal health care.

The Libertarian values of our forefathers, so adamantly defended by the Christian right (except in the case of religion), are not necessarily the values of those who wrote the accepted gospel texts. The New Testament comes from a culture of shared community where one looks after their neighbor and shares what they have with those that don’t. We could construct a convincing argument that the libertarian right is not compatible with gospel Christianity.

Feed the poor

Heal the sick

Give clothes to the naked and so on

We often see these as religious values. But, instead they are really human values and need no supernatural entity behind them. Decent people who have a developed a sense of empathy don’t need god to tell them to do these things.

The non-official, yet official Christianity of the United States is a psychic battle between the deism of our founders and the Calvinists who often opposed them. John Calvin – who gave us the so-called Protestant work ethic – created a worldview that god blesses those who work hard and grants them good fortune. Therefore, the homeless and poor may not be great in god’s esteem.

I was homeless for a short period of time in my life. I learned during that time that I was the exception. Many of the poor folks who I met while living in a men’s shelter and picking up free meals at the Salvation Army were there for reasons, such as mental illness, that they couldn’t always control.

Judge not lest ye be judged

Another teaching of Jesus…

The Christian right has no problem judging others. In fact they seem to take it as a divine mandate. But, truly there is nothing spiritual there. It simply religion transformed into an extreme conservative political agenda, an agenda that often keeps us from focusing as a nation on issues that truly need to be resolved.

The reason I see morality as being human and not divine is that it will differ from culture to culture. Every child is truly born tabula rasa. They come in with their genetic dispositions and their families and culture teaches them about the things that are of value to that culture. I was a Christian because I was born in a culture that is predominantly Christian. I wasn’t born with a personal god. My god is the god of my parents.

What I believe to be right and wrong is what I was taught. If a child is not socialized properly or suffers extreme trauma they may very well develop a sociopathy that prevents them from developing empathy. Sociopaths do not share a common understanding of morality. In fact they may be quite amoral even if they don’t ever break the law.

While my former religion would see this as proof of original sin and the innate tendency toward sinfulness that humans express I tend to see it as a failure in the psychological development of a child. Human beings are neither good nor evil when we are born. We are amoral and self-centered. We know nothing of god and right from wrong until it is programmed into us by our culture. In a small way we may suggest that we are all born natural sociopaths or at least bearing the potential of becoming one.

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