Anyone who is able to overcome infant indoctrination and consider theistic religions objectively has no trouble in judging them to be completely false and simply the product of primitive concepts of the nature of the universe.
However, there are, in every community, a large number of people who, while rejecting the supernatural claims of religion, think it has a role in determining the social ethics and mores. To them religion acts as the moral police officer. Thousands of people support religion not because they believe the doctrines to be true but because they believe it to he socially useful.
In this, the first part of two articles aimed at showing that this concept is unacceptable, the ethical and moral codes of Christianity will be examined. In the second, the non-religious base of ethics and morals will be outlined and compared with that advocated by Christians. Therefore it is necessary to state the religious position as clearly as possible.
Ever since humans developed a consciousness of the world they had religion. Religion created supernatural gods, devils, angels and spirits to explain natural phenomena and all knowledge of the true character of the world has been at the expense of religion. Any return to religion means a rejection of this knowledge which humans have gained over thousands of years through observation, experience and scientific experiment.
Christianity is what is called a ‘revealed’ religion – a religion revealed to man by the Hebrew god Yahweh. So faulty was the revelation that it has been the source of hundreds of different and conflicting versions of his ‘word’ and of institutions based thereon.
There was no revelation of the nature of disease or its treatment or eradication. There was no revelation of mathematics, of astronomy, chemistry, biology, art or science. There was no revelation regarding genetics or agriculture but the clergy still declare that the word of Yahweh carries the definitive inspired morality for human behaviour. It is a declaration which does not stand when submitted to objective scrutiny. It is a declaration which atheists and humanists reject.
Individuals are free to accept for themselves the ethics set forth in the Bible the Koran or any other book or religion but they are not entitled to impose those ethics on others. They may endeavour to convince other people to accept their viewpoint but they are not entitled to indoctrinate or coerce. However, Christians aim at complete imposition as stated by Presbyterian Rev. Leonard Coppes…”God should set the law system, not man … If homosexuals don’t repent the Bible says that they ought to be put to death.
It’s…what God says. Abortion is murder and the penalty for murder from theology is death. We’re commanded …. to pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth and what we’re commanded to pray for we’re commanded to work for.”
The Catholic Church has always maintained that Church law must take pre-eminence over civil law and has only yielded ground under pressure. Where it still has the power it enforces Church law which it maintains is the standard Christian code.
The religious morality shown by the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Waldensian and the Huguenot massacres, the slave trade, the burning of witches and heretics and Holocaust was the morality of Christianity. While the church may now reject this morality there is scriptural support for them all. Belief in evil spirits and their influence is still widely held. It was the non-religious or humanist code which witnessed against the divinely inspired morality.
The cardinal premise of Christian ethics is that humans are born wicked and will, without divine intervention, end in everlasting torture.
The great Christian ‘reformers’ preached submission to authority and acceptance of whatever vicissitudes the common person had endure. They had no interest in reforming the system of oppression. Morality was forced by ecclesiastical courts. Wesley opposed the move towards primary education.
An examination of the Concordats signed with the Vatican is concrete testimony to the basic immorality of Christian ethics The Roman Catholic Church and Pope actively supported and recognised General Franco and his methods. The co-operation of the R.C. Church with Hitler and its involvement with the massacres in Croatia is still not widely known.
From its outset, Christianity has attempted to establish its credentials by claiming supernatural right, miracles and wonders and has exploited ignorance and credulity. It still demands blind faith and acceptance of its teachings. The fundamentalist sects which are now flourishing are those which deny scientific evidence. They reject the idea of inspired geology, astronomy or physics but believe implicitly in inspired morality.
Religion invented the gods and since then has invented nothing – except excuses for its continued existence.
Religious apologists say that religion is necessary –
intellectually, to provide answers to ultimate questions
emotionally, to calm fears and anxieties
conatively, to provide motivation and ideals
socially, to enforce morals and a sense of community.
Intellectually, religious explanations are absurd.
Emotionally, religious consolation is a regression to childhood and a refusal to face reality.
Conatively, religion directs its adherents to fictitious goals and rituals.
Socially, religion is divisive and endeavours to enforce inappropriate and primitive codes.
The fundamental problem of a supernatural morality was pin-pointed by Plato. Is a moral quality right intrinsically or is it right because a supernatural being has declared or commanded it to be right. Is the Christian god ‘good’ because he declared himself to be “good”?
The Christian attitude to morality can be stated succinctly by paraphrasing the words of the philosopher Paley: “the good of mankind is the subject, the will of Yahweh is the rule and everlasting happiness is the motive.”
The fatal flaw of a morality based on religious belief is the fact that people are left floundering when they cease to believe in heaven and the supernatural. An additional flaw is apparent in those religions where the responsibility for personal behaviour is off-loaded to priest or substitute saviour. The hard to obtain statistics of the religious beliefs of the inmates of prisons are overwhelming evidence of the failure of morality based on religion.
False and unacceptable premises cannot be used as the foundation of a viable ethical standard.
Given that ethics is another name for rules of conduct it is obvious that it had its genesis not only in our distant human past but can be seen in animal behaviour. Many predators work as a team to secure their food and even insects such as ants and bees act co-operatively through instinct. With the insects there are no individuals who benefit but with animals there is often one who claims the first portion. Humans are obliged not only to work as a team but to deal fairly with each individual and it is this obligation which ethics tries to define.
Over thousands of years many categories of conduct codes have developed including the rules of etiquette and the divisions of law, all aimed ostensibly at making society run smoothly and assuring fair play for each individual. Unfortunately many rules and laws were promulgated to secure privilege and advantage for certain groups or individuals.
Therefore ethics are not only concerned with moral codes but with those who make them and the reason behind the making. It is here that atheists have reason to be critical. Throughout the ages both individuals and organisations have proclaimed certain laws or moral codes to be binding on everyone because they were given by some unseen supernatural being. To the present time the existence of such supernatural beings has not been proved and is just speculation at best and simply used to bolster rules which otherwise would be completely unacceptable to the general public. Such rules ought to be rejected completely. Two hundred years ago the American colonies fought a war with Britain over laws which they had no part in making. Democracy in making the laws of conduct is no less valid.
Here again is a problem. Does the majority have the right to establish the laws which all are obliged to obey?
A similar problem also existed during the dark ages and exists today in countries with a low level of education. Do the educated have the right or obligation to make the laws for the general population?
In regard to the second question the concept of team-work makes it obligatory that every effort ought to be made to upgrade the standard of education so all can contribute to the rule-making process and maximise the full potential of each individual.
The position today is further complicated by other groups which exert power in other ways. Wealth carries enormous influence as seen by the way presidents are elected to office in the U.S.A. Tied closely to wealth is the ability to gain access to the mass media. Given these, it is possible, indeed almost inevitable, that pressure groups will dominate the making of rules for their own advantage.
In regard to the first question it is considered axiomatic that the viewpoint of minorities should be accorded due recognition but there appears to be no infallible mechanism to ensure that that position is upheld.
The third area of uncertainty lies in the fact that with all rules the prevailing situation must be taken into account. Conduct which generally would be totally unacceptable may well be appropriate in particular circumstances or environments.
From this it is obvious that in the wide field of ethics and law there can be no clear-cut position of black or white, right or wrong. However as ethics are the backbone of society they ought to be a substantial part of our education system. It is claimed that ignorance is no excuse in matters of law but how is the population at large to be informed if no provision is made for teaching? If a particular course of action is seen to be desirable by one group they ought to be able to have access to the facilities which would enable the public to be informed and likewise the public should have access to the same facilities to supply any contra viewpoint.
For people to freely obey any rule they must be able to see the reason for it and the benefit to themselves and others. They will forego personal advantage if they can see definite gains for the ‘team.’ The ‘team’ may be the family group, school, local club, peer group, neighbourhood, country or even the planet.
Once again there can, and often is, a conflict of interest between ‘teams’ and the problem arises of assigning priorities.
It is ludicrous to tie priorities to so-called divinely given sacred writings or to religious institutions. The viewpoint of all philosophies and institutions may be worthy of consideration but should never rank higher than contemporary thinking, for we live in a world of change and standards must be constantly upgraded to accord with the current situation.
Atheists being free from traditional religious walls ought to be at the forefront in setting current thinking and action not only in the realm of ethics but in conservation, political agenda, economic policies and all other matters which impinge on the planet and the myriad of life forms and resources therein.
It is a challenge which atheists cannot afford to side-step.
By Keith S Cornish