Member of the reality-based community of progressive (not anonymous) Massachusetts blogs
Tim Little in the comments of BMG pointed out this gem op-ed by Sam Harris at Boston.com, titled “Bad reasons to be good.” Of course, it will thoroughly offend some of you, but read on if you think you can take it (bold mine):
It is, of course, taboo to criticize a person’s religious beliefs. The problem, however, is that much of what people believe in the name of religion is intrinsically divisive, unreasonable, and incompatible with genuine morality. The truth is that the only rational basis for morality is a concern for the happiness and suffering of other conscious beings. This emphasis on the happiness and suffering of others explains why we don’t have moral obligations toward rocks. It also explains why (generally speaking) people deserve greater moral concern than animals, and why certain animals concern us more than others. If we show more sensitivity to the experience of chimpanzees than to the experience of crickets, we do so because there is a relationship between the size and complexity of a creature’s brain and its experience of the world.
Unfortunately, religion tends to separate questions of morality from the living reality of human and animal suffering. Consequently, religious people often devote immense energy to so-called “moral” questions — such as gay marriage — where no real suffering is at issue, and they will inflict terrible suffering in the service of their religious beliefs.
But the worst problem with religious morality is that it often causes good people to act immorally, even while they attempt to alleviate the suffering of others. In Africa, for instance, certain Christians preach against condom use in villages where AIDS is epidemic, and where the only information about condoms comes from the ministry.
The fact is, I frequently find myself acting more compassionate than some of my Christian counterparts. But I don’t gain my compassion from some flawed external source. I get it from a common ground of - as Harris puts it - the reality of human and animal suffering.
A true modern Christian would be anti-war, against the death penalty, and for large social programs, governmental or otherwise, to help the poor. Abortion is a weird one, as it’s not something that was really mentioned in the Bible, insofar as the concept didn’t exist as it does today. And yet Christians everywhere have apparently determined God’s feelings on that one as well, no matter what science says. And for centuries, adherents of the so-called compassionate monotheistic religions are responsible for much of the suffering through the centuries, whether that be leading men into brutal war against another religious group or persecuting homosexuals, women, or Jews.
I do understand that some people prefer a rigid set of rules and a structure to live by, and that they find this in religion. It is comforting for some people to have that external framework from which to relate to the world. This hierarchical authoritarian trait is exibited in a significant set of the human race, and not just the blind “far right” worshippers of George W. Bush. But knowledge is power…comprehending the basis for your own behavior is strangely freeing, and it doesn’t require you to reject your mindset; only expand and examine it, to reject it when it’s commonly destructive and embrace its strength when it’s productive.
Fact is, unless your brain is seriously malformed, humans of all personalities already have the tools within themselves to determine the scope of fairness in our laws, foreign and domestic priorities, and interpersonal relationships. We share ourselves through story and art and simple conversation; we know how to hurt feelings and we know how to heal wounds. We are an advanced society that has the capability to discuss morals on terms larger than any one religion, and to have certain universal concepts to guide our hand. Religion has long claimed to be the only realm of morality, but a deeper look shows that it has more often been wielded as a weapon against a person’s inner natural morality, which is to alleviate or prevent suffering in our fellow humans.
I am a moral creature, I know when I’ve committed right and I know when I’ve done something wrong. I don’t need books assumed to be inspired by any god or gods to tell me what my heart already knows.
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