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Morality Religion

November 23rd, 2008

Wow. Reading this editorial from the WSJ had me sitting there for a while trying to figure out if it was clever satire. After the third or fifth paragraph, however, the article leaned more toward technical market stuff, and the possibility of satire eased. Still, had the beginning and end been published in The Onion, word for word, I would have accepted it as rank satire without a second thought. In essence, the editorial blames the recent economic collapse on secularism. Yep, we’re back to the golden oldie: if something bad happens, it’s because we aren’t being religious enough. Let’s begin with a canard that the piece uses as a theme:

And so it will come to pass once again that many people will spend four weeks biting on tongues lest they say “Merry Christmas” and perchance, give offense. Christmas, the holiday that dare not speak its name.

Here we go again. First of all, I know of no one who is reluctant to say “Merry Christmas”–it is repeated endlessly during the holiday season, just like the endless loops of Christmas carols that play on so many radio stations. This is pure fiction. It arose when some businesses, in order to include all of their customers, started giving the generic “Happy Holidays” greeting.

“Happy Holidays” is not anti-Christian, any more than “people” is anti-male. The whole “War on Christmas” attitude is intentionally blind to the distinction between inclusiveness and exclusiveness. “Happy Holidays” includes Christmas, as well as all other religious celebrations. Pressuring people to say “Merry Christmas” instead, on the other hand, is exclusive–it specifically shuts out all other belief systems except for Christianity. When speaking person-to-person, there’s nothing wrong with any specific greeting–but when addressing a large number of people, one must be general. One would not call a crowd of men and women “gentlemen.” Similarly, you say “Happy Holidays” to address everyone during the holiday seasons. Christians who are offended by this are effectively saying that no other belief system deserves recognition.

The very people who whine about the “War on Christmas” are the ones who are shutting people out, waging a war on non-Christians. The rest of us are just sitting here, rolling our eyes at their thinly-veiled bigotry.

While the “War on Christmas” is a theme of the opinion piece, the central thesis is that secularism causes moral and therefore systemic collapse:

What really went missing through the subprime mortgage years were the three Rs: responsibility, restraint and remorse. They are the ballast that stabilizes two better-known Rs from the world of free markets: risk and reward.

Responsibility and restraint are moral sentiments. Remorse is a product of conscience. None of these grow on trees. Each must be learned, taught, passed down. And so we come back to the disappearance of “Merry Christmas.”

It has been my view that the steady secularizing and insistent effort at dereligioning America has been dangerous. That danger flashed red in the fall into subprime personal behavior by borrowers and bankers, who after all are just people. Northerners and atheists who vilify Southern evangelicals are throwing out nurturers of useful virtue with the bathwater of obnoxious political opinions.

The point for a healthy society of commerce and politics is not that religion saves, but that it keeps most of the players inside the chalk lines. We are erasing the chalk lines.

Of course, the author’s primary error here is to assume that the collapse happened because the ones responsible for the collapse had lost god and therefore their morality. They provide no evidence for this aside from the claim that using “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” was somehow related. They apparently assume that at some point in time in the past, a market full of people defined primarily by their lust for money and not at all for their religion was god-fearing and therefore restrained and responsible, and that the subsequent loss of their religious ways (apparently brought on by a few scattered advertisements which said “Happy Holidays!” instead of “Merry Christmas!”) caused them to instead go after risk-and-reward. Um, yeah, right. That’s what caused it all.

All of this comes back to a recurring sermon: religion equals morality, and you can’t even have morality if you’re not religious–you can only pretend to, by mimicking Christians. The solution, as it is often expressed, is simply to make religion present where the problem exists, which is why you get people saying that the answer to moral decay in youth is to introduce classroom prayer and post the ten commandments on the schoolroom walls. This kind of superficial application of morality reminds me of the time I worked for a religion-backed organization which required it’s managers to be Christian. The idea was, theoretically, to assure the moral tenor of the management. My immediate boss, as a result, converted to Christianity–despite the fact that he was not in the least interested in the church–while at the same time maintaining an adulterous affair and doing other immoral stuff I won’t go into here. In other words, it was all about appearance, not actual practice. Oh, sure, the organization’s intent for morality was sincere–they simply failed to recognize what morality was and how it works with people. They made the same error as the writer quoted above, believing that the mere presence of religion induces moral behavior.

While religion can be used to stimulate moral behavior, it does not do so automatically nor exclusively. Religion can just as easily stimulate immoral behavior as it can moral behavior; it depends upon the examples chosen and the themes and applications of the lesson. Similarly, non-religious teaching can have an equal effect: it depends upon the examples you choose and how you teach the lesson. The two are equal–both tools, neither one a magical cloak that bestows morality. The key is in the lesson, not the example. Sounds simple, but the writer quoted misses it completely: you get moral behavior by teaching morality; religion is simply one vehicle for that, and can lead people in the wrong direction just as easily as any other vehicle.

Now, the author, like many religious people, is probably working from a central assumption: that fear of god and damnation sets people on the right track. This is what often what religious people are thinking when they say that introducing god stimulates morality; they may overtly talk about learning lessons and so forth, but what they’re feeling in their gut is related more to punishment; when talking about remorse, it is fear of paying the price down the line. In short, “if I think about god when I’m doing something wrong, I become fearful and change my ways.”

There are several problems with this “moralizing” quality of religion. First, it is a sense born not of compassion for others, but instead of fear for one’s self. It is a morality forced upon the individual from the outside–much weaker intrinsically than a decision to act rightly despite believing that there would be no adverse consequences for acting wrongly. But so long as one believes that god is watching, then what difference does it make? Well, first there is the fact that it is fear-based and not compassion-based; those feelings will spill out into other areas of the person’s behavior. But the larger hazard here is the assumption that everyone will react to this outward pressure in the same way. I can see several ways that ‘god-fearing’ Christians could get around this.

For example, many rationalize their immoral behavior. In economics, one does so by passing the buck–for me alone, this would be wrong, but it is my responsibility to do this for the company. In life in general, people do this all the time in a variety of ways, one very common version being “they deserve this.” As with the death penalty, where we feel we are entitled to take life because of the actions of others. In short, we can do something immoral because someone else did something immoral; this can even be extended through the concept of pre-emptive strike: I can do something immoral because I expect that someone else will do it. Another common rationalization is “I’m not really doing that,” using semantics as moral cover. I’m not stealing, I’m delivering a well-deserved lesson, or I’m getting back what I think I deserve, so forth and so on. There are any number of ways to do immoral things but rationalize that they are somehow all right.

You may notice something: none of the above are specific to religion, anyone can use them to skirt morality. And that’s part of the point: Christians aren’t immune to the same rationalizations used by everyone else.

There are, however, other ways related to religion-as-morality-teacher where the application of the fear-god principle won’t work. There’s the brand of Christian who has learned that they can do something wrong, but make up for it later and be forgiven. And there is the interpretation-of-scripture excuse, where you can take whatever passage you like from the bible and read it any way you like. Or the religious person who believes they cannot be forgiven and are already going to hell, so why not? Then there are people who are not strongly religious, who rely only on religion for morality but don’t really believe that god is watching or will punish them in hell. Reminders of Christianity won’t have an effect on them.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Introducing religion is far from a guarantee that people will act morally.

I have written on this kind of things before, but this WSJ author dredged up all of that and a lot more. Prior writings include the source of morality (religion is not the source), the weakness of the ten commandments as a moral guide, The ability to use scripture to justify immoral acts, and the view that there is a war against religion when, if anything, the war is against atheism, fought by the religious.

Believe it or not, secularism is not the root of all evil, or even most of it.

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  1. Brian Bland
    November 24th, 2008 at 04:52 | #1

    I tried to leave this comment on WSJ but they had locked the topic:
    I guess all the volunteer work I do in my community, working with people with mental illness’ of all religious backgrounds, doesn’t count because I don’t believe in God.
    Oh well, I guess I am an immoral bad person.
    btw…Merry Christmas! I say it all the time and haven’t offended anyone yet.
    Open up a little, we might have a great Christmas after all.

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