A Question of Morality

“She would of been a good woman,” the Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Flannery O’Connor “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

I’m not religious, not a “believer.” I have a low opinion of organized religion, and am wary of “faith,” especially the unquestioning kind. That said, I believe there is room in this world for spirituality and I can respect it. There are many religious people who are deeply spiritual, and far more who are not. And there are some very spiritual people who do not ascribe to any belief system. It’s pretty complicated.

I function comfortably in a world of believers, a society where people seek out and embrace supernatural explanations for the complexities of their lives, and govern themselves in accordance with ancient rituals that are increasingly difficult to reconcile with the world today. I’m okay with that. I don’t get all frothy when people reject what science has confirmed because it goes against superstitions that have been handed down from thousands of years ago. I’m more troubled when they try to compel others to do the same. Fortunately, I live in a society where that’s pretty hard to do on a large scale, at least overtly.

True, there are small manifestations of religion that fill our culture, but I’m not going to get all bent out of shape if a well-meaning Christian says, “God bless you,” when I sneeze, or wishes me a “Merry Christmas.” I ask only they also don’t get upset if I don’t do so. When they take the equally well-meaning “Happy holidays,” as being somehow an attack on their beliefs, then there’s a problem. But, for the most part, things are fine, and I’m happy to live in a pluralistic society that can be so dominated by one particular faith, yet not become totally repressive.

Where I do get unhappy is in a rather odd place, one that comes of the melding of religion and morality. There exist things like the “Christian Yellow Pages,” where people can seek out businesses run by alleged Christians. The assumption is that a Christian will just innately be moral and ethical and trustworthy. Why? Because he believes in Jesus? More to the point, because he professes a belief in Jesus? Like someone wouldn’t lie about that? Come on, a dishonest person won’t hesitate to say whatever you want to hear. And even if he is Christian, that doesn’t make him innately more moral. Actually, the fact that he’s making such a big show out of being Christian is, as I understand it, antithetical to the actual teachings of Christianity.

But the real problem is the presumption of morality. This goes beyond business practices. Many religious people believe that a believer is more moral than a non-believer. They hold this perspective to the point that they think we need to emphasize religious practice, that we need to put religion back into the schools in order to make our children more moral. Underlying this entire premise is a very nasty assumption: not merely does religion instigate morality, but in fact in the absence of religion, people will not be moral. This is frightening.

When someone says that without religion we will not be moral, it tells me a great deal about that person. Whether or not it’s true that people cannot be moral in the absence of religion, it’s indisputable that he himself is only moral because of his religion. In other words, he only does the right thing because he believes in, and fears, some sort of divine retribution. Take away his faith, and he will become a savage.

People who are only moral because they believe some invisible superbeing is watching and keeping track aren’t moral at all. It’s said that the truest test of character is what we do when we think nobody is watching. If a believer behaves well only under threat from an all-seeing God, it’s not morality, it’s imposed behavior.

That’s why I submit that in fact non-believers are actually more moral than believers. A believer acts a certain way because he believes there is an eternal reward coming for doing so, and certain punishment for not. A non-believer, on the other hand, has no such motivation. He rejects the idea of an afterlife or reincarnation or anything else like that. He understands that this life is all we get, there are no second chances, nothing better waiting for us. When this life is over, that’s it. So he makes this life the best it can be.

And he realizes this is also true for everyone else. He, far more than the most crusading fundamentalist, understands how precious life is, in all its myriad forms. He will hesitate to kill because, unlike the believer who thinks it’s all part of God’s plan and the dead are on their way to paradise, the non-believer knows that killing takes away everything, and it can never be returned. This is why the rampant killing in our entertainments sickens me. Even in fiction, I am heartsick at a life snuffed out. Forever.

Yet our books and movies are full of killing, often done by supposedly good characters who then give no further thought to the monstrosity of what they have done. The victims didn’t matter because they weren’t major characters and, thus, their lives were unimportant. But all lives are important to someone, and a moral person never forgets that, even playing a computer game. In my book, there is death, and it’s always profound, and my characters cannot avoid the psychological consequences and moral implications. Alas, that may well make some people avoid my book, because the last thing they want is for morality to intrude on an exciting story. Not surprising, given the role religion plays in most of their lives.

Religion shields people from having to acknowledge the finality of death. It makes it easer to kill. Why else have so many wars and organized atrocities been done in the name of religion? When our conscience is imposed upon us, we are spared the burden of minding it ourselves. Now, I’m not one who says that if there were no religion, the world would be a better place (sorry Mr. Lennon, but it’s just not true). Human beings have an infinite capacity to be horrible to each other, and without religion, we’d find some other justification. But religion is a particularly good one, because rather than making us moral, it obviates our moral responsibility to each other, and thus frees us to justify the most heinous immorality as “God’s will.”

And I say that as a moral person who does not need to believe in God to be that way.

(ps I know this isn’t the follow-up to my last post as promised. But that’s still coming, so stand by.)

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