Why religious morality is ultimately doomed

As a pragmatist, I tend to think backwards.

I have some sort of real world situation in mind, and I try to work out what actions are needed to make that situation a reality. For instance, I would like to see a situation in which the widest and deepest distribution of happiness – within practical limits – is established among all people. Personally, I think it’s fair to use the word “morality” to describe the behavioral prescriptions that would tend to make this situation a reality.

The problem with religious morality, as I see it, is that the desired situation is not grounded in the real world. The goal of religious morality is to obey God. And so the needs of the people are secondary to the needs of God. This is an extraordinarily dangerous idea. It gives rise to the tight grip of control that churches have exerted on their “flocks” over the millenia. If a church can convince people that it is privy to the needs of God, and that these needs are paramount, then it has achieved control over the people. And this is, indeed, what the church – and many other religious institutions – have managed to do.

But even if we take the church away and look at the man or woman alone, on bended knee before God, the overarching goal of religious morality remains inhumane. When we place the needs of a mythical entity above our own (and those of our fellow people), then the project of morality is doomed. Instead of being harnessed to the best ideas about well-being that modern thought can offer, it is shackled to the psyche of an ancient desert culture.

It is a tribute to this ancient culture, though, that religious morality is not a whole lot worse than it could be. Luckily, there were already some fairly good ideas on morality being bandied about, and some of these (like the Golden Rule), made it in to the various canons. But the egocentrism of God’s morality lingers, and continues to set person against person, and person against self, in almost every corner of the world. Ultimately, we will need to wrest morality from the hands of invisible tyrants, and plant it firmly in the real world.

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