Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Moral Is...?

When I was in high school, I came to the conclusion that the reason my classmates were jerks had little or nothing to do with some pitchfork-wielding pseudo-faun and more to do with the fact that they were simply unpleasant people. But, after learning that I no longer had any use for Satan, these selfsame classmates informed me that God and Satan came as a package deal - you had to take or leave both of them. And so I left them. And, in the minds of many Americans, left behind any claim "to be moral and have good values." Whatever that means.

And what does it mean? Every so often I run across the odd (sometimes very much so) evangelical who tells me that I can literally do anything I want, for any reason, but the number of religious people I actually know who appear to honestly think that I'm capable of murdering them in their sleep or setting their home on fire is precisely 0. Part of it is simply the familiarity effect. To my religious friends and acquaintances, I might be an unbeliever, but I am, more or less, their unbeliever, and the fact that I'm a known quality overrides whatever misgivings that they may have about the unchurched as a whole. But, for the most part, few people routinely attribute random murders or arsons to roving gangs of atheists.

I mention this in the context of a recent Pew study that tells us that for a lot of people throughout the world, it is "necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values." But what we don't understand from the study is what it means "to be moral and have good values." There is commonly an assumption that "morality" and "values" are neutral terms - that what I would consider being moral (ethical) and having good values is the same as what a devoutly religious person would consider it. And so, when certain believers note my non-belief in God, implicit in that is that they doubt that I would live up to my stated ethical standards. But is that really the case? In some cases, yes. I have been told by the odd evangelical that I'm not actually above murdering people in their sleep, or that I would stand idly by while mass abuses were carried out in front of me.

But in many cases, I think that there are also other considerations at work. Some of these are, from my outsider's perspective, circular. If to be a truly moral person, for instance, is to obey the will of God in one's life, then, regardless of the rigor with which I uphold my own ethics, I fall short. The same is true if belief in a higher power is considered on of the perceived good values. Others, I would characterize as a failure to go far enough, such as not being bound to perform a certain amount of charity or not avoiding otherwise innocuous activities that cross moral bounds.

In the end, the question may be mainly academic, at least here in the United States. Despite the number of Americans who may believe that it is "necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values," people are much more likely to attribute seriously "bad behavior" to race or class than to religion. Non-believers may be considered libertines, but that's often simply a form of making people into "others." The idea that not being a person of faith leads to such a high level of immorality and poor values that one is an active threat has mostly gone the way of the Dodo.

So what the Pew study tells us is mainly something that most of us already knew - that there are two worlds. One in which people tend to view faith as a central pillar of ethics, and one where people can believe differently without being consigned to immorality. But to better understand what that might really mean, we need to know more.

No comments: