From The A-Unicornist
Today my fiance Vanessa and I wrapped up the last session of our premarital counseling, which we had been doing under the guidance of the head pastor of my parents’ church. Secular premarital counseling is hard to find in Oklahoma, and he agreed to respect our wishes for the counseling to be non-religious. But, as a pastor might be reasonably expected to be, he was curious about our perspectives on religion. We both briefly shared the stories of our deconversions – Vanessa having been raised Catholic and never feeling connected with religion, as well as being frustrated by the evasiveness of the church elders on matters of doctrine; and myself, being raised in a Christian home but ultimately leaving the church after a rigorous study of theology, apologetics, and comparative religion.
We both made it clear that we’re “live and let live” non-believers; we both think that if someone feels what Alvin Plantinga would call a sensus divinitus that leads them to faith, then more power to them. We simply feel no such thing, and are fully happy and content without it; there is no God-shaped hole in our hearts or lives.
The pastor was appreciative of both our attitudes and our willingness to share, and it was clearly a topic we could all sit around discussing for days on end. But I had to bite my tongue a bit with what came next. He described his generation being raised with “modernism”, which he said was the idea that “science has all the answers”. And what we (Vanessa’s and my) generation are facing is postmodernism, in which “everything is true”. Something can be true for you, but not true for me. He went on to say that this causes him much concern with the issue of morality, as what is good simply becomes subjective; and with such pliable moral standards, virtually anything can be deemed permissible.
It was essentially a restatement of the old canard, “Without God, anything is permissible” – the idea that those without God can have no objective moral standards, and thus morality devolves into something subjective, arbitrary, and likely destructive.
I’m not going to attempt, in this post at least, to answer the question of where we should look to guide or moral evolution (I do however highly recommend the second half of A.C. Grayling’s book The God Argument, titled “For Humanism”). But whatever it is that shapes our shared moral values, it cannot be religion. This isn’t because I don’t like religion, or because I disagree with any given religious dogma. Religion is fundamentally incapable of guiding us toward moral enlightenment, and the reason why should be obvious.
Religion is perpetually – and I would argue, terminally – plagued by schisms and division. If one Christian looks to the Bible and extracts from it a given moral principle, another Christian need only say, “I think those passages are intended to be interpreted differently” to derive from them a completely antithetical moral principle. Christianity alone is home to some 33,000 denominations and innumerable schisms in its 2,000 year history. Far from growing toward a consensus of proper Biblical interpretation, Christianity has become so increasingly divided that it almost seems improper to call it a singular religion, as opposed to a broad umbrella encompassing a staggering array of often sharply conflicting ideologies. And of course this is but one of the world’s countless religions.
This isn’t an issue of liberalism versus conservatism, either. The issue is simply this: if you are a religious person, there is someone out there who is just as passionate as you are, who holds their beliefs with every ounce of conviction you do, and who is just as confident that God is in their corner as you are – but whose beliefs are opposite to yours. Even if you’re right – and let’s face it, only others in your “doxastic community”* do, and that’s not very many people – the world will never unite under a single banner of religious faith. If even one religion cannot help but become fraught with schisms, how can any religion possibly guide us toward a shared moral enlightenment?
It’s worse than that, though. Because of the steadfast conviction with which religious individuals hold their beliefs, religion by its nature stifles dialogue, and hence progress, on our moral responsibilities. From each corner, believers shout antithetical proclamations asserted with equally unwavering certitude, and the discussion inevitably shifts from how we should live to whose holy book we should believe – and whose interpretation, of a staggering myriad, is the correct one. Religion’s endless inter-group pliability, coupled with its insidious intra-group rigidity, reveals the opposite of the famous canard to be the truth: “With God, anything is permissible.”
Clearly, our moral evolution must transcend religion; it must instead be guided by a common humanism – a recognition of our interdependence and solidarity. Any study of comparative religion reveals commonality not in doctrines and dogma, but in the valuation of friendship, trust, love, and the simple beauties and pleasures of life. Indeed, it seems as though it’s only when doctrine and dogma rear their rigid heads that those values become muddled or lost. We can do better. And as the grip of religion continues its steady erosion from the industrialized world and we’re able to discuss contentious moral dilemmas without the oppressive confines of dogmatism, I’m confident we will.
*”Doxastic community” is little more than a euphamism for the scientific term “in-group”.