Before your religion was conceived of, before anyone believed in your God, what do you think people were doing? Do you think rape and infanticide and pillaging and murder were considered permissible and everyone brought down their full force of aggression to get their way? That every teenage compulsion immediately resulted in rape, and every irritating person was immediately murdered? The world was either Godless or believed in the wrong God, before your God, right?
Possibly not, of course. You could be a religious person who defines religion in such a way that God is nothing more than a metaphor for humanity’s collective wisdom ― or at least the local tribe’s wisdom. In that case, a religious text is a document of human wisdom and an interesting literary metaphor for some flavour of progressive Humanism. And that religion doesn’t hinder your discussion on how to better one’s behaviour.
But for those who take religion as literally true ― and the commands therein are not spiritual descriptions of a snapshot of the best a tribe could do, but actual inviolate commands ― religious morality become a worrying phenomena. Before people believed a Being had a specific preference for how they behaved, people has already figured out they didn’t want murder in their society, a form of governance to achieve that, and their responsibility to also not murder. We know they knew this because the tribes survived.
Those virtues that are considered the highest ― cooperation, collaboration and compassion ― are also those with Darwinian value to tribal animals. The more intelligent an animal, the more of these traits they show. (I haven’t actually explored with correlation in detail, but dolphins and other primates join us atop this spectrum, and they fit my conjecture well.) These virtues are our moral intuitions ― a pretheoretic morality ― and may not map perfectly onto a comprehensive moral theory, but we have that problem with physics, as well. There are personal attributes that fund these virtues, too: empathy and a value for the functioning of one’s tribe. (If you consider that selfish, see what I’ve had to say about that before.)
My point here is that humans are capable of discovering the ethics of getting along in a tribe and as part of a network of tribes. It’s not just an evolutionary drive, we know sometimes to suppress the animalistic drive to kill the salesperson who is ripping us off, because cooperation among tribes is better. We don’t need a dictate from a God. I’d even go one further: a person who can learn, figure out for themselves or be taught about morality is a better person than a person who thinks morality comes down to a God’s preference or fear of punishment.
Trying to discuss with someone why religious morality matters reveals some interesting things: they take the value of religious morality as a brute fact they don’t need to defend; and they subscribe to a kind of global nihilism, where nothing of reality ― in of itself ― is worth anything, but instead it has to be imbued with value from the outside. It makes the inhumane (and unjustified) claim that human efforts to understand morality are irrelevant and meaningless. (Sometimes they say ‘ultimately meaningless’, which flirts with another idea I’ve already discussed: the distinction between universal and parochial truth.) It perceives the world not just as getting value and meaning from a God, but ― naively ― that it only can get meaning that way around. It is a complete rejection of the concept of value and meaning creation and shared values. It is a nihilism that is only escaped through religion.
I call this religious nihilism (although I’m toying with starting to call it religious ex nihilism), and it immediately seems paradoxical to me in the context of its own justification: it’s a presupposition and taken as brute fact. The paradox is that the position is one of the defences for values are insufficient, and so the sufficient solution to that problem is an undefended being lying in an undefended relationship to value.
Think about the inhumanity of this position. It says you are not important because you are you. Nothing about you is worth anything under this view. You are only important because a God says so. There is no humanity there.
You may notice that I’m not dealing with particular religious commands here: it is this particular supporting philosophy that is has such inhumanity in it; the rejection of human intellect, reason and discussion to create value (in the face of empirical research about the the successes of these efforts).
But the ironies do continue. Many religious people would be laughing at me thinking tribal impulses might be able to lead to reliable moral intuitions and programs. And yet, in my experience, the people who draw an intellectual hardline between religious morality and Humanist discussions about morality are the same people who draw cultural and identity hardlines around the different religions ― a dehumanising tribalism deeper-set than what I advocate.
I was caught up in exactly this, recently. A blogger was indulging his own religious ex nihilism while writing an advice column for an atheist recent divorcé as if there is no God. His religious ex nihilism meant he fell far short of being called satire, because he was offering a straw-worldview ― it told us more about his nihilism and intellectually vacuous reliance on a God than it did the Godless worldview. If one had to defend the idea that it was satire, then it was a self-satire, highlighting nothing but the one-dimensionality of the blogger’s thinking and world.
The comments were filled with self-congratulatory smarm and guffawing. I thought about how to (and whether to) engage the conversation. Clearly approaching the blogger from any view devoid of a God was pointless, because he already invested in the presupposition that it would be meaningless no matter what I said. (And I’d engaged him before, I had a pretty good idea that nothing could dissuade him of his position, he is dogmatically a religious ex nihilist.)
I eventually decided to hold him to account by his own standard. I took a passage of his religious text that compelled him to compassion and pointed out that his behaviour fell very short of that. There was some squirming about how being aggressively rude and devoid of empathy is compatible with compassion, which is high-order nonsense. But mostly there was a tribalist attempt to exorcise me from the conversation, because I am not worthy of their little clique. My input was not evaluated on its own merit, or even evaluated at all; I was evaluated, and my idea was ignore because of who I was. That is the paradox of the inhumanity their supposed moral structure allows them.
It would be impossible for a nonreligious community to hold these people particular people to any sort of account, because they dehumanise those outside their tribe just enough to figure they can ignore the detractor. It’s ad hominem, which is an irrational way to debate, but that’s not the point. The point is they are riding a high-horse of moral standards, and yet feel no accountability when they get their own moral standards wrong.
There is a metaethical question about what it is one wants morality to achieve in action and in writing. But I do not see how it could be other than this: moral discussion, free moral speech and moral relativism are all better than this: they all accept elements of another person’s personhood and humanity, give accountability and have error correction; they accept that values are created and can be developed and nuanced to deal with an ever changing society. You may accept, metaethically, that morality doesn’t require humanity; but religious morality does lack humanity.