Cross-post: Religion and the restraint of morality

A common claim among religious conservatives is that morality is fundamentally grounded on religion–not necessarily on divine command, but at least on a religious worldview broadly conceived.  Atheist individuals, they grant, may be morally scrupulous, but this is because they have inherited a moral code from their residually Christian society, a code their own metaphysics cannot justify, and as this residual Christianity erodes, we can expect society to slide toward nihilism.  Atheists counter that they are more moral than religious people because religious morality is inferior–either it is unthinking bigotry and thus insufficiently rational, or it is motivated only by fear of punishment and thus insufficiently disinterested.

Neither claim matches my observations.  From what I see, atheists tend to be more passionate about moral issues than ordinary people.  Rather than being nihilists, a fairer accusation would be to say that they are themselves moralistic bigots, seeing every issue through the lens of presumed absolute evil and absolute good.  This suggests that the actual role of organized religion is not to instill moralistic zeal, but to restrain it.

This can be hard to notice because religious phenomena are so often described using the opposite assumption.  Consider the common claim that the Hebrew prophets and Protestant Reformers “purified” religion.  To purify something, one removes foreign, extraneous elements, so presumably what prophets and reformers removed was not properly religious, but some sort of non-religious accretion.  Now, what prophets and reformers usually want to get rid of is some degree of ritual, priestly mediation, and folk superstition.  What they want more of is morality.  It should strike us as odd that this is called a purification, because ritual, priestcraft, and superstition are ordinarily considered quintessentially religious.  Reducing religion to matters “of the heart” and moral rectitude seems more a dilution of religion; it is making religion into something less distinctive, something more like a combination of philosophy and moral instruction.

It is remarkable how little role moral disputes played in history prior to the rise of atheism. Pagans and Christians had ethical disagreements in ancient Rome, but the dispute between them always centered on the proper issue of whose was the true gods rather than the morality of infanticide or cousin marriage. The complete lack of social justice crusading by the medieval Church is a matter of embarrassment to Catholic apologists (but a cause of satisfaction to me).

How can morality be restrained?  Morality is itself the science of what should be done.  Is not restraining it necessarily immoral, indeed evil?  Yet, morality must be restrained.  Justice is a good, but it is not the only good.  Surely truth and beauty, science and art, must be given some consideration?  Not to mention innocent fun and happiness, wealth and comfort.  But morality is not only one competing good; it is the arbiter among goods–can we ever expect anything but for it to rule in its own favor?  Read about the effective altruists if you want to give yourself a fright, at the hell they make of their own lives, and imagine what would happen if one of these moral fanatics was to gain power over the rest of us.

To make life tolerable, religion has put a leash on morality, often by doing exactly the things atheists accuse us of doing.  We promote an ethics of rule-following–“don’t sin”–rather than an open-ended, insatiable benevolence–“eliminate evil”.  We don’t tell people to sin, but we tell them that they are sinners, a self-conception that makes it easier for them to admit their own faults and be understanding of others’.  Let’s not deny it, it also makes us more complacent about our sins, since we expect it of ourselves.  We grant a strong presumptive legitimacy to the status quo.  Religious men tend not to worry that they might actually be evil for doing what their fathers taught them is good.  Considering the pride of those with purer morality, we can even be grateful that religion, by filling our heads with ideas of eternal rewards and punishments, has removed our opportunity for pure self-sacrifice.  Finally, by introducing us to the sacred, religion has given us a hint of an order even higher than morality.

15 thoughts on “Cross-post: Religion and the restraint of morality

  1. Pingback: Cross-post: Religion and the restraint of morality | Reaction Times

  2. I really enjoyed this piece – one of your best.
    RE: puritan and atheist hyper-morality. I keep making this point but I’ll say it again. When you get rid of mortal sin and hell, you can end up with either antinomianism or hyper-morality (the focus on pseudo-sins).
    The antinomianism thing should be obvious.
    In the good old days, Catholics were too busy trying to avoid mortal sin, participating in sacramental redemption and doing penance for REAL sins to worry about BS hyper-morality like social justice.

    • Thank you. It is said that the existence of mortal sins shouldn’t cause us to dismiss the importance of venial sins, but if it does that wouldn’t be all bad.

  3. One used to hear anti-Christians say that Catholics get lax morality through the confessional, whereas Calvinists get it through the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” I think they exaggerated the “assurance” Christians derived from either institution, but it adds to what you say about the exacting rigor of Atheist morality. Of course Atheist morality is also capricious, so we get the appalling combination of a capricious, exacting and rigorous morality for which its disciples can give no coherent justification. I’d go nuts living in such a system, and in fact am going nuts just living in the midst of people who do.

    Saturday evening I drove past a rally of ecstatic Biden supporters, and saw a child of five or six waving a giant rainbow flag. It made me think of all the Atheist arguments that exposing children to religion was tantamount to child abuse. What about exposing them to the doctrines of racism or homophobia? What about exposing them to the the doctrine that “God is still speaking” and all of his pronouncements are retroactive. Thats the real zinger, and its much more terrifying than anything Jonathan Edwards came up with. It’s not “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” but “sinners in the hands of a god who hasn’t yet decided what he will punish you for.”

  4. Bonald — your insight prompts me to recall an idea that I have mulled for many a year: That Christianity, uniquely, is not a religion; that it is beyond religion and, concomitantly, there is nothing in morality beyond it.

    • I wouldn’t go that far, because Christianity proposes a journey to you first and foremost. ‘Here is the state of the world, conduct yourself thusly.’ The full meta-physical worldview is a secondary effect. The revealed religion continually reveals things to you the longer you practice it, and culminates in something as encompassing as Hinduism.
      World-views inform you of the lay of the land, while religion shows you how to navigate it. The Gospel is strongly focused on pilgrimage, so I say it is firmly religion.

  5. Look, the basic trouble with moral philosophy is that pretty much all philosophers consider moral choices universal. But that is not how people work. In any real-life trolley problem people’s primary consideration would be: who are the five and who is the one? Is my son among the five or is he the one? My tribe vs. another tribe?
    So let’s make a practical definition: moral behavior is treating others as members of the ingroup. Because every ingroup has a vested interest in not letting much infighting to happen, and even people to help each other, otherwise it weakens the group. And as for our blood relatives, it is even written into our instincts. So let’s understand moral behavior as treating someone as a friend, as an ally. In case of an even more moral behavior, treating someone as a family member.
    Now it has been long noticed that one major sociological feature of religion is forming a synthetic tribe. Seeing each other as brothers in something. It turns strangers into such ingroups. Pareto has expressed this the opposite way, that every group with strong loyal ties to each other has some form of a shared religion. So as far as religion and morality is going, the idea is that it engenders moral behavior to co-religionists, not to everybody.
    Now, the big problem with morality is that it can be weaponized. The idea of moral zeal is to defeat your enemies by accusing them of moral wrongdoing thus deserving of punishment or at any rate, open season on them, no longer defended by moral rules.
    But weaponized morality is not morality. This way of thinking makes it obvious. You just don’t do this in the family. You don’t do this in the tribe. I can call out the moral failures of my brother, I can even punish him to teach him a lesson, but not going to use his moral failures an excuse to destroy him. In other words, treating people as friends or family implies forgiveness. I mean this is literally what you can see. When two relatives are bitterly arguing about some wrong one supposedly done to the other in the past, ultimately some uncle who does not want the family to fall apart is going to say, look, that is all water under the bridge, let bygones be bygones.

    • These are very good points, Dividualist. “Weaponized morality” is particularly apt. I used to think that the main problem with atheists (or liberals, or whoever else I was criticizing) is that they have the wrong morality–utilitarianism, say. However, even when I approve or at least don’t object to some particular cause for which they have become excited, I’m repelled by how they turn it into an occasion for denunciations and self-congratulation. It’s as if their whole attitude toward morality is somehow off.

      Fighting global warming seems like a sensible cause to me, but making any real progress on it will mean facing hard problems of technical feasibility and trade-offs with other vital goods, so it seems many have opted for the easier job of hunting down skeptics. Was environmentalism captured by the moral preeners at some point, or was it always like that, and I just didn’t notice it? I think something has changed. A while back, pre-covid, I was walking through campus and saw a poster about fighting “climate change” urging us all to make a difference and leave our mark. I remember a time when environmentalist posters urged us to leave as little mark as possible, but now the cause has been reframed as a vehicle for moral vanity.

      I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m disturbed by the amount of negative attention given to Flat Earthers (at least in the pre-covid era). This is not a cause I have any intellectual sympathy for, but the group hardly merits more attention than a single eye roll. Back when I taught introductory astronomy, I dealt with many students with the usual misconceptions about the seasons, moon phases, etc, but it would not have occurred to me to nurse hostility toward these students or hold them up for ridicule. Even when they turn to science, some people can’t put aside the zero-sum status game. Look at how they hounded Bruce Charlton, not for actually embracing an alternative hypothesis on the cause of AIDS, but just for allowing such an article to be published in a journal he edited, one I believe that made the airing of alternative medical hypotheses a specific part of its mandate.

      • I would add that the opinions the Left denounces as immoral are opinions on which a normal person finds it very hard to act. A climate-change denier cannot go out and commit climate change. A man guilty of thinking transphobic thoughts finds it very hard to commit transphobic acts. Contrast this with a belief in “free love,” for instance. Or a belief that “property is theft.” The old morality proscribed acts that that many people were inclined and had real opportunities to do. The new morality proscribes acts that cannot stop committing (such as burning fossil fuel), that I have no inclination to commit (such hating people unlike myself), or that I am far too weak and insignificant to commit (such as oppressing minorities). This is why believers signal their moral thoughts with symbolic gestures like flying the rainbow flag or driving a Prius.

    • When two relatives are bitterly arguing about some wrong one supposedly done to the other in the past, ultimately some uncle who does not want the family to fall apart is going to say, look, that is all water under the bridge, let bygones be bygones.

      But part of true morality is saying we cannot always just sweep the past under the rug as if it didn’t happen, even if good family dynamics often requires just that. Real experience (not my own family, thank goodness, but someone I knew): daughter was raped for years by an older brother, starting when she was too young to put up resistance. When daughter eventually confronted parents with the problem, parents effectively said things like “boys will be boys” and “water under the bridge” and “shake hands and forgive and forget”, etc. Ignored the psychological trauma and illness as needing to be addressed. Wanted the daughter to treat the brother as, you know, family, including having him over to her house for family gatherings. In that situation, the family “falling apart” was not the daughter’s doing, it was the inaction of the parents and son who refrained from admitting there was a problem.
      Although a large part of moral behavior consists in letting go of stuff, forgiving, getting along with the other guy, accepting a back seat at times, and so on, another part of morality includes knowing when NOT to do these, to stand up and say “no more, this must stop.” Drawing a line in the sand. You can turn the other cheek when a bully strikes you. You cannot turn the other cheek when a human trafficker grabs a young girl. See the Orthosphere article

      • This illustrates why morality is such a threat to Western civilization. If one really thinks that justice trumps other considerations, then the elimination of our people must always be on the table. The only question is whether the prosecution has yet established its case that whites and Christians are so evil that we deserve it. One can never commit to sticking by one’s kin and one’s ancestors no matter what, but must give a fair hearing to every new accusation. Nor can our people ever be acquitted, because only an outsider judging us by outside standards could do that, and each generation (or every few years), a group more radically alienated from us than the last arises to press its case against us. This is what makes me a fascist–I have prejudged my people’s case; I will our continuation regardless of how evil my ancestors were.

  6. Brilliant article but a bit one-sided. It is not that atheists (in fact, atheist progressive) are more moralistic than Christians. It is that their morality is projected to the public and hence more visible.

    Following Rousseau’s rejection of original sin, many progressives feel that they are good and the evil is in institutions and other people. This helps them to combine extreme selfishness with extreme moralism and self-rigtheousness

  7. The narrator of the book of Judges notes explicitly that “in those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” My reading of the story of Jephthah and his daughter suggests an unstated corollary: in those days there was no priest in Israel with sufficient authority to dispense a man from a rash vow, and therefore Jephthah sacrificed his daughter in accordance with his sense of moral obligation.


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