Secular Right | Reality & Reason

TAG | moral behavior



Real-World Morality

Secular Right’s readers have been raising the hoary “without God, no morality” topos again:

The problem with creating a notion of “secular authority” is that you run into . . .  the “great sez who?” Eventually, without a belief in a transcendent moral order . . .  appeals to authority eventually are futile. . . .  Maybe two or three generations can feed off of the inherited patrimony of the civilization without embracing its underlying ethos, but eventually that patrimony gets exhausted and the “grand sez who?” phenomenon sets in.

Would someone please provide an actual example of such endless moral regress without the God trump card?  If I may borrow a phrase from my misspent youth, it seems to me that we are “always already” embedded in a moral environment far more complex and sophisticated than the blunt pronouncements of the Ten Commandments (i.e., those not commanding obsequiousness before God).   The question of some original source beyond human law and custom for our most basic principles, in my experience, never comes up. 

Would someone please provide an example of
a. someone actually claiming that murder, say, (or theft) is fine at all times and places, or
b. someone claiming that murder (or theft) is fine at all times and places because there is  no God, or
c. someone claiming that murder (or theft) is fine at all times and places because there is  no God, and then being recalled to sanity by an invocation of the Sixth (or Eighth) Commandment? 

I have simply never witnessed the need to reference to God to establish the validity of our laws against extortion, say.  Real-world moral disputes are more complicated:  Is health care a right?  Who should pay for it and how much should one group pay for another’s health care?  Is economic regulation theft?  Is theft admissible to stave off starvation?  We answer these questions by drawing on our innate and developed moral intuitions and our society’s legal framework. (more…)




Faith and finance

The argument that the current financial crisis was at least partly caused by the retreat of religion from the public square and by rising secularism will undoubtedly recur regularly over the next few years.  These are complex matters, and those propounding the godlessness thesis are far wiser and more knowledgeable than I.  I would like to offer just a few pieces of possibly countervailing evidence, with no presumption that they are correct. 

— Maybe thirty years ago, American culture could have been characterized as increasingly secular, but after the emergence of the Religious Right and the Bush Administration, I’m not so sure.  In 1978, sociologist John Murray Cuddihy noticed what he called the “’invisibilization’” of religion in America’s civic realm.  “Religious identities as such must not be pushy, elbowing themselves into contexts where they do not belong,” he wrote in No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste.  “If they do, they encounter an equivalent of the polite bureaucratic put-down, ‘You don’t belong here; I must refer you to . . . window 73B.’” 

Cuddihy’s observations remain valid within a centuries-long perspective;  even the most devoted acolyte of Jerry Falwell practices a religion that has been defanged and domesticated compared to the power-hungry, truth-monopolizing manifestations of religion throughout most of Western history. 

But compared to the 1960s and 1970s, religion today plays a far more assertive role in public life.  The Religious Right has weighed in on everything from the NEA to tax cuts.  Political religious rhetoric and influence increased during the Bush years, whether in state legislatures or in Washington.  Bush’s executive branch contained a number of publicly-professing Christians who made no secret of the role of faith in their public life.  Federal policies on embryonic stem cell research, foreign aid for contraception and abortion abroad, and other “life” issues mirrored the platform of the Religious Right.  I would not be surprised if President Bush’s evangelical speech writer Michael Gerson pushed for the greater liberalization of mortgage lending to minorities, on the ground that “compassionate conservatism” (read: his Christian beliefs) required it.  It was during this political religious reawakening that the credit markets evolved ever more arcane forms of risk-dispersion.  (more…)




Spies Like Us?

Walter, you mention the fact that the spy Robert Hanssen was also a member of Opus Dei, and then go on to comment that “the oft-mooted prophylactic effect of religious enthusiasm against world-league personal misbehavior doesn’t seem to work very well.”

To draw that conclusion from Hanssen’s betrayal of his country (from what appear to have been a mix of financial and psychological motives) is an amusing debating tactic but, I reckon, a bit of a stretch. At best one can say that it demonstrates that the prophylactic effect of religious enthusiasm did not work in his case, but so what? There are very few (if any) religious folk who would claim that a belief in their creed would always be enough to prevent its adherents from committing a crime, world-league or otherwise. If anything, most religions (the more successful of which are built upon on a shrewd appreciation of human nature) recognize that even the most devout must forever be on guard against the temptations (such as KGB pay-offs) that this world has to offer, a recognition that implicitly and explicitly accepts that there are believers who will indeed stray from, to put it rather biblically, the path of righteousness. 

There may be other ways to achieve the same objective, but it would be a mistake, I reckon, to deny that religious faith can operate as a brake on personal misbehavior and, indeed, often does. Not only that, it can be a highly effective device to bring out the best in people (and the worst too, but that’s another topic). If I had to guess, that’s one of the reasons that the most widely-followed religions have evolved in the way they have, but that too is a topic for another time…

Nicholas Kristof at the Times is calling attention to those Arthur Brooks figures about how conservatives give more to charity than liberals, and religious persons give more than secular:

A study by Google found an even greater disproportion: average annual contributions reported by conservatives were almost double those of liberals. …It’s true that religion is the essential reason conservatives give more, and religious liberals are as generous as religious conservatives. Among the stingiest of the stingy are secular conservatives.

To answer the obvious question: yes, if you exclude contributions to religious organizations, conservatives and liberals show a much more similar level of generosity. On the other hand, many of those contributions to religious organizations do wind up going to what by any reasonable definition is charity — feeding the hungry, bringing succor to disaster victims, and so forth — as opposed to, say, church administration or the distribution of religious texts.

Something we at this site should feel uneasy about? Or are the numbers not telling the whole story? Or both?

Well, it may depend on where you live — which in turn suggests that the answer may be more complicated than many assume, if not indeterminate. Paul Bloom in Slate last month, via Will Wilkinson:

Many Americans doubt the morality of atheists. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, a majority of Americans say that they would not vote for an otherwise qualified atheist as president, meaning a nonbeliever would have a harder time getting elected than a Muslim, a homosexual, or a Jew. Many would go further and agree with conservative commentator Laura Schlessinger that morality requires a belief in God—otherwise, all we have is our selfish desires. …

And, indeed, there is evidence within the United States for a correlation between religion and what might broadly be called “niceness.” In Gross National Happiness, Arthur Brooks notes that atheists are less charitable than their God-fearing counterparts: They donate less blood, for example, and are less likely to offer change to homeless people on the street. Since giving to charity makes one happy, Brooks speculates that this could be one reason why atheists are so miserable. In a 2004 study, twice as many religious people say that they are very happy with their lives, while the secular are twice as likely to say that they feel like failures….

So people in deeply secularized countries are less nice and less happy than Americans, right? No, they aren’t. “It is at this point,” writes Bloom, “that the ‘We need God to be good’ case falls apart.” One study of democracies finds that the less religious ones have lower rates of social dysfunction, while a newer book on Denmark and Sweden, by some measure the world’s most unbelieving countries, finds that they score very highly on “niceness”, low crime rates, social cohesion, and so forth. (Yes, it would be great to adjust in part for cultural and ethnic variables by running a comparison to, say, Scandinavian-Americans in Minnesota, rather than Americans generally. But at the least the evidence tends to contradict the “take away religion and things begin reverting to barbarism” hypothesis. If the objection is raised that Scandinavian-Americans have no great intensity of belief these days either, then you have to ask why their indicators of social health, too, remain so high).

One hypothesis Bloom lays out is that in America, where church commitment is a leading (if not the leading) way people form communities with each other, being an unbeliever tends to mean being an outsider, which in turn tends to correlate with unhappiness, lack of social support, and dysfunction. Where an entire country has moved away from religious belief, on the other hand, it seems that either other supportive forms of community move into the gap, or churches themselves alter their role to one in which unbelievers can participate more comfortably. In his new study of Scandinavia, Society Without God, Phil Zuckerman finds (according to Bloom) that in Sweden and Denmark the Lutheran churches continue to serve many valued functions as social institutions; it’s just that most of the congregants no longer believe in the churches’ notional theology. One wonders whether any of the more liberal denominations in the U.S. are evolving, or have already evolved, in that direction.




Religion and Morality: The Home Front

I’m curious: how often do parents in religious households back up the command: “Stop hitting your brother!” with the addendum, “which a close reading of the interaction of the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Commandments would suggest is prohibited”? Or even with the more straightforward: “because God said not to!” Relatively rarely, my guess is, because parental authority contains its own compulsion—and, hence, irresistible logic. I may be wrong, however, and will humbly look forward to being corrected accordingly.





Dangerous Places

Further to Heather’s remarks:  the London Daily Telegraph has a photo-display titled “20 of the world’s most dangerous places.”

Here are the Telegraph’s 20, with their dominant religions (according to the CIA World Factbook). I think my abbreviations are obvious, except perhaps “A” for “Animist.” There’s a wonderfully broad representation of faiths … though Taoists seem to be pretty peace-loving types, at least since the Yellow Turbans were suppressed.

 Iraq   I 
 Afghanistan   I 
 Chechnya   I 
 South Africa   C(Pr) 
 Jamaica   C(Pr) 
 Sudan   I 
 Thailand   B 
 Colombia   C(RC) 
 Haiti   C(RC) 
 Eritrea   I/C 
 D.R. Congo   C(RC) 
 Liberia   C(Pr) 
 Pakistan   I 
 Burundi   C(RC) 
 Nigeria   I/C 
 Zimbabwe   C/A 
 India   H 
 Mexico   C(RC) 
 Israel/Palestine   J/I 
 Lebanon   I/C



On religion & morality

Heather’s post, Religion and Moral Behavior, allows me to make a point which I think is important.  Some conservatives who argue for the powerful utility of religion in promoting the social order ignore the confounds with other parameters, and look at research which might suggest the efficacy of religion ceteris paribus. So, they make an inference that X increment of religiosity ? Y increment of social amity and Z decrement of social anomie. Extrapolating to the aggregate one then projects the increased social amity which might be generated by increased religiosity. The problem which this sort of model though is the point about the interaction of religion with other social variables; e.g., race, education and income. The groups where religion is concentrated in America today are those who are reservoirs of a great deal of social pathology already, while the groups where religion is weakest are those with lower levels of social pathology. Within the group where social pathology is low (e.g., Jews), the religious may be less prone to various problems, so you might obtain some increment of positive good, but you would receive far less than you might expect projecting out of from microeconomic research. As an illustration, consider Japan, along with Sweden probably the most secular advanced nation in the world. The Japanese might get some value out of greater religiosity, but their murder rate is so low that the return would be small. Contrast that with Nigeria, where some have joked that the nation’s only two exports are oil and preachers. Since religion already saturates the society, increasing religious belief would be hard to do.

Below the fold is a chart which displays confidence in the existence of god for blacks and whites of lower and higher educational attainments. I think looking at these data will make clear my point about the issue of marginal returns.





Religion and Moral Behavior

Jerry Muller’s excellent Public Interest article, linked by Hume, references the ubiquitous “social utility” argument for religion: “belief in ultimate reward and punishment leads men to act morally.” The disappearance of religious belief, religion advocates argue, will produce individual and collective moral decay. “Where atheism and agnosticism flourish,” writes Michael Novak in his latest book, “one may expect to find a certain . . . slacking off, a certain habit of getting away with things” (268). It has even been suggested that the subprime crisis was brought on by the “secularizing” of the United States, as epitomized by Americans’ alleged unwillingness to say “Merry Christmas.”

Secular conservatives take most such charges seriously. They appreciate the fragility of social order and understand how complex are the myriad norms that maintain respect for common decencies and the rule of law.

That having been said, it seems to me that a rough survey of the evidence does not necessarily bear out the warnings that waning religiosity encourages moral decadence. Northern European countries are among the most secular in the world. Here’s a thought experiment: Where would a contract to build a highway, say, stand a better chance of fulfillment free from corruption and bribes: Sweden or Mexico? Where is the risk higher that the construction firm’s CEO will be kidnapped and held for ransom: in Sweden or Mexico? Where is the CEO more likely to pay his taxes?

The incidence of secular humanists in Sub-Saharan Africa is undoubtedly a fraction of that in Scandinavia. If you want to run a business or raise a family free from the fear of violence, you’re better off in Scandinavia.

Religion advocates point to the much higher religiosity of the United States compared to Europe as proof of America’s moral superiority. Belief in the divine origin of the 6th Commandment apparently does not do much to restrain behavior, however, since American murder rates are magnitudes higher than Europe’s. Denmark, Sweden and Norway have among the lowest murder rates in the world, despite their populations’ infrequent church attendance. Within the United States, violent crime is highest in red states, with their higher degrees of religiosity, than in blue states.

Religious belief does not reliably inoculate against other social pathologies. The black illegitimacy rate in the U.S. is nearly 70%, despite blacks’ Biblically-inspired social conservatism. Catching up quickly are the country’s heavily Catholic Hispanics, who now have a 50% illegitimacy rate. Unwed teen pregnancy in Europe is a fraction of what it is in the United States. Bible Belt states such as Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Mississippi have the highest divorce rates in the country, Massachusetts the lowest. Sub-Saharan Africa’s religious zeal—whether Christian, Muslim, or pantheistic—has not inhibited rampant AIDS transmission there.

But perhaps Oslo or Newton, Mass., are simply living off of the legacy of religious culture. Michael Novak asserts that “widespread public atheism” takes three to four generations to show its full effects (how he arrived at that interval is unclear) (52). But even if the “full” effects of atheism are not apparent until “three to four generations,” some moral decay should show up before that. The main signs of European moral decline that conservative religion proponents have come up with are the unpopularity of the Iraq War and the continent’s low birth rate. This first piece of evidence is a curious one, since the Holy See itself was no war enthusiast. The Vatican’s foreign minister declared in March 2003 that a unilateral military strike by the U.S. would be a “crime against peace.” As for low birth rates, it is debatable that a patriarchal Palestinian family with eight children occupies a higher moral plane than an Italian or English family with one child. Affluence and women’s liberation ineluctably push birth rates down. This is a demographic issue, not a moral one.

Now it is undoubtedly the case that the influences on violence and other social dysfunction in highly religious countries are enormously complicated. At the very least, more complicated than the assertion that religious belief is the sine qua non of moral behavior.


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