The Religious Conservative’s False Choice: “Big Brother” Or “Heavenly Father”

In an e-mail to me, Caroline proposes thought provoking reasons for non-believers to encourage (or at least to not actively discourage) religious beliefs:

It would also be nice if people would carry out actions in good conscience of just being decent human beings rather than in fear of reprisal in the afterlife, but as there are “decent and undecent men in every crowd” (Frankl), it is not likely that humanity and some sort of functional moralistic system would hold up under strained conditions. And even under a fairly prosperous society such as ours, how much can the law really control without a Big Brother system? It is imaginable that these spiritual notions that keep people hopeful and happy about their lives also serve to maintain functional morality at least. Isn’t it possibly that being quick to remove religions altogether could be a cure worse than the illness?

This view seems to echo the logic of much conservative thinking about religion and a free society.  It seems that they implicitly think that people must inherently be controlled through formal channels or the social order will dissolve.  Not preferring a statist solution in which this control has the force of law, they opt to promote the “voluntary” subordination of religion.

The idea is to let people be free but to politically, socially, culturally, and legally encourage them as much as possible to live lives of voluntary subjugation to religious authorities who will hold the reins of morality, rather than involuntary subjugation to the political institutions which would obliterate nearly all traces of genuine freedom if given the power to enforce private morality.  The choice becomes either the formal structures of an actual, governmental, “Big Brother” monitoring and policing our every thought and deed or the informal structure of an internalized fear of an invisible, supernatural “Big Brother” (the “Heavenly Father”) who is monitoring your every thought and deed but who is not actually reporting you to the authorities who would actually take you to an actual prison.  Just “when you die” you might suffer in hell.  (And the enlightened conservative who promotes religion for these reasons knows there is no hell and so thinks no one actually is in any danger this way at all.)

This is, presumably, a strategy for giving less scrupulous and less conscientious people the functional equivalent of the sort of actual conscience that people need in order to be trusted to live peaceably and fairly in a genuinely free society.  Free societies clearly need good people who will not use their freedom to be so disorderly that the state becomes ungovernable and misery spreads throughout the society as a result.  If freedom leads to such chaos, it is only going to have to be stripped so that order can be restored.  If we want liberty, we must handle autonomy responsibly.

And If there will inevitably be at least some people with faulty consciences of their own, creating in them a fear of an invisible God which produces the same effects on behavior that an internally motivating, conscience that respected order, society, law, and humanity would provides the necessary supplemental control over bad people so that we can have laws that let everyone be formally and legally free.

Also, because of this, the good people who are motivated by the good alone get the freedom they deserve and do not have to deal with excessive governmental restrictions which would otherwise have to be put in place to control the bad apples (with the consequence that liberty would be ruined for everyone). And even the naturally bad person who is religiously tamed only through exploitation of his superstitious fears and hopes himself gains from the arrangement too.  Presumably, this is because even though he has to deal with perpetual ignorance and fear of hell, he keeps all sorts of freedom he would have lost for himself (and everyone else) with his unruliness if he believed there was no God and tried to test the limits of human power to control him.

And presumably this is also for his own good since being moral in most cases has actual tangible good consequences, regardless of one’s motivations.  If cooperating with others out of religious fears leads the otherwise bad person to the practical benefits of gaining others’ beneficial cooperation, good will, and (even) love in return, then he has gained the benefits of morality through behaving as morality requires without ever having to grow the internal moral motivation that both does not come natural to him and to which he would presumably have been incapable of persuasion were he not susceptible to religious superstitions.

Even if they do not explicitly formulate their view in these terms, I think this account fleshes out many political conservatives’ assumptions about the necessity for people to be controlled and how they reconcile their rhetoric of political freedom with their equally adamant hostility to people who use their freedom to disbelieve in religious institutions.  They do not really want people to be free since they do not trust human nature and think morality comes only unnaturally to us and requires instead “supernatural” sources, rewards, and punishments.  So rather than wanting genuine autonomy and freedom, they want people to just be controlled by the churches (and the corporations) instead of the government.

Finally, there is one other challenge nestled in the end of Caroline’s question and it is whether religion can be pulled out of society in one fell swoop without recklessly risking destabilizing the society in unpredictable ways and risking ruining the joy of many presently hopeful and happy religious people.

So, what is there to say in reply to this conception of, and prescription for humanity’s psycho-socio-ethical-political situation?

Just as there are “decent and undecent men in every crowd” there are decent and undecent men ahead religious institutions and encouraging people to think that they authoritatively speak for God means giving them an unconscionable amount of unwarranted power over the consciences of people.  The power itself is undeserved and abusive uses of it are damaging to both individuals and entire groups of people they demonize.  Given human nature’s demonstrably ineradicable  “undecent” side, we should not encourage anyone to be unquestioningly deferred to as religious ministers so regularly are.

And centuries of superstitious God fears have not yet eradicated crime and a few more such centuries will not do so either.  America is the most religious nation in the Western world and the Western nation with by far the highest rate of incarceration.  In fact, many of the least religious countries in the world rank highest on the Global Peace Index as among the world’s most peaceful nations, while many of the world’s most religious nations rank among the least peaceful.  This makes sense to me because authoritarianism in cultural attitudes is bound to increase authoritarianism in political attitudes.  It is not a coincidence that our nation’s most outspokenly Evangelical “Born Again” conservative president in recent memory was also the one to turn America into a torture state.

Liberal politics liberalize a culture and vice versa.  And authoritarian politics make a culture more authoritarian and vice versa.  As possible evidence for this thesis compare two Muslim countries and their attitudes about whether apostates from Islam should be killed.  In the politically secular but liberal Turkey, support for such a penalty is just a few percentage points. In the politically secular but authoritarian Egypt, support for such a penalty is over 80%.

We cannot have freedom half way.  We must have a culture of freedom if we are to have a politics of freedom.  Encouraging people in the pews to distrust freedom as a fundamental spiritual matter is counterproductive to their permitting their fellow citizens freedom as a legal matter.  Inculcating people with the idea that the most just authority in all the universe is an absolute, unquestionable tyrant who tortures people who do not offer him proper fealty for all eternity is not a way to teach them that true authority stems from moral fairness and the ability to earn the consent of the governed by acting truly in their own interests, for their own growth in personal power.

All of these considerations make me distrustful of private authoritarianism as a mechanism for supplementing political liberalism before we even get to the question of intrinsic goods.

Religious institutions do not only offer an authoritarian means for inculcating and enforcing values in people’s consciences but the values they so impose are themselves more likely to be, at worst, regressive or, at least, resistant to progress. As institutions designed to perpetuate traditional ideas and police against heresies, religions are structured to serve as obstacles to moral reexamination, reimagination, and innovation.  They threaten to ossify values and encourage an authoritarian intellectual approach to thinking about values that constantly altogether sabotages particular people’s and entire nations’ abilities to rationally consider and improve their values.

It is intrinsically good that human beings develop their excellences, including their moral virtues, as well as they can.  And this requires both a freedom of thought with respect to values which is incompatible with a fear-based, infantalized deference to otherworldly moral authority.  To deliberately stunt moral growth, both in terms of motives and beliefs about morality, by indiscriminately teaching the potentially noble and the potentially ignoble alike to be captives to fear and tradition is to try to arrest their moral and psychological development at the level of a child—and to arrest the culture in the same exact place.

Even if people need some coaxing into morality through carrots and sticks, at least we can encourage them to understand how they mutually benefit when they participate fully in the social contract and would be harmed without it.  Even if they do not rise to the level of identifying their own highest good and their own highest power with their ability to contribute maximally to the greatest flourishing of their society in power (as I think they should), they can at least be taught to have a basic understanding of how their even their less ambitious desires for basic pleasures, comforts, and securities are aided through an ethos of cooperation.

And the idealist in me wonder whether even this, rather minimal, level of moral consciousness cannot make people good, whether they deserve an orderly and secure society at all.

I think the goods of an aspirant will to maximal power according to our excellences through perpetual self-overcoming (which is what I take Nietzsche to mean by the “will to power”), of autonomy, of dutiful motive, of excellent virtues that are guided by truth and an ennobling truthfulness, are all worth pursuing for their own sakes.  I think a humanity that must have its reason butchered and its basest instincts pandered to is a humanity that is already lost.  I think in an age of such unprecedented advances in knowledge, technology, health, political liberalism, and freedom of conscience, to advocate that the human spirit stay in the dungeon of fear because it cannot be trusted to roam free in society is to prioritize order over human excellence and, therein, to misguidedly sacrifice the only real end worth pursuing for the sake of what should be only one of the means to its attainment.

For a related analysis of religious conservatives’ preference that governments not take care of the poor but instead that they be at the mercy of private, and, in particular, church-based, charity see my thoughts on the ethics of private vs. publicly-mediated generosity.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Jeff Dale

    I think this is the best presentation of this argument that I’ve seen. Thanks!

    A couple of quibbles though, which might be helpful to consider.

    A paragraph about 1/3 of the way down:

    “Even if they do not explicitly formulate their view in these terms, I think this account fleshes out many political conservatives’ assumptions about the necessity for people to be controlled and how they reconcile their rhetoric of political freedom with their equally adamant hostility to people who use their freedom to disbelieve in religious institutions. They do not really want people to be free since they do not trust human nature and think morality comes only unnaturally to us and requires instead “supernatural” sources, rewards, and punishments. So rather than wanting genuine autonomy and freedom, they want people to just be controlled by the churches (and the corporations) instead of the government.”

    This does indeed flesh out the view very well, but I don’t think views like this are necessarily limited to conservatives with cynical political motives. It’s not obvious to me, even as an atheist, that the people who presently get their moral structure from religion are capable of being educated to a comparable average level of moral character without religion. And even if people are capable of such education in the long run, it seems clear there’d be a risk of trouble in the short run if their religion-provided moral structure were abruptly ripped away.

    What you’ve done here is given good reasons to be optimistic about the long-term prospects. It still might be the case that religious moral structure is the best some people can ever do, but at the least, your arguments make it look like we’re not necessarily better off with them in the religious camp to begin with. In other words, the fundamental incompatibility of authoritarian religion with societal progress (to sum up a key point that’s elucidated here better than I’ve seen elsewhere) doesn’t necessarily speak for the long-term moral prospects of these people if freed of religion, but it does at least speak against their long-term moral prospects if they remain in religion. It helps to see that, if what we see in *some* religious people makes us queasy about how immoral they’d be if freed of religion, we can take at least some comfort in understanding that it was religion that made them that way in the first place, and that their baseline would’ve been higher if their moral character had been developed without religion in the first place.

    So to swing back to my initial point, my quibble is not with your arguments, but with the suggestion that the view to which they are the answer is one that arises only in conservative political calculation. Rather, it’s one that, I think, can reasonably arise in the thought of liberals and moderates, atheists and theists, who give sincere thought to this issue. Certainly, hearing as we sometimes do the comments of theist debaters, suggesting (or flatly admitting) that they themselves would have no moral compass in the absence of religion, gives us pause, especially when we consider the vast numbers of theists who’ve undergone less education and reflection than these debaters. Your arguments are a good antidote to that worry.

    My second quibble is related. It seems as though you haven’t really addressed the long-term vs. short-term issue to which I alluded, and which seems to animate Caroline’s thought (as expressed in her email). In other words, even if your arguments are sound (as I think they are), they only address part of Caroline’s worry: they argue for the viability of a society in which everyone has a religion-free moral structure, but leave open what might happen to us in the process of getting there.

    Indeed, the content of your argument on the first point gives flesh to her (and my) worry on the second point. If one might reasonably think that *some* of the people whose moral structure is now religious would be unable ever to rise to a comparable level of moral development without religion, it is (as I suggested above) precisely because their religious foundation closed them off to the potential for developing a non-religious moral foundation. But of course, their religious foundation (including the habits of thought that prevent them from getting an honest view of it) was developed over a lifetime and from an early age; the closing-off didn’t occur overnight, and so we can’t expect it to be remedied overnight, if ever, once it’s firmly established.

    So I tend to agree with Caroline that “being quick to remove religions altogether could be a cure worse than the illness,” at least in the short run. And the short run might become the long run, since that painful interlude could lead to general annihilation. Still, it might be a moot point: it doesn’t seem likely that religion will abruptly disappear no matter what we do, and it tends to hang on tenaciously with the types of people whose moral structure we’re worried about here anyway.

    We should keep speaking out against religion, so that those who are (possibly unknowingly) close to the margin of the religious bubble can be enticed to step across it into the light. Meanwhile, religion and other forms of superstitious thought gradually die out in successive generations raised in an atmosphere of greater intellectual honesty, greater openness of discussion, and greater availability of information and means of communication. But this also points to the need to keep developing the foundation of a non-religious moral structure that starts with secular character education, so that we’re ready to fill what seems to some to be a looming void (even when the seeming void turns out actually to be created by the very thing supposedly needed to fill it).

    As always, thanks for fighting the good fight!

  • kevinalexander

    If it’s that we must have a Leviathan of some sort then let’s make an inhuman one. Humans are too fallible animal.
    Seems obvious by now that rule by Big Brother or by Heavenly Father is exactly the same thing. God is imaginary anyway so a theocrat rules by whatever method his imagination tells him is right which is pretty much what any absolute ruler does.

    The American revolution shows the way, rule by Constitution, even though that idea seems to be fading in America itself.

  • http://carneades.posterous.com Carneades of Ga.

    Daniel, Lamberth’s argument from autonomy is that our level of consciousness grounds our autonomy,even from putative God, so that neither He nor the state gives us our rights. Please vet this argument!
    For the record months later.


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