The Religious Conservative's False Choice: "Big Brother" Or "Heavenly Father"

The following is a repost from February 23, 2011:

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?

Why a secular safe space is still important to me.
“God’s Not Boring”: A Precocious Young Video Maker Evangelizes; Grows Up To Be An Atheist Vlogger.)
“The History of Philosophy” and “Philosophy and Suicide”
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.

  • Colin Mackay

    “…they opt to promote the “voluntary” subordination of religion.” What we have seen over the last several years is a creeping form of religious vigilantism, for example While the concept of religious police seems a little alien to most of us we should all be aware of the oppressive nature of the claim that god is the judge. These groups have a particular approach to dealing with slights to gods moral standards. Again, by way of example
    The NAR have stated that once they have control of any given 5% of a population they will have effective control. This would be the result of having one of their members (community sentinals, watchmen) residing on and policing every street.
    While the may claim that ultimately god is the judge it would seem that the theocrats find nothing wrong with prayer cell surveiling every community to keep order in the here and now. And, if I’m not mistaking, there has been a significant outflow of public funds to religiously driven community policing initiatives, think neighborhood watch.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    … 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.

    How many unproven assumptions can you count in this sentence?

    I happen to agree that such criteria would make a better society than either the one we now have or that which the hyperchristians aspire to create, but does that make them “true”?

    • Camels With Hammers

      Yes. “Would make a better society” is, as far as I am concerned a synonym for “true authority”. I am not assuming any more by using the word “true” than you are in using the word “better”. Of course, metaethical explanations of the nature of that truth are in order (and I have written a lot of them, in particular this one: When I refer to “true” morality or “true authority” I allude to (rather than assume) their truth, which I think I have grounded elsewhere.

    • Pierce R. Butler

      All well and good, but you have an apparent book’s-worth of sidebar links here.

      I for one feel little obligation to read them all before calling out a dubious phrasing, particularly one so closely bound up with famous fallacies.

      Maybe a link, or a footnote, or even a different choice of word (“legitimate” might well have served you better) would reduce comprehensional friction in such cases; the seeming conflation of “goodness” and “truth” does the opposite.

  • Francisco Bacopa

    Adam Smith was a bit into this. Godless secular morality was great for enlightened folks, but maybe there were folks who really did need to be controlled by religion. Smith’s mentor, David Hume, mostly thought afterlife threats and promises weren’t worth crap. Even so, Smith argued against state support of religion and thought that freedom of religion would lead to a reduction of religious influence over the secular state.

    Daniel, did you get my links to the pics of the Nietzsche dragon statue at the University of Houston? I couldn’t find your email, so I just posted links in your “Stocking” post. I’ll be at UH a few times in Nov and Dec and take better pictures when I am there.

  • drlake

    Sounds like someone has been reading Hobbes’ Leviathan. The notion that humans are incapable of acting morally towards each other without threat of punishment from either the state or “god” is pretty thoroughly disproved empirically, but for some reason lingers in the popular psyche.

    If we assume we have at least a minimalist form of free will (we make choices, though our decision-making may be biologically constrained) then ethics are a necessary social development. Without ethics, there is no society, because you can’t create a system where there is universal control of human behavior. Understanding this, and not understanding much else about the universe, we created gods to both threaten those who misbehave and explain that which we can’t explain.

  • Randomfactor

    I wonder how much damage has been done in Christian areas by the doctrine of Original Sin. To bring children up bathed in a guilt that they do not owe, to tell them they are morally corrupt before their first breath, is probably good for the religion business. But is it good for raising moral human beings? Don’t people tend to live up–or down–to expectations?