Despite the advantages of universal utilitarianism, most people in the world today shun secular moral systems and rely on religious beliefs to provide them with the guidelines for morality. In fact, despite the countless evils it has spawned over the ages, many people believe that religion is the only way to obtain an ethical code, and that any other attempt to do so will inevitably disintegrate into chaos. In the last two parts of this series, I hope to have demonstrated that this is not true. This final post will go farther by showing that religious belief necessarily is insufficient as a basis for moral behavior.
One of the most serious objections lies in the inconsistency displayed by religious scripture and tradition. Almost every religious text encourages appalling violence against nonbelievers, as well as endorsing other evils such as slavery and the oppression of women. Furthermore, many of these texts also contain stark inconsistencies on important moral issues. These manifest flaws make these books unsuitable to be the basis of a moral system. Some believers say that we can accept the fallibility of scripture, disregard the bad parts and keep the good ones; but if we have developed conscience to the level of sophistication where we can tell the difference between good and bad, why not just disregard scripture and tradition entirely and use that conscience itself as the basis for ethical behavior?
In this area and in others, universal utilitarianism encourages people to argue, to debate, and to use reason in determining what is right, because that is how wrongs get corrected. A free and open democratic process of debate ensures that all points of view will be heard and none will be inadvertently overlooked – or deliberately silenced. This is the only workable way for a society to notice and fix evils that were not previously recognized as such. In addition, encouraging individuals to use reason makes them better moral agents, less susceptible to being persuaded by eloquent demagogues or by slick but fallacious arguments.
On the other side of the equation, religion does not, in general, teach people to reason, but to obey (a point made in the recent post “No Commandments“). In religion, the moral rules and guidelines for behavior are handed down to the faithful from on high and are not subject to dispute. Not only is it evil to violate these rules, it is often seen as evil even to question them, to ask why they should be followed. Heresy and blasphemy are the names given to these imaginary crimes. As even a glance at history would show, this inferior ethical system often leads to violence and bloodshed as individuals that follow it are far more easily persuaded to ignore individual conscience when some trusted authority figure instructs them to do evil against nonbelievers.
And if God is not there to explain what his will is, then how can morality be based on it? In practice, the way it almost always works is that the theist’s own moral beliefs and prejudices, combined with whatever commandments of their own religious tradition which they have absorbed, are taken up and assumed to be the will of God. Religious believers who are compassionate, caring and kind-hearted believe in a deity who commands that behavior, and religious believers who are hateful, violent and warlike believe in a deity who commands that behavior. Belief in God is simply a moral “rubber stamp” which serves to confirm whatever actions the believer wishes to engage in. And when a person is convinced that a given practice is the will of God, it is usually impossible to persuade them otherwise by any method; religious ethics, for the most part, are impervious to reason.
On the one hand, religious morality is dogmatic to the point of inflexibility, continuing to enshrine past misdeeds even after their evil nature has been recognized; on the other hand, it is vague to the point of uselessness, offering no rational way to resolve moral disputes that is not dependent on individual prejudices. Paradoxical though it sounds, these two criticisms are both true, and for these reasons theism is unsuitable as a moral guide for humanity. What we need, instead, is a moral system such as universal utilitarianism that encourages people to debate and use reason; a system that encourages people to grow into moral adults, rather than demand that they forever remain moral children.
Other posts in this series: