Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Curly questions 1: Heaven and Morality

A particular type of religious person will always wish to believe that they have a monopoly on morality. I referred to a couple of these types last month in Jim and the Indians - you know, the type who use religion as an excuse to stop thinking. You've seen these people - they're often the ones wearing a beatific smile and vacant gaze, usually in conjunction with either a WWJD? bracelet, or a t-shirt emblazoned; "Ask me how to be saved!" They have all the answers to everything. Just ask them.

One thing that they will tell you without hesitation is that they cannot conceive of any reason that non-believers (such as myself) should feel the need to act morally. An old friend of mine, "Rebecca" was a prime example. "Why," she said, "would you worry about being a good person if it's all chaos out there? If you're not trying to get into Heaven, or to avoid Hell, then what reason have you got to be a good person? You can do anything you want, and nothing will happen after you're dead." Rebecca's chubby jowls wobbled as she shook her head obstinately. "If it wasn't for God, why would people bother to lead good lives?"

I didn't break it to Rebecca that she had just identified herself as both a moral and an intellectual weakling. What Rebecca still doesn't know, is that morality comes about in stages, and that she's stuck on the very bottom rungs.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) was an American psychologist who theorised that there are six stages (which can be divided into 3 levels) of moral development. In level 1 (pre-conventional), people orient their behaviour in such as way as to avoid punishment (stage 1) and then to reap rewards (stage 2). These two stages are known as Pre-conventional morality. In level 2, people come to an understanding of rules as social norms which allow them to fit in (3) and then as important in terms of preserving authory, law and order (4). Stages 4 and 5 can be termed as Conventional morality. Finally, an individual surmounts these orientations by first recognising the importance of social contracts of behaviour (5) and finally, universal ethical principles which can be applied for the greatest good (6). These are known as Post-conventional morality.

Worryingly, although all children start at Pre-conventional levels, only a minority of individuals reach Post-conventional morality. My friend Rebecca certainly didn't. Her argument (which, to give her the benefit of the doubt, she probably learned at Sunday School rather than formulating for herself) only served to show that she had no fundamental understanding of what morality is. Allowing fear of punishment and hope of reward to shape behaviour has nothing to do with morality at all - it's pure self interest along the lines of the carrot and stick approach. And, frankly, you can teach a rat to behave that way.

Poor Rebecca. She was not only stuck in pre-conventional moral development, she assumed everyone else is, too. She found it impossible to believe that I, as an unbeliever, would wish to behave morally, as there was no overt incentive to do so, or disincentive for running psychopathically amok. Far from religion being conducive to morality in this case, it actually stunted Rebecca's moral development by leading her to believe that the reason for being good is going to Heaven. Amen. Have a carrot.

I like to think that most religious people out there are smarter than Rebecca, and do good for its own sake rather than merely to moderate the consequences. Putting God into the equation doesn't have to cancel out morality in its true sense, but it can frighteningly distort the picture if the motives become mixed. In the end, how can you claim to be acting morally if the driving force behind your behaviour is self-interest?

Do you think religion is conducive to morality?


  1. Hi,

    to answer your question I would say that yes morality and religious are related since religion was the law and every philosophy in the past was directly linked to religious and therefore the morality was also linked to religion.
    If I remember, Kant was the first philosopher not to refer to god in his writings.
    Nevertheless, now society has evolved and you can, thanks to philosophers, refer to morality without backing up with an idea of god. But I would say that at least on a historical level the morality and religion are related.

  2. Another interesting question but perhaps confusingly stated in that most people regard morality as religiously based cf ethics which are basically the same thing dressed as science [see Oxford etymology]. So our good Christian has some basis for her belief whereas Kohlberg was of course talking ethics. He was not new in his endeavour to formulate a code or hierarchy of {causes of} behaviour and the 19th century saw such attempts as those of Nietzsche and Dostoievsky to create reasons for {not} obeying the social code/mores in what were societies where the norms and the reasons for their preservation were fracturing.
    Mill's utilitarian theory attempted to postulate the reason for these mores was the greatest good for the greatest number. It was, in hindsight, an improvement on the "noble savage" and the "social contract" ideas but as everyone {contrary to experience} believed in a good and loving god there was no reason to suppose that fairness, decency and altruism did not emanate from that source while their obverses came from you know where.
    My understanding is that current belief systems are orienting to the idea that altruism and the like are inherent and that cooperation is genetically coded with a strong survival value {see Dawkins etc}.Does this mean that our moral Christian has a higher genetic basis for survival irrespective of her understanding ie does it mean that the stupid, gullible and led will inherit the earth and that Jesus died just for them - what an appalling conclusion. Alternatively does it indicate that we're all just pissing in the wind and that our learning and speculations are just "vanity of vanities" equally horrible to contemplate.
    Perhaps the naive Christian was merely indicating that, with belief in God, you don't need intellectual rationalisation of your moral stance because that stance is self evident. Probably we shall never know because the poor dumb bitch has neither the wit the learning the understanding or the motivation to challenge her own views, to rise above them and find her own truth in her own way, but isn't that true of all of us

  3. Clever bitch you live up to your name with this text, very nicely done.

    Religious people dont have a monopoly on morale behavior at all, in fact history shows us many examples of quite the opposite.

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  4. No!

    I have to agree with anonymous at 7:50 here, Religion is usually immoral.