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?