Religion and morality, and why we need to seriously rethink it

Nov 06, 2011 Comments Off by

For centuries British monarchs have been required to be Church of England members and have been barred from marrying Catholics and, in particular, those married to Catholics have been barred from the throne. Needless to say, this was unethical. Recently a Commonwealth Summit in Perth led to the repeal of this rule, as well as another unethical principle, that of Salic Law (that if a male and female are equally closely related to the previous monarch the female cannot be the successor even if the male is younger). These were both good developments. I shouldn’t need to rehearse the religious bases to these silly clauses.

David Cameron added he planned to cancel British financial aid to nations in which homosexuality is illegal. That this could be detrimental to the innocent citizens of a nation with a homophobic government, and that even if the citizens are themselves largely homophobic they do not deserve the often fatal consequences of such funding cuts, is the sort of thing that people might reasonably bring up in critiquing Cameron’s efforts to establish gay rights worldwide. What makes much less sense is to say, as many have, that this is a violation of people’s rights insofar as nations or their people have a right to deny gays their rights. Naturally, the focus of such arguments has been on the religious need (if there is such a need; not all theists are homophobes) to be homophobic. As the YouTuber dechha1981 has observed, “religious freedom” in practice seems to mean neither freedom of nor freedom from religion, but a separate freedom of theists to take away the freedoms of others. Religious people have tried this trick quite a bit. Catholics have even threatened to close their orphanages if keeping them open would require them to let same–sex couples adopt children.

You may think I’m a little late in covering this news story. I was reminded of it by another recent development, that I might just be in time to talk about, because there is a principle at the heart of them both I want to take this opportunity to comment on. The Michigan State Senate has recently passed a bill 26–11 to reduce bullying in public schools. It includes a provision exempting bullying in the name of religion: “This section does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil’s parent or guardian” (SB-0137, C-8). This is one of countless “let religious people get away with stuff no–one else can get away with” ideas in our modern world. Homophobia in the law (some nations execute people for homosexuality), exemptions from criminalisations of homophobia, similar situations with other forms of bigotry, the Michigan example, the monarchy conditions recently repealed, they are all examples of this phenomenon.

And here is the curious thing. We grant religions lots of perks because we think religions improve us, so we need to help them flourish. But amongst these perks are exemptions from ethical or legal obligations, as if their religious beliefs mean they have the same kind of diminished responsibility we might acknowledge in the case of a child or someone with some kind of mental illness or retardation. So we seem to think at once that religion makes us better and that it makes us worse (while people’s reasons for holding either opinion are well–known, whatever level of rationality these ideas have, believing both at once is silly) and, in particular, have policies whereby we let religion make us worse so that it can make us better. As a result of this it seems clear that, whatever may be true about the effects of religion, the effects of the ways that we as a global society currently handle religion are pernicious. As long as we continue to let them eat their cake and have it when it comes to ethics – they’re at once considered superior and allowed to be inferior – our world will be worse than it need be.

Anglicanism, Catholicism, Christianity, Islam, News, Religions and other Belief Systems, UK, US, World

About the author

For most of my time as an undergraduate there was an atheist society in my university, which was founded late in my first year there. I was a committee member from then until my degree ended, by which time the society was atheist, secularist and humanist (you needn't be all three!). This gives me many experiences to relate. I have long critiqued pro-religious arguments, including in hundreds of posts - many of them thorough rebuttals to articles - on under my name. My degree was in physics, and I know a lot of the science - physics and otherwise - relevant to the debate on religion.
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