One chapter in Rethinking Religion is devoted to rethinking morality. Many religious people insist — absurdly, to my mind — that there can be no morality without religion. Secularists have taken up this challenge and have devised various non-religious moral theories. Prominent atheist Sam Harris, for example, has written a number of articles and books with his own proposals for how we might live by a moral code without having to believe in a judgmental God.
Religious and secularist moralists tend to make the same basic mistake, however, which is to assume that “morality” mostly involves living according to some kind of universally accepted code. It doesn’t. It never did.
Much current research in psychology and sociology points to another source entirely for where our moral notions come from. And that would be our biases and emotions. Our orientation toward all moral issues depends on how we feel about those issues, and then we use our “rational” minds to craft a narrative to explain why our views are “good.” We all do this, whether we admit it or not.
This is why many of our public fights over “moral” issues remain at impasse. People who are disgusted by homosexuality, for example, will find no end of reasons why suppressing it isn’t some kind of moral “good,” while people who accept homosexuality think it’s the suppression that’s immoral.
Notice that most of our hot-button and never-ending public squabbles about what’s moral and what isn’t touches on the same two issues — sex and death. That’s because these are two issues most of us are really emotional — and often conflicted — about. Lying, stealing and cheating, by contrast, are not nearly so controversial.
Although Christians opposed to abortion and birth control insist their perspective is religious, the truth is that Bible-based arguments against abortion and birth control are laughably flimsy, and the pertinent scriptures could be interpreted many ways. Yet to go by the energy the Christian Right puts into fighting these things, you’d think Jesus never talked about anything else. In fact, he never addressed abortion or birth control at all, nor did the Apostles, even though abortions and haphazard attempts at birth control were going on at the time, and they must have known about this.
In truth, our opinions about these issues actually are coming from a murky place in our ids where our feelings about sex, sexual purity, women, motherhood etc., are perpetually stewing and jerking us about. We choose sides depending on what those feelings are, and then we grab the first available ideology that harmonizes with our opinions, whether “religion” or liberalism or whatever.
And if the facts of a situation don’t fit our narratives, we change the facts. The pro-life zealots who camped around Terry Schiavo’s hospital a few years ago convinced themselves that Ms. Schiavo was not in a persistent vegetative state at all, but was awake and communicating, for example. The truth is, “moral clarity” nearly always depends on ignoring the messy, and often painful, details of human life that obstruct the view.
But those irrelevant details are what our lives actually are. To ignore them is to ignore humanity. That’s why moral absolutism, taken to logical extremes, becomes inhumane. To deny our subjectivity is to deny us.
I’m not arguing against all codes of morals, mind you. Humans need agreed-upon codes of behavior in order to live in communities together. But those are not the basis of morality.
The basis, like it or not, is just us. The basis is our ability to be compassionate; to be empathetic; to value others as much as we value ourselves. Often morality depends on our ability to put aside our own desires and defer to the needs of others. If we can do that, we will be moral people, and if we can’t we won’t. And if we can’t, all the rules in the world won’t matter.