Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Myth Of A Religious Moral Consensus

No one has been more successful at challenging the intellectual foundations of religion than Sam Harris. In his books and speeches Harris’s arguments have only grown sharper, leaving religious believers with little but blind faith to fall back on. (For the best summation of his major arguments check out his recent talk in Colorado.)

Surprisingly, there is a strong critique of religion that Harris has left largely untouched in his writings and talks: the myth that religious beliefs establish a clear and largely uniform set of moral principles. This is the primary argument which believers use to criticize the non-religious, yet it is also one of the easiest to debunk. On issue after issue, not only is there nothing approaching a consensus between the major religions; in fact there is large disagreement.

Since America is a predominantly Christian nation and the Christian religions are the ones that the majority of Americans use as the basis for their moral beliefs, let’s start there.

It takes only a quick observation to see that the gulf between Catholicism and the other Christian religions is immense. Recently the Pope issued comments in which he criticized other forms of Christianity as deviations from the true faith. This sentiment was echoed by columnist Robert Novak when he said, according to an interview in last week’s New York Times, that Catholicism was the only “true faith”. Religious divisions between Christians don't end there. For example, Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney faces an uphill battle give the deep distrust of Mormonism throughout most of America.

Not only do the various Christian religions disagree vehemently on the basic tenets of their religions. It’s common for their differences to spill over into the political arena as well. Their religions can affect how they stand on issue after issue: the war in Iraq, gay rights, abortion, poverty, the death penalty, even the environment.

Just recently NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote how George Bush’s commitment to the Iraq War is partially driven by his belief that he is helping to do god’s will, which (according to George) consists of spreading freedom around the globe. At the same time, dozens of Christian organizations opposed the war from the start and still do.

There are Christian denominations that accept gays and those who preach hatred against them; there are pro-choice Catholics and anti-choice Catholics; the environment is a major issue for many evangelicals and a complete non-issue for others; many religions support the death penalty as a form of justice while others oppose it based on their view of the sanctity of all human life. On stem-cell research there are hardcore “pro-life” senators (McCain and Hatch) who support federal funding, while Bush and other Christian fundamentalists firmly reject it.

Bottom line: it is hard to find a single issue where there is anything close to consensus or unanimity within the Christian community.

Of course the divisions across religions are huge as well, both with respect to these issues and many others.

What is ironic is that I suspect there is actually more agreement on moral principles among secularists than there is among the religious. Free of the dubious, contradictory, and often whimsical nature of the morality found in religious texts, those with a reason-based view of morality can take a fresh and clear-eyed look at the issues.

Who knows? As more and more people begin this journey towards a rational and systematic approach to morality, we may actually achieve a greater consensus than religion has so far afforded us.

P.S. A new poll has come out once again showing that atheists are the most discriminated against people in all of American politics.

Jason Scorse

Comments (17)