Morality and Religion
That which is outside the possibility of choice is also outside the province of morality. — Ayn Rand
The fundamentalist religious people, such as those pushing a creationist agenda in public schools that I wrote about in my last post, believe that the godlessness of modern secular culture has created a moral crisis that is the root of all our social problems: divorce, alcoholism and drug addiction, crime, gangs, teen sex and pregnancy, the high rate of depression, violence in schools, and every other societal ill you can name. Their solution is to revert to the culture of 300 years ago, when religion had firm control of society. They believe that back then, few of these social ills existed, and certainly not to the extent they do now, because people were still “god-fearing” (their own terminology). Their methods are to push their religious ideas back onto the culture through propaganda of every conceivable form and through political power, which they’ve gained with alarming success. They already have so much power in the Republican party that it’s become difficult to separate the ideologies of the two groups. If they have their way, the U.S. would become a Jesus-centric theocracy. They truly believe this is the answer to solving the complex and multi-layered problems of modern society.
They are, of course, wrong. And they are wrong mostly because they don’t understand what morality is. At first glance, it does seem that modern culture is less moral than the culture of a few hundred years ago, and that this lack of morality could be attributable to people being less religious than they used to be. If you understand morality, though, it’s easy to see the fallacy in this position.
Interestingly, the fundamentalists are correct that morality is lacking in many people’s lives. This moral deficiency, though, has always existed. People aren’t less moral than they once were, they are just less god-fearing. I mean this very literally: back then, people were easier to keep in line because they were afraid of the consequences of their actions. It was fear of hell, not moral agency, that kept them in line.
As the quote at the beginning of this post says, morality only exists in the context of choice. Morality is perhaps man’s greatest achievement, and also his most hard won fight, requiring an investment of time and effort in deciding the right and wrong of things, the why of this right and wrong, and then, the vigilant application of this hard-won belief system to all areas of his life. It is not easy to be a moral person because it demands critical thinking and a constant eye toward truth and justice. But the reward is great: a level of self-respect that can not be found by any other path.
To mistake fear of consequences for moral choice is to make an error of vast proportions. It’s like mistaking cheating for studying, and shows a complete misunderstanding of human motivation. It is insulting to anybody who has made the effort to lead a moral life. This is not to say that people can’t find moral agency in a religious life, because many earnest seekers have done so. But religion in only the vehicle, and it must be one pursued voluntarily. Such moral agency is not something that can be forced on people, not by religion or any other means, because such coercion is the antithesis of moral choice.
Thus, a return to old-fashioned religious “morality” is not the answer for our modern godless society. Thinking it is the answer is akin to thinking that a return to living in caves and shooting our food with bows and arrows will solve our energy consumption problems. Even if the U.S. were to become a Jesus-centric theocracy (an appalling thought), it would only increase the black market demand for all the naughty things that people want: drugs, sex, pornography, gambling, etc., because you can force compliance (or at least the appearance of it), but you can’t force true, internal choice. People must come to that–can only come to that–on their own.
I think that in trying to understand the ills of our modern godless society, it is important to see its low moral standards as a continuation of what already existed; a new, more technologically complex, iteration of an old problem. In this light, somewhat ironically, our modern godless society is a moral leap forward rather than backward. Throwing off the chains of control by fear is a positive thing, even if it has, indeed, ushered in new problems. Namely, that the freer people are to do what they want, the more imperative it becomes to make good moral choices.
Therein lies the crux of it. Few have stepped up to the task of being a free moral agent, and that–not lack of religion–is the real problem we face. Why? Because being a moral agent is hard, much harder than following externally imposed rules. We threw off one burden only to be saddled with another, which was the freedom–and responsibility–of defining our own morality. While this is a far better problem to have than fear of eternal damnation, it is also a far more difficult one to solve, involving personal agency, acceptance of free will, and the willingness to take complete responsibility for ourselves and our choices.
We, as a society, are still largely trying to work this out. We find ourselves torn between the seduction of a sure thing that we no longer really believe in, and the ambiguity of being a free moral agent that we do believe in, but which scares the hell out of us (forgive the pun). As obvious as the choice is, it can still be a hard one to make.
I don’t have a solution, but I know that reverting to old standards won’t solve our problems. Rather, we must learn to own and cherish our agency and see it as a gift of the Enlightenment, which it is, rather than as a problem to be avoided. How do we do this? I’m not sure. But understanding the issue seems like a good start. And putting fundamentalist religious ideas to rest once and for all, as well as all the other true believerisms that offer solace from personal agency and a false promise of unambiguous moral surety, seems essential.
Religion has never had a corner on morality, and it never will. Morality can only be the province of free people, people who are fully able to choose a course of action by their own power. This may present us with bigger, more complex problems to solve than does following external rules, but they are problems I am more grateful to have than words can express.