This post was first published at robattrell.com on August 26, 2012. It has been edited for clarity.
I would like to start off by saying that I am a pretty laid-back person. I am the first person to avoid discussions of religion, simply because I know that some people take it very seriously, and in the history of most religions, hereticism is considered a major party foul. I feel as though this discussion will probably raise the ire of some people, so consider this a warning that if you continue to read, I am not responsible for your reaction. I sincerely hope that you do stick around, because I consider this very important, but I understand if you don’t.
Alright, now that that is out of the way, I’d like to discuss a little about how I feel pertaining to religion and its impact on morality. As a bit of background on me, I was raised Anglican and baptized in my early teens. I spent quite a few Sunday mornings in church, as well as my share of Christmas Eves. I have attended a number of religion-based camps in my youth, and my entire family, if I have to generalize, is religious. So trust me when I say that I have a little bit of experience here.
One thing I will say, having read many of the interesting parts of the Bible when I was growing up (and at that time, they couldn’t print words fast enough for me to read them), is that I don’t really see what all the hype is about. I suppose if one were to interpret the Bible (I’ll use that text as an example, as it’s the only religious work with which I have any familiarity) as literally being historical fact (at least the parts where that is possible), that it would be a pretty incredible story. But from what I have seen and heard and read, and what I believe, the Bible is not to be interpreted literally. It’s meant to be a moral guide and a compelling narrative about the human condition and our desire to aspire to something more. I’m given to understand that most religious texts are calls to bring people together under one set of agreed-upon laws and conditions and to be able to live harmoniously based on those individual documents.
The problems with relying on an ancient text for this kind of morality don’t necessarily have to extend to religion to see that there are some major problems with doing so. For example, the British Bill of Rights, and the US Constitution, are written for the time they were created in. There are many things that change in the world, in a way that no one document or group of authors can ever anticipate or account for.
Once documents like the Bible or the US constitution are written, problems inevitably arise. It is human nature and a core feature of the species that we are pack animals, and we are inclined to hear a good idea, propagate it and ultimately defend it. There is nothing wrong with that in itself, but over time, these ideas end up moving down bloodlines, potentially for several generations. Since the original sources and authors of the material are no longer around to assert their original intent, issues will arise when society continues to evolve.
The example I am going to use to hopefully demonstrate this point is one which some background reading (done just now, for context) shows is more correct than I could have ever imagined. The second amendment to the US constitution, which colloquially describes the ‘right to bear arms’, is one which is defended constantly by associations like the NRA, but which the average American also holds dear. To a completely pacifistic Canadian, this is just a ridiculous law to have on the books.
While there are several very good reasons for people to have guns and other weapons, the average person has no reason to actually own one. Even bearing in mind that there are people who use these weapons to hunt game, there is really no sport in shooting an animal with a rifle in 2012 (editor’s note: or 2016!). Going into the writing of this piece, I had it in my head that this law was written in the late 1700s, when an “arm” referred to my vision of a musket. It took around a minute to load these guns when trained and practiced, and each one fired a single round metal ball at a time.
These guns were just as likely to misfire or explode as they were to actually have the bullet leave the barrel. If the bullet did make it out, the gun was horribly inaccurate. These are not assault rifles with precisely machined barrels and laser scopes. Additionally, this was also a time in history when the Americas were in a time of great turmoil. Not only was the country trying to establish itself and declare its independence from Great Britain, but it was (is?) deeply divided between old and new ideas (resulting in a Civil War not too long after its independence). All of that being taken into consideration, it actually makes completely logical sense that:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” –Wikipedia
Even this layout, passed by congress, is different from the one the states ratified, though only in grammar and capitalization:
“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” -Wikipedia also
Even these two sentences actually read very differently if you take punctuation seriously. In both cases, though, a militia whose purpose is the security of a free state is the reason for giving the people a right to arms. There is no inherent threat in the US today that would require easy access to, and everyday use of, a firearm. And there is not much weight to an argument that you can use it to defend yourself from having a weapon used against you. In a country, like Canada, with few or no guns, the risk of finding yourself facing one is greatly reduced. Finally, there are many other, non-lethal, ways of defending yourself today in the event of an attack. This old law just doesn’t make very much sense today, and yet it is upheld constantly and consistently.
As it turns out, this argument can actually be taken back even further. As hard as it is to believe, the founding fathers of the United States had some background on how to run a country, and had some inspiration in coming up with the second constitutional amendment. Delving a little deeper into history, you can find that Britain passed its own Bill of Rights, back in 1689. This document also mentions something similar to the right to bear arms in its pages, though you’ll notice the wording is a little bit different:
“That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law” – More Wikipedia
This document, which outlines the rights of British Parliament, was passed at a time when Protestants (those who maintained most Catholic beliefs but had issue with, or protested, some of the church’s policies) had had their arms confiscated by a Catholic king who took issue with the rising Protestant population in Britain. This law, which formed the foundation of current gun law in the US (and Britain to a lesser extent), is based on religious persecution. This decree simply served to allow citizens of any religion equal right to acquire and carry arms. Again, this was at a very difficult time in that empire, where the clash between powerful political and religious entities was causing a great deal of turmoil across all of Western Europe.
Remember that the Pope and the King of England were both considered to be one degree from God at the time. The writing of this document came at a time when the theory of divine right, that the monarchical bloodline was vetted by God, was coming into question and eventually abandoned. It is only logical that the unjust decree of a religious king be formally revoked afterwards, and it certainly shouldn’t apply centuries later, across an ocean, in cases all the way up to the US Supreme Court. To this day, religion and its morality enters into public debate about this sort of topic, even though it has been generations since the arguments were made, and they are in no way valid today.
Alright, now with what is hopefully a strong case and some background on why I think that it is absurd that religious morality be strictly applied to modern society, I can continue to discuss my personal issue with some of the aspects of religion which I find most questionable.
It is important to note, again, that I personally have no problem with anybody who believes in a specific god, or believing anything they want for that matter. In the same way, when I’m walking down the street, and somebody tries to tell me about their pet issue, I find it hard to feel bad when I tell them that I don’t care about what they have to say.
I am not going to seek you out on the street and try to forcefully share information with you to which you have not consented, and I would appreciate if you would do the same for me. We have common, courteous ways of passing along information, as well as polite ways of engaging in discourse with a large group of people. I’m getting off topic here…lets try this again.
I am not going to get in the way of your religion, as long as you don’t tell me that I am going to hell, or getting no virgins, if I don’t agree with your system of belief. I personally have a strong set of beliefs about how the universe was formed, and how we came to exist on this planet, and that belief system also explains every religion on earth. In itself, this is more than can be said for most religions, wherein accepting the existence of other faiths hinges on the idea that those are “lesser” religions.
I can absolutely empathize with religious people. It is for this reason that I am not constantly getting into fist fights with people over things that they say or do, simply because they are different from what I say or do in my own free time. When somebody tells me that they are “praying” for something to happen, I know to interpret that as meaning that it is something they would very much like to see come to pass. I do it myself all the time, when I calculate the approximate odds of something occurring, and think to myself, I wonder if thinking about this a lot in my head will affect the external outcome.
I can also note that having done that several times a day for my entire life, it is pretty disheartening sometimes when the odds of something happening are VERY low. At those times, often all you can do to affect the outcome is to think about it silently to yourself. It would be, and presumably is, very reassuring to believe that there is somebody listening, and that through some physical manifestation of supreme power, the outcome of an event can be affected by the power of suggestion. In fact, there is solid evidence that psychologically, there is a process wherein knowing somebody (or many people) is (are) wishing very hard for you, for example, being able to fight off a disease, can actually impact your bodies defense of itself and impact the outcome of the illness.
In the general case, “praying”, followed by success, reinforces the idea that prayer works. On the other hand, a negative outcome would simply suggest that either you weren’t praying hard enough, or that you had done something bad, or been unsure of your faith in a way that meant that you didn’t deserve the outcome you wanted.
In any case, I will never be able to rationalize the argument for keeping your morality consistent with your religion. If I am miscalculating and have backed secularism in the mistaken belief that when you die, you simply cease being alive, I will have a lot of explaining to do. That being said, I think I’m okay with that. I personally don’t think I am going to be any worse off than anybody who claims strict adherence to religious ideals, even if those are few in number.
If, when it’s all said and done, we are all ranked and filed according to who followed a strict set of arbitrary rules the closest (no matter which religion ended up hypothetically setting those standards), I think I will have a lot of company in the afterlife. Personally, I choose to live my life on a case-by-case basis, solely based on what I have seen, heard, read, learned, tasted, smelled, touched and experienced. Some of that comes from religious teachings, some of it comes from my parents, some of it comes from friends, some of it comes from television and movies.
In the end, what I do alone is of concern only to me, or who I choose to share it with. Involving other people does get a little messier (instances of deceit, theft, or murder spring to mind) in coming up with a consistent morality for the whole world to follow. I think a good model for the American (or even the world’s) “Constitution” would be something similar to Wikipedia, wherein anybody can suggest changes at any time, in an ever changing document that is democratic and comprehensive. It will be effectively future-proof because it will never be “done”, but evidence suggests it will mature very quickly.
If everyone can accept that on some level, we’re really all the same, we could peacefully coexist without too much violence, war, or any such nonsense. Upholding long-standing religious beliefs on the idea that they are moral is a very slippery slope, one which we tiptoe around every day. We are all entitled to our own opinion, obviously, but differences of opinion can have consequences if they are baselessly upheld for too long.
On a side note, Googling morality can have some odd implications: