Several days ago, after yet more contemplation of the positive and negative aspects of religion, I provided myself with a new (to me anyway) defense of religion. In the way of background; I am the father of a high school freshman. I have always considered the imparting a moral and ethical framework to a child to be one of the highest purposes of parenting. In my relatively recent self-identification as a non-theist, I have analyzed child-rearing from a new perspective. There are groups of theists that will, quite assuredly, say that non-belief is synonymous with amorality . . . that a moral framework cannot exist in the absence of belief. I know this to be wrong. I know this from personal experience and I know this through empirical evidence; but trying to convince some believers of this is tantamount to convincing them that up is down. There is much evidence showing non-theists to be at least as moral as theists. This should allow us to dismiss the amorality claim as naïve; still it pours forth from the pulpit that atheists have no moral center.
I hope it is obvious to all readers that the single most effective way to communicate morals and ethics to a child is through personal example, irrespective of faith. If the people that the child knows, loves, and respects practice charity, show empathy toward others and generally puts other’s need before their own, that is what the child will emulate. Hands down; a parent’s example is what defines the child.
Still . . . If parents had some sort software they could install into their child’s brain, a “Morality v1.0” if you will, that would be convenient, wouldn’t it? It is not going out on a limb to say children do not posses the intellectual acuity to interpret the nuance of a proper philosophical discussion of right and wrong. Heck, many adults appear to lack that ability! But let us leverage the innate credulity of a child and posit a story that is accessible and comprehensible to a child. To that end; tell them that there is a god that watches everything. If you do bad things (he has provided a list), you will go to hell and spend eternity in a lake of burning sulfur. Your child believes you because the immature human animal is wired to do so. Just like they believe you when you tell them about the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus or the tooth fairy, they believe that God is prepared to strike them down and condemn them to hell. There it is . . . simple, concise and oh-so-time-saving for the on-the-go Bronze Age parent.
And, right there, that’s the first major rub. The list was created in the Bronze Age. At the time, it was probably a nice dovetail into contemporary Bronze Age morals. Granted, most of what was laid down as commandments generally fits much of today’s generally accepted framework of ethical conduct . . . but it does show some age. For instance; rule number 10 states:
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.”
I don’t know about you, but it makes me uncomfortable that God decided to list the wife as a piece of property . . . and not even the first in the list! The ‘progressive’ Catholics at least broke this inventory list into two statements, ostensibly giving the wife some special status over a man’s ox and slaves . . . regular Susan B. Anthonys they are!! At least the Catholics had the good sense to apply some editing to the word of God. Wh . . Wh . . What was that?!? One of the very few times God himself hand delivers a communiqué to humanity and some feel the need to tweak it a bit?!?!? Wow!! Talk about brass ones!! Still; for the time, this was probably a no-brainer list of do’s and don’ts with no controversy to be found.
Of course the first half of the list of rules had nothing to do with “do unto others” kind of thinking. It was all about the self-protection of the story; the more that God was deserving of respect and the scarier he was, the less likely that kids would wander. To my mind, the whole thing it is the perfect parental shortcut. After all, the busy parents of the day had their day full . . . er . . . herding and . . . er . . . other stuff. I have little doubt that the biblical story, used this way, was quite effective.
The whole thing might be perfectly useful if 1) there was some universally agreed upon list of moral codes that would evolve as we gained new, real understanding of the human species and condition and 2) we let the kids in on the story once it was no longer useful (like we do with Santa Claus and other fables). Now some of you already have your pants in a bunch because of item ‘1’. “That is wishy-washy moral relativism” you might say. Relative to what? . . . our growing understanding of the human species and our growing body of empirical knowledge and philosophical understanding? Maybe you would prefer that we stick with moral absolutes that value the female spouse somewhere between your condo and your cat. Hmmmmm. Relativism doesn’t sound all that bad to me. In fact, the enlightened believers have always practiced moral relativism . . . that is why they are enlightened.
In honesty, though, I would give less than even odds that some universal list of do’s and don’ts could be created, but it would be an interesting experiment. I know the United Nations has a “universal” document but it is a) probably not universal for primitive theocracies and dictatorships and b) limited to human rights. Still . . . the effort would be interesting and actually give us important new insights into fundamental human ethics and morals.
The failure of the whole premise was that point ‘2’ (letting the kids in on the story) was not incorporated into the program. As an individual (hopefully) matures intellectually, they are able to better understand and reflect on the nuances of what is right and wrong. This nuanced understanding is far better than some terse list written down by moral leaders of ancient times.
So there you have it . . . the best defense of religious fables that I have yet to hear (or concoct). To my mind, this could even put an aspect of religion into the ‘defensible’ category . . . wrong and false, but defensible. Sometimes I impress myself . . but I am easily impressed.