16 October 2010

Chicken or the egg problem

In this case, the egg comes first but most people assume the chicken did (at least I think that's how that goes). Religion, when examined under the lens of anthropology turns out to be far more about codifying already existing practices, and then trying to hard code in legalistic language that preserves the ability of powerful elites to exert power in the manner they choose (religions in the organised sense that progress beyond mere superstitions tend to require elites to exist in a propertied society of agricultural production). On balance, there are many people who seem to be able to use a set of guiding principles and the mistaken perception that some invisible man/being/whatever is observing their behavior to coincide with those principles to lead otherwise healthy moral lives, and there are many people who overinterpret cultural values from thousands of years ago as relevant today or selectively interpret things to establish and encase their existing biases in a cocoon where they need not be challenged. I'm of the opinion that this negative effect is kind of unnecessary and hence religion, certainly of the organised institutional variety, tends to be a net bad, or at best, not nearly as good as is otherwise claimed by its adherents. Primarily because our basic human morality seems to be a thing that is a creature of necessity in social animals (like humans) so if we must have large diverse societies, it would be better to find social structures that allow us to coexist without as much "team building". By which I mean bullying "other" people. To some extent this includes atheists and other secularists who've had the good sense and fortune to discard punitive invisible beings as their impetus for moral behavior, in effect recognize that the only tyrannical beings in place here are ourselves over our own behavior. I suppose I can sympathize with the desire by many to have a system available that makes their emotional displeasure and disgust with the actions of others that do not effect themselves (or in most cases, others) seem justifiable.

But in practice, when there is no rational basis for our fear and displeasure, perhaps because we have assumed to possess mythical knowledge about others in acts of prejudice and bias (as happens not infrequently with homosexuality, as a modern example), it's hard to say that we've achieved a good moral system because it may act arbitrarily at that point and be turned against anyone it chooses. The preference should be that a moral system should be used very sparingly to condemn others because those condemnations represent penalties and costs to ourselves as well as those we condemn. We should therefore seek out places where it can only function as it does, for example in the cases of rape, torture, or murder, to avoid a societal collapse.

In other words, privately we can condemn (or give praise) whoever we want, but collectively it should be only the most extreme cases, the most damaging to the order and function of a society that we should exert our energies.

The more interesting debates about morality centered on issues like empathy: the beggar problem or the horror movie problem for example. I do see where religion offers some of these essential lessons (the story of the good samaritan), but again, I struggle to see how these goods cannot be forcibly removed from their surroundings and taken as independently valued and valuable commodities for a human society to practice and understand. To me we might accomplish quite a lot by re-writing the entire old testament as just the book of Job and throwing away the rest as obsolete and useless historical testimony from the victors (or at turns the insufferable whining of the oppressed) in a long series of wars. At least that book offers a complex moral conundrum for people to resolve if their beliefs are in some deity to whom faith is central over and above goodness, not to mention gives an important illustration that bad things do not happen only to bad people (in abortion debates this is known as the "abortion should be illegal for everyone except in cases of rape, incest, and me" corollary). Meanwhile the rest offers us these lessons on biology and geology that are so lacking in context as to be rendered useless. We don't listen to the tales of the ancient Greeks as they explained the shape and size of the globe to each other or the essential nature of birds and beasts, so why listen to a bunch of Israelites from even further back? This is absurd.

(to those that would then claim that this is the inerrant word of god, and not the rantings of a few priests and scribes from ancient times, you might want to realize that the Bible itself was edited several times by the church hierarchy, ultimately deciding arbitrarily which books were to be included and which not, as though they could determine which books were "divine" and which not. Not to mention the problems of translations and which words have altered in their meanings and uses over the centuries. None of these problems are not limited to Christianity or Judaism, and all of them relate to the central problem of people taking literally things which are best taken in their proper context, and then using that literal interpretation to justify actions which, at best, seem contrary to the essential teachings of most faiths and at worst, are unspeakably immoral acts in their own right).
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