Science and Religion review – part 3 – Godless morality?

If scientific critics of religion are sometimes guilty of fairly lazy argumentation – apparently on the basis that religion is so discredited it hardly merits any serious effort – then surely it cuts both ways: the charge by some Christian apologists that human beings simply couldn’t function in a moral way without God seems rather thin and defensive – and writing this post from Japan I’m not sure all the people who keep telling me they ‘don’t do religion’ here would agree that they’re especially immoral or amoral.

Richard Rohr

In any case, as the likes of Richard Rohr have pointed out, religious morality at its best and most powerful relies not on externally imposed reward-and-punishment systems (which are good only for young children at a certain stage of development), but instead encourages people to take a far-reaching look at what’s motivating them and to ask whether it is really conducive to a good life, or to what Matthieu Ricard talks about as ‘flourishing’.

If one of the keys to this flourishing is to avoid seeing oneself as the meaningful centre of one’s world (since this makes us a magnet for suffering) then you could argue that religious devotion or transcendence helps believers develop the necessary radically ‘outward’ focus. But equally this kind of devotion or sense of transcendence can be successfully generated in other ways – George Monbiot’s environmentalism comes close, in his best moments – and in any case surely there are plenty of people who use religious ideas to boost, gild, or disguise self-interest rather than genuinely to interrogate or move beyond it.

Terry Eagleton - famously (and misleadingly) described by Martin Amis's step-mother as 'a rather lethal combination of a Roman Catholic and a Marxist'

What’s more it would be pretty naive to ignore all the examples out there of religion being very much bound up with the imposition of standards of behaviour and claiming divine sanction for them, and it’s irritating when commentators pass over this. Terry Eagleton‘s account of Christianity in Reason, Faith, and Revolution is undoubtedly moving and attractive, but his ridiculing of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins as theologically illiterate fails to acknowledge that their portrayal of religiosity is very probably accurate of a great many people.

What Thomas Dixon’s historical analysis of the science vs religion debate shows us, when it comes to the ‘mind’ and to morality, is that theologians and religious institutions don’t generate and enforce rules of behaviour all by themselves, working solely with revealed and codified wisdom and notions of ‘natural law‘: they are, equally, vehicles for social norms that arise within wider communities, and once religion starts to lose cultural kudos other forces step in to offer new sorts of legitimacy for these various norms and taboos.

Pamphlet on 'Onania': London, 1716

For example, from homosexuality to masturbation, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe saw science and medicine starting to offer their own accounts of why these things were ‘wrong’ – grasping the baton (if you’ll allow the Freudian imagery at this point) from their increasingly discredited religious counterparts. Even in our own day we see the ‘naturalisation’ (the assertion of a basis in nature) of what are historically contingent taboos, or the ‘medicalization’ of certain sorts of socially undesirable lifestyles and behaviour. (I realise that many a monotheist would say ‘yes’ to the historical part here but would deny any nihilistic connotations of ‘contingent'; perhaps we can return to that question another time.)

This medicalization – not least in psychiatry, where it’s notoriously difficult to establish value-free notions of health and illness – shares a few striking features with religious sanctions in previous eras, not least the existence of a trained hierarchy possessing knowledge to which most people cannot reasonably aspire, and the contextualization of particular human weaknesses and failings in a much larger cosmological scheme – in this case a physical body embedded in a wider bio-chemical reality, whose early and/or painful extinction from avoidable ‘lifestyle’ disease represents a quintessentially modern ‘last judgment’.

The point here is not to make some fatuous equation of medicine with religion, but to elaborate on the claim that Dixon seems to want to make: that it makes sense to see moral values emerging through complex social and institutional interactions rather than inhering naturally and immutably either in some idealised version of ‘nature’ or in particular religious systems, which (with the possible exception of the Catholic Church) can frequently be seen shifting their ground on major social issues to follow changes in wider society.

Dixon makes the point that the use of provocative or anthropomorphic language to describe biological functions - 'selfish' or 'altruism', e.g. - boosts popular science writing but risks creating confusion

Dixon doesn’t see any mileage in the attempt – which goes back at least to the mid-nineteenth century, and in various forms much earlier than that – to derive morality from the natural sciences, for example by processes of analogy with the behaviour of (other) animals or by studying human beings at the genetic level. He shows that, historically, Darwin’s ideas have been used to prove diametrically opposed things about supposedly ‘natural’ human behaviour, and that nature can only be a guide to the good life when interpreted by reflective human beings.

In fact, if we can rid ourselves of what the English philosopher G.E. Moore called the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ – the idea that because something occurs in nature it automatically has ethical force in some way – then perhaps the question of morality is one on which science and religion can genuinely work together.

Indeed, there are hints of such co-operation in the dialogue between the psy sciences and religious thinkers, where attention to human psychological development from childhood onwards allows for the constructive critiquing of immature religious consciousness – where images of divinity remain absurdly literal in their anthropomorphism, for example, or where individuals are unable to bring their full humanity to bear upon understanding themselves and the world.

One general set of criteria describes a necessary shift from naive belief, which is proper to childhood, through to rational criticism, which is proper to adolescence, and then finally on to a broader form of knowing that engages the imagination, the will, and a mature heart, and integrates all the undesirable aspects of ourselves and our pasts that we tend to repress. Carl Jung was very much into this linking of religiosity with stages of life, and it’s tempting to think there may be something in this when one reads some of the comments that appear below ‘Belief‘ articles in The Guardian: a veritable showcase for the adolescent stage in all its self-righteous and narrowly disputatious hormonal glory, with anything religious or spiritual framed as cretinous fairy-worship by people not educated or courageous enough to apply critical reason.

What to do, then? Dixon’s answer – which suits a short book, but might equally provide the basis for a much longer one – is that we use our capacity for reflective self-consciousness to draw on both religious and scientific forms of understanding when we think about morality and ethics. Some of the more creative work in the neurosciences is trying to do just this, not least via analysis of so-called ‘mirror neurons‘. Jaegwon Kim’s Philosophy of Mind offers a great blend of the philosophical and the neuroscientific here, but let me round off with the American philosopher Daniel Dennett making an eloquent case for the sort of reflective self-consciousness that I think Dixon may have in mind:

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  • Chris
    September 7, 2012 - 1:02 pm | Permalink

    As a quick addition to the above, here is Don Cupitt, talking about his non-realist understanding of ‘God’, and where ethics and morality come in (especially the second half of the interview):

    …and Pat Churchland, offering a perspective from neuroscience:

  • Yoshi Inoue
    September 12, 2012 - 3:44 pm | Permalink

    I couldn’t agree more Chris. I would love you to go on TED Talks and share your views, ha! Looking forward to your final post of the ‘Science and Religion’ series.

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