Chocolate and Gold Coins

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Perverse Morality

A few days ago, I wrote about Excessive Morality: the idea that too many rules spoil the religion (those word are from desipundit). But what about truly perverse morality: a “morality” that is not moral in any sense but pure madness. It can happen. People can be so intoxicated by religion that they because suicide bombers and kill themselves, many innocents, and whatever cause they were “fighting” for.

Sepia Mutiny has a very interesting post about the people who are suspected of causing the London Attacks.

Hussain was described by friends in Leeds as a tearaway. He drank and dated British women before being sent to Pakistan to visit relations. On his return he was said to have become a devout Muslim, turning his back on his previous life.

Read the Times article. Read the Sepia Mutiny post.

In my post a few a days ago, I joked that Muslims should drink more beer, but here is someone who really needed to drink more beer. Apparently, he was an empty vessel and this void was filled with murderous fanaticism.

What is truly scary is that he was not from some backward country that was ruled by evil zealots; he came from a great free society. That this madness could spring from such soil should make us all ponder. To what extent are we immune or susceptible to this madness? Is this unique to Islam (is it an inherently antisocial religion? - I don't believe so) or is it possible whenever zealotry is tolerated (I believe it is the latter, obviously)?

A deeper question is, “Is religion evil?” I would have never imagined that people would follow a truly evil religion, but are all religions essentially evil because the base their morality on a pure fiction: “What God had commanded us to do”? I would insist that this is a fiction because there is no possible way we human could ever know the difference between what the true God of the Universe would want vs. what some pretender says that the true God of the Universe would want. The essence of faith is to suspend the common sense that is critical in good judgment everywhere else in life. Is faith criminal folly?

I am not at all comfortable with the belief that faith is always criminal folly, but it clearly can be for some people. I always used to believe that people’s morality didn’t really come from reading the holy books but came from people’s common sense, and I still believe this is true for the most part. Religious people generally are simply people who care a lot about others and would like us to live more harmoniously (perhaps they should become economists). But they need the crutch of the almighty deity to justify their notions of morality. There is clearly a danger in this.

On the other hand, if we all abandon our faiths, would we all become amoral uncooperative game theorists? I really wouldn’t want to spend my life in “Non-Cooperative Game Theory Land,” with a bunch of people who really played life like that. The world could use a new religion, but the religions of the world are usually created by people who claim to have talked directly to The God of The Universe. Typically such people lack credibility and probably lack sanity as well.

Could a religion exist merely as a code of ethics without the superstitious mumbo-jumbo?

10 Comments:

  • most of the religions that tried to bring together all people of all religions or beliefs (without conflict) have failed. So too did the religions that threw out excess morality or superstition. The B'hai faith (relatively broadminded) remains obscure. The emperor Akbar started something called "Din-i-ilahi" which didn't have a god-head or prophet, and threw out superstitions, that died with him....the list is endless.

    People believe that if something comes without rules or customes or codes, it can't be real, and therefore good. Also, people like to believe in godheads and prophets......if someone has "heard the voice of God", why not? Codes of ethics do exist, but they will not be religion then. Once they become religion, new baggage comes with that.

    By Blogger Sunil, at 11:42 AM  

  • The problem is less one specific religion or religion in general than inflexible fundementalist interpretations of religion.

    Belief in something larger than yourself is an essential social value that unfortunately has dwindled in increasingly secular societies.

    Some morph into extreme utilitarian pragmatists as you suggest; others wallow in complete nihilism and self-absorption, which is worse.

    And some (like myself) attempt to create a personal balanced spiritual framework from various sources, including the main faiths.

    It's an interesting quest, but it's hard work, and many cannot or do not wish to engage the task.

    Fair enough, but I'd rather them subscribe to some reasonable pre-packaged faith than abandon all ethics, morality, faith, or sense of place and purpose in a larger universe.

    Fundamentalism preys on those who have given up all faith and found that solution equally lacking. They search for clarity and answers, and fundamentalists provide just that. Born-again believers don't care whether these answers are fundamentally wrong (God is and never will be so simple) or that they're being taken in by salesmen of spiritual snake oil - the clarity fills a void, as you note, and that's better than nothing, at least initially.

    Of course, in the long term, it leads to complete lunacy. Anti-abortionists bombing abortion clinics, Jewish extremists killing men of peace like Yitzhak Rabin, wayward Muslim teenagers from Leeds - they're all the same people, and should be treated accordingly.

    Hopefully what emerges out of this is strong distrust of overzealous fundamentalism from all faiths.

    This means ensuring that moderate Muslims marginalize and report nutjobs in their own mosques, but it also means firmly telling the Christian right to cease and desist with their thinly veiled pleas for the next Crusade.

    If we fight fire with fire here, a lot more is destined to burn.

    By Anonymous Michael Jones, at 1:08 PM  

  • There are religions that are atheists, i.e. there is no god in those religions. An example is Buddhism.

    I think religion consists of these parts: theism (including atheism), community of like minded people, code of ethics and customs, and mythology.

    These are obviously inter-related but are indeed separate things! For example, I do not belive in God but like to get involved in Hindu community and follow some of the traditions and customs and love Hindu mythology! I suspect majority people are like me. And many of these majority also belive in God in a more personal way. These people are harmless.

    The trouble is with those people who take their beliefs too seriously and start imposing their convictions (about ethics and about god) on others! These are in minority and they only understand violence.

    By Blogger Ashish Hanwadikar, at 1:52 PM  

  • Dont you think you have taken your joke a little too far by calling Islam an anti-social religion?

    By Blogger Kesava Mallela, at 2:33 PM  

  • Hi Kesava:
    No! I never meant to say anything of the sort. It was merely a rhetorical statement: I was merely pointing out that religion could become anti-social, if religious leaders make it so. This is not unique to Islam but many people are assuming that the problems with terrorism are really unique to Islam and I don't believe they are.

    I doubt I was able to really drive home my point. But I was trying to wonder how we could know that our religion has a net positive value added. I would like think that people's faith helps them achieve goodness and peace of mind and many other positives. But how do we know it is doing these things or is it turning us into madmen of varying sorts (not necessarily criminal madmen, just irrational and mildly self destructive)?

    This is the question I was pondering and I used Hussein as an example. He went insane, obviously. What happened? Is this a problem largely linked to his religion or all religions.

    I might add that the communists also succumbed to this madness as well, so athiestic religions also can succumb to madness.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 7:06 PM  

  • Hi Sunil, Michael, and Ashish
    Sunil: It is Gresham's law of Religions: Intolerance drives out tolerance. I don't know why, but the religions that succeed tend to be extreme dogmatic. People assume that a religion should have all of the answers.

    But, thinking out loud, what if a lot of people loudly proclaimed that you can believe whatever nonsense you like but you must swear loyality to a relatively simple code of ethics that comes ahead of everything else, that will help people of various faiths to get along? Obviously the major religions would never sign on to that since the official fiction is that they get their marching orders from the almighty. But maybe if enough people believed in the ethics, most religious people would sign on anyway to avoid the stigma of being antisocial. I'm not sure, but it seems like a nice idea.

    Hi Michael
    Yes. Zealotry is the problem. I don't know how to effectively deal with zealots.

    I think you hit upon a subject that I believe very much: we tend to cull through the religious thought we are given and choose what is meaningful for ourselves. If we do so responsibly and intelligently and honestly (and not self-servingly) we can create our own set of beliefs that are sacred to us and would work for us. I think this is essential. I think we have to find what we think is precious and ignore the stuff that sounds like nonsense.

    But doing so tends to undermine the sanctity of religion. We are short-term oriented creatures, and we will tend to stop believing something is sacred if we know we chose it to be sacred. That is the essential paradox.

    Ashish
    I really like the Buddhists. They never bother anyone.

    I agree with your take that religion has at least three dimensions, and the shared culture aspect is non-trivial. For Hindus, they have 1000s of stories they can draw upon as analogies in everyday life and as inspiration as well. Even if you believe the stories are made up, good stories have a message.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 7:34 PM  

  • General Comment
    I think I had a lot of interesting ideas today but they didn't get organized and written as well as I would have liked. I was really bothered by Kesava's comment, my ideas were not being conveyed at all.

    Maybe in a few weeks I will make another, more coherent, stab at this subject. It deserves a good essay.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 7:38 PM  

  • -- A deeper question is, “Is religion evil?”

    Yes sir it is. That is the exact reason quite a few people are atheist, including me.

    I don't like the very concept of religion. The only thing it has done is made people fight for aeons upon aeons.

    Some say, religion teaches us 'good things' and morals. And atheists are evil infidels or whatever. But due to human nature, I think that the 'good' things are conveniently forgotten or twisted to ones benifit while claiming holyness.

    One doesn't need to be religious to be a good human being. 'Morals' or whatever that means, aren't the exclusive property of believers

    By Blogger Vulturo, at 12:01 AM  

  • Hi Saket
    This is a very interesting question: what would be the correlation between one's professed religious beliefs and that person's actually ethical behavior. I know that psychologists regularly conduct experiments to see how people will react and how ethical they are, but I have not heard of any study linking religion to ethics, and I would think that would be an obvious question.

    My prior on this subject would be that the relation between ethical behavior and religion is probably weak. Probably, the most important factor determining how you react to ethical situations would be how you observed your parents reacting to similar ethical situations.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 12:14 AM  

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