Religion and Morality

It has always struck me as odd that those of a liberal political persuasion are frequently, if not always, averse to any talk about religion or morality — especially religion. I suspect it has something to do with the historical record of religions, especially Christianity, in which the Church, as the embodiment of the religion, has shown itself to be intolerant and authoritarian, not to mention responsible for thousands of deaths. The Church decides what is right and wrong and it has been throughout its history intolerant of those who would dispute its absolute authority on such matters as good and evil.

Dostoevsky had problems with this role the Church has played and pilloried it in his remarkable book The Brothers Karamazov. He was himself a deeply religious man but he was also distrustful and suspicious of the Church and insisted that its claim to absolute authority on matters of ethics has threatened, if not removed altogether, the freedom that makes human beings human. In any event, I share his distrust of the Church as an institution and would follow him in insisting that religion be separated from the institution in which it finds itself housed, to wit, the Church. The two are not the same, by any means. Christ preached love; the Church, historically preaches intolerance — as do so many of its followers.

And this brings us to the point I raised at the outset: why so many intellectuals have rejected the Church as well as the religion they often confound with the institution that houses it. I suspect it is all about tolerance, or the lack of same. As I have noted in past blogs, we hear again and again (and again) that we must not be “judgmental,” which is to say, we need to be more open-minded and tolerant of other ways of living and believing. But the notion of tolerance is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we should tolerate other points of view — not blindly, not always accepting, but after thinking our way through them, listening and questioning, but tolerant none the less. On the other hand we should not tolerate, say, views that promote violence, hatred, and fear. In a word, we need to be circumspect but not refuse to make judgments (be “judgmental”), acknowledging that we must remain open to the possibility that we do not have all the answers and that those very answers may come from the most unexpected sources — even from others whose opinions are diametrically opposed to our own.

There are certain things we come across in our lives that simply should not be tolerated. The insistence that we not be “judgmental” is simplistic nonsense  — because it ignores those very actions that we not only should not but must not tolerate, namely those actions that lead to the violations of another’s personhood or violate the universal principle of fairness that transcends all ethical systems. And these sorts of actions are precisely those that religions preach against. The tendency to turn away from religion and morality toward a relativism that would insist that all actions are somehow good simply because they are practiced by someone is wrong-headed, as I have noted in the past, because it makes impossible the judgment that some practices are quite simply wrong. Words like “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “evil” are not frightening. It is possible that in talking about these things we might become intolerant when we should remain open to other points of view. But that is a mistake and something we should avoid at all costs; it is not, however, a necessary concomitant of searching for answers to complex moral issues. We should not be afraid to talk about those things that we and others do that are simply not right. If I see a young woman being attacked on a dark night I should not tolerate such an action; I should instead intercede in her behalf. Intolerance may at times involve intervention, but it need not do so. The determination not to be intolerant or not to interfere with the actions of others should not blind us to the fact that we, as humans, should never fear the making of judgments and, at times, recall that intervention may be necessary. Good judgment is the key.

In any event, it is not religion and morality that we should be wary of, but the reluctance to acknowledge that at times it makes perfect sense to be intolerant. And it always makes good sense to exercise judgment; it’s what leads to informed action rather than impulsive behavior.

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Intriguing Parallel

One of the little games academics often like to play — when they aren’t hunkered down in their offices worrying about tenure and promotion — is to look for similarities between the Roman Empire and modern America. The game can be fascinating, even if a bit of a stretch at times. But let’s indulge ourselves and look at some of the obvious similarities because, as we know, the Roman Empire disappeared as surely as the language they spoke. And this must give us pause.

To begin with the Roman Empire started out as a Republic and degenerated into a dictatorship. Our nation started out as  Republic (designed after the Romans, as it happens) and has now degenerated into an oligarchy, if not a dictatorship by the 1% of those who control the wealth and political power in this country. The similarity resides in the fact that in both cases, those who came to rule are not elected by the people and do not even pretend to represent the people’s interest.

The Romans had their bread and circuses. We have television and our iPods. In both cases, those in power use the entertainment to divert attention of the masses away from real problems to a world of make-believe where good fights evil and good, as defined by the power-brokers, always prevails.

The Romans had their gladiators. We have the NFL which looks more like its prototype every day.

The Romans used violence to deal with troubles, as do we.

The Romans persecuted the Christians while the Christians in America today exhibit complete intolerance for those who disagree with them and in extreme cases also resort to persecution and even violence out of the conviction that they have the Truth — e.g., the bombing of abortion clinics and the attacks on personnel who work there. In both cases the common element is intolerance of other points of view.

The Romans had their public forums and Senate debates, while we have TV talk shows. In both cases there is much shouting and very little listening, a great deal of smoke and very little fire.

The Roman Empire eventually withered from within and was less and less able to resist the barbarian hordes who surrounded the Empire and eventually not only came within the walls, but gained political control as well. We have reared our own barbarians. They have grown in numbers and are increasingly in control of political power. They hide in their mansions and wear expensive suits, or they pierce and tattoo their bodies and buy the latest automatic weapon from Walmart. In either case they seek power and are as small-minded, stupid, and self-seeking as were the hordes the Romans were unable to hold off.

The Romans became increasingly illiterate as their empire crumbled and learning withdrew into the monasteries. America is becoming increasingly illiterate and its citizens are unable to use their minds to follow the shell game the wealthy play at every turn and which deprives them of their freedom right before their very noses. And the irony is that the people don’t know they are losing their freedom because if they have cable they have hundreds of TV channels to choose from and they are easily persuaded this is true freedom.

But there are major differences. We exploit the earth that is supposed to sustain us and we have pollution on a grand scale and nuclear weapons enough to destroy the world over. The Romans did not.