I think we will all go to hell in a hand-basket, nor necessarily metaphorically speaking, if we cannot rapidly learn to distinguish between the relative merits of religion, ethics and morality.
First – Religion: After all, despite the conviction of our current Prime Minister – miracles do not happen. I qualify that by saying that there are many occasions where unexpected events may appear to be a miracle. I know of no recorded instances where performing a rain dance or praying have actually resulted in a shower of rain. Coincidence is frequently misconstrued as magical!
Religion is a sort of comfort blanket for those who worry that they cannot find answers to why we are here and what happens when we die. In clutching the blanket about them, they blindly accept directions from the religion’s leaders, because they are the chosen ones, able to deliver the messages from some unseen spirit. If the religion’s followers lead miserable, unfulfilled lives, and their belief in a wonderful life after death helps them survive the vicissitudes of this life, then far be it from me to deny them the comfort they derive.
The world has many religions, some largely local, others like Christianity – and in particular that version preached by the Roman Catholic church – as well as Islam, which are virtually global.
My greatest familiarity, at a personal level is Christianity, so I feel on safe ground in highlighting this particular religion, while aware that much of what I say is also true of other religions.
Second – ethics: I looked for a definition of ethics and found:
‘the characteristics and values that most people associate with ethical behaviour:
- HONESTY. …
- INTEGRITY. …
- PROMISE-KEEPING & TRUSTWORTHINESS. …
- LOYALTY. …
- FAIRNESS. …
- CONCERN FOR OTHERS. …
- RESPECT FOR OTHERS. …
- LAW ABIDING.’
This sort of took my breath away, because it drove home how lacking in ethical behaviour, as defined above, are many (all?) of our political, religious and business leaders.
Third – Morals: My own concept of morality is related to understanding the difference between right and wrong – while understanding that these are value issues which vary with culture.
So again I sought a more definitive approach and found this: What are your family’s top moral values?
I quote this excerpt:
‘Renée Trudeau, author of Nurturing the Soul of Your Family, shared that when her son was entering middle school they created a “Family Purpose Statement”. She described they “highlighted the top five qualities that were most important to us. At the top of our list: compassion – for self and for others.”
What virtues make your family’s top five list? Some to consider include:
- Acceptance: welcoming others whose ideas and practices differ from your own
- Compassion: understanding the suffering of others or self and wanting to do something about it
- Cooperation: helping your family and friends, returning favors
- Courage: willingness to do difficult things
- Equality: believing everyone deserves equal rights and to be treated with respect
- Fairness: acting in a just way, sharing appropriately
- Generosity: willingness to give resources, help or time to others
- Gratitude: showing appreciation to others
- Honesty: being truthful and sincere
- Integrity: sticking to your moral and ethical principles and values
- Kindness: being considerate and treating others well
- Perseverance: persisting in a course of action, belief or purpose
- Politeness: using good manners, acting in socially acceptable ways
- Respect: showing consideration for the worth of someone or something
- Responsibility: being reliable in your obligations
- Self-control: staying in control of your words and behaviour
- Tolerance: having a fair and objective attitude towards different opinions, beliefs or practices
- Trustworthy: reliably doing what is right even when it is difficult, being true to your word
One way to help your children internalize these characteristics is to notice them. When you see your child being responsible, honest or showing compassion, comment on it. For example, if your child attempts to comfort a child who is hurt, you can say “That’s kind of you to help him.”
This is clearly a western society concept but that is not meant to criticise it. Many of the values listed here repeat those associated with ethics, and the last statement highlights the need to develop empathy – walk in someone else’s shoes.
Two things about it are really noticeable – there is no mention of religion, although there are strong echoes of Jesus Christ’s teachings, and, secondly, when I look at the behaviour of our religious leaders, I wonder who, beyond Pope Francis (despite strong opposition from the establishment in the Vatican) and the Dalai Lama, even make a head-start on sharing these values. For the leaders of most religious sects, being in power is the dominant attraction of their beliefs, it seems.
When you study the scriptures, the development of ethics from the Old Testament and Hammurabi’s “an eye for an eye” through Moses’ 10 commandments, on to Jesus in the New Testament summarising the 10 into 2 – and explaining that your ‘neighbour’ might be a total stranger, yet worthy of your care and compassion – it brings home how established religions have failed over the past 2000 years to maintain the momentum of developing moral concepts as knowledge has grown and globalisation has created greater contact between differing cultures.
It is worth noting that at the time Jesus was alive, Sharia Law was practised by Jews as well as Arabs – and this was before the prophet Muhammed was born. As far as the Arabs are concerned, their progress has been minimal!
Looked at dispassionately, most of the established religions encourage conservatism because they are forever looking back to the Bible, the Torah, the Qur’an, etc for directions instead of realising that changing levels of knowledge require changing approaches to moral values.
To take a fairly trite example, both Islam and Judaism place a great deal of stress on various rituals regarding food. It is highly probable that these, very sensibly, were developed in the Middle East where, pre-refrigeration, hygiene and food storage were not adequate to prevent food deteriorating and affecting health. These rituals are now tied into religious practice, yet they are not now meaningful, merely historical reminders.
At a much more modern level, until the 1960s, any female between menarche and menopause was likely to become pregnant if she was engaged in sexual intercourse. If she was in a continuing relationship, frequent pregnancies meant she was not able to take on work outside family caring and household chores – which, in rural areas would extend outdoors.
Now, with women in developed countries enabled to complete the same education as their brothers, while contraceptive advances have given them better control over their reproductive functions, the patriarchal approach that kept women in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, is being thrown out of the window.
Over the centuries, the religious and mainly male-dominated governments have fought to control knowledge. But that is no longer possible.
The oft quoted “the only certainties in life are death and taxes” must now be amended to include “change”! And conservative males are fighting change, tooth and nail!
I often see it said that you grow more conservative as you get older.
Perhaps I was fortunate that, growing up in the UK, my mother supported the Tory Party while my father was a Labour adherent!
I benefited by sitting on the fence, seeing both sides of the argument. But I also grew up absorbing an ethical, moral approach to life while eventually becoming an agnostic.
You do not need a god in order to distinguish between right and wrong. You need humility to admit when you are, in fact wrong, and, as with penance in the Catholic tradition – once you have acknowledged your error, you need to work your butt off to try to rectify matters!
I have an 18 years-old granddaughter who took part in Rebellion Extinction in Edinburgh and now has been on the platform in Trafalgar Square during ER London.
I am proud of her willingness to be active in highlighting the failure of governments to accept the fact of the climate emergency and take action – for a start in Australia by setting a carbon price! – to ensure that our grandchildren have a viable world to enjoy.
Conservatism puts a brake on progress and, at this point in history, the only brake we need is on global warming.
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A dear friend of mine, a progressive Jew with whom I have had many hours of philosophical discussion, explained the concept of Kosher to me. Centuries ago the elders and leaders of the Jewish people noticed that many were getting ill and hence dying. They issued advice on what to avoid but the advice was rarely taken. So! To assure their people would stop suffering preventable harm they linked health to faith and by making certain practices an article of faith saved many lives.
Hence many religious practices are anachronistic in today’s world of better hygiene.
My mother was raised as a Catholic and so, driven by the guilt that goes with being raised Catholic, she forced we kids to attend the local church which wasn’t Catholic but that didn’t matter as long as we got our weekly dose of god.
I am proud to say my attitude with my two kids has always been to talk about everything. Current affairs, local issues, the tribulations of friends. We have always highlighted how people must feel. If there is a car accident, how must it feel to be the only survivor? Or the driver of the other car? If a kid at school is being bullied how must that kid feel at home at night at what can we do to not join in when other kids are being cruel. How must their parents feel? Or the bullies parents?
None of this I learned at church. Our church had a paedophile. We also had an elderly woman who would berate anyone who sat in “her seat”. We had a very poor family bought in by another big hearted family who were shunned by most. A new Minister arrived with his kids who were hippies and one was gay. He didn’t wear a suit and tie. His wife was obese.
Church service numbers dropped.
They were the nicest most accepting people the church had had in years.
Christianity does not have a monopoly on morals or responsibility.
If priests and ministers spent more time correcting their parishioners when they show any form of prejudice or mis treat others maybe Christianity could serve a worthwhile purpose in society instead of trying to convert everyone to their narrow beliefs and acting as a haven for paedophiles and other misfits?
Wonderful piece, thanks.
I found the bit about faith and health most enlightening, that makes sense.
And I constantly remind people that nothing about Christianity these days has anything to do with JC.
My mother was Catholic, my father Protestant, scousers of Irish descent. While nothing like the bigotry that occurred in Belfast, or Derry, or Glasgow, in Liverpool everyone knew your ‘religion’. If you threw a name at me of any of the kids I played with in Liverpool 60 years ago, I could tell you their religion. In a stretch of maybe 100 yards, there were maybe 10 kids of my age, evenly split between Catholic and Protestant. Not one went to any church, including my mother, who was nevertheless ‘devout’. At an early age, I worked out for myself just how absurd the concept of an all-loving invisible friend’ was.
My mother inadvertently defined ‘faith’ and how nonsensical it is by a comment she made when I pointed out to her that the ‘Holy Shroud’, – which she believed in – if it was real, was wrapping up a live person because blood doesn’t flow when you are dead, and that science would support my comment. She said – and the words defined the ludicrousness of ‘faith’ – ‘If it’s true, I resent them saying it.’
In other words, ‘Don’t meddle with my illusions.’
Stephen Fry’s comment when asked, if he found himself in heaven after dying as an atheist and was confronted by God, What he would say to the Deity, said ‘I would say ‘a three year old with cancer: what were you thinking’?’
Can’t sum ‘God’ and religion more succinctly than that!
It may or may not die out in conventional time we can predict, but religious superstition has to go, soon. It is embraced by, and creates, the most backward conservatives (of course there are good peole of all faiths) and can ruin an approach to reason, logic, science, sense, decency, progress. Catholic lay supremacist and righteous teachings are the backbone of fascism and nazism; Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Salazar, Horthy, Pilsudski, the Ustasha, Peron, Pinochet, hordes of petty dictators in South and Central America, Abbott, Joyce, Turnbull, Abetz, Andrews, so many now dominating conservative polical perversions, are raised lay catholics. Add to that the pox of hot gospelling of the Bakker/ Swaggart type, embraced by righteous pregnant egos and self inflating loudmouths and civilisation seemed doomed. This religious superstition is abused to scheme that quality and talent is there in complete dickheads, self awarding winners of hollowness, emptiness. It’s Goats for Governors, Peanuts for Presidents, Mindless Midgets for Ministers; we’ve had enough Kinky Kings and Queer Queens as it is. Worse, we’ve had murdering and thieving conquerors, huns, vandals, preferred and saved souls of course, giving thanks to their god of crime no doubt. Let someone’s god come to a high court or UNO tribunal…
I have posted before that I never trust proselytisers, and would never trust or do business with anyone who keeps a bible on his or her desk. The guidance they seek is reassurance that what they have just done to somebody has an excuse for it somewhere in scripture. And the Prosperity shite the PM and his cronies push is based entirely on actual monetary wealth they can garner by following the happy clapper precepts, however they acquire the wealth is okay because some articulate desert-wandering camel herder recorded his own excuses, when the trading scams were completed, by candlelight in his tent.
Haven’t many of us humans have been unethical since the year dot. Terra Nullius must be well up there in the unethical department. That was a shocker. The land is uninhabited, yeah right.
Approaches to ethics often fall into two broad camps. There are those which (who) advocate a deontological position and those who come from a teleological stance. Deontologists are concerned with right and wrong – also with intentions and their point of reference is often The Decalogue or The Ten Commandments as it’s more commonly known. Always tell the truth regardless of consequences etc. (But remember to duck when a particular truth is not really being sought such as:- Does my … look too big in this? Sometimes it’s better to be less than truthful.)
On the other hand, teleological arguments are driven by considerations of good and bad – with outcomes or ends to the fore. (So it can be a case of Never mind your intention, that person is dead – that’s the outcome – and you were driving the car.)
Then there’s what might be called existential or situational ethics. A an approach – that entertains lots of ‘it depends’. As for the law, it tends to have two-bob each way which then allows barristers to construct a particular reality and earn their shilling..