Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Defining morals and morality

From the book "The Final Superstition" - by Joseph L. Daleiden

To define a principle as a “God given right” is an attempt to universalize the principle to be applicable to all times and circumstances. It also, in effect, removes the principle from examination and validation in terms of its impact on human welfare. The danger here is that when an authoritative religion is vested with the infallible authority to determine what constitutes a moral right or moral obligation, it will structure the rules of morality to serve the interests of the religious institution itself before the interests of humankind. When morality becomes controlled and defined by an elite, whether an authoritarian state or religion, it is structured primarily to serve those in power.

Humankind probably devised some rudimentary moral laws long before it created organized religions. William James recognized that moral behavior could be explained by purely natural means: “instinct and utility between them can safely be trusted to carry on the social business of punishment and praise.” James may have been overly simplistic and optimistic in this view, but he was on the right track.\

According to Paul Beattie, the origins of morality can be traced primarily to the role model of the family. Parenthood, which originally was largely instinctive, by virtue of the nurturing of infants and care of young children, provided a role model, not in terms of what was taught, but in the relationships involved. Seeing the benefits of mutual dependence and harmony existing in successful families generated the idea that society could benefit if this selfless relationship could be extended to the “family of man.”

Social custom was the device used to transmit moral codes which stood the test of time. Customs prevent each individual from acting in a socially destructive way and facilitate the transmission of values from one generation to the next. While customs are not fluid, they are sufficiently plastic to permit remolding if the needs of the day demand it. Religion, on the other hand, rigidly formalizes moral structures, thus inhibiting further evolution.

Nevertheless, sociobiologists such as E. O. Wilson caution that it would be wrong to reject all moral values and rules of religion out of hand, since the real origin of those values is not a mystical God or religious institution per se, but rather the genetically transmitted disposition to altruism (or at least reciprocity). Therefore religions can be of some benefit if they effectively reinforce certain moral values even if the theological basis for accepting those values is erroneous. Still, each moral value and rule must be periodically reviewed for appropriateness and relevance, and this is where religions usually fail.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Bishop Spong's Q&A

Joan from Highlands, North Carolina, writes:

Do you believe in heaven and hell, the blissful heaven and the burning hell? And do you believe in Jesus Christ as your personal savior?

Dear Joan,

Answering your two questions is impossible until some terms are defined and some explanations are given. When you define heaven as "the blissful heaven" and hell as "the burning hell," you reveal an evangelical mindset that asserts a particular understanding that you are requesting that I either affirm or deny. It is to bind the discussion to your frame of reference. That immediately suggests that you do not want real answers, you want affirmation. I cannot give you that nor would I be interested in doing so.

With that background, however, let me proceed to respond. I think it would be fair to say that I do not believe in a blissful heaven or a burning hell as evangelicals define those terms. 0You define heaven and hell as places of reward and punishment where God evens out life here on Earth. I regard that as primitive, childlike thinking that transforms God into a parent figure who delights in rewarding goodness and punishing sinfulness. This portrays God as a supernatural, judging figure and it violates everything I believe about both God and human life.

If anyone pursues goodness in the hope of gaining rewards or avoiding punishment, that person has not escaped the basic self-centeredness of human life and it becomes obvious that such a person is motivated primarily by self-interest. The Christian life is ultimately revealed in the power to live for others, to give ourselves away. It is not motivated by bliss or torment. Both of those images are little more than human wish fulfillment.

The fiery pits of hell are not an essential part of the Christian story. If one would take Matthew's gospel and especially the book of Revelation out of the Bible, most of the references to hell as a fiery place of torment would disappear. That is a quite foreign theme to Paul, Mark, Luke and John. Evangelicals never study the Bible deeply enough to make this distinction. They basically talk about a book they do not understand.

When you ask about "believing in Jesus Christ as your personal savior" you are using stylized evangelical language. That language has no appeal at all for me. To assert the role of savior for Jesus implies a definition of human life as sinful, fallen and helpless. It assumes the ancient myth that proclaimed that we were created perfect only to fall into sin from which we need to be rescued. It was a popular definition before people understood about our evolutionary background. We have been evolving toward humanity for billions of years.

Our problem is not that we have fallen from some pristine perfection into a sinful state from which we need to be saved, it is that we need to be empowered to become something that we have never been, namely fully human beings. So the idea that I need a savior to save me from a fall that never happened and to restore me to a status that I never possessed is in our time all but nonsensical. It is because we do not understand the nature of human life that we do not understand the Jesus role. I see in Jesus the power of love that empowers us to be more deeply and fully human and so I do not know how to translate your questions.

Sorry, but the old evangelical language that you use is badly dated and I believe quite distorting to my understanding of what Christianity is all about.

– John Shelby Spong

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Karl Marx Quote

Karl Marx is perhaps the most eloquent and thought provoking nonbeliever of all time, and perhaps his “religion is the opium of the masses” is still the best one-liner in the business.

But as famous as that zinger is, it’s too bad that most people have never read the sentences that come before and after it. Marx was a whole lot more sympathetic to religious faith than most people give him credit for. He saw religion as a source of solace that should only be abolished until the sources of people’s pain—an unfair economic system—had been eradicated.

“Religious suffering, ” he wrote in 1844, “is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”

Marx wasn’t just another hater of religion as a childish fantasy or a retreat from rationality. He saw faith as a symptom and not the disease, and he was interested in faith not in terms of right and wrong but because of what it told him about the human condition.