Morality vs. Ethics
by Earl Lee
In debating various self-proclaimed "Christian" spokespersons over the years, I have discovered that they present many vague and erroneous ideas as established truths. These are three of the myths used by Christians quite often in defending their dubious ideas:
Myth 1: Christianity is important to our society because it serves as a moral rudder. Morality is necessary for a society to exist. Some standards must exist for people to follow or society will decay and eventually collapse, as did the Roman Empire.
Answer: The ancient Greeks proved that it is possible to have an ethical culture without having a religiously "moral" culture. The focus of ethics is on behavior; for example, the ethical standard "If you can do no good, at least do no harm" focuses on making choices in behavior. The focus of morality, on the other hand, is to avoid behavior proscribed by political and religious authorities. Many of Christ's teachings have a strong ethical content, above and beyond the Judaic law and its moral commands of "Thou shalt not . . . ." For example, the teaching of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is an ethical teaching that is often perverted by Christian moralists who interpret this to mean: "Do unto others as God (the Bible, the Pope, etc.) would have you do unto them." The ethical teaching is lost in the effort to enforce a religious code or standard.
Generally, from the standpoint of ethics, Christianity has been a dismal failure. Centuries of religious intolerance, warfare, and persecution have proven this beyond any reasonable doubt. Even without the perspective of history it is clear that many religious people are not very ethical. This is true not only of ministers and television evangelists but of religious communities in general, as evidenced by numerous recent sexual abuse scandals. People who complain about sexual abuses are often themselves ostracized by their church. The book "Doc": the Rape of the Town of Lovell shows in glaring detail how a Mormon church in Wyoming rallied around a rapist who was an elder in the church in order to defend him from his accusers.
In terms of property crimes and violent crimes, American prisons are filled with religious people, especially Christians and Moslems. On the other hand, atheists very rarely end up in prison and statistically, for as long as data have been collected, atheists have been proportionally under-represented in prison populations.
The argument that Christians are more ethical seems to be based on the fact that a non-believer who has grown up in a predominately Christian environment obviously tends to "convert" to Christianity in times of trouble as a solution to drinking problems, marital problems, legal problems, etc. A non-believer who has gotten into trouble (Charles Colson, Johnny Cash, Eldridge Cleaver, and others) and "finds Christ" often does display better behavior as a "born again" Christian, but this is also true for people who convert to other religions or philosophies. Furthermore, the people who continue in their new belief are far outnumbered by those who fall into their old habits. Charles Bufe's book Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? cites studies that show that alcoholics who are religiously indoctrinated in AA meetings do not recover from alcoholism at higher percentages than alcoholics who do not attend AA.
But even in comparing the ethics of Christians with non-believers their argument falters. Recent studies comparing believers with nonbelievers show that there is really very little difference between these groups in terms of ethical behavior. In fact, in the few studies that have been done, non-believers often come out better -- less rigid, less likely to commit violence against their neighbors -- than Christians. Even these non-religious people, people brought up with no ethical training beyond what they receive in our schools and through television and our consumer- oriented culture, are more ethical than the Christians. The parable of the good Samaritan is still true today.
In a recent book by Bruce Lincoln, Death, War, and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice (1991) this idea is further supported. In a recent review, Prof. M. Kohl, of SUNY college of Fredonia, summarizes Lincoln's belief that "... warriors must dehumanize not only their enemy but themselves before they can become instruments of slaughter. In fact, it is precisely when people are supported by a powerful ideological system that they are most disposed to perpetrate atrocities: and one of the chief functions of religion, as of other ideological systems, is to lend legitimacy to those purportedly necessary but unpleasant actions that might otherwise go undone" (Choice Jan '92). The current slaughter in Bosnia, between Christians and Moslems, should be ample evidence for the dehumanizing quality of religious belief.
The practice of confession and repentance, as practiced by Christians, seems to reinforce the delusion that Christians are more happy and well-adjusted than non-Christians. Christians believe strongly in the power of faith to "heal" personal problems and they find it difficult to believe that non-believers could be happy without faith. Yet Thomas H. Davenport's study Virtuous Pagans: Unreligious People in America shows that the non-religious live full and meaningful lives, in spite of the opinions of the religious.
The idea that Christianity is necessary to prevent the collapse of civilization is also false. The Roman Empire collapsed despite having Christianity. The historian Gibbon believed that Rome collapsed in large part because of the spread of Christianity and the way it undermined much of traditional Roman society. Nor did Christianity prevent the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. In fact, on one occasion the Christian crusaders who were sent to protect Constantinople from the Turks instead sacked the city themselves. In terms of ethical behavior, several historians have commented on the fact that the Turks often proved to be superior to the Christians in their concept of personal honor, loyalty, devotion to duty, and other ethical ideals. Now so many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians are obsessed with the End of the World that they ignore trying to preserve the world from destruction: economic, ecological, or atomic. It is true too that an upsurge in "religious" behavior and especially the proliferation of new religions has been recognized by historians as symptomatic of the decline of civilization. Indeed, it may be, as Gibbon believed, that religious "thinking" and behavior is one of the causes of social collapse, rather than a by-product.
Myth 2: Christianity is important as a patron of the arts and sciences, and of learning in general. Much of Western art is inspired by religious themes. The preservation of Greek civilization was led by monastic orders and helped bring about the Renaissance.
Answer: Much of Western art is devoted to religious themes and it is true that the clergy and churches were once important sources of income for artists, at least in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Today, however, most religions are not particularly interested in art, except architecture. One can easily argue that limiting the great artists of the past to religious themes may have done more to hinder the development of artistic ideas than help it.
This can be proven by simply listening for a few minutes to a radio station that plays "Christian" rock music. The lack of originality is appalling. Most Christian rock musicians shamelessly rip off the style and music of mainstream rock musicians. The lyrics of these religious tunes are vapid and often downright silly as they struggle to create "love" songs that supposedly describe their religious love of God. Today, the best religious music is written by performers who are artists in a real sense and for whom religion is a side issue, an aspect of their art, rather than the sole purpose for their art. In another context they might just as easily sing about Vishnu as Christ.
Christian aesthetics are equally blighted. Read, for example, Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live? or go to see it in the film version. Schaeffer mauls the history of Western art and philosophy, often betraying his own ignorance of the subject about which he claims expertise. Like most ideologues, including the Nazis, Schaeffer is happy only with realism and naturalism in art. He even goes so far as to claim that Michelangelo's statue of David is not "Christian" art, because the historical David was circumcised. Because Michelangelo's "David" is not circumcised and is not therefore a historically accurate representation, he claims that the statue is, in reality, secular humanist art, not Christian.
Since Schaeffer's argument for Christian truth and "realism" can be applied to most of Western art since the Medieval era -- realism was not an important artistic movement until the 19th century -- we can safely claim that none of the great art of the past is Christian -- almost all of Western art is Humanist and therefore an argument for more Humanism.
Myth 3: Christianity is necessary as a bulwark of democracy around the world. Christianity is the religion of the Founding Fathers and an integral and necessary part of our government. Without Christianity, our government would descend into chaos.
Answer: The claim that the United States is a "Christian" nation is poorly defended. Most ministers like to point to the Pledge of Allegiance as "proof" that America is Christian. The line "one nation, under God, indivisible" is frequently cited as evidence. Unfortunately, most people do not realize that the phrase "under God" was inserted into the Pledge in 1954! Furthermore, the original Pledge of Allegiance dates from the Civil War, where the emphasis was on the "one nation, indivisible" part; it is not a holdover from the time of the Revolutionary War.
There is plenty of evidence, on the other hand, that the Founding Fathers, the movers and shakers of the Revolutionary war were Deists and/or members of liberal Protestant religions. Most were aware of the problems of religious persecution in Europe and fought for the separation of church and state in this country. They were not favorably disposed toward the Catholic church or evangelical Christianity and would no doubt find the political claims of the American bishops and Pat Robertson offensive, or downright bizarre. Christianity does not and should not now enjoy a privileged position in American government.
There is plenty of evidence, furthermore, that Christianity has done actual harm to the political process. The sort of warped political thinking currently put forth by Pat Robertson on the 700 Club, his subtle manipulation of public opinion, does a great deal of damage to our idea of what government is for. Most recently, Robertson has quietly promoted the political aspirations of David Duke, whose ultra-right-wing credentials are impeccable. Many evangelical churches support ultra-right-wing repression within their denominations, through their financial and political support of authoritarian regimes, both here and overseas.
Similarly, in Central and South America, many churches are being drawn into the "Liberation Theology" movement. If mixing Communism and Catholicism produces anything liberating, I would be willing to believe that mixing gasoline and kerosene would create a good flame retardant. "Liberation theology" is a contradiction of terms, like "creative science."
Looking back at the history of the church in Latin America, we ought to remember that Mikail Bakunin, in one of his political polemics, described the Indians who lived under Jesuit control in Paraguay as the most wretched people on the face of the earth. The Jesuits easily maintained their control over the Indians, because an even worse fate, slavery or death, awaited those Indians who fell into the hands of the Spanish.
Similarly, in 20th-century Poland, the Church has been active in supporting Lech Walesa against the communist establishment, but I don't think anyone believes that the clergy is doing this out of the goodness of their hearts! The Church wants to replace the Communists as the rulers of Poland -- liberation is the furthest thing from its mind. In the wake of the collapse of Communism throughout Eastern Europe the Church is moving into the void and pushing for -- guess what! -- government funding for churches and church schools and more anti-abortion legislation.
In fact, even before the collapse of communism, the Church was able to negotiate effectively with the communist oligarchy. After all, both institutions are authoritarian, both understand power politics, and both are based on bureaucratic structures that continue to exist by looking out for their own self-interest while mercilessly crushing any potential opposition.
In this country, the churches are somewhat restrained in their behavior, although I have seen churches hand out lists of "approved" candidates on the Sunday before an election. The idea of "democracy" is really foreign to most churches, which are based on authoritarian top-down structures -- especially organizations run by television evangelists, the Mormon church, the Assemblies of God, etc.
Until churches develop more democratic internal structures, it is ridiculous to expect them to support "democracy" in secular government. Even those churches that have relatively democratic organizations often preach for more church control over the lives of the non-religious. Since they have found "The Answer," they are only too willing to force their "Answer" down the throats of their fellow citizens through more government intervention in our daily lives.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)