Does Religion Ever Retard Moral Growth?

Lately, I’ve been wondering whether some religions — some forms of Christianity in particular — retard people’s moral growth.

Of course, it would be ironic if it turned out Christianity retarded people’s moral growth since many Christians seem to believe they have a monopoly on morals.  But nonsense like that aside, I’ve been wondering if some religions don’t for the most part do exactly the opposite of what they boast of doing.  That is, instead of promoting our moral growth, they actually discourage it.

I have a little story that might illustrate the point.  Some long time ago when I was attending university, I had a three or four male friends from the Middle East.  Nothing in their own countries had prepared them for the sight of  “half-naked” American women.  My friends would ask me how I and other American males managed to contain ourselves with so many of our American women walking around “half-naked”.

I was sympathetic to their problem.  It seemed to me the ordeal they were describing was something I myself had gone through.  But not, like them, at 19 and 20.  Instead, I had gone through much the same thing at puberty — that time in the life of males when everything female turns electric.

Yet, there was a difference between myself and my friends.  I had gone through puberty in a culture that told me girls have a right to go around “half-naked”, and that, if there was a problem with it, it was my problem.  My culture forced me to psychologically adapt to the sight of female thighs and cleavage.  And, before I was 19, I was reasonably well adapted.

My friends, though, had lived until the ripe old ages of 19 and 20 in a culture that said the female was to fault for the male’s arousal.  They “knew” they felt flustered because a beautiful girl was showing her legs — not because they couldn’t psychologically handle seeing a beautiful girl’s legs. As a consequence, my friends tended to think American women were callous and uncaring, even heartless, towards American men.

It seemed to me back then the Middle Eastern culture of my friends was less demanding than my own American culture.  While I had to learn to deal with the sight of female thighs and cleavage at puberty, they were never required to deal with the sight.  They could — at least in theory — go their entire lives dumping the burden of their feelings on their womenfolk, rather than handling their feelings themselves.   I thought their culture gave them an out, an escape from personal responsibility and moral growth.

Today, I wonder whether some religions — especially some forms of Christianity — don’t do much the same thing.   Aren’t there ways in which Evangelical Christianity in particular gives its adherents an out, an escape from personal responsibility and moral growth?

For one thing, it seems Evangelical Christianity has a tendency to dump the responsibility for male sexual feelings on females in much the same manner my Middle Eastern friends had been taught to dump the responsibility for their sexual feelings on females.

A couple years ago, I wrote about a Christian youth site that conducted an informal survey, the premise of which was, “Should women and girls dress modestly to help their brothers in Christ avoid lusting for them?” So far as I can see, the very notion that women and girls should dress modestly to help men and boys avoid lusting for them is a recipe for retarding the moral growth of men and boys.

Not all religions, however, pander to the lusts of men and boys as sometimes does the Evangelical religion:

This recalls to me the story of two Zen monks who were travelling when they came to a swollen stream. Standing in the road beside the stream, wondering how she might cross, was a beautiful young woman. Without hesitation, the older monk picked up the woman and carried her across the stream. She thanked him and went on her separate way. The two monks then travelled on together for several hours, until the younger monk, deeply troubled, could no longer remain silent. “Brother, aren’t we forbidden to have any physical contact with women?”, he asked. Replied the older monk, “I put her down several hours ago, but you are still carrying her.”

Learning to deal with your sexual feelings so they neither burden you nor those around you is one of the most moral things you can do.  Surely any religion that makes a claim to lead in moral issues must do more than assign the burden of your sexual feelings to someone else.

There seem to be other ways in which some religions might retard the moral growth of their adherents.  But at this point, I’ve written nearly a thousand words on the subject and most of you are probably asleep.  So, I will save a few ideas for a later post.

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16 thoughts on “Does Religion Ever Retard Moral Growth?

  1. Your arguments are subtle, and moral growth is a hard concept. I’ll simply say that as for ‘sexual’ mores, Christianity is a failure in my opinion. Instead of promoting our moral growth in this, it has messed up our minds, making dirty and shameful the beautiful act of love of a man and a woman. If history had been different, we wouldn’t have today so much pornography.

    But in other moral fields (love and help your neighbour etc.) Christianity has played a good role. I know so many religious people that are so good and inspired. As a non-theist, I would though love that people went beyond their selfishness also outside of religions.

  2. Funny, it reminds of something I said while in college that almost got me thrown out. We were in catechism class and discussing morality and women. In 1945 women were beginning to undress, so to speak, and I said:”Women are not dangerous so much for what they show than for how they conceal what they don’t show”. There was silence in the class and Father looked at me and said:” If you ever say that again I will have to consoder disciplnary action”.
    About 20 years ago a colleague of mine wrote a book about how young Quebecers development had been stymied by the Catholic Church…oblivious to the fact that his brilliant ideas had come to him despite his environment. He thankfully sunk in quasi oblivion being pulled out of the dustbin once a while by promoters of a totally lay society in Québec..otherwise he quietly teaches in one of our universities.

  3. I’d have to say religion probably does retard moral growth by handing you morality on a platter and relieving you of the responsibilty of figuring it out for yourself. If you somehow fail to meet their standard, they crush you with guilt and shame. Or, if you have the right kind of influence, offer you an easy way out. Religion can potentially provide guidelines but, invariably, tend to be doctrinal and dogmatic, leaving no room for reasonable discussion, debate, or alternative interpretations.

  4. Wanted to say exactly what Rick said, so will go ahead with my own words:

    For people who think on their own, evolve their own moral code, think about morality, correct it, and keep evolving it, religion is a show-stopper.

    For people who do not want to think about moral issues, exercise independent judgment, and lack an ethical self-center, religion offers a guidebook of morals.

    In olden times, intellectuals thought most of humanity are of the second type, and if they were not restrained by an imposed moral code, human beings would run amok, and there would be chaos on earth. Hence they invented religion.

  5. Starting from what Rick and Mahendra said, the strict Christian believes man is corrupted and a sinner from the beginning (Eve’s apple etc.) and that only God can save him. Man is full of iniquity, while God is morally perfect.

    At the times of the Greeks the situation was reversed. The Greek ancient gods were amoral and whimsical: this had a good effect on moral responsibility, since men could not count on these whimsical gods’ help, they had to make their own destiny, had to believe in their worth.

    Additionally, Greek men were not striving to be good because they expected a reward from god(s). Given such unpredictable deities, when men were good they were such because they really wanted to, not for any other external reason.

  6. There are roughly two modes of morality: the one that wants you to make the right decisions and the one that wants you to make decisions right. In the former ‘right’ is an adjective, in the latter it’s an adverb. The former is content- and output-driven, the latter focusses on the decision-making process. The former tends to come across as dogmatic, the latter hardly ever does, but they may both be dogmatic or non-dogmatic in practice. Religion has very little to do with this distinction, but the former tends often (not always) to be formulated in religious terms (if you don’t have a religion, there are no possibilities to quote a content- and output-driven commandment, because in that realm there aren’t any).

    The former view answers the question ‘Should abortion be legalised?’ with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, because either of those answers is considered ‘right’ (adjective). Note that the ‘no’-answer is often seen as dogmatic (or religious), whereas the ‘yes’-answer isn’t. The latter view would describe the process that needs to be gone though to arrive at a ‘moral’ answer. The golden rule is a -crude but effective- example of a focus on process.

    The latter view focusses on rationality, exactly because it is process-oriented. The former view is ultimately based on emotions. The two cannot do without each other because ultimately morals are about emotions, not about reason.

    Furthermore: the former view often functions as a ‘shorthand summary’ of the latter (especially if it finds its home in (religious or civil) laws). It prevents people wasting time reinventing the wheel, from reevaluating the question ‘Why was it exactly that we don’t do cannibalism?’ (and others). Even more importantly: it gives everyone a clear view -beforehand- of the rules one can expect when planning to engage others in society.

    The former ‘formalises’ the latter, but it can also fossilise it. The latter rejuvenates the former, but it can also break it down.
    Fossilised morals of the former view (‘commandments’, ‘laws’) live in two places: religion and law. Both have the capacity to hamper mans individual moral growth, exactly because they’re -useful- ‘shorthand knowledge’: they also offer lazy people an excuse for not thinking.

  7. A nice post
    Paul i especially loved the monks tale
    I do agree , that not just evangelical christianity but many cultures and religions across the world especially the more active or religious ones impose some kind of rule or dress code towards the clothing worn by the fairer sex.
    That said i roughly agree with mahendra –
    for those who have their god and bad in their head and have a capacity to judge and evolve religion is secondary.
    For those who cannot – they tend to use religion as a code or a lifestyle or a means to justify their actions.

  8. In terms of personal growth I would much rather be surrounded by people with different opinions (who are willing to argue about them and to sometimes agree to disagree) then to be surrounded by people who are all expected to believe the same thing. The latter embodies social pressure to agree with everyone else and de-emphasizes personal responsibility. It seems to me that the biggest ‘evils’ happen in accord with group mentality be it religious, patriotic or cultural even when the innermost ideas talk about values like love, the good, or ethical principles.

    This is just my opinion. Feel free to disagree (although, if so, please have a well thought out argument and reasons without merely falling back on the dismissive idea that ‘I’m entitled to my own opinion’ or ‘that’s your opinion’ [sheesh… how many of u have heard this one before as a last ditch attempt to not talk about an idea any further?]. That we all are entitled to disagree and form our own opinions doesn’t make ones own opinion (or the group opinion) immediately right(eous).

    Thanks Paul for yet another interesting and well thought out post 🙂

  9. Good points, I like your rationale. Similarly, the concept of religious fatalism has been mulling around in my mind for the last several months. Many religious people, of any creed, will too often abandon responsibility or rational thought because they feel that their respective religious beliefs relieves them from acting according to the mores that bind the rest of us. I have had too many interactions with people of faith who, through their beliefs, try to remove themselves from the larger social mores that bind the rest of us.

    I appreciate your articulating much of what has been bothering me. Thanks.

  10. Paul, I’m glad you pointed me to this post. OF the many things that bother me about religion, this is among the top of the list. Women being faulted for being women – it is ridiculous.

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