Do Religions Teach Morals?

Suppose you had a therapy that was supposed to cure people of depression. Further, suppose your therapy was full of sharp insights into human nature.

But let’s say you did a study and discovered that your therapy cured only 15 people out of every 100 people who underwent it.  In other words, it failed to cure 85 out of every 100 people who tried it.

Worse, your 15% cure rate was no better than your control group.  Your control group consisted of people who got no therapy at all.  But your therapy, despite it’s noble goal and its sharp insights, couldn’t cure people any better than no therapy at all could cure people.

If all of the above were true, would you call your therapy “effective”, “powerful”, “life changing”?   Would you say: “The goal of my therapy — to cure depression — is far too fine of a goal for anything to be wrong with my therapy.  The sharp insights of my therapy into human nature are far too truthful for anything to be wrong with my therapy.  Since nothing can be wrong with my therapy, it is the fault of the patients themselves that more of them don’t get better.  Give me more dedicated patients! Give me more enthusiastic patients!  And I will show you then that my therapy works just fine!”  Would that be your approach?  Blame the patient?

One of the main problems I have with most strains of Christianity, Islam, and several other religions, is that — so far as we have any science on the matter — they are no better than no religion at all in helping people lead moral lives.  And sometimes they are worse than no religion at all.

Of course, one can argue that the evidence is inconclusive, that we are not really sure most strains of those religions are weak moral teachers, and so forth.  But at the same time, even Christians, Muslims, Bahá’ís, Jews, and others routinely recognize the fact their religions fall far short of being wholly effective moral teachers.  For while they habitually claim their religions are powerful, effective, life changing, and so forth, they actually spend an astonishing amount of time and energy accusing the members of their own congregations (and other congregations) of backsliding, lacking better morals, or  being religious in name only.

Yet, they don’t blame themselves for that.  They blame everyone but themselves, often in rather sophisticated ways.  “Men and women are simply too wicked to follow our True Religion”.  “Materialism has corrupted everyone.”  “Hollywood liberals are undermining our morals.” “Western secularism is attacking our religion and corrupting our youth.”  “There is a cultural assault on our values.” “It’s the anti-Semites.”  “We are born sinful.” “Homosexuals are undermining us.” “Atheists!  It’s the atheists!”   And on and on and on ad nauseum.

No one says, “Our religion has some good ideals and goals, and some sharp insights into human nature, but we don’t know how to make use of them.  We don’t know how to translate our goals and insights into genuinely changed lives.”  No one says that, because everyone is too busy claiming out of one side of their mouth that their religion is life changing, while stating out of the other side of their mouth, that not enough Muslims are true Muslims, not enough Christians are true Christians, and so forth.

I am only going to mention in passing in this post the world’s many fundamentalists — who are always the biggest fools in any religion, and always the loudest hypocrites in any religion, and always the most violent — and whose goals are seldom enough honorable, and whose insights into human nature are seldom enough sharp and accurate.  Fundamentalists make for the world’s worse religious folks, whether they are Hindu, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish fundamentalists.

Yet,  there is a problem with lumping them into the mainstream, alongside the average Christian, Muslim, etc.  Namely, fundamentalists probably represent a psychological disorder,  more than a religious failure.   They are authoritarians, and authoritarianism can be thought of as a personality disorder.  And while they have significant influence on religions, expecting fundamentalists to live up to ideals like compassion, justice, and love  is like expecting a slow child to tackle the mathematics of nuclear physics during his or her third year in the fifth grade.  It is not fundamentalists that concern us here, but the average, mainstream member of a religion — why isn’t he or she morally sane?

Anyone who thinks the average, mainstream American Christian is morally sane, should ask where that Christian stood the day America invaded Iraq.  Or — let’s be honest — where he or she stood  on any number of other issues.   Some moral issues are genuinely ambiguous, but most apparent moral ambiguity is just dust stirred up by the sides to confuse people.

Insofar as morality is — as Sam Harris suggests — a matter of promoting human well being, then most moral issues are not as ambiguous as we might think.  Raping choir boys does not promote human well being.  Neither does rioting in the streets to protest a Danish cartoon.  Invading another country that has neither attacked you nor genuinely threatened you is unambiguously bad morality.  And so is stealing someone else’s land and water while imprisoning them in their remaining territory.

There are several strains of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and so forth, that claim — as if they have any right to claim it — they are life changing teachers of superior morals.  That’s fine, but if we are going to make such claims, we had better have the science to back them up.  Otherwise, how are we any different from a braggart, or perhaps even con artist?   Merely because those strains have a few high ideals and some genuine insights into human nature does not mean they know jack about helping people to become morally sane.  Instead, they are like Freudian psychoanalysis:  A lot of lofty intentions followed by a 15% cure rate.

Perhaps it is time to shit or get off the can.  That is, religions should either drop their claims to being effective moral teachers, or they should devote serious resources into figuring out exactly how to become effective moral teachers.  One or the other.

By the way, I do realize that for most religions, salvation or saving people — and not necessarily improving their morality — is the religion’s real reason for being.  I got that.  But that point is irrelevant here.   I am not addressing the claim of many religions that they offer us salvation.  I am only addressing the claims that they are effective moral teachers.

Last, there is not a religion on earth whose ideals and insights are entirely good or reliable.  Religions have a lot of junk mixed in with their treasures: Far and away more junk than treasure.  But, again, that is not the issue here.

Here, I am only addressing whether religions are effective moral teachers. And, in fact, there does not seem to be a great deal of evidence — scientific, anecdotal, and otherwise — to suggest that several religions are.  Instead, we are only given excuses as to why they are not effective moral teachers.   But there is no widespread, realistic or systematic effort on their part to actually improve their effectiveness.

You know, if you do not think this blog post is the absolute best blog post of the day on any of the world’s 72 million blogs, then it is your fault.  You are too materialistic to appreciate it.  You lacked enthusiasm when reading it.  You failed to study it enough.  You did not grasp the core concepts.  Shame on you.  The post was perfect.  Look what you have done with it!

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35 thoughts on “Do Religions Teach Morals?

  1. Hmm, what is interesting is that your claims of certain religious ideals of morality being worse than others, is based on a different set of values. Not to mention, invoking science into a moral discussion has no bearing on anything, since science has absolutely nothing to say on what moral values one “should” adhere to. Science describes, science does not prescribe. Morals prescribe.

    “Science doesn’t make moral judgments: When is euthanasia the right thing to do? What universal rights should humans have? Should other animals have rights? Questions like these are important, but scientific research will not answer them. Science can help us learn about terminal illnesses and the history of human and animal rights — and that knowledge can inform our opinions and decisions. But ultimately, individual people must make moral judgments. Science helps us describe how the world is, but it cannot make any judgments about whether that state of affairs is right, wrong, good, or bad.”
    http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/whatisscience_12

    In other words, in order for you to critique religious morals is to invoke at least two fallacies in your disclosure, at least by invoking science. It is to invoke the Fact-Value divide, or the Is/Ought divide, made famous by David Hume. The other is to invoke the Naturalistic fallacy, made famous by G.E. Moore.

    So yes, Religion does teach morals, since they teach values. You can either choose to accept those values, or you can choose to reject those values. But people constantly push off their values onto others, and there are always more than one value systems.

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    • Thank you for some interesting comments! I suppose we agree to a point. But that point must be qualified by the fact I have two areas of strong disagreement with you.

      First, I fear your understanding of my position is mistaken. Would you be kind enough to go back, re-read my post, and compare my actual position to how you characterized my position? I think you might find I have not claimed that science makes moral judgements. You seem to have confused me with someone else. But who?

      Second, could you provide some support for your notion that I have committed the Naturalistic Fallacy? If I have done so, I would like to know and correct it. I consider myself familiar with the ins and outs of the Naturalistic Fallacy, but I can’t figure out what grounds you have for saying that I have committed it.

      I appreciate you’re taking the time to comment on my post. Welcome to the blog!

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      • This might be a little long, but I will point out where you try to make some analogies and etc.

        1. “But let’s say you did a study and discovered that your therapy cured only 15 people out of every 100 people who underwent it. In other words, it failed to cure 85 out of every 100 people who tried it.Worse, your 15% cure rate was no better than your control group. Your control group consisted of people who got no therapy at all. But your therapy, despite it’s noble goal and its sharp insights, couldn’t cure people any better than no therapy at all could cure people.”

        This type of example is trying to bring up a scientific point of view, which has no part in moral discussions, so I cannot figure out why you would bring it up, unless you are trying to make an analogy with morals, in which case this becomes irrelevant to morals.

        2. “One of the main problems I have with most strains of Christianity, Islam, and several other religions, is that — so far as we have any science on the matter — they are no better than no religion at all in helping people lead moral lives. And sometimes they are worse than no religion at all.”

        Now this just does not make any sense, at all. In order for one thing to be “better” than another, you must make a comparison between them. But in order to judge one as better than another, you need some form of criterion in order to judge it. For example, on a test, there are right answers and wrong answers, say a True and False test. We add up all the true answers you got, and divide it by the total number of questions. Then we find out what score you got. We can compare to people that took the same test, and see who had the higher score. We can than say that X did “better” than Y, since X got 95 out of 100, and Y got 65 out of 100. But you are talking about morals, and any criterion you are going to use is going to be based on a value system. Your value system, which seems to be obvious, is different from the value system of a Christian, and etc. So you are judging their value system based on your value system, yet your system is different, and have different criterion. So “better” just makes no sense in that other system. The Christian, for example, moral system is great at making people moral, so long as they follow the values set up in that system, like someone who follows your values will be great at being moral. If you follow the law in America, you are a great citizen. However, the law, say in China, would say that a great citizen in American is “worse”, in comparison with the Chinese law.

        3. “Of course, one can argue that the evidence is inconclusive, that we are not really sure most strains of those religions are weak moral teachers, and so forth.”

        What would this even mean? There is no evidence for anything here, in dealing with morals or values. They are moral teachers as long as they are given out values, or preaching some. But this seems to be related to point 1.

        4. “Insofar as morality is — as Sam Harris suggests — a matter of promoting human well being, then most moral issues are not as ambiguous as we might think. Raping choir boys does not promote human well being. Neither does rioting in the streets to protest a Danish cartoon. Invading another country that has neither attacked you nor genuinely threatened you is unambiguously bad morality. And so is stealing someone else’s land and water while imprisoning them in their remaining territory.”

        See, this part is damn near committing the naturalistic fallacy, and crossing the Is/Ought divide. Sam Harris is a hack with his new idea, since he even admits that “Well-being” is hard to define, so I have no idea what he is trying to get across. Not to mention, when “well-being” is brought up, it involves coming up with something like “pleasure”, or some attribute like “yellow”, and he tries to go at our brain states, which is just invoking the naturalistic fallacy. Not to mention that your well being could be different than my well being, and invoking that most people agree X, does not mean that X is what we ought to go for, morally, unless we want to invoke an argument from popularity. Also, see previous link I provided on what Science does not do. So he would be making an argument from authority as well, since science is no authority in morals.

        5. “There are several strains of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and so forth, that claim — as if they have any right to claim it — they are life changing teachers of superior morals. That’s fine, but if we are going to make such claims, we had better have the science to back them up.”

        See, if several strains of Christianity and etc, make such claims, then the same criticism I made applies to them. But, science would not be able to back up either claims, and so it becomes pointless. The only decent way to back it up is to ask the people themselves, and it will be divided, since it will have worked for some, and not have worked for others. So “better” is just relative.

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      • Thank you for your response, Allzermalmer! Please allow me to address your five points in turn.

        Regarding your first point:

        This type of example is trying to bring up a scientific point of view, which has no part in moral discussions, so I cannot figure out why you would bring it up, unless you are trying to make an analogy with morals, in which case this becomes irrelevant to morals.

        The notion that science has no role to play in moral discussions would seem to me unwarranted. While science cannot tell us what morals to have, surely it might at times be able to tell us whether or not our morals are effective in reaching their ends. For instance: Science cannot tell us that exercising charity towards the poor is a good, but it can tell us the practical consequences of any particular way in which we choose to exercise charity. So, it would seem science does have a role that it might play in moral discussions — a role that does not violate Hume’s Is/Ought divide.

        As for your claim that my analogy is irrelevant to morals, I don’t see how you have arrived at that. You will need to explain your reasoning before I can fairly accept it.

        Regarding your second point:

        My choice of words seems to have confused you, and I apologize for that. I did not mean to imply in the passage you cited that there is a higher standard against which I am judging the morals of the various religions. Rather, my point was that their adherents are no more moral by their own standards than are people who do not adhere to their religions.

        For instance: Both Christianity and Islam prohibit murder. But people who adhere to no religion apparently murder at rates no greater than do adherents of Christianity and Islam. In other words, there is little or no evidence that Christianity and Islam are any more effective in teaching people not to murder than is no religion at all in teaching people not to murder.

        Regarding your third point:

        They [religions] are moral teachers as long as they are given out values, or preaching some.

        On this point, I believe you are committing a straw man fallacy. For I am not arguing against the notion that religions are moral teachers. Instead, I am arguing against the notion that they are more effective moral teachers than no religion at all.

        Regarding your fourth point:

        Again, I must apologize that my choice of words has confused you. My reference to Harris was in passing, and not an endorsement of all that he says. I merely meant that once we have adopted a guiding value, moral issues are often less ambiguous in light of that value than many of us suppose might be the case. That guiding value could be, as I suggest, Harris’ well-being. It could also be the Christian concept of love, or the Muslim concept of justice. It is largely irrelevant to my point which guiding value you pick.

        Regarding your fifth point:

        I believe you have simply misunderstood my point in the passage you cite. I am once again arguing that religions, at least some strains of them, are ineffective in instilling their values in their adherents.

        Overall, I remain unconvinced that I have, as you say, violated the Is/Ought divide or committed the Naturalistic Fallacy. Nevertheless, I appreciate the time you’ve taken to comment.

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      • “Science cannot tell us that exercising charity towards the poor is a good, but it can tell us the practical consequences of any particular way in which we choose to exercise charity.”

        Right, but it does not show that is what we should value. Showing the consequence of something does not show that we should stop doing that or continue, but just states what happens, and not that we should value or not value that. Only values can tell you that.

        “As for your claim that my analogy is irrelevant to morals, I don’t see how you have arrived at that. You will need to explain your reasoning before I can fairly accept it.”

        I already pointed that out, because you need to show that those consequents are things that we should value, and you have not even gone on to show that is what we should value.

        “On this point, I believe you are committing a straw man fallacy. For I am not arguing against the notion that religions are moral teachers. Instead, I am arguing against the notion that they are more effective moral teachers than no religion at all.”

        Right, but here comes the problem of criterion. You are judging their “effectiveness” based on some criterion, and this criterion is going to have to be based on something of value, and difference value systems are going to judge differently. One value system is going to say one action is better than another value system, and you can only judge it based on that value system. That’s the only way you can judge something, and this is basically stacking the deck in favor of the house, to use a Vegas analogy.

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      • Hi, Allzermalmer! Let’s get down to business.

        Regradling your first response:

        Right, but it [science] does not show that is what we should value. Showing the consequence of something does not show that we should stop doing that or continue, but just states what happens, and not that we should value or not value that. Only values can tell you that.

        Granted, there are many fools and madmen in this world, but people who are neither fools nor madmen are unlikely to intentionally defeat themselves by ignoring whether or not the consequences of their actions conflict with their own values. In theory, they are free to do so. In practice, it is folly, insanity, or both to do so.

        Regarding your second response:

        I asked you to explain where my analogy broke down or was flawed. Instead of doing that, your resorted to making an irrelevant point. Namely:

        I already pointed that out, because you need to show that those consequents are things that we should value, and you have not even gone on to show that is what we should value.

        You are incorrect. The logical validity of an argument from analogy does not depend on any such irrelevant thing as you suggest. Here is my analogy rephrased:

        People say that Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and such, have beautiful moral goals and true ideas; and thus they are effective moral teachers. Well, a lot of therapies have beautiful therapeutic goals and true ideas, but we do not say they are effective therapies just because they have beautiful therapeutic goals and true ideas. We say they are effective therapies only if they achieve their therapeutic goals more often than no therapy at all. Thus, if we were being consistent, we would not say Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and such, were effective moral teachers unless they achieved their moral goals more often than no religion at all.

        I then go on to make subsidiary arguments, but that is the gist of the analogy. What you have not demonstrated and what I believe you cannot demonstrate, is that the analogy is logically flawed. That is, I do not believe you can rationally disprove that it is logically consistent to refrain from claims that Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and such, are effective moral teachers unless it can be shown that they achieve their moral goals more often than no religion at all.

        Regarding your third response:

        Again, your point is irrelevant within the context in which you have made it.

        Please allow me to make a personal plea. I realize you are probably a busy person, Allzermalmer, with little time to spare for this blog. But I also value my own time, and it takes time to address your points. If you keep making irrelevant points, I will cease to respond to them. It takes but a minute to toss out an irrelevant point, but it can take several or more minutes to sort it out and address it. Bottomline: I will not allow you to waste my time. So, please be so kind as to take the extra minute or two to think through the points you are making while asking yourself, “Is this logically relevant”. Thanks. I will greatly appreciate it if you do.

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      • “Granted, there are many fools and madmen in this world, but people who are neither fools nor madmen are unlikely to intentionally defeat themselves by ignoring whether or not the consequences of their actions conflict with their own values. In theory, they are free to do so. In practice, it is folly, insanity, or both to do so.”

        Okay, that you had to invoke “fools” and “madmen” is a value laden term that shows that you do not show that same values as them, and that you are judging their actions based on your values, and not based on “facts”. I could find out, in a series of hypothetical situations, that telling the truth leads to me being killed from scientific observations. It could be a question that is trivial (did you wash behind your ears?) or profound (did you kill that person?). I could hold the value to always tell the truth, and find that telling the truth is not very practical, since a liar gets more out of a world that always tells the truth. (I think there was a biologist that brought up this example with societies). If I value telling the truth and am in a position that I know will practically get me killed for telling the truth, then I will still tell the truth, even though this is practically absurd if I value my life over telling the truth. However, I, hypothetically, value always telling the truth. So your judgement is based on your values, and is not based on the other persons values, even if they agree on the consequents that we have observed to be the case of such an action based on those values.

        “People say that Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and such, have beautiful moral goals and true ideas; and thus they are effective moral teachers. Well, a lot of therapies have beautiful therapeutic goals and true ideas, but we do not say they are effective therapies just because they have beautiful therapeutic goals and true ideas. We say they are effective therapies only if they achieve their therapeutic goals more often than no therapy at all. Thus, if we were being consistent, we would not say Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and such, were effective moral teachers unless they achieved their moral goals more often than no religion at all.”

        I cannot see how your analogy holds. You are comparing apples and oranges. The religious morals you brought up are based on values of that religious system, and the example of therapy is based on science. Your analogy does not hold. Facts and values are not the same thing,and you are trying to make an analogy when they are the same. The “beautiful moral goals and true ideas” are only the case in those value systems, and they are effective moral teachers_*in*_those value systems. They are not effective moral teachers in a_*different*_value system. They are ugly and absurd, but that is because you are comparing two different value systems that disagree with each other. A Christian, for example, value system can have different values than a non-Christian, non religious, value system. Your examples just do not hold without invoking a faulty analogy by invoking a scientific enterprise. Therapies look for quantitative results, while moral systems look for qualitative results. Two different beasts.

        “Again, your point is irrelevant within the context in which you have made it.”

        Saying it is irrelevant does not make it irrelevant, and you need to start supporting your assertions, which you have yet to do. You make an analogy that is based on two different ideas, scientific results and moral results. Your whole argument has been based on your values, and judging another value system based on yours. In fact, I have yet to see you present_*one*_logical argument. I’ll just take it you concede based on your response to my thread point you responded to, since it is actually the crux of your argument, your criterion of judgement of one position to another.

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      • Thanks for an interesting, albeit unproductive conversation, Allzermalmer. At this point, you are just repeating yourself, and I would be too if I continued with this. I do not agree with you. You do not agree with me. And we do not even agree on the ground rules of what is or is not logical. Hence, there can be no point in continuing.

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      • Right, it is unproductive to talk about morals, and you can see why your blog says nothing, except for those that agree with your values (which is to be expected). You could not even address how you are judging one value system based on your value system, and could not come up with anything to support your blog. I’m just surprised that you are trying to pass off values as a rational position, when modern science shows that values are derived from the emotional section of the brain.

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      • ” I’m just surprised that you are trying to pass off values as a rational position, when modern science shows that values are derived from the emotional section of the brain.”
        or
        “science has nothing to add to moral discussions”
        The two are mutually exclusive.

        I’d also like to point out that there is no “emotional section” of the brain. Emotions and cognition are remarkably intertwined, the amygdala (also important for memory formation, forms shortcuts for emotions triggering physiological responses such as sexual arousal, fear induced adrenal stimulation, etc.) and prefrontal cortex (PFC)(which has lots of mirror neurons essential for empathetic responses) both seem to play major roles. These are regions which exhibit higher activity during emotional stimulation than others (those under high levels of stress actually have decreased interconnections in the PFC) but this doesn’t mean that emotion, rationality, logic, and morality are, in any way, separable; those same areas (and the same NEURONS, in many cases) are highly active for many other things. If, what you’re saying is that the emotional sections of the brain are responsible for morality, you have more problems with your argument than you think. Emotions are shortcuts through rationality: heuristics which the brain uses because a certain outcome is believed to happen based upon previous experience or teaching (I’m sure Pavlov’s dogs actually got hungry and Schrodinger’s cat hates boxes–yes, I know the cat was fictional), it goes back and rationalizes later. Failure to rationalize decreases the propensity to use that heuristic again. Yes, morality is highly emotional, but emotions are neither magic nor hard-wired. We can even manipulate emotions with specific chemical or physical stimulation, sometimes altering them permanently!

        No one is trying to “pass off values as a rational system.” We are exploring the idea that religions are effective teachers of morality, not that their values are rational.

        *note: I oversimplified the bit about neurology way more than I am comfortable with, but I feel it gets the message across, just don’t go off thinking it’s that simple.

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    • I feel you have missed the point. While it is true that science cannot make a moral claim, it is not true that science cannot evaluate outcomes of specific moral principles along a gradient of possible outcomes. For example, if we take a given prison population convicted of the same crime, we can compare religious affiliations in this prison population vs religious affiliation of the population as a whole. Science is still not saying what is right or wrong, but it is telling us if the “morality” taught by said religion is having any influence on the behavior of the individual (this is the “Science helps us describe how the world is” part…In truth, such a study would be far more complicated than I have laid out, and I think has been done already).

      Saying “science has nothing to add to moral discussions” is missing the point entirely. This discussion is about if religion is effective at teaching morality, not making the claims as to “what is moral.” Paul even says that right here: “Here, I am only addressing whether religions are effective moral teachers.” This is certainly within the realm of science.

      You have no idea how many times I had to edit this to be more polite; you’re argument is so common that I feel the need to vomit every time I hear it.

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      • “While it is true that science cannot make a moral claim, it is not true that science cannot evaluate outcomes of specific moral principles along a gradient of possible outcomes.”

        Right, but the outcome has nothing to do with morals, at all, unless you are a consequentialists, in which you are in a heap of trouble. There is a moral principle that says, “Always tell the truth”. This means that under no circumstances are you to lie. It does not matter if 1 million people die because you tell the truth, or if 1 million people prosper. If you are going to judge by the consequents of the action, and saying the consequents lead to such-and-such consequents, that has nothing to do with if the action should continue to be followed or not, since that has nothing to do with the morals to begin with.

        “You have no idea how many times I had to edit this to be more polite; you’re argument is so common that I feel the need to vomit every time I hear it.”

        Right, and I am still waiting for someone to present a rational objection, which is very hard to come by, without them already endorsing a moral system contrary to another, and there is no rational way to solve it, since values have nothing to do with rationality, but with emotions.

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  2. No, religions don’t teach morals. They teach submission and a person cannot be truly moral unless they are capable of critical thinking and making their own choice. Religions and governments teach that obedience is morality, to be moral we must do as we are told. It’s an insidious trap, convincing people that in order to be good people, they must abandon morality.

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    • I find your comments very interesting! I am not sure, however, that all strains of religion entirely fail to advocate critical thinking. For instance: It’s my impression that some more liberal denominations encourage people to think — actually think — about their moral choices. Whether or not they are any more effective than as if they were not encouraging people to think is another matter — one that a few good scientific studies could perhaps shed light on.

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  3. I think morality is internally driven. There are people both in religious groups and out of them who are amoral and who are immoral. I have been thinking a lot about this very issue. Religions claim to teach morality, but most do it through fear and controlling. Fear God, because if you don’t accept the sacrifice of Jesus and be saved, you will go to hell. Fear God, because if you’re not good enough, you’re going to hell.

    Since leaving the faith I have practiced for 30 years, I’m not attaching morality to anything but what I feel and believe within. My articles of faith include treating others as I would hope to be treated, and acting with integrity. But I believed that before I joined a religious group. It’s just the right thing to do.

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    • Welcome to the blog, Chauceriangirl! I rather like your username.

      I happen to agree with you that morality is largely “internally driven”. I am not sure we would be in agreement about the specifics of that, but we might. If you would care to elaborate, I would be pleased to read your elaboration.

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  4. Morals in general are guidelines developed because we don’t trust ourselves and each other to conduct our affairs in mutually beneficial ways. They are there for people who lack a genuine sense of connection, responsibility or emotional maturity that comes as one grows in the capacity for self-actualization. That’s true regardless of whether the “ground” for these morals is placed in religious authority or seemingly relocated to the realm of “science.”

    The advantage that religious morality has over less “absolute” grounds for moral reasoning is that it provides and ultimate deterrent to the most extreme behavior by actors in society whose level of moral awareness is stunted in pre-adult or early adult stages – what Lawrence Kohlberg termed the “preconventional” stages of moral development.

    Most people are in the “conventional” stage. For them, moral rules can be grounded in nationalism, “science” or religion and it won’t make much difference because at this stage there is a socialized desire to follow the rules as “good” in themselves (though specifically WHY they are good is left largely unexplored at these stages). With this level, religious-based moral rules can pose serious problems when rules that were practical for a different era or a different place may be reinforced by adherence to religious creeds and traditions long after the circumstances have changed in a such a way as to make the rules impractical and even socially harmful.

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    • Those are some pretty sharp insights, Knot! I’ve long thought rule-based moralities were the equivalent of training wheels on bicycles. The trouble with that is not everyone who takes the training wheels off has learned to balance their bike, so to speak. Indeed, quite a few seem to end up on Wall Street crashing the global economy out of greed and arrogance.

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  5. Having the science to back up religion’s effectiveness is a contradiction in terms for some religions, like Christianity. Judaism, on the other hand, makes a point that its terms simply differ from science but are not incompatible and many Orthodox Jews are scientists. I believe that 15% effectiveness is much lower than the placebo rate, which is usually closer to 50%, so 15% would mean the religion actually does the opposite of its goals. I don’t think you can lump fundamentalism with the more lilberal religions like Unitarianism or Reform Judaism, which both emphasize inclusion, not judgement and exclusion. In addition, not all fundamentalists are authoritarians. What they are is extremely sexist, with the males encouraged to be authoritarian and the females encouraged to be submissive, most extremely in fundamentalist Islam which practices all sorts of horrific tortures and capital punishments for the most minor infringement, say clothing, among women. All fundamentalist religions emphasize the difficulty and sacrifice involved in the practice, which justifies the harsh judgments upon non-believers and the sense of superiority of believers. I personally have experienced all extremes, finally considering myself a Jewish Aetheist, as I think there is a great deal of richness in Jewish culture that does not involve God, who, if he exists, abandoned me long ago.

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    • Thank you for informing me the typical placebo rate is close to 50%, Squirrel.

      I think that would make my argument all the stronger, although the rate I tossed out was based on one I came across some years ago for the control group in a study on the effectiveness of Freudian psychoanalysis. I was merely using it as an example, though, and not as a point in itself.

      I agree you cannot lump fundamentalism in with the more liberal strains of the religions. As for whether or not all fundamentalists are authoritarians, I was wondering about that. Altemeyer’s work certainly suggests a close connection.

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      • Actually, placebo rates vary quite a bit. It is strongly influenced by the particular thing being treated. I find that 50% is stretching it quite a bit, although it varies from absolutely no effect (in cases of septicemia) to nearly 80% for depressed patients after successful treatment (compared to >90% for antidepressants. Comparing a placebo to a treatment is useful in looking at the efficacy of a treatment, but it doesn’t tell you something very important: how the placebo compares to no treatment. What is often found is that subjective reporting is influenced quite strongly by placebo while objective reports have very few effects when compared to no treatment. This is why it helps for depression, but not for septicemia or bone fractures. In the case of ulcers (where the most diverging effects are found) it is known that the duodenal acidity is influenced by stress, decrease the stress and you decrease how prone to Helicobacter pylori infections one is and thus heal the ulcer. Treating with anything (including placebo) will decrease stress. In summary. You will find that every positive result of a “placebo effect” can easily be explained by a decrease in stress.

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      • It makes a lot of sense, Jared, that placebo rates would vary considerably.

        I am a bit confused though. When you speak of placebo rates and depression, do you mean that, say, cognitive therapy resulted in an 80% success rate in treating depression while certain antidepressants resulted in a greater than 90% success rate? Or are you referring to an average for all manner of therapies and all kinds of antidepressants? Or perhaps to something else? Sorry for the confusion. I’m short on sleep these days.

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      • For the depression study: after successful treatment (the starting population), this population was split into two groups, placebo and antidepressant. ~80% of the placebo group remained healthy, ~95% of the antidepressant group remained healthy. There was no “untreated” group in this study.

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  6. Well built argument – as long as one agrees with the assumptions that religions have a rational scope after all.
    I am one of those who think that our movement towards religious belief is beyond the rational (God is transcends human rationality). Most people choose a religious movement not because of moral needs but because of their need for faith and hope.

    Truth be told, almost each religious belief does incorporate a moral facet as well –but as long as moral principles are to be normative , universal and absolute they can only be “ambiguous”. It is the job of religious shepherds to interpret them and guide the rest of us – who are less knowledgeable, smart etc. And what results from their interpretation is an ethical code.

    So, from my point of view, you argument is standing, and standing well, but as long as you refer to codes of ethics specific to a certain religious belief or to specific religious organizations, movements etc. The argument holds if you refer to “fundamentalist Islam” or “born-again Christian movement” rather than Islam or Christian belief in general.

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  7. Religion teaches fear and concomitant reliance on religious ‘authorities’ for people who prefer not to think for themselves.

    Morality exists only when people abandon those authorities, think for themselves, and take responsibility for their own actions.

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  8. “Religion” is a fuzzy term that can mean a variety of things, including a man-made system through which human beings express and refine their shared moral understanding. This is not my definition of religion, but it’s one of many plausible definitions of it that people bandy about.

    I would sharpen the question from “religion” to god(s), and say: morality can come from a god if the god exists. It’s also possible that a god exists but has no concern for morality, i.e., morality exists as an unintended by-product of the god’s creations.

    If the god doesn’t exist, morality necessarily comes from a different source. The best available evidence suggests there are no gods, therefore I think we’re wasting time to try to understand morality in terms of god(s).

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  9. You have written the blog I have wanted to write for a long time but did not have the right words for it. I don’t know about the numbers but “Good people will always do good things and bad people will always do bad things. For good people to do terrible things takes religion” Can’t recall who said it. C.S Lewis in Mere Christianity points out that there are values that are constant across all cultures and religions, that certain things are viewed as fair or unjust etc. Religions do not make humankind more moral as you point out. Human nature does not change easily for the good.
    Marxist-Leninist thought in the FSU was preached like a religion with the notion that the nature of the people could be changed enough to usher in pure communism. I am not certain that the party stalwarts who taught it actually believed it themselves but they didn’t live it any better than the fundamentalist Christians live their beliefs. And in fact Homo sovieticus turned out to be the exact opposite to what he was supposed to be.
    Religions may be part of the socializing forces required to keep our worst sides in check, along with other social institutions. And of course as other of your readers pointed out they are or seem to be always co-opted by authoritarianism.
    Aren’t we humans an wonderful bunch, though?

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    • Thank you for your kind words, Blog Fodder.

      In the main, I agree with you, but I don’t think humanity is as basically bad as it might sometimes appear to us. To me, we’re a mixed lot. Greed and love, hate and compassion — and so forth — all mixed in together. In that respect, I differ from the Christian view which in many strains of that religion asserts human’s are born sinful, corrupt, etc.; or from the Muslim view, which in some strains says we are born good.

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      • Oh, humans are not at all ALL bad, and I didn’t mean to imply that. But we do have characteristics which if unchecked lead to eg the current state of affairs in America re politics, income distribution, labour laws, foreign affairs…
        Bad trumps good without social rules accepted and enforced by the majority. As we learned at work, a bad system beats good people.

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