Ethics and governing: Can we be moral without religion?

By Francisco Leon Cannock

Christopher Hitchens was convinced religion “poisoned everything.” And so I am.

In the midst of revolution in the Middle East, politicians in the United States are increasingly worried about Islamic governments taking over countries such as Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq and Syria, neglecting that here, in America, we fail to separate church and state as well. Should we still, in the 21st century, be blending religion with government?

“God is Not Great” is the title of one of Hitchens’ most controversial books. A native of Portsmouth, England, an Oxford graduate, and a provocative journalist, Hitchens died of cancer in 2011. He firmly believed religion to be the cause of the generalized apathy for rational inquiry that is rooted deep in today’s American culture. Hitchens spent most of his life trying to debunk conservative politics, bigotry, and – above all — religion. Before his death he made sure his critics knew there would be “no deathbed conversion” for him. He passed away as an atheist.

Also an atheist, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, a crazy man and a virtuoso, is known for his critique of Christian ethics. Nietzsche believed religion gave human beings a false sense of morality. In his estimation, religion predicates morality is universal, and, thus, religion alone is morality. This narrow conceptualization of ethics attacks our fundamental integrity as it implies we can’t know what morality is, or wouldn’t be able to derive ethical statements or actions, without divine permission. This premise not only robs us of personal responsibility and freedom, but also imposes upon us an inescapable authoritarian design.

According to Hitchens, there is no scientific evidence to support the hypothesis that humans would have no sense of morality without religion. In Richard Dawkins’ terms, Hitchens believed this subjective idea to be a delusion. “A delusion is something people believe in despite a total lack of evidence,” writes Dawkins.  A British atheist, humanist, ethologist, and an emeritus fellow at Oxford, Dawkins wrote the book, “The God Delusion,” where he affirms that God does not exist and religious faith leads to a life of magic, fairy tales, and “unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.”

Gore Vidal, A famous American writer and politician, believed religion did not promote critical thinking as it is based on the idea of design, or destiny. In other words, if there is a divine plan for us, there is no need to think beyond it. Vidal said in an interview with HLN’s Joy Behar, “We [Americans] have the worst educated population of any First World country.” The problem is, according to Vidal, that the levels of education in America are so low — to the point of promoting little or no critical thinking — that whether we are religious or not, our understanding of right, wrong, good, or evil will be based on religious morality. Quite possibly our understanding of all reality will be religious: the Universe, life, and death.

This religious morality is engrained deep in our unconscious. It defines us. It is not a process we question or even think we should question, as there is no apparent reason to do so. However, religious ethics gives people a sense of righteousness, empowerment and arrogance based on the theological premise that we are chosen. And, therefore, they are not. This subjective, non-scientific, anecdotal approach mixed with politics and military power make the right formula for exploitation, slavery, murder and genocide. The list of religious-based conflicts include the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Puritan atrocities, the never-ending conflict between Israel and Palestine, and 9-11.

Ultimately believing in Zeus, Apollo, Allah or Jesus is cultural, relative to time and space, and arbitrary. Let’s put it in context. “In God We Trust” is the official motto of the United States of America. You can even find the phrase on coins and paper currency. Let’s remember the United States is, paradoxically, both the most technologically and scientifically advanced nation in the world, and yet one of the most religious in the Western hemisphere. If we analyze “In God We Trust” we can see how interdependent government and religion are in this country. First, what God are we referring to? Although Christianity is still the most powerful religion in the nation it is undeniable that in the context of a new multicultural America God should refer to any god. In the same way that We should refer to any subset of American society: Muslims, Christians, Atheists. Though not necessarily the truth, that’s theoretically what the motto implies. But, let’s take it a step further. Why should the government trust any god? Shouldn’t that be a personal issue? Is it ethical to use religion to dictate law?

Religious ethics are here. You don’t need to go to the Middle East to experience it firsthand. Marriage, for example, is defined in most societies as the union between a man and a woman. Both Christianity and the U.S. federal government also define marriage this way. And no, it is not a coincidence. This government still bases laws on religious principles. The logical question to ask, then, would be if it is ethical to use religious principles to develop law within a society — because other than the religious stance on marriage, there are no reasonable, educated or scientific arguments to stop homosexuals from getting married and having the same civil rights than those of heterosexuals. Other than bigotry, ignorance and a complete disregard for liberty, intelligence, and love of course.

Another notorious example is women’s rights. The never-ending fight between liberals and conservatives about abortion is counterproductive. In a 21st-century, First-World democratic society, where freedom is paradoxically worshiped above all, shouldn’t a woman be able to decide what to do with her body? Not surprisingly, the “pro-life” movement in the United States is broadly associated with Christian religious groups that both ideologically support and finance the Republican Party and the Tea Party movement — both strong anti-abortion advocates.

These religious and political hybrids defend the idea that an embryo is a person. This false belief is based on the religious idea that humans are made in the image of God and, thus, there is something special within us that other species lack. Nonetheless, if we decide the rights of people based on religious rhetoric written thousands of years ago, with no historical, political, scientific, or ethical currency, we are not only ignoring the advances in science, and technology — which blatantly contradict and disprove certain theological claims such Creationism — but also shamelessly insult the human intellect, critical thinking, and scientific inquiry.

We can’t keep basing our political debate on religious grounds. We can’t keep electing our officials, members of Congress, and presidents based on fairy tales they believe, or the religious affiliations they have. Church and state must be separated in order to establish laws that are based on non-religious, ethical principles that respect and address the needs of all peoples, that do not label personal preferences as good or evil, but instead exalt human integrity, rationality, and, above all, respect for all life.

 

E-mail Cannock, a Peru native and doctoral student in international education and entrepreneurship, at fleoncan@student.uiwtx.edu

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