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Religion as a Failure of Moral Reasoning 4 November 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Ethics, Gay Rights, Religion.

[Note: I wrote this as a riff on morality after reading a post about Haggard’s hypocrisy over on Positive Liberty, a great libertarian blog. Yes, I read a libertarian blog. I have a great respect for conservatives who are intellectually honest and who work in good faith to make a better, freer democracy. I usually agree with most of their civil liberties arguments—we just part ways on their interpretation of property rights and their view of the purpose of a government.]

In some ways I think that the moral failings of the religious boil down to a failure of intellect and a misfiring of imagination. I’m sure that most of them are perfectly capable of rational thought, yet they choose to fall back on the “known” moralities of their religious traditions. This is a fall back, especially in a pluralist democracy, because they are constantly exposed to the public dialogues about morality, but willfully choose to ignore the knowledge of their society in favor of ready-made moralities. It is further a failure of intellect in its simplicity: Religious morality is, more often than not, devoid of all complexity, seeing the world in stark binary terms. There are no difficult moral questions or conundrums, because all is obvious. I like to think of this as a perceived “moral clarity”. I see it often in my students who, in their late teens and early 20s, see the world in these terms. But part of the joy of being a professor is watching the students over the course of a few years come to shatter that clarity and see the world in its complexity and to choose to follow the more difficult paths of moral reasoning that the real world demands. In Christians, this moral clarity is a failure of intellect, a failure to deal with the world as it is and to use their reason to discern moral choices in the world they actually live in, as opposed to the world of their imaginations.

But it is also a failure of imagination. Surely, evangelicals have vivd imaginations, with their horrifying demons jumping into their bones by merely walking by an immoral act. But here the failure is an imagination gone awry, an imagination that, rather than being employed to discover solutions to real problems in the world, has been set on autopilot, to see things that aren’t there. The marvelous result of human brain evolution is that our minds are able to project into the future and imagine a different world than the one we’re in and fix our own world. This mechanism is harnessed and constrained by religious imagination, which says the world as it is is an inevitability, and the solution is obvious and given (e.g., in the sacred text). The religious imagination can no longer practice basic human empathy, because it is no longer capable of taking the role of the Other, because the Other is already known through the religion. That is to say, the religious world has already told them what the Other is, so there is no way to actually employ their imaginations to experience empathy or compassion, which is already clouded by their religious imagination.

Because they choose to ignore their reason and choose to run away from the real world, they are unable either to see homosexuality for what it is (a mere part of human variation (and in my opinion, very likely biological in origin)) nor to see the homosexual as they experience life (the costs of the ‘closet’ and of regular suppression of their basic freedoms). The religious are unable to see or understand the effects that their faulty reasoning and broken imaginations have on their fellow human beings, and so continue to perpetuate a violence, for which they take no responsibility, because they perceive their actions as being Moral and Good, regardless of their consequences.



1. Mikayla - 18 November 2008

Well put. It has long seemed to me, since I left Christianity, that religion short-circuits moral reasoning. If human reason is flawed (as most forms of Christianity claim it is) then of what use is human moral reasoning? If the Bible says it’s wrong, then it’s immoral–end of story.

When I realised I no longer believed, it did turn my moral universe upside down for a while. That is, until I learned to use my own reason in these matter, and regained my moral compass stronger than ever, because I discovered it for myself. It’s just a matter of maturation–a growth process that is stunted by the anti-rational religions.

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