Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Thought Experiment: Irrational Moral Catalysts

My position on religion has increasingly become that religion is just another irrational belief - which everybody who has ever lived has had plenty of. Of course, the world would be an overall better place if these were gone, but as long as people keep their neuroses to themselves, you don't have the right to demand they give them up. I hate gum drops, but I don't care if other people like gumdrops. The second I start demanding the cessation of gumdrop manufacturing and consumption, form an anti-gumdrop political party, or start otherwise making related demands of my fellow citizens, that's when it becomes their business.

Of course you see the parallel, although in all honesty, much of modern religion in the industrialized world (particularly in Western Europe) is little more than a constellation of ceremonies that equate to a signal of community membership; it's Religion Lite(tm). And who cares. These people are Lutheran or Catholic in the same sense that someone is an Eagles fan or a Pennsylvania Dutchman. They do some odd things on the weekends but it's not your job to correct them, because so do you. If they leave you alone, you leave them alone.

Of course, religion doesn't leave you alone. In fact, it has three characteristics setting it apart from other neuroses or superstitions or heuristics that justify a special term like "religion" within the realm of irrationality: it has a name that's known by the afflicted and the unafflicted alike, its adherents consciously resist being disabused of the beleifs, and it relies on reinforcement by groupthink. I further believe that there is enough of a difference between organized, evangelical, politically aggressive religion on one hand (Islam, Christianity), and casual or tribal religion on the other (shamanism, wicca) that the two should have entirely different names. It's the difference between a skateboard and a tractor trailer.

I've posted a little thought experiment before about the morality of using religion as a moral motivator if it happens to be untrue. If I send you on a business trip to, say, Afghanistan, and tell you that we have behind-the-scenes security, political influence and cash, you would behave a little more boldly. Does it affect the morality of my actions if I lied to you about our infrastructure on the ground? Of course it does!

People often say that their faith sometimes spurs them on to acts of morality, and I'm inclined to believe them, at least occasionally. I think these people would have been good people regardless of religious upbringing, and their faith seems to be a direct catalyst in some cases. Many atheists/skeptics/rationalists/etc. would still have a problem with acts inspired by superstitions, even if the result was moral. Then again, we all of us are irrational in some ways. So what about a moral act inspired by non-religious irrational beliefs?

How about this: say I'm thinking about volunteering for the Special Olympics. I'm on the fence about it. But I start to believe that if I do volunteer, then an extremely attractive female acquaintance of mine will be instantly driven into my arms by my act of superficial altruism. Never mind that I have a face like a catcher's mitt, and this friend of mine wouldn't think of me in said context even with enough sodium pentathol to knock out a rhino. In this case, I end up volunteering. Is my irrational act more or less moral than if I did so because I believe Jesus wanted me to? What about if I did it because it makes me feel good to help the Special Olympics (presumably the rational choice, at least to a non-Kantian). Is there a difference?

I hope there are strong opinions on this question; please share them.

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