22 May 2009

Atheism and morality

A big title for a blog post, and you could write several books on the subject. I've been functionally an atheist for all my adult life, for the reason that unless someone can prove the existence of God - or even the logical possibility that something that can be called God exists - there's no reason to believe it. I assume most of my friends are this kind of atheist, and I'm always surprised if one of them turns out to be a believer. But if they are good people and don't try to impose their views on me or other people, I won't try to change their views.

Recently I've been mixing (on the internet) with a lot of more polemical atheists. Part of their claim is that belief and religions are not only wrong but that they have bad effects on the world. I've always thought that the world would be better if we all accepted that the quality of our existence is our responsibility: no other being is going to sort it out for us. But the better believers act as if they accepted that. Instead of praying for relief of famine and the end of nuclear weapons, they organise and campaign for those things, ready to make joint cause with those of other faiths and no faith. Would they do that if they had no faith? Probably, because, I suspect, their actions are a result of their own moral and ethical beliefs, which don't have to be founded on any religion.

When I look at the moral pronouncements of religions, though, that's when I start to worry about the evil effects of religions. I don't know of any religion that doesn't impose duties and restrictions on its adherents. Sometimes these strike me as bizarre and bizarrely trivial, such as the dietary and clothing rules of the Old Testament, which have been richly ridiculed throughout history. Apparently trivial they may be but in Judaism have been the basis for a huge industry of interpretation. To me, these merely discredit the God who is supposedly so upset by these trivialities. A god who worries if you're wearing wool and cotton together isn't a god, because that gives you the power to upset god. (I'm over-simplifying, of course.)

But then there are the bigger pronouncements that significantly affect the lives of followers. It seems to be in the nature of religion to ban homosexuality. I'm sure not all do - the liberal branch of the Church of England is at least ambivalent, for example - but even the beautiful, otherwise tolerant Bahai faith outlaws gay sex.

Of course, opinions on morality can vary. I would find it hard to share any ground with someone who wanted to ban homosexuality, but I have sympathy for advocates of veganism, for example, although not agreeing. To me they are matters of opinion. To the religious they are matters of interpretation of God's will, and so the conclusion is absolute. Adherence to the rules is a sign of belief. Discussion of the rules is only possible within the terms of the debate. So a Muslim or a Christian would always have to reconcile their position with the sacred text.

Science advanced once scientists adopted an empirical method - trusting the results of research rather than established orthodoxy. The codes of morality of the major religions have generally worked well, I'll accept that, but they restrict full and open inquiry into how we should live, just as the cosmology of Catholicism restricted and resisted the understanding of the universe.

I am naive in theology, and no doubt there are holes in this argument. But I have been prompted to write it by the revelations that have just come out of Ireland, where the religious establishment has been shown to preside over an appalling, sickening regime of abuse of children, far worse than even the strongest opponents of the Church could have imagined. The scale of the abuse is shocking enough. What's worse, what must make anyone doubt whether the Church is a benign institution, is the covering-up that went on at the time, and which continues. People who had been known to have abused children were moved from one parish to another. The institutions of the Church only agreed to cooperate with the investigation on an agreement that no individual would be named or prosecuted. The Church did a deal with the Irish government limiting its liability for paying victims compensation to 127 million euros, about a tenth of the compensation that is now considered likely to be paid. The rest will be paid by the Irish government, which means of course it will be paid by the Irish people. Is the Church now rushing forward to admit that this deal is morally wrong? Of course not.

From this side of the Irish Sea, it looks like the Irish Catholic Church is a thoroughly immoral institution.

(I recommend the reporting of this scandal in the Irish Times, a fine newspaper, and this link to a summary of the report. But be warned, it's hard to read even the summary without anger and tears.)

[Hear me read this article]

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