Probably no one who observes long-term trends with any reasonable historical sense would dispute that religion holds less sway in this country than in previous times. It would seem to be hard to dispute that in the law and the culture, there is a default way of thinking that avoids any mention or consideration of God.
Despite that fact, however, many people (including some followers of this site) believe that atheists and those who describe themselves as agnostics are unfairly made to feel marginalized in this society. They feel put-upon by Christians who they feel are overbearing about their beliefs. They just want to be left alone on the question of a putative God.
Many who think this way feel that society for some reason owes them freedom from points of view that they don’t want to be bothered with. They want “freedom from religion” (as with the organization by that name). They may feel that the process of eradicating religious references or points of view should continue apace, until there is no mention of it publicly anywhere; that rigorous privatization of religious practice is necessary and good.
The flaw in that way of thinking is that it presupposes neutrality. As if the atheist outlook were not itself a point of view about ultimate reality. Whenever a secularist insists on pushing religious matters outside of public discourse, or any connection to government (even as government expands inexorably), or any polite conversation, even–what he’s doing is not pushing neutrality, but pushing atheism. It sometimes happens subtly, and sometimes more overtly, but it’s everywhere. The naturalism prejudice inheres in most entertainment, news, and information media.
Mind & Matter
Here’s just one example, remarkable only for its lack off subtlety. It’s found in the May 1, 2016 Wall Street Journal, “Mind & Matter” column by Robert Sapolsky, titled Moralizing Gods Who Help Humans to Cooperate (link to on-line version). The author starts out by commenting on people’s cooperative behaviors. Humans have uniquely high levels of pro-social cooperation, as compared to other animals, we’re told.
All well and good, so far. But now we’re going to be told why. About that pro-social cooperation, “[r]ecent research suggests that one of its driving forces is religion.” And further, that the kind of religion which best produces this pro-social cooperation is the kind with “moralizing gods”—deities who monitor and judge morality, meting out punishments and rewards.
Now from what we have so far, you might suppose that the article would have something to say about the positive correlation of religion to moral behavior. An interesting question suggested by this positive correlation would include, for example, whether the good moral behavior suggests at least some truth in the religion. But no. The question is: “When do religions tend to invent such moralizing gods?”
“Invent?” “When?” As if it’s only a matter of time, for any religion, to start inventing gods; and not only that, to invent the gods for which the religion supposedly already exists. The question is incoherent even taking it assumptions as true.
And the falsehoods built into those assumptions are whoppers. They include these: all religions are false; man created God, not the other way around; that religious invention of God or gods is a natural stage in the evolution of religions; and that religious adherents develop doctrine based on what kind of behavior they’re trying to produce, rather than simply what they believe to be true.
The argument for the latter point is made by a psychologist, Ara Norenzayan, who proposes that as a society grows larger, people have greater opportunity to act anonymously, “and that’s when moralizing gods become useful to maintaining the social order.” That is the point of all religions, you see: to maintain the social order. Some religions do it better; some worse. But none because there is any truth to the religion. It’s all just psychology.
Here’s the take-away from this preposterous article. Religion is a sociological phenomenon, and that’s all. Not only is no religion true, but there is no genuine religious impulse underlying those that aren’t. Religion is just a social construct to maintain social order. Never mind who is doing the ordering, and to what end.
Implication for the Future
If in times past, social order was maintained by religion, then what is to maintain social order now? Great social “policies” made law, so that government can forcibly compel and constrain? And if so, on what basis are these laws to be made? Majority rule? Politically-correct consensus? And on what moral code are they to be based? If there is no true religion, then materialism is the driving ideology. It holds that there is no basis for morality at all, other than that which rests upon self-interest. We’re left with what are believed to be the imperatives of survival: power; dominance; rule-by-force.
6 thoughts on “Moralizing Gods”
I again disagree with several statements in your post. But I will focus on your suggestion that it is bad to leave religions out of governmental aspects of our society. The easy way to dispute your point would be to look to the “success” religious based governments have. But when I read your stuff like this I always wonder who’s religion you are talking about. Christians only? Or all religions? I contend that if governments tried to incorporate all religions they would be ineffective. And if limited to one religion they are oppressive. As a non believer in your god I don’t want you (or believer in any other religion) making governmental decisions for me based on your particular religious beliefs. If government stays out of religion then it does not affect your ability to live your life the way you want to–other than to the extent it does not help you inflict your beliefs on those around you.
Live your life in harmony with those around you rather than try to force a bubble of religious protection around you. Those around you also have beliefs that should be respected. I respect your right to have your beliefs, and will try to make reasonable accommodations for you, but not at the expense of your making me give up my core beliefs.
As Christians’ influence (very slightly) decreases in this country, Christians are becoming alarmed. Try living in a country in which your beliefs are overwhelmingly outnumbered–like me. Your alarm is misplaced.
Thanks for commenting.
I completely agree with the original purpose of the Establishment Clause. I’m not in favor of inserting Christian or other religious viewpoints into government, when it is possible to leave them out. But I’m saying those religious viewpoints include atheism. The view that there is no supernatural reality of any kind is not a religiously neutral point of view.
There is not some “governmental aspect” that we can wall off from religious influence. If government were limited as it ought to be, it would not be necessary to have this conversation. The biggest threat to religious liberty is the expansion of the government into areas of our lives that ought to be private.
But that’s not the government we live under, unfortunately. The government we do live under is not neutral about religious points of view, but actively advances an atheist point of view. What is happening in innumerable government decisions (just pick up the newspaper) is that the atheist point of view is advanced at the expense of Christian and other religious points of view.
What I want is reasonable accommodation for all points of view, but that starts with a recognition that government decisions now do not proceed from a position of neutrality, but rather from a relentlessly materialist point of view. That point of view (the point of view of atheists) should not have presumptive validity in every thing the government does.
You’re not advocating religious neutrality with respect to everything the government touches (which is, unfortunately, almost everything). You’re advocating materialism as the default for everything the government does. That’s a religious point of view, too, and I wish the government would get out of the business of insisting that it predominate everything we do. Why do I have to give up core beliefs in the face of the government’s materialist hegemony, and you don’t?
I think you mistakenly equate a (desired) governmental position of no position on religion with atheism. I see no real evidence that the government is pushing the idea that there is no god. In fact, I experience something closer to the opposite, not necessarily in policy but in enactment. For the most part, “government” is everyday people doing jobs that interface with the public. The vast majority of those governmental workers are religious, primarily Christian. They put their religious slant on almost every action they take.
But the bigger issue I have with your position is that you say government is actively pushing an atheist agenda. Were we having this conversation in a non public forum I would use a different word, but will simply say Hogwash, instead. For example, how is “one nation, under God” atheistic? I could go on with other examples but will not. The closest I think you could come to supporting your argument would be regarding the promotion of science based and science supported theories such as evolution. If you are one that ignores that science then please unsubscribe me from your postings. However, some scientists contend that evolution is not incompatible with a god-based belief system, albeit a system far different than the storybook virgin birth version. While I do not subscribe to the theory that evolution is god based, I leave open that possibility, which is why I do not describe myself typically as an atheist.
Bottom line, I see no support for your ‘government pushes atheism’ argument.
If you feel compelled to unsubscribe from my postings, that’s something you can do on your own.
I don’t understand your comment about “ignor[ing]” science. Do you mean “deny the truth of?” Because if you do, then you’re saying that dissent on a question of science shouldn’t be tolerated, and that doesn’t sound like you. Nor does it sound like science. I thought that kind of questioning is basically what science is. The science thought to support macro-evolution as a full explanation for development of life is questionable to me, for science reasons, but I’m not saying it ought to be excluded from science education.
What I am saying is this. There are only two ways of thinking about reality (I mean, that are pertinent to this discussion): the view that physical things are all there is; and the view that there is something beyond the physical. It’s important to remember that there is not some neutral third way, because by definition these two points of view are all of the possibilities. I’ll refer to these as atheism and theism.
Here’s a typical approach of atheists, in trying to explain their view of reality. Evolution is “Darwin’s dangerous idea” because it suggests a purely material explanation for the development of life. That’s dangerous, atheists assert, because it reverses the “matter from Mind” presumption of theists. If matter can come from matter, then mind can come from matter. If life can come from other forms of life, they believe, then life can come from non-life, and that non-life something can come from nothing. In this way God is written out of their paradigm of ultimate reality. But that’s a long way from being a coherent explanation for all that we observe. It’s not enough to just say that theism is false.
Further, the approach of merely attempting to discredit theism makes one vulnerable to the false notion that he’s neutral on religious questions. It puts one in the position of failing to recognize that (because there are only two options) rejecting theism means adopting atheism, and rejecting atheism means adopting theism.
So now we get to government. Government has expanded into every nook and cranny of our lives, and it is that unwarranted intrusion that has made the religious freedom problem so acute. There are laws on almost every subject, not to mention fiscal and tax policies that coerce conformity with a politically-correct point of view that increasingly ignores or denies God. Laws are enacted by people, and people hold either a theist or atheist point of view. Some laws are not obviously advancing one point of view or the other, of course. But many are. Government is “pushing the idea that there is no god” by advancing law that is consistent with atheism but inconsistent with theism.
Here are some examples. Let’s start with abortion. The law on abortion is that government is not to impede access to abortion, and is even to facilitate it, though government is heavily involved in punishing or preventing other kinds of homicide. It’s correct to say that the government doesn’t make people choose abortion, but if there’s any legitimate function of government whatsoever, surely it’s protection of the most vulnerable among us. But we say the government is not to protect them even as government is so thoroughly entwined in so many other aspects of our lives. What is this government stance telling us? That the source of moral right and wrong is society consensus, not the decree of a deity. That’s an atheist point of view prevailing over a theist point of view.
I said in my last comment “pick up the newspaper” because all of the news on sanctioning of gender fluidity and redefinition of marriage and homosexual rights arise out of a point of view that people can decide for themselves what their own sex is, and what sex they’re to join with sexually if at all, rather than accepting that God who created them already decided these things. I don’t say that atheists are automatically amoral. Many are more upright than the average Christian. But I do say that atheism as a belief system brings society down morally, as a whole. If atheism is true, where does morality come from, with regard to sexual matters and anything else? It has to be a material source. That means it’s a function of evolutionary biology only. Morals are only evolutionary-imposed instincts that have no purpose other than to advance objectives of evolution (e.g. group safety; survival of progeny) so if we will it, we can replace sociologically-induced motivations for what we call moral acts (or restraints) with personal ones.
All of the law on exclusion of exercise of religion in any setting that government touches advances an atheist point of view at the expense of a theist point of view. When you reject prayer in public schools for example (I’m talking about voluntary chapel and the like) you’re saying it isn’t important and that it has no importance within the activity that you spend all of a working day on. It’s not neutral, therefore. It’s minizing the theist point of view, and, again because there are only two points of view, that means it expands the atheist point of view.
Much of education requires no obvious religious slant, but too much does. Rigorous exclusion of any reference to religion has the effect of introducing an atheist slant. It is so bad that the subject matter of what is being taught is skewed, such as when religious motivation for events in history is presented as irrational as compared to modern motivations, from which one would have to conclude that religion produces mass hysteria and fraud, from which one would have to conclude that religion is not only false, but evil itself.
“One nation under God” is of course not atheistic, but in light of the pervasive atheist assumption in so much of what the government does, it’s puzzling that this superficial accommodation is deemed to be so outrageous. The phrase was adopted in reaction to communism. It was a recognition that the political concept of individual rights, for which this country used to stand, had its origins in the Christian church, and before that, Judaism; and further, that this tradition was in stark contrast to the atheist “matter from matter” paradigm that our enemies held: ideologies that set the world on fire in the 20th century and presented such an imminent, existential threat. More blood spilled than in all of the centuries before, put together. Hundreds of millions dead in Soviet Russia, Mao’s China, Cambodia, even Hitler’s Germany (though he meretriciously mouthed Christian pieties in order to co-opt the church) all in the name of ideologies that were intentionally and explicitly based on atheism.
I disagree with many of your many overstatements but simply don’t have the time to respond. This discussion requires a glass of bourbon on the porch. Or maybe a bottle.
A point of agreement on which to end the thread. Thanks for weighing in.