Monday, September 17, 2012

Unicorns and the Future of Morality

Jesus, that's a lot of stairs.
"The only thing keeping religious people from rape and murder is a magical unicorn. That's what scares atheists."

That's what a friend and I were discussing a few nights ago. And he has a point:  

Is belief in God the only thing keeping Christians from doing immoral things?  How central is divine judgment and afterlife to our morality? If we aren't going to church, who will tell us right and wrong?

Assuming our generation is post-religious, or is relating to religious organizations in a wholly new way, let's ask:

Why haven't we murdered our neighbors?

Because, whether you are a believer or non-believer, a Christian or a post-Christian, a boomer or a millennial, you rely on altruism, compassion, and networks of relationships. Again, this is the basic characteristic and goal of the human species.

Religion is only one source of morality. Our families and community of friends are key sources. But so is mass media, which, while it can be brilliant, is usually commercially-motivated and so rather suspect as a virtuous voice in the moral wilderness.

But the ultimate source of morality can be found by analyzing our lives in terms of our goals.

We all have goals. Maybe our goal is a number with a plus sign for the month. Maybe our goal has a cute name and a birthday, or a piece of fancy paper. Maybe your goal is just to make it to the Fall without melting.

Whatever your goal is, you know what it's like to sacrifice for it. Didn't it feel good to skip the movie so you could reach your money-saving goal? Let's call that Virtue - trading short term goals for long term goals.

And you know the biggest goal - Sharing our life with others in networks of compassion and love.

Like when you take a less sexyfun job so that you can provide for your children. That's trading career goals for the long-term goals of sharing a healthy life with your next generation.

Or when you donate some money or time instead of splurging on high-end cheese. That's trading short-term cheese-based goals with the long term goals of building communities of compassion.

So Virtue doesn't require a judgmental seated deity figure. If you agree with me that Compassion is the point and end of life, we learn to make decisions every day with that goal in mind.


  1. Andy, I've been thinking about this idea for the last two years now.

    I agree on your point that we are in a post-religious period. I believe that with more entertainment based technology, more people are being entertained and thus don't feel the need to go to church.

    My first point, I think that the moral compass that religions give us is based on whatever society/culture that religion exists/was born in. That is, the moral compass of a country baptised and washed in Christianity will have a slightly different moral compass than one in a country or culture steeped in the Voudoun Osho, or Talmudic commandments.

    My second point is that, ideally, people would be:
    a) doing well enough in a thriving economy to have the luxury of compassion.
    b) be smart enough, or have the inclination enough to, think about what they believe.

    But the reality is that people don't have enough money to be compassionate, and are not smart enough/inclined to think about what they believe. Meanwhile, our media is laden with messages belittling religion at best, that it is a meaningless tradition, and at worst is a laughable cultural lag for the superstitious, non-scientific.

    My third point, for the unwashed masses, glibly, religion is the opiate. But aside from the entertainment value, and social need that it once provided, it also provided a nice moral compass. But instead of referring to it as a compass, I'll refer to it as an anchor. Religion is the moral anchor of a culture. Take the anchor away, and not replace it with anything equitable, and you set individuals adrift in a world of moral relativity. Moral relativity and cultural relativity are the crux of most higher learning institutions in the United States. People will come to be incapable of understanding TRULY why, if no one sees them steal a candy bar, that is is wrong, for example. But I think that the innocous beginnings, illustrated by the candy bar example will probably become endemic. Where this leads is a great book by Charles Derber called "The Wilding of America." I highly suggest you give it a gander.

    While most of the NPR/MSNBC crowd in the big cities will rejoice at this "enlightenment" from outdated superstitions, we come back to what you contend with in this article; morality without the heavy, pronounced hand of religion.
    Besides, more and more, the spiritual nature of existence is being questioned in the face "scientific proof". And of course, everyone knows that if something can't be scientifically quantified, then it surely can't be tangible, can it?

    I'm being facetious. I am a spiritual man myself, but I look at the generation that is living only a few years younger than me and I am troubled by an exceptance of New Age ideas at the expense of real discernment. A shrugging off of "outdated" ideas and an adorning of newer more trendy ideas without knowing why, or whatfore.

    By the way, half way through the manifesto. Well written. I'll give my two cents when I am done.

    1. Thanks for writing, Franklin.

      There is a tendency to see compassion as a luxury, and I fell into that stereotype in my article the other day. I am lucky to have the resources to show my compassion through charitable donations. But recognizing one's self in another is not expensive. Compassion is a basic human trait.

      You are right that commercialism - the reduction of human interaction into buying and selling - is a contemporary problem. I think it is such because it commodifies our neighbors and our common space. That's why some people think of compassion as a tax incentive, or don't think of it at all. Thus compassion is a cheap word.

      I hope you'll keep reading, especially this week.