Monday, March 20, 2006

The Moral Minority

The dangers of tying a political platform to a given religious doctrine are legion, as the conservative Christians who dominate the Republican party have amply demonstrated. Attempting to legislate restrictive personal behavior based upon Biblical dogma has the definite possibility of engendering resistance, even in a country as flush with religiosity as the United States.

From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

The overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens profess some religious faith, although far fewer attend worship services on a regular basis. The public square has become increasingly dominated by religious (specifically, Christian) rhetoric, from the "values voters" of the 2004 presidential election to hot-button cultural issues that carry a religious edge -- abortion, gay rights, stem-cell research, intelligent design, the right to die.

And yet at the same time a compelling undercurrent is at work. A study done by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York found that the percentage of the population that describes itself as "nonreligious" more than doubled from 1990 to 2001, from 14.3 million to 29.4 million people.

(Emphasis mine)

The fascinating reality here is that the tireless efforts of powerful conservative Christian political organizations to legislate Biblical moral laws have actually had the effect of driving folks away from the church. This is a result in direct conflict with the man whose name Christianity enjoys, who exhorted his followers to spread "The Word" to others. The political machine is eclipsing the faith by aligning the institution of Christianity against a large portion of the populace.

The fact is that most Americans favor at least some rights for homosexuals, if not full equal rights as I do. Most Americans believe the government should not be involved in reproductive issues or end-of-life issues. Most Americans support stem cell research and do not necessarily consider a small cluster of cells a full human being. In other words, the majority of the country, while identifying as Christian, is not willing to support laws which force them into a certain kind of behavior. This is the ultimate failure of conservative Christianity; it has failed to recognize and support the sovereignty of individual choice in morality. The value of a Christian life is nullified when it's forced upon people against their will. This is also the side of church/state separation that often gets ignored: the deleterious effect politics has upon religion. It tends to make the sacred mundane and the spiritual banal. It sucks the life out of faith by making it an oppressive tool of the institution, even if that institution has majority support.

The good news, as far as I'm concerned, is that the number of atheists in the country is growing. Now, I don't assign any value to atheism over theism per se; they are each merely different ways of answering the fundamental question "Does God exist?" I'm glad for this development in the recognition that as more people identify as atheists, the more socially acceptable such an identification becomes.

'Cause it ain't easy being an atheist in America:

"Atheists are not very well-thought-of in America," says John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "It's still acceptable to criticize atheists in a way that's not polite. People may harbor negative views about Jews, Catholics, Muslims and evangelicals, but they know they're not supposed to voice those views, so they don't. But it's still OK to say anything bad you want about atheists."

The "anything bad" Green alludes to can and does include comparisons to Hitler and Stalin, as well as every other social evil imaginable. Of course, such comparisons are baseless and generally ignorant of the underpinnings of ethical behavior, which are deeply personal and difficult to define. The argument stems from the condemnation of the moral relativist atheist by the "moral absolutist" person of faith. I put "moral absolutist" in scare quotes because I don't believe that such a philosophy really exists.

Morality is fundamentally a human construct which has enabled humans to build societies together. Assigning a supernatural source to common social conventions does not, in my opinion, imbue them with any intrinsic value. All moral decisions are relative on some level. The problem arises in the details, however, and this is where the absolutist argument lacks any substance. The moral absolutists have made a fine art of splitting moral hairs on issues, all in the name of balancing the desire for moral "laws" with the need for a workable society. It's a fascinating sliding scale of definition.

For example, let's use the Biblical commandment of "You shall not kill." The moral absolutist looks at this and identifies it as an immutable law from God. However, "kill" is an awfully broad term and, really, not ALL killings can be immoral. Is it wrong for a father to kill in defense of his children? What about a security guard that kills a burglar at the local bank? Is it wrong for a soldier to kill another soldier? The conservative viewpoint would say that these examples are certainly not immoral, thus "You shall not kill" becomes "You shall not kill except in defense of yourself, your family, your property or your country".

Unfortunately, now the moral absolutist has to decide exactly what constitutes murder. Certainly, says the moral absolutist, the soldier is not committing murder by killing an enemy soldier. But what about the soldier that kills a suspected Iraqi insurgent? That soldier may not be defending anything, but rather fighting in support of a cause. It can't be justified by orders, as the Nuremberg trials held. However, that insurgent may have had a history of violence and was likely committed to future acts of violence, thus perhaps justifying the killing. Now, "You shall not kill" has become "You shall not kill except in defense of yourself, your family your property, your country or the innocent, unless it's justifiable by the actions of the person being killed, which removes their innocence".

Unfortunately, now the moral absolutist has to decide exactly what constitutes innocence and what that means for the person committing the killing. The soldier killing an armed insurgent may not be committing murder but what about the bomber pilot that bombs an insurgent stronghold and inadvertently kills a couple of nearby civilians. Is that murder? Or is there a collateral damage exception? To bring it back domestically, what about the death row inmate who is exonerated posthumously by DNA evidence? Has the doctor performing the lethal injection committed murder? Has the governor by not staying the execution? Have all the people who the governor represents by not electing a more morally upright governor? Finally, what about abortion? Is that truly murder? What about an innocent woman who's life is in grave danger from her pregnancy? Is she a murderer for aborting her pregnancy to save her own life? Is the doctor a murder either way, by either aborting the pregnancy or allowing an innocent woman to die? What about suicide, which most conservatives believe to be forbidden as well? Is choosing your own death murder?

After all this is taken into consideration, what was once the morally absolute position of "You shall not kill" has become so narrowly defined and fraught with exceptions as to be a meaningless in an absolute sense. Thus, the conservative Christian can claim to be bound by the absolute moral law of "You shall not kill", while supporting wars, the death penalty and abortion restrictions that have exceptions for the mother's life, among other conflicting positions. "You shall not kill" has become no absolute law, but rather a loose guideline decided on a case by case basis, which is essentially the foundation of moral relativism.

The point of this lengthy example was not to mock moral absolutists (or bore the reader) but to demonstrate that moral absolutism as a philosophy has no substance. The moral absolutist clings to a stated law, but then creates as many legalisms as necessary to fit the law into the prevailing social construct. Thus, each moral law is pared down to a razor thin edge, accompanied by dozens, if not hundreds, of exceptions that are not affected by the law. This is the obvious cognitive dissonance caused by attempts to legislate morality, particularly the dogmatic laws of religious beliefs. The law of God must be obeyed, even if it requires twisting logic and reasoning to conform it to the normal, everyday workings of society.

By way of contrast, the morally relative atheist can look at "You shall not kill" and evaluate it purely on its merits. Different situations can be evaluated and judged differently, without the worry of conforming to some archaic social stricture penned by a Bronze-age tribal chief. For example, I would say that a soldier killing an enemy soldier in defense of country is morally acceptable, because that soldier is helping to protect his family, friends and neighbors. However, I also believe that, for this reason, wars of aggression are wrong. It was wrong for the United States to invade Iraq, because they did not pose a threat to us. Our military has been forced to kill Iraqis that represented no danger to the United States, which has forced them into a morally compromised position. That's why the role of Commander in Chief is many magnitudes more important than just strutting around in a flight suit and saying "Bring 'em on". The decision for war against Nazi Germany was a different situation, and thus must be evaluated on its own merits, not forcefully pegged into a framework of absolute morality.

In the end, I suspect that all of the vocal opposition to conservative Christian political aims by progressive voices is probably not likely to derail the political machine of Focus on the Family and The Family Research Council. These groups are large, well-funded and politically connected. Rather, the death of the Christian theocratic movement will come from an exodus by people of faith. Once religious dogma is made cheaper and more exclusionary by investing its authority in a political party, it loses that which makes it spiritually compelling. Making the personal choice to say "I am a Christian and I believe thus" bestows a conviction on someone that no law can duplicate. Thus, banning abortions, outlawing gay relationships, breaking down the wall between church and state, serve only to erode the very ideals that conservative Christians claim to support. If a compelling case can be made for why these things should be avoided, then no law should be necessary. Personal choice will gravitate towards the best end. If, however, these sorts of social restrictions have no moral value, outside of the deceptive "moral absolutist" framework, then the only way to bring them about is through the legislative process, which usurps the right of individuals to choose their own spirituality.

I believe this to be the truth of why the number of folks identifying as "non-religious" is increasing. Restrictions on abortion, birth control, stem cell research and homosexual rights, to name a few, have no compelling moral value and certainly no social value (quite the opposite, in fact). Thus, those supporting such measures cannot rely on personal choice to move the country in the direction they desire. They are then forced to make a political platform of their beliefs, and seek laws legislating their morality over others. It's an abject failure of policy and an affront to the faith of millions, this theocratic social engineering. It's held sway over our public discourse for far, far too long.

But the tide is turning 'round...

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