Evaluating religiously motivated actions


in Books and literature, Politics, Psychology, Writing

One interesting claim made by Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values is that religious values are fundamentally driven by concerns about how circumstances will affect the lives of human beings. For instance, doing what is necessary to get into heaven and avoid hell is ultimately good for you as an individual, even if it involves difficulty and sacrifice during your lifetimes. Similarly, Harris argues that suicide bombers who are partially motivated by the promise of a lavish afterlife are making decisions on the basis of faulty information about how their actions will affect their lives and (possibly) those of others.

Religious believers are arguably trying to maximize human welfare in both this world and the afterlife, which changes their moral calculations:

Religious believers can, therefore, assert the immorality of contraception, masturbation, homosexuality, etc., without ever feeling obliged to argue that these practices actually cause suffering. They can also pursue aims that are flagrantly immoral, in that they needlessly perpetuate human misery, while believing that these actions are morally obligatory. This pious uncoupling of moral concern from the reality of human and animal suffering has caused tremendous harm. (p.66 hardcover)

Harris also argues that when “people riot[ed], burn[ed] embassies, and [sought] to kill innocent people” in response to the Danish Mohammed cartoons, they were demonstrating a “terrifying inversion of priorities” in which the strictures of a particular religious doctrine were held to be of greater importance than the personal security (and expression rights) of other people.

While I don’t necessarily agree with Harris completely, I think he is right about one critical thing: it is important to be able to criticize religion on logical grounds. ‘Because my religious beliefs require me to do so’ is not an adeqaute explanation for human behaviour, and we should not let people justify themselves on such an unsatisfying basis. I think it is perfectly fair to point out when a religious belief seems to cause harmful consequences, or when different elements of the same religious doctrine seem to be contradictory. That isn’t to say all religiously motivated actions are harmful or problematic – just that the fact that they are religiously motivated does not set them in a special category where their consequences cannot be rationally contemplated.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

. December 20, 2010 at 11:31 pm

We don’t need freedom of religion
If we properly respect more basic rights there is no need to grant special status to spiritual practices

There’s really no need to count freedom of religion separately among the civil liberties.

A culture and legal system that respects freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly, and freedom of conscience, and that doesn’t interfere with what people are doing so long as they are not harming others, will necessarily be a culture and legal system in which people are free to worship as they want.

Strangely, though, even as freedom of expression and the other basic civil liberties — “basic” in that they can’t be derived from others — are under attack from various quarters, people are invoking freedom of religion in defending exemptions from law, and the courts are listening.

Courts have ruled that Orthodox Jews living in a multi-dwelling building may erect on a common balcony a sukkah, a small hut used during the holiday Sukkot. Other residents, though, must abide by the rule they themselves have set against erecting structures in common areas.

Courts have ruled that Sikh boys may wear small daggers, kirpans, to school. Other schoolchildren may not wear small daggers.

Muslim women may be veiled while testifying in court, at least so long as their religious belief is sincere enough, though neither men nor non-Muslims may.

Not always, certainly, do the courts or other authorities exempt religious people from the rules. They rarely exempt Catholic organizations from employment legislation, for instance.

The chance of gaining an exemption is best when the practice is part of a minority religion. The Supreme Court has ruled that Hutterites in Alberta who wish to drive on public roads must, like all other Albertans, have their photo on their driver’s licence, even though the Hutterites say this requirement contravenes something in their religion.

. October 8, 2012 at 1:17 pm

Cutting the pleasure out

SIR – I am astounded by those who decry female circumcision (the removal of the clitoris), yet blithely support male circumcision (“Odd bedfellows”, September 15th). Studies that claim no loss of sexual function or satisfaction are just wrong. The nerve endings in the male foreskin, including the frenulum, are analogous to those in the vagina and labia. Removing them is the sensory equivalent of removing everything except a woman’s clitoris. Sure, it’s still possible to have an orgasm, but the experience pales in comparison.

Garry King
Bern, Switzerland

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