Friday, February 10, 2012

Ethics and Wisdom - what Atheists can learn from Religion

Morality/Ethics is about how we should treat other people. On the other hand, Wisdom is the art of living well and thriving in our personal lives. Both subjects interest me, but few people in the secular world study them in a serious or systematic way. The exceptions I know of are academic philosophers and the small hyper-utilitarian demi-cult centered around Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Religions have a lot to say about Ethics and Wisdom. Since religions survive and spread by serving the needs of the human psyche, we should expect that we can learn something from their approach to two topics so vital to human interests.

Many religions, including Christianity, have the peculiar habit of conflating ethics and wisdom together. They transform the art of living well from an individual choice into a moral duty. This is accomplished by inserting a second person, God, into our private lives. Private actions thereby gain an ethical dimension since they now effect a third party with an interest in seeing us thrive. In the secular world, a similar thing happens when we enter into a romantic relationship.

This explains the phenomena of religious prohibitions on vices, such as smoking or drinking - activities that hurt nobody but ourselves. Religions also push followers to observe positive virtues, such as staying loyal to their spouses, being thrifty, or working diligently at their jobs. Extensive interference in people’s private lives gives religions a pushy quality, and many people find this attractive. They want a third party to force themselves, and their children, to live well. Others are repulsed either because they disagree with religion’s conception of the good life or they simply dislike having their personal life choices audited by an external authority.

I like the idea of being responsible to someone else for living well. My moral feelings are stronger than my will to act wisely. If an action or inaction hurts only myself, I am far more likely to succumb to it than if it also hurts another person. The secular person is by default a lonely creature, and it is hard for a person to live well when nobody is watching and judging. But a religious person always has someone with them.

Atheists resent the old prejudice that one has to be religious in order to be moral. These prejudices go too far, but it is true that religion offers its followers a powerful infrastructure to help them be moral that atheists lack.

The first way atheist moral practice fails is by lacking an explicit moral code. Our ethical principles are absorbed piecemeal from the art, literature, and philosophy we consume over the years and by osmosis from the culture surrounding us. This serves well under normal circumstances, but we are lost when faced with difficult moral trade-offs or high-pressure situations. Religious morality is better codified. When emotions run high, religious people have explicit aphorisms, principles, and parables that their minds can latch on to.

Next, religions teach us that ethical and moral principles are not merely mental facts, they are skills. Like any other skill they must be practiced and honed over time. Just as you cannot read a book about ballet and then perform a perfect dance, you cannot merely read about morality and then expect to behave morally. Religions know that we need regular reminders for moral principles to sink in, so they schedule weekly rituals where their codes of conduct are reinforced. Service events are scheduled to give followers the opportunity to practice altruism.

Lastly, we can learn from religion's understanding of human social psychology. If there is one fact that has become abundantly clear in the age of social networking, it’s the powerful influence that a person’s friends have on his taste’s, beliefs, and actions. Religions have long been aware of the power of social pressure and they surround the believer with a community of faith to help them all live up to their shared standards.

Atheists practice their morality as atomic creatures, lacking a community of like-minded practitioners. They are more likely to stray from their principles and revert to the mean of the world around them.

The combination of 1) explicit morality, 2) regular reminders, and 3) peer pressure creates a powerful incentive for religious people to behave morally. Over the years, many small groups of atheists have recognized the advantages that religions have in propagating ethical behavior and wisdom and have attempted to organize atheist analogues of churches and community groups. None have been spectacularly successful. But we shouldn't stop trying.

1 comment:

  1. Are you saying that there is value in becoming ethical in areas in which no one can keep you accountable except yourself? if so, for what purpose?