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Religious Behavior Modification
"Just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim Algebra, we will see that there is no such thing as Christian or Muslim morality." - Sam Harris
The subject of morality can be daunting for most of us. Whenever the topic comes up in a conversation with anyone who believes in a deity, I get that all-too-familiar tingling at the base of my neck that tells me this is going to be one of those conversations. This includes the mainstream, extremists and those wonderful people of faith I write about. Even trying to define morality without getting into the meat of the subject is enough to set some people off. This is because morality is an extremely personal conviction, and for the believer, it is irrevocably tied to their god. But what does it mean to be moral?
There are so many variables to consider. Cultural differences, religious belief, personal circumstances and several other aspects of our lives are invariably included in our synthesis of what is right and what is wrong.
Given enough time, each one of us can probably produce a very lengthily list of values that will seem true to some and false to another. Which is right? All of them? None of them? A mishmash? Truth is, there is no universally correct system of morality that fits every single person, regardless of their individuality.
Basically, morality is simply a system how we treat each other. That is pretty much where the commonalities end. If we try to get more complex, we end up with a decidedly immoral form of morality which leads to condemnation and bold judgments. In its purest form, morality can be defined as an act or action that is the result of the decision-making process that reflects individual points of view.1 What I will be examining are the differences between the decision-making process between the indoctrinated and the atheist.
The indoctrinated believer forms their morality from the belief that their decision is in line with and acceptable to, or commanded by the deity they follow. Thus, decisions based on religious doctrine are viewed by the indoctrinated as the absolute pinnacle of morality.
The atheist forms their morality based on what is best for their society, their empathy toward their fellow human, and their own enlightened self interest.
It is these two diametrically opposed aspects of what influences behavior that concern me as an atheist in a society comprised of mostly Christians. I have spent a considerable amount of time researching, observing and studying the behavior of those who base their morality on religious indoctrination. I have noticed very high instances of immorality stemming from their religious beliefs. In fact, the amount of people who hold bigoted and discriminatory points of view toward a variety of groups and individuals not conforming to their beliefs or who do not acknowledge the validity or existence of God is staggering. This includes rampant discrimination towards homosexuals and the general misogyny that exists within the fundamental Abrahamic religions.
What makes it all the more frustrating to those of us who have embraced reason is the willful ignorance toward the collective of human intelligence and empirical evidence that make up the scientific community. This ignorance plays a huge role in the divide between the general definition of morality and what the religionists conception of morality is. I say “conception” of morality because I find it difficult to bring myself to actually call it morality. “Religious behavior modification” would be a closer definition.
Broken down, for what it is, morality can only be secular in nature. This is because morality necessitates a modification to individual behavior that results in a positive effect on society as a whole, embracing humanity and the acceptance of different lifestyles and cultures. Thus, this religious behavior modification cannot be defined as morality because of its pre-requisites. There exists little or no tolerance for cultures, lifestyles and orientations that fall outside of accepted teaching and doctrines. Religious behavior modification cannot be defined as morality because it utilizes the fear of punishment and hope for reward as the motivating factors in the decision-making process, not the well-being of society as a whole. It demands change on a supernatural level, and the glaring problem with this is that the supernatural aspects of one religion, sect or cult are often diametrically opposed to the supernatural aspects of other religions, sects or cults, and the very existence of the supernatural, in general, is completely disregarded by atheists.
Al Stefanelli - Georgia State Director, American Atheists, Inc.