Sunday, August 09, 2009

Morals: Looking Ahead When Leaving Religion Behind

Sociology 310: Religion in Society

According to reports from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life1, “more than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised, in favour of another religion or no religion at all. ...Those Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular religion have seen the greatest growth in numbers as a result of changes in affiliation.” Significant numbers of people, myself included, while doing so for a variety of different reasons, are leaving religions which have played a role in their growth and development through childhood into adulthood, and are not replacing them with other religious affiliations. My religion had a huge impact on me my entire life. It influenced who I selected as friends, who and when I should marry, how many children I should have, and how I raised them. As I exited from the LDS religion, I had to reassess and re-evaluate a great number of church teaches which I had implemented in my life. With the data indicating that Christianity is the dominant religion of North America, I will examine one of the challenges that I and many others confront when leaving a heavily influential Christian religion.

There is an overarching and “legitimated knowledge”2 among North American societies that good morals stem from religion. In speculating where this assumption may have come from, Berger states, “... religion has been the historically most widespread and effective instrumentality of legitimation”3. As people leave Christian churches, a common challenge is determining where they will get their morals from now that they are free to work beyond the framework of their religious background. While liberating for some, this prospect instilled a sense of fear in me because I had come to believe that morals and religion are synonymous. Sweden's example helped alleviate those fears. With the worlds highest proportional rate of “agnostic/atheist/non-believer in god” (46% - 85%)4 , one might assume Sweden would be home to a high crime and violence rate stemming from its lack of religiosity. However, this turns out not to be the case, as Sweden actually has a low crime rate5. By looking at the statistics for the Scandinavian region as a whole, one could reasonably argue that society does not require religion to be moralistic.

Taking this thought even further, a closer inspection of the religious moral codes revealed in the Holy Bible suggests that perhaps “Christian morals” are not all their adherents claim they are. There are the better known “love and serve your neighbour”, “do not lie, steal or commit adultery, ” commandments which are generally viewed as positive ways to lead a life. But in this same book lies sometimes contradictory and barbaric commandments which hardly resemble the kind of morals modern Christians would abide by. For example, in Leviticus 20:9, it states “For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death”. In Deuteronomy 22:23 – 24 it states, “If within the city a man comes upon a maiden who is betrothed, and has relations with her, you shall bring them both out of the gate of the city and there stone them to death: the girl because she did not cry out for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbours wife”. Clearly, the Bible calls for and authorizes morals that the Christian community has rejected, and society at large has criminalized.

Thus, “Christian” morals, as taken from the Bible, are to some degree, evaluated by practising Christians. Because of the sometimes archaic nature of Old Testament commandments in particular, Christians are forced to determine which morals make sense to them and will become applicable guidelines in their own lives, and which ones will be discarded. Because of the likelihood that a person leaving his or her religion has already made some of these choices while growing up in their religion, they will have some experience weighing, examining, evaluating and then accepting or rejecting certain morals. This same person, looking ahead, can use the same methodology in re-examining the Christian morals they previously adhered to. By evaluating what has been their moral code until now, while at the same time evaluating behaviours and ideas previously rejected or off-limits because of their Christian upbringing, they can examine what makes sense from their new perspective, determining, as they have already done, what is acceptable and what is not.

While rejecting their past religion, there is not necessarily a parallel need to reject all basic guidelines and morals from their Christian heritage. After evaluating my values, I did not experience a significant shift in moral behaviour. The morals that remained for me were the ones accepted by the majority of society, not just Christians. According to recent studies, this source of morality may have less to do with religion's divine inspiration, and more to do with an innate hardwiring of the brain. Professor Marc Bekoff, an ecologist at University of Colorado, Boulder, in his study of animal behaviour, believes there is ample evidence to suggest that due to brain structure, many different species of animals are governed by moral codes of conduct, much like humans6.These morals provide group cohesion that allows often aggressive and competitive animals to live together. The nuances of their morals will be different from group to group, but they are typically developed in each animal social group to help regulate their specific behaviours. Wolves and coyotes can display a sense of fairness; elephants and dolphins can show empathy both for members of their own herd but also for other species; monkeys and chimpanzees can both show tolerance and charity for weaker members, with chimpanzees having a sense of justice and punishment when necessary. When these normal, even instinctive characteristics, are put into the human context of religion, they become religious morals7. It should be noted that the influence of religion is not a factor for these animals when establishing group morals. They are simply using their physiological brains combined with a natural instinct to live, so they can work together and survive.

Dr. Bekoff's findings would support the theory of the evolution of man and his role in society. Primitive tribal members, under no influence of religion, needed to work together to increase the likelihood of survival, as well to ensure adequate food, shelter and protection. Because of the structured hard wiring of their brains, tribal members were able to coordinate how to cohesively live and work together, and further hone their morals to establish what was and wasn't acceptable behaviour in the tribe. Those who lived by that code were permitted to stay in the tribe and benefit from the protections that were offered from living as a group, while those who did not live by the code were usually evicted from the tribe, markedly decreasing their chances of survival by being alone. Berger appears to concur when he states, “The socially established nomos may thus be understood, perhaps in its most important aspects, as a shield against terror... The anthropological presupposition for this is a human craving for the meaning that appears to have the force of instinct... To be separated from society exposes the individual to a multiplicity of dangers with which he is unable to cope by himself, in the extreme case to the danger of imminent extinction”8. Physiology and evolution appear to have set the groundwork for the basic morals which govern society, that religion would later adopt and re-brand. This re-branding is referred to by Durkheim when he states, “If philosophy and the sciences were born of religion, it is because religion began by taking the place of the sciences and philosophy”9.

Individuals who leave behind their Christian religion and prepare to enter a more secular society, can take heart in knowing their morals are a part of their brain's physiological make up, refined by both the societal influence of their upbringing, as well as personal evaluations. With this knowledge, they won't need to search very far at all for a new moral compass. I learned I had one all along, I had just misidentified it's source.

- Heather McCue

1 “Statistics on Religion in America Report -- Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.” (Accessed July 19, 2009).

2 Emerson, M., Mirola, W., Monahan, S., 2001. Sociology of Religion, A Reader. New Jersey, Prentice Hall, Inc.“The Sacred Canopy”, Peter L. Berger, pg. 26

3 Emerson, M., Mirola, W., Monahan, S., 2001. Sociology of Religion, A Reader. New Jersey, Prentice Hall, Inc. “The Sacred Canopy”, Peter L. Berger, pg. 27

4 Martin, Michael. 2006. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. 1st ed. Cambridge University Press.

5 “Sweden.” (Accessed July 19, 2009).

6Bekoff, Marc, and Jessica Pierce. 2009. Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. 1st ed. University Of Chicago Press.

7 Emerson, M., Mirola, W., Monahan, S., 2001. Sociology of Religion, A Reader. New Jersey, Prentice Hall, Inc. “Religion as a Cultural System”, Clifford Geertz, pg. 19

8 Emerson, M., Mirola, W., Monahan, S., 2001. Sociology of Religion, A Reader. New Jersey, Prentice Hall, Inc.“The Sacred Canopy”, Peter L. Berger, pg. 24

9 Emerson, M., Mirola, W., Monahan, S., 2001. Sociology of Religion, A Reader. New Jersey, Prentice Hall, Inc.“The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life”, by Emile Durkheim, pg. 9

1 comment:

Tonia said...

Wonderful post! I concur with what you have said about learning that my own moral compass has always been there, and that I need to ensure that I trust it and listen to it when I am making choices. It is influenced by many sources, not merely one. Thank you for your post and research!