The Good, the Bad and the Holy
A while back, I had a rather interesting conversation with a friend of mine on the subject of religion. Generally, a discussion on such a topic revolves around the existence or the purpose of a God. It would involve trying to methodically deduce God’s reasons, which would no doubt, be weighted heavily on talking points supported by conjecture. However, this particular conversation was different in certain ways. It was not about whether God existed, rather, it was about whether God was even necessary.
When I say God being necessary, I don’t mean to imply that we were discussing about the necessity of an entity in the sky being capable of solving all of our problems. As fantastic as that would be, I personally don’t think it is that simple, nor was it the discussion at hand. Rather, our debate was focused on the importance of the belief in God and its influence in developing an acceptable moral foundation. To put it simply, is the belief of God or belonging to a particular religion necessary to have good morals?
My friend’s stance on this matter was that, yes, identifying with a particular religion constantly throughout your life is necessary, otherwise, there is nothing hinging you from becoming a sinful mass murderer. I however, agreed that religion is required to form a good set of morals but after casting a sound moral foundation, you could free yourself from religious ideology without crumbling the already well built moral structure. I will, however, refrain from stating as to who won the argument so as to save this friend from utter embarrassment. I really don’t know how he holds his head up among society anymore — not because of the debate, he’s just a really weird guy.
Coming from an orthodox Hindu family, I attributed my moral values to the religion. Even though I never actively participated in the religion myself, I have always felt that being brought up by parents who clearly did, and their lessons of what was good and bad on the basis of religion, was what built my sound moral structure. Maybe there is still some merit to that point, but the discussion I had with this friend of mine ended up leading me down a train of thought which further decentralized my position to concluding that religion is not at all necessary to imbibe a good set of morals. I realized it wasn’t the religion itself that helped build my morals. My morals were really shaped by the values that society and my parents have nurtured within me, on occasions using religion as a medium. My current stance is that good morals and religion, though they may accompany each other at times, do not necessarily go hand in hand. Here’s why.
When you claim that you belong to a certain religion, or any institutionalized ideology for that matter, you conform your thoughts and opinions to fit into that particular ideology. You may observe when someone feels like a statement is threatening their faith or ideology, instead of observing the statement from an objective standpoint, they tend to get defensive about it. Through countless arguments and debates, I’ve observed this phenomenon from several people, including myself. I believe this is because we feel a bit uncomfortable when someone is threatening to undermine our faith. When someone contradicts our ideology, instead of weighing the truth in their statement, our impulsive reaction is to reject it. So as long as we label ourselves with a certain religion or ideology, we are not as perceptive to the truth as we potentially can be.
We tend to see ideologies and religions, over time, change the opinions they are willing to house. But generally, this paradigm shift takes place over generations. An ideology is nothing but an amalgamation of what a majority of it’s members agree upon. Having a majority of the people housed in a particular ideology change their stance on an issue would take time. Our own ideas and perceptions, however, are much more malleable. As an individual, we can shape our thoughts and ideas much quicker than an ideology as a whole — provided we are willing to separate ourselves from it.
I realize that it may seem like I have deviated from the topic at hand, but bare with me for a moment. To say that active participation in a certain religion is required to form a good moral foundation, it must stem from the thought that all the morals preached by religion can never be flawed. Yet, from studying history, we know for a fact that several of the major religions we observe today have not always been, well, on the good side.
The Crusades are a perfect example. I believe it was Pope Urban II that declared a war was necessary to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslim kings ruling it at the time. Throughout the Crusades, captured thieves and murderers were allowed to fight on the Christian side after it was declared by the Pope that by doing so, they could wash away all their sins and go to heaven. Apparently, looting, killing and raping fellow Christian civilians was wrong. However, looting, killing and raping Muslims would absolve you of all your sins. Nothing flawed there. I’d like to point out that, though I do hold the opinion that the Pope may have had his own political objectives in mind while calling for the war, I do not hold any negative opinion of Christianity. I just believe that it was mislead during that time. On a side note, I think that Pope Francis is the personification of swagger. Just saying.
There are several modern examples too. One of the biggest threats we observe today in the world is radicalized Islam. Today, we see certain groups of people, who claim to be of the Islamic faith, radicalize in the name of Jihad. These groups are at war with any form of civilization that do not adhere to their rules and they are performing atrocious horrors to meet their ends. I’d like to emphasize that it is certain groups and I am not at all trying to imply that all members of the Islamic faith are accountable for the actions of those that are trying to pervert it.
Most of today’s larger religions are very complex and host fragmented subcultures. Due to which, one group may propagate ideas which is at complete loggerheads with ideas propagated by another group. Yet, both groups claim to be of the same religion. These subgroups are generally formed when a group of individuals having a similarly deviant interpretation of their religion band together. Hence, when you say you belong to a certain religion, you also are really part of a group that interprets it in the same way as you.
So how does this all tie into morality? Well, we’ve already established that religion is interpretive and the ideas that it hosts are subject to the interpretation of the people. We’ve also established that due to this, religion may also adopt some not-so-good stances and be interpreted to condone some not-so-good acts. Hence, we can say that religion does not prevent anyone from being immoral because people will always interpret religion to justify what is locked away in their own hearts. Just as there have been people who have pivoted religion to justify genocide and slavery, there have been people who have pivoted religion to admonish genocide and slavery. Religion is not the reason they claim such acts are wrong. It is their innate humanity, which is masked by religion, that drives their morals. What about people that lack humanity? Well, that is a different story. But if they really do lack humanity, I doubt any holy book would prevent them from doing their absolute worst.
I’d like to encourage people not to forget about the humanistic aspect to this argument. For example, suppose you are thrown into a realm where you are already informed that there is no God. Once you die, you die and there is nothing beyond that. You can loot and plunder all you want without any consequences from the Divine. There is a woman walking down the road, with a baby in her hand and you can see that she is carrying a lot of money. You try hassling her for the money, but she is resistant. The only way you can quickly snatch her money before authorities arrive is to kill her. Would you do it?
I am banking on the fact that most people would answer the question with a firm ‘No’. Otherwise, I need to earn some serious money and invest in SpaceX because it’s time to leave this planet. The reason why a lot of people wouldn’t commit the act, is because of the our natural compassion. You don’t need to have fear of God to know that killing is wrong, you just need to have humanity. We are humans, and as such, we host emotions like guilt, anger, hope, fear, love — the list is endless. But my point is, we have to remember that these emotions are pivotal factors in the essence that drives us. If from a young age, we are taught to love and care for one and other, good morals would be based on instinct, not religion.