Are Religious People Moral?

So, not to put too fine a point on it, but I’ve decided to find out just how many people can become outraged when I choose to talk about Religion, Agnosticism, Atheism, and Morality, as you can see from the title of this post. Notice, also, that I state religious people, including your garden variety religious person.

Basically, religious people break down into two groups with variations throughout: your garden variety religious person who believes in God and believes in the tenets of their religion but isn’t fanatical about it, and highly religious people, who are different from your garden variety religious person, and by those I mean those who believe their religion is not only a part of them but also determines the outcomes of their lives. You know, like football players who tell you that God won the game for them, as though God gives a shit about football (Though, considering he is God, he doesn’t give a shit about anything, because, let’s face it, God doesn’t shit). They are a separate animal from the garden variety religious person, and I’ll deal with them first.

So are highly religious people moral? Short answer: No. But that’s being flip about it. The long answer isn’t really that much more but begins to point out the flaws in their beliefs.

You can be moral and highly religious; so, yes, there could be highly religious people who are moral, but they are not moral because they are highly religious, as being highly religious is not a pre-determinate of being moral. The idea that you have to be religious to be moral is a bunch of hockum. And, no, I’m not going to go into the history of religion and the atrocities committed in the name of religion to prove what has been proven over and over again. Suffice to say Daesh believes itself to be highly religious and therefore moral. And before you jump all over me that I’m singling out Islam, The Westboro Baptist Church believes much the same thing. Not to mention all the other fringe religious fanatics out there, who seem to be multiplying hourly (The Duggars are a fine example of their own little island of religious insanity).

And this is where the whole thing falls apart. After all, what is the justification for morality in this instance other than religion and God. God makes you moral, either through punishment or reward. You do good, you go to Heaven. You do bad, you go to Hell. With fanatics, it’s not just doing good or bad, it’s doing good or bad the way they describe those terms, add onto that their belief that they must act upon those beliefs of what is good and bad. It’s not enough that they denounce you for your behavior, they are here as God’s crazy-eyed right hand to meet out his vengeance should you do what they consider bad.

Which isn’t that far off from what the garden variety religious person believes, really. It’s just a matter of degree. Your garden variety religious person believes pretty much what the fanatic does. You do good because of God; you do bad because you choose to defy God. The difference is is that your garden variety religious person simply is too lazy or too non-committal to take their religious belief to the extreme their religion, if they were to follow it precisely, demands. So today’s garden variety religious person is just a few steps away from your religious fanatic.

But does that in any way make them moral? Again, the short answer is No. If your only reason for behaving in a positive manner with your fellow beings is because you fear the external inducement of going to Hell or crave the external inducement of getting into Heaven, then clearly you are not moral. You behave the way you behave based solely on these external inducements. By contrast, the Agnostic or the Atheist who behaves magnanimously with his fellow beings without these inducements is considerably more moral. All she/he receives is inner well-being and adherence to her/his own code of conduct.

That’s not to say Agnostics and Atheists don’t do bad things. They just don’t have a ready-made outside justification for their behavior like the religious do. What’s more, they are in essence less hypocritical simply again by the nature of their lack of belief in a God, because, unlike the God-Fearing or God-Loving, when they behave badly towards their fellow beings, it is out of their belief system. When a religious person behaves badly towards his fellow beings, it is antithetical to the teachings of their belief system i.e. hypocritical or their belief system is so distorted that it is used as justification i.e. hypocritical.

None of this is new. Certainly Sam Harris,Richard Dawkins, and others have touched on these arguments. It’s just that it seems we are coming around again to this foolish belief that the religious are somehow more moral, even as they deny that we are killing the planet, they deny children education and welfare, they start wars based on their conviction that their God is greater than the other loony’s God, and that it is perfectly all right to believe in a loving God who tells you to help your fellow beings and then not help your fellow beings.

The religious are delusional. In many cases that delusion is mild and comfortable and even admirable. But in a growing number of cases that delusion is violent, hateful, and downright destructive, all couched in the language of morality, when all it truly is is a selfish fear of a wrathful, jealous being who demands complete fealty even as it destroys wantonly. If, on the other hand, you believe God to be merciful, loving, and kind, then you behave the way you do either because you believe he will reward you for your good behavior or you think he’s a pushover and it will not matter what you do, he will reward you.

Either way, religious people are not any more moral than anyone else. They simply have delsuions which allow them to claim to be so.

Chris Kyle and Alan Turing

In a strange coincidence or twist of fate, there are two movies vying for best picture at the Academy Awards which deal with similar subject matter, in this case, what did you do in the war. American Sniper is the somewhat fictionalized account of Chris Kyle, considered the deadliest sniper to ever fight in a war, while The Imitation Game is the somewhat fictionalized account of the life of Alan Turing, one of the people most responsible for breaking the Nazi Enigma machine’s code and thereby shortening World War II according to most historians by two years and saving the lives of over four million more people. Both are now considered heroes. Do either of them deserve it?

Before I go any farther, let me state that I have not seen American Sniper and am torn about whether I should. What I have read about Chris Kyle makes me believe that he was a very capable soldier, nothing more, nothing less. The interviews I have read with Chris Kyle makes me believe that he did what he needed to do and did not really work to understand what or why he was doing what he did. There seems to be little introspection on his part whether or not his actions were done in a good cause or for the right reasons. At one point, he does say he thinks we went to Iraq to bring them Democracy, but it’s not as if he truly thought it through. It’s as though he was told that that is what we were doing and never questioned it. He was a good soldier. He was a blunt instrument with a subtle skill.

Was he a hero? Are all soldiers heroes? Old men with visions of grandeur who would never send their own children off to war send the children of those unlucky enough to be unable to avoid it off to war, filling their heads with visions of glory and honor, calling them heroes upon their undertaking and upon their return home, but forgetting about them soon after, leaving these scarred, inexorably changed young men and women to fend for themselves. Maybe most do not come back from war with PTSD, but none come back the same as when they left. Does being a hero mean surviving the trauma of war? Then they are all heroes. Just heroes we would rather not have to be reminded of should it bother our delicate sensibilities.

But to do their job, to kill others, because that is what soldiers do (though not the only thing they do), they have to leave some of their humanity behind. Chris Kyle admitted that he stopped thinking of Iraqis as people. They were all terrorists; all targets. They were the other, and he cared little nor even seemed to consider that it was we who invaded their country because of some questionable decisions by our leaders. So he would kill the enemy because that is what he was trained and told to do.

Then there was Alan Turing: the autistic, homosexual mathematical genius. Turing appeared to care little for war. He didn’t seem to be in it for the glory or the honor or in any way felt the need to save his country. He decided to try to defeat Enigma because it was one of the great puzzles of the world, and he loved puzzles. Is this true, or is this some fiction thought up to make the film about Turing more interesting. Only someone who was there would know for certain, though there are other stories about Turing that differ with the Turing in The Imitation Game. Yet even in these other stories, he is portrayed as someone who didn’t care much about the social niceties. Someone who just couldn’t decipher people, or if he could, just didn’t care to.

Obviously, Turing was not a warrior. He did not fight in the traditional sense of the word. Didn’t pick up a gun, Didn’t directly take a life. His was a battle of the wits, a war to see who was the more ingenious, who could out-think whom. Breaking the Enigma saved thousands, possibly millions of lives, yet Turing’s interest, at least at the start in the film, was with the puzzle, not it’s eventual outcome. Yet through his obsessiveness and despite his lack of social graces, he broke the code and did what a hero is supposed to do, saving thousand, possibly millions, even as he came to the horrific realization that many would have to be sacrificed to keep the Germans from ever knowing that their code was broken. Sacrifice hundreds to save thousands. What kind of toll does that put on a man’s psyche, I wonder. Does that make him a hero?

If we were looking at both films based only on Box Office, American Sniper is running away with it hands down. It is a film, after all, that seems to cue into that particularly American zeitgeist of the mythic quiet American who deals out justice from the end of a gun. We like the blunt instrument. We like thinking that every problem is a nail waiting to be hammered. Right now, the US is involved in over 102 different Special Operations around the world, while simultaneously, Congress looks to place more sanctions on Iran and possibly derail any diplomacy with that country, because as Americans, we want quick, decisive, no nonsense black-and-white solutions. We don’t like the idea that there are areas of grey.

So who’s the hero: Kyle or Turing? Both did their job; both contributed. Yet Kyle, with all his many kills, doesn’t come close to the number of lives Turing saved.

In the end, though, both men are left with nothing. Kyle, because he is sacrificed to an illegal and unpopular war; Turing, because he is sacrificed to the British attitude toward homosexuality following what many would consider a good war. Both are victims of their respective systems and the popular opinions of the time. Both die under a cloud. And even as we resurrect the reputations of both men, we are left wondering what makes a hero and who do we apply that term to.