TUMBY BAY - Michael Dom and Paul Oates took issue with a comment I made about ethics and religion following an article by Chris Overland about the inexorable rise of stupidity in the 21st century, ‘The inexorable rise of the 21st century stupid’.
In my comment I wrote that you don’t “necessarily need religions to decide on what is right and what is wrong. All you need is a functioning brain."
I also added that you don't “actually need any codes to guide you. It's more of an innate or instinctive thing.”
Michael took a semantic view and argued that my reference to right and wrong was misplaced in a religious context.
He said that religion should not be considered to be concerned with right and wrong but rather with what is good and what is not good.
It is an interesting subtlety because it suggests that for the religious a basic ethical concept can be malleable depending upon the circumstances.
There are, of course, many examples of this concept in religious coda.
The Old Testament and the Koran (Quran) are good examples of where fundamental ethical principles are ignored for what is perceived as a greater good.
Chopping off the hands of thieves or executing murderers, for instance, is seen as serving a greater good in preventing such crimes even though the punishments are contrary to the ethical principle of doing no harm to fellow humans.
I’m happy to take Michael’s point, but I suggest that in making it he is in fact supporting my view that religion is not much use when it comes to issues of what is fundamentally right or wrong.
Paul takes a different tack and argues that an agreed code of ethics is required to determine right from wrong.
His position, I think, is that religion and its derivatives provide such a code.
I’ve got no problem with that idea but I would argue strongly that such codes were not invented by religions, nor are they something gifted to humanity by various supernatural beings or gods.
With respect to the idea that religions invented our ethical codes I would refer readers to Alain De Botton’s excellent book, ‘Religion for Atheists: A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion’ (Hamish Hamilton, 2012).
“Early Christianity was itself highly adept at appropriating the good ideas of others, aggressively subsuming countless pagan practises … the new faith took over celebrations of midwinter and repackaged them as Christmas.
“It absorbed the Epicurean idea of living together in a philosophical community and turned it into what we now know as monasticism. And in the ruined cities of the old Roman Empire, it blithely inserted itself into the empty shells of temples once devoted to pagan heroes and themes.”
De Botton argues that, if you accept the idea of religious colonisation, it becomes apparent that “the many rules ascribed to supernatural beings were actually only the work of our all-too-human ancestors.”
Our remarkable success as a species has been dependent upon our ability to live together cooperatively. To do that has required rules from the very beginning when we were all hunters and gatherers.
That is, we retrospectively made up our gods to fit around what we intuitively knew were the differences between right and wrong and good and bad.
In that sense, we never needed a god or a religion to tell us what is ethical because that resides in each and every one of us no matter whether we are religious or not.
Paul asks: “Whose code do you follow and how can you not have chaos when there are no agreed rules?”
The short answer is that you should follow your own code.
And maybe obey the law, or at least those parts of it you think are just and right.