The Hijacking of Morality

Quote of the Week:  “One of the great tragedies of mankind is that morality has been hijacked by religion.”  – Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur Clarke warned us about the tendency of those wearing religious trappings to act immorally, and even to foment deliberately immoral principles and objectives.  Religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are complex structures of thought, filled with self contradictions that allow for these religions to be used for contradictory purposes – to argue, for example, both for and against slavery, for and against war, for and against religious toleration, etc.  However, there is an easy test by which we can determine whether an argument, religious or otherwise, is moral – how, in effect, to determine if morality is on track or has been “hijacked.”  That test is the liberal ethic of building a community of care and welfare, the vision of the City on a Hill.  Morality is ultimately not a question of religion, enshrined as it can be by religious thought.  Morality is not found in God’s House; but in the hearts of people doing the moral work of building a city of love and care and communal responsibility for those around us.

Humans are for the most part essentially moral creatures.  All human civilizations, societies, and cultures have moral systems; and for that matter the gross similarities on moral rules (prohibiting murder, protecting children, etc.) vastly outweigh disparities.  This is even more true of religions, which are virtually universal in their agreement on basic moral questions (disagreeing instead on doctrinal questions, like the number and names of their god(s), the relationship of physical to metaphysical realms, days and times and methods of worship, etc.).  That humans always manage to impose an identical moral order on their religions, and on their societies and cultures (not to mention on agnostic and atheist philosophies) proves that religion gets its morality from people, not the other way around.  Morality is a human quality, not a religious one.

All religions are theories of philosophy.  Philosophy is merely “the study of the general and fundamental nature of reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.”  Religions are first and foremost theories about the nature, composition, and origin of the universe, questions fundamental to philosophy in general.  All philosophical systems – religions included – are ultimately moral systems, because humans are moral creatures seeking to impose their natural moral standards upon their thoughts, impulses, laws, cultures, etc.  Religions represent natural human curiosity about – and the need to explain – the universe around them; and religious morality derives from both our natural human norms and from social and cultural differentiation.  No religion developed in a vacuum.  All religions grew out of existing moral, philosophical, political, social, and other systems, and kept certain basic standards while imposing certain other new standards.

Political ideals are also philosophies, and they similarly derive from basic moral norms as well as imposing new moral standards.  Furthermore, political and religious ideology are often intimately intertwined.  Human thought remains fixated on systems inherited from the past (systems in which people grow up and which therefore can be central to their conception of the world around them).  Early thinkers sought to explain complex and (at the time) immeasurable phenomena through simple religious statements; and their explanations have been passed down the generations to the religions of today.  Political idealism, often informed by preexisting religious ideals, also interacts with and shapes developments in religious thought (as in such trends like Wahhabism and the Great Awakenings of the nineteenth century; and the twentieth century movements of religious conservatism and extremism).

The interaction between religion and politics has had ramifications both great and terrible.  The American liberal ideal of the City on a Hill exemplifies a civilization informed by Christianity and enshrining a social collective with an imperative to care for all people and to welcome all seeking refuge.  However, despite the essentially liberal ethic that derives from Christianity and the other great religions, religion carries with it a risk that bleeds over onto politics as well.  Religious messages can be confusing, complex, and self-contradictory; and many have perverted religious messages to pursue immoral objectives of greed, selfishness, and intolerance.  In fact, much in the way of religious conservatism (of all colors) falls under this description, including the Religious Right of the US, the settlers’ movement of Israel, and the Islamic theocracy of Iran.  Even more extremist religious conservatives like ISIS, al Qaeda, and terrorist killers like Robert Dear and Dylann Roof pervert religious messages into immorality, denying messages of peace, love, and tolerance; and perpetrating violence and hatred.

Religious conservatism effectively abandons the liberal moral ethic enshrined by religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and works against the community of the City on a Hill.  Such movements and their sympathizers used religious arguments to support slavery, to rationalize and push forward imperialism and Manifest Destiny, to ignore and even justify the Holocaust, to continue repressive regimes like those of Iran and Saudi Arabia, to fight against the extension of civil rights in the US, and even to argue against basic health care services to the poor like those provided by organizations such as Planned Parenthood.  In all of these cases, religious arguments contradicting the basic liberal ethic of the very religions cited were used to justify oppression, intolerance, and violence.  Values hostile to the major religions of the world, as well as to most human moral norms, are given religious justification by those claiming religious titles and citing religious sources.

Clarke may have misspoken somewhat when he criticized the “hijacking” of morality by religion.  Religion does not “hijack” morality; but it does promote the abandonment of morality (even while being itself an expression of moral principles), by those wearing religious garb and identities.  There is, however, a simple way to tell the difference between religious leaders arguing immorality (the “hijackers”) from those arguing a moral message.  The litmus test is the liberal ethic of community, the construction of the City on the Hill (and the construction in fact, not simply the patriotic lip service to an ethic otherwise ignored).  We find morality ultimately not in God’s House; but in the hearts of those building our City, extending the community of care and welfare to all people.

Headline image via Google Image Search.


One thought on “The Hijacking of Morality

  1. As a nonbeliever, it’s very refreshing to see an acknowledgment of the difference between morality and religion. The number of well-intentioned religious people who refuse to understand that individuals can be good people outside of a religious construct is a constant disappointment.


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