The Ethics of Evangelicalism

Lately I was having a discussion with someone about evolution being taught in schools, and how the religious alternatives don’t belong in science classes as alternative “theories” (as discussed in this previous entry), and it lead me to ponder the ethics of the creationists, and other religious fundamentalist groups that see it as their duty to force others to adhere to their religious principles “for their own good”.

This practice is especially seen today in “hotter” issues, such as abortion, evolution, stem cell research, and such, issues where the objecting side is more commonly religious, this can also be seen in morality laws and practices. I am using the term “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” loosely, in a sense that does not only apply to Christians, or any other fervent religious group, but to any person or group that advocates any subjective dogmatic policy as law for all individuals, assenting or not (such as Libertarians, and other political extremists left or right), since they all share a common thread of perceived ideological supremacy.

These ideological views are generally anti-rationalist, based on some doctrine, rather than empirical truth, and generally reject proof of theories to the contrary of their views, as we can see most prominently in the evolution debate, where religion rejects the scientific view only for the reason that they are contrary to their dogmas, even if they have a preponderance of factual, and empirical evidence. It’s like Sartrean magic (§247), forcing reality to conform to our views by fainting, or in this case; pure anti-intellectual denial.

A fundamental problem in debates such as these, is that the evangelical position holds no validity with others who do not accept the arguable core dogmatic premises of the group. Saying that that soul begins at conception doesn’t hold well against the atheist who doesn’t believe in the soul, for example. Theological moral arguments are limited in power to those who subscribe to the same version of theology as the arguer, as are any purely doctrinal argument.

Another problem is that dogmatic arguments often close off valid problems from inspection. When using a religious basis for debating abortion or stem cell research, the valid (as in non-doctrinal) problems are overlooked, in favor of more tenuous appeals to emotion or God, which to the rest of us is a weaker position. It is rather absurd to make generalized arguments using terms that only apply to the group from which you are speaking. Saying “Good Christians shouldn’t have abortions!” is only applicable to Christians, not to a more generalized secular audience.

Legislating from these positions is where the ethical problems rise, since it amounts to inflicting the moral consequences of ones doctrinal system on others that do not subscribe to the core of the system, leaving it groundless. Christian law should only be applicable to Christians, and no one else if they do not have the same religious beliefs. Not to single out Christians, this should hold true to all faith inspired laws, regardless of faith. If you are opposed to gay marriage (for example) on religious grounds, then don’t marry a gay person. There is no reason to legislate this for all people regardless of belief systems. This tenet is only applicable to you, and others of your particular moral set. If you could base this on universal grounds (such as logic, empiricism, and science), only then can this law ethically be applied to culture as a whole. Personal faith is not evidence enough to effect the lives of others, to inflict your will upon society as a whole.

Any imposition of will deserves close and careful scrutiny, and should be based on some rational, and objective, grounds, and not merely anti-rational dogma. Accepting that a faith system is real to an individual or group, we must generalize that this is so for all faith systems, even those opposed to ours. This is basic empathy. By forcing others to conform to our view of reality, we dehumanize them, we use them instrumentally towards our will. So even action taken “for their own good” can be destructive, no matter how good the intentions, since it takes away the fundamental humanity of others, their right to choose by their own view of reality.

Until there is an objective measure of the value of various faiths (never), one can never say with 100% certainty if their idea of goodness is better than any other competing version. Thus we must resort to proven methods of generalization to apply ethical systems to society, with an eye towards the balance of individual sovereignty and the health of the society as a whole. Government, as a rule, should ignore all faith-based legislation, and protection of the soul, since as stated this is highly debatable. Society (and thus government) represent the whole of the body of society, and thus should be immune to the various spiritual ideals of subsections of society.

The protection of the soul is the duty of religion, which is a function of community and family, not government. Religion is an individual choice, not a forced obligation.

If a religious sect want to deny certain scientific theories and hypotheses that too is their right, within their own religion. Science exists as a common ground, as it is based on empirical evidence as opposed to subjective revelation. meaning it appeals to a larger group, as a whole, than any single doctrine. Science also has several grounding facets that allow it to function as a better grounding of knowledge than religion. Neither stance (the scientific or the religious) have the ability to refute the other. Observed facts stand regardless of spiritual system, or religious doctrine. The same goes for the feelings of religiosity, which stand on ground other than that which science examines.

The problems our society faces come when these two forces collide, unabashed rationalism versus the beliefs of the religious, this generally is the fault (to be honest) of religion, whose dogma on the world is often threatened by scientific findings. Historically this can be found in the censorship (and murder) that resulted from the heliocentrism of Copernicus, Bruno, and Galileo, and more modernly through the religious suppression of the theory of evolution, and various fields of biological research.

This clash is not the problem of science though, it is the fault of the inflexibility of religion. There is no greater sin than denying truth, because it is not convenient to your group, and if your group is so inflexible as to not be able to yield to facts in the world, then so be it. Censoring truth for your own power is never excusable. Even the Catholic religion can accept evolution within a theistic framework and even admit the truth value of science, showing that the newest naturalistic findings and faith are compatible on a high level. This can also be seen in Judaism, where there is more an openness towards the reconciliation of scientific fact, and religious reality.

Yes, certain high level scientists are also guilty of spreading this antagonism, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who can be considered anti-religious, which amounts to another dogmatic view, being that they are incapable of proving with any scientific rigor that there is no spiritual reality. Their beliefs are just as rational as those who deny facts for the sole reason that they are incompatible with their religious beliefs. The two aforementioned atheists can be called evangelical atheists, and suffer all of the flaws of evangelicals of all stripes, the blind dogmatic acceptance of their own correctness in matters unprovable, and the general inability to live-and-let-live.

There is no war between religion and rationality, until someone perceives there is, it is not an intrinsic feature of human experience. The war arrises only when the unimaginative, and self-righteous minority feel their narrow world view threatened. The healthy response to to allow novelty, accept others experiences, and always admit the possibility of being wrong.

The religion vs. rationality debates (on all levels, and topics) owe much of its existence to some basic social-psychological principles that come with so-called social identity, which is the reinforcement of the group identity by delineating opposition, creating an “us versus them” mentality. Perceiving forces hostile to the group in which you identify serves to strengthen group bonds, and direct action. Opposition defines the group, and threat justifies its existence. This arises because individuals stake some large portion of their self-identity in group identity and membership. This dependence on external groups is a weakness, and unnecessary to a healthy life, and is avoidable with the healthy development of ego.

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asparagus said...

Aaaah... the healthy development of ego. I agree to an extent that the healthy development of ego is more essential to a healthy life than dependence on external groups, but I am inclined to think that if one is lacking a healthy development of ego, external groups can become necessary. If all external groups are taken away, where does that leave an individual with a lacking ego?

A bit of devil's advocacy, if you will:
If evangelicals and fundamentalists are doing what they think is best for everyone in terms of humanity and their religion, can you truly blame them? If they think that their way to save the human race from burning in hell is to stop everyone (not just their own followers) from various things and to discourage learning what they think is wrong, can we blame them? If they are being entirely altruistic in their acts, can we actually say that they are wrong for trying?

for clarification:
I do agree entirely that to bar truth and further knowledge is at best a hateful thing to do to anyone (no matter the situation or eventual truth/knowledge). At worst, it seems to be going against everything that religion stands for. After all, wasn't religion originally used as a way to better understand human nature and origin? I think that because of religion's origins, it should be phased out and replaced with something different.

(p.s. sorry if this went through again, I'm not sure that it sent...)

Omestes said...

Your devil's advocacy burns down into something absurd. Most terrible things in history have been done for "our own good", from eugenics and nazism, to McCarthyism and Communist purges. The totalitarian version of ethics is rather weak. This is why limited government is good, since one person's version of the greater good is antithetical to another's.

In a sense this is what makes the American system decent, million of versions of "the greater good" all forced to duke it out equally, eventually they all get compromised into weak statements, at least in theory. In the end people should bugger off, and leave enough alone, since you are impinging on individual sovereignty.

Phasing out religion? Never will happen, and by doing so you contribute to the same problem that the fundamentalists have, which is why I brought up Dawkin's and Dennett. Phasing IN some sort of universal humanist thought, though, would be nice.