Tag Archives: morality

Religious “Morality”

I get alternately amused and annoyed when self-identified “religious” folks question the morality of agnostics and atheists. How, they piously declaim, can one be moral without (their version of) God?

It’s pretty easy, actually.

Most of the nonreligious folks I know have thought deeply about the nature of morality and their ethical obligations to their fellow-humans. And my genuinely religious friends–who tend not to be among the self-righteous and self-congratulatory “Pence-ites”–are equally thoughtful. But lately, I’ve begun wondering just how those “Christian warriors” define the morality they’re so sure we nonbelievers don’t have.

Pat Robertson, for example, has weighed in on the issue of how America should respond to Saudi Arabia’s recent murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

A major evangelical leader has spoken in defense of US-Saudi relations after the apparent killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate, saying that America has more important things — like arms deals — to focus on.

Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, appeared on its flagship television show The 700 Club on Monday to caution Americans against allowing the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia to deteriorate over Khashoggi’s death.

“For those who are screaming blood for the Saudis — look, these people are key allies,” Robertson said. While he called the faith of the Wahabists — the hardline Islamist sect to which the Saudi Royal Family belongs — “obnoxious,” he urged viewers to remember that “we’ve got an arms deal that everybody wanted a piece of…it’ll be a lot of jobs, a lot of money come to our coffers. It’s not something you want to blow up willy-nilly.”

I’m going through the Christian bible right now, looking for the place where Jesus said that money from the sale of weapons with which to kill people takes priority over the sanctity of life. (Unless, I assume, it’s the life of a fetus…)

Robertson’s response is part and parcel of the fervid fundamentalist Christian support for Donald Trump–support that has generated numerous academic analyses and chattering class punditry  devoted to the question: how do these “family values” and “morality police” Christians explain their support for a man who exemplifies everything they previously professed to hate?

It isn’t just his personal immorality–three wives, multiple affairs (including with a porn star), bragging about sexual assault, constant bullying and even more constant (and obvious) lying. It’s also his business practices.

A recent article in The New Yorker provided evidence that fraud is at the heart of the Trump business model.

The Times published a remarkable report, on October 2nd, that showed that much of the profit the Trump Organization made came not from successful real-estate investment but from defrauding state and federal governments through tax fraud. This week, ProPublica and WNYC co-published a stunning storyand a “Trump, Inc.” podcast that can be seen as the international companion to the Timespiece. They show that many of the Trump Organization’s international deals also bore the hallmarks of financial fraud, including money laundering, deceptive borrowing, outright lying to investors, and other potential crimes.

Of course, my question is rhetorical. We all know why so many White Christian men (and the women they dominate) support Trump–he tells it like (they think) it is: they are superior by virtue of their religion, their genitals and their skin color, and so they deserve to keep a more privileged status than women and minorities.

There are lots of words that describe that attitude and that support, but “moral” isn’t one of them.

Love of Money

Here’s a challenge: how many biblical phrases must an evangelical Christian ignore in order to justify supporting Donald Trump?

I know–you have a life, and you are too busy to compile them all.

My personal favorite is the admonition that “Love of money is the root of all evil.” (Note: it isn’t the money–it’s the love of money.) Next time your pious neighbor explains that Trump’s riches are evidence of his worthiness, you might ask him about 1 Timothy 6:10.

I thought about that verse when I read a recent column summarizing research on the moral effects of wealth. It was written by Charles Mathewes, a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, and Evan Sandsmark, a PhD student in Religious Studies at the University, and it touched on several issues with which this blog has recently dealt.

The authors note that people with great wealth used to be viewed as morally suspect (“The idea that wealth is morally perilous has an impressive philosophical and religious pedigree.”) but that such attitudes have changed. (As I’ve previously noted, I attribute the change to Calvin…)

We seem to view wealth as simply good or neutral, and chalk up the failures of individual wealthy people to their own personal flaws, not their riches. Those who are rich, we seem to think, are not in any more moral danger than the rest of us.

Recent research suggests otherwise, however. As they explain:

The point is not necessarily that wealth is intrinsically and everywhere evil, but that it is dangerous — that it should be eyed with caution and suspicion, and definitely not pursued as an end in itself; that great riches pose great risks to their owners; and that societies are right to stigmatize the storing up of untold wealth.

After quoting historical figures like Aristotle and religious books (including Hindu texts and the Koran), they quote Pope Francis, who has waxed eloquent on the subject, and then segue to current social science research.

Over the past few years, a pile of studies from the behavioral sciences has appeared, and they all say, more or less, “Being rich is really bad for you.” Wealth, it turns out, leads to behavioral and psychological maladies. The rich act and think in misdirected ways.

When it comes to a broad range of vices, the rich outperform everybody else. They are much more likely than the rest of humanity to shoplift and cheat , for example, and they are more apt to be adulterers and to drink a great deal . They are even more likely to take candy that is meant for children. So whatever you think about the moral nastiness of the rich, take that, multiply it by the number of Mercedes and Lexuses that cut you off, and you’re still short of the mark. In fact, those Mercedes and Lexuses are more likely to cut you off than Hondas or Fords: Studies have shown that people who drive expensive cars are more prone to run stop signs and cut off other motorists .

The rich are the worst tax evaders, and, as The Washington Post has detailed, they are hiding vast sums from public scrutiny in secret overseas bank accounts.

They also give proportionally less to charity — not surprising, since they exhibit significantly less compassion and empathy toward suffering people. Studies also find that members of the upper class are worse than ordinary folks at “reading” people’ s emotions and are far more likely to be disengaged from the people with whom they are interacting — instead absorbed in doodling, checking their phones or what have you. Some studies go even further, suggesting that rich people, especially stockbrokers and their ilk (such as venture capitalists, whom we once called “robber barons”), are more competitive, impulsive and reckless than medically diagnosed psychopaths. And by the way, those vices do not make them better entrepreneurs; they just have Mommy and Daddy’s bank accounts (in New York or the Cayman Islands) to fall back on when they fail.

The authors note studies suggesting that great material wealth actually makes people less willing to share.

All in all, not a pretty picture–although we should remember that statistics don’t necessarily describe individuals. (Not every rich guy is a Koch brother or a Donald Trump; there are the Warren Buffetts.) Nevertheless,

So the rich are more likely to be despicable characters. And, as is typically the case with the morally malformed, the first victims of the rich are the rich themselves. Because they often let money buy their happiness and value themselves for their wealth instead of anything meaningful, they are, by extension, more likely to allow other aspects of their lives to atrophy. They seem to have a hard time enjoying simple things, savoring the everyday experiences that make so much of life worthwhile. Because they have lower levels of empathy, they have fewer opportunities to practice acts of compassion — which studies suggest give people a great deal of pleasure . They tend to believe that people have different financial destinies because of who they essentially are, so they believe that they deserve their wealth , thus dampening their capacity for gratitude, a quality that has been shown to significantly enhance our sense of well-being. All of this seems to make the rich more susceptible to loneliness; they may be more prone to suicide, as well.

Given all this, I’m trying to work up my sympathies for our unhappy, morally-malformed President–but his sheer awfulness keeps getting in the way….

 

Testing…

Arguments about morality have been hurled from both directions in the fight over HJR3.  Those who want to place the ban on same-sex marriage in the state’s constitution argue that (their version of) biblical morality demands it; those of us on the other side–religious and not– define morality in terms of how we treat other people, and find HJR3 lacking.

There’s another “moral” question involved, however, and it is less often noted.

You might think of HJR 3 itself as a moral test being administered to Indiana legislators.

I have a good friend who is a lobbyist. He’s over at the statehouse every day, and–like all lobbyists–engages in constant conversations with Indiana lawmakers. He tells me that a fair number of those who can be counted on to vote for HJR3 know it is the wrong thing to do. They will admit–privately–that it will hurt Indiana, hurt children being raised in GLBT families, that it is bad public policy, and even that it is morally wrong.

But they “have to” vote for it because they represent conservative areas of the state. Because they might face a primary challenge if they vote their minds and consciences. Because it would be awkward explaining a “no” vote to their constituents.

My friend finds this understandable, if regrettable. I find it despicable.

Sometimes, life gives us hard choices. We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we have to choose between doing what we know is the right thing and doing the easy, self-serving thing.  How we act in those situations is the true test of character and morality.

Some of our legislators are truly homophobic. Others believe, for whatever reason, that gay citizens are not entitled to equal rights. They’re wrong, and most of them probably realize that they’re on the wrong side of history. But they’re voting their beliefs, however benighted I may consider those beliefs.

The truly contemptible lawmakers are the ones who know better, the ones unwilling to do what they know is right because doing so might entail some personal cost.

They fail the test. Big time.

 

Who Are We?

Today is Sunday. And Father’s Day.

Believers who celebrate Sabbath on Sunday will go to church and hear exhortations about living a good and moral life.  Depending upon the denomination, the focus will be on love and compassion, charity and social justice.

In most families, Fathers will receive sentimental greeting cards from their children thanking them for their patience and love and support. Some will get sweaters or ties or sporting gear; others will have a family dinner.

These Norman Rockwell experiences make us feel good about ourselves. We’re good people, family people, caring citizens.

So here is my question: how many Americans will go to work tomorrow for an employer who has cut his or her hours in order to avoid paying for health insurance? If we are to believe the media reports, it’s not an insignificant number.

At Indiana University, where I teach, there’s a new rule that Graduate Assistants–already poorly paid–cannot work more than 29 hours a week, because then they would be eligible for health insurance. The Indianapolis Star recently reported that several Indiana school districts were planning to cut back hours for many staff positions, so that they could avoid insuring the people in those positions. Private employers, of course, have been engaging in such practices for years, in order to avoid compliance with a number of regulations that apply only when employees work a certain number of hours.

This response to an effort–however flawed–to extend basic health services to people who currently can’t afford those services tells us something about our culture. And what it tells us isn’t consistent with that Norman Rockwell version of ourselves.

Scalia’s Morality

As has been widely reported, Justice Antonin Scalia made a controversial–albeit illuminating–remark on Monday, during a speech at Princeton. In response to a student who asked him about previous anti-gay writings in which he had compared laws criminalizing homosexuality to those banning bestiality and murder, Scalia defended the comparison, saying that–while he wasn’t equating homosexuality with murder–it illustrated his belief that legislative bodies should be able to enact laws against “immoral” behaviors.

I am deathly tired of legislators and judges who define “morality” exclusively by what happens below the waist, and who confuse “tradition” with a moral compass.

Throughout his career, Scalia has devoted his undeniable brilliance not to an exploration of the human condition, the nature of morality or even the role of law in society, but rather to the creation of an elaborate intellectual defense of his prejudices.

Anyone who would equate sexual orientation–an identity–with murder–a behavior–fails Classification 101. It can never be immoral simply to be something: gay, female, black, whatever. Morality by definition is right behavior. And most moral philosophers begin that examination by asking a fairly simple question: does this behavior harm another?

Now, I know there are endless (legitimate) arguments about the nature of “harm,” but–Micah Clark and Eric Miller to the contrary–the mere fact that gay people exist and may be granted equal civil rights cannot be rationally considered harmful.

How moral we are depends upon how we treat each other. Sexual molestation is wrong whether the molester is gay or straight. Theft is wrong irrespective of the color, religion or sexual orientation of the thief.

And as many others have noted, tradition is hardly a reliable guide to moral behavior. Quite the opposite, really. War has been a human tradition. Slavery was traditional for generations. The submission of women lasted eons. The loss of these “traditions” is hardly a victory for immorality–although for old white guys like Scalia, I’m sure the loss of privileged status is cause for regret.

The job of legislatures is to pass measures needed by governing bodies–rules for civic order, taxation, service delivery, and the myriad other matters that may properly be decided communally. Allowing legislators to decide whose lives are moral is not only improper, not only an abuse of power, it is itself immoral.