Rational Religion

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The Mugging of Morality


The historical mixing of metaphysics and morality arises from a fundamental misinterpretation of cause and effect.


We all understand cause and effect.  After a few burned fingers and bumped heads and barked shins it is so drilled into us that it becomes almost reflexive.  “This... happened because.... I was dumb, careless or where I shouldn’t have been.”


It becomes part of our self-awareness, and therein lies the problem.


Human beings have probably always overestimated their importance to the Universe; singly and collectively:  and likely unavoidably.


Self-awareness is a big deal, even before we realize that other creatures do it poorly, if at all. 


“I think; therefore I am... significant.”


The Self is so important to each of us, individually, that it takes a great effort of will to be objective about it. 


If we think we matter; that what we do (or don’t do) has an effect on the world around us; we are mentally disposed to accept some of the responsibility when something screws up.  (Actually, we prefer to blame somebody else, but in our hearts we know we had a hand in it.)


There is ample evidence that this is true.  Our actions do have an effect on our neighbors.  If our behavior is extreme, the effect can be profound. 


Most people have a very fuzzy mental boundary-line between physical reality and metaphysical possibility.  We may not do our neighbor ill, but if we wish him ill, and ill befalls him, it is difficult for many of us to believe that our psychic hex was not involved.  This applies whether one tends to feel guilty about what happened, or triumphantly powerful. 


It follows naturally that when something profound and inexplicable happens to us, or in our neighborhood, we should search our past deeds and thoughts for a possible cause. 


Whether we are struck by catastrophe or great good fortune, we wonder what we did to deserve it.


Of course, if it’s a good thing, and we’ve been praying for it, there is no doubt in our minds about cause-and-effect.  


(It is amusing to observe the megalomaniacal humility of people who publicly thank god for their good fortune.  Most of them would be appalled by the thought of claiming to know some world figure or celebrity they had never met.  Yet they feel they know god well enough to ask him for favors. 


This is especially curious in the case of triumphant sports figures.  Their claim implies not only that god is on their side, but that he shows favoritism to them over all those other people who -- a simple interview might reveal -- have also been asking him for help.


These people evidently feel that by publicly crediting god for their success, they are showing proper humility, when they are actually claiming a special relationship with the Lord of Everything.  Hubris in spades!)


Anyway, somewhere along the line - very early in the process - being good and doing evil became associated with natural phenomena such as disease, the weather, earthquakes and volcanoes.  The obviously powerful deities controlling these fierce entities could possibly be appeased or mollified by personal sacrifice - the public or private wasting of goods or lives under our care - but it seemed likely that our attitudes and behavior had a lot to do with the outcome. 


Of course, certain populations and factions have always been so sure that they have done nothing wrong that they are forced to look to the misdeeds of other nearby groups... or strange and deviant members of their own clan ... for the explanation of calamity. 


This gives rise to such un-admirable human activities as scapegoating and witch-burning; to say nothing of "ethnic cleansing." 


But what came first; belief in god or moral behavior?


This is not a chicken-or-egg question. 


Chickens come from eggs come from chickens.........


Belief in gods, and ethics and morality, do not have such a cause and effect relationship.  The only reason they are linked at all in people's minds is through superstition. 


A lot of what nature does to individuals in an entry-level human society doesn't make sense within the framework of limited information available to that society's members.


Lightning strikes; the river valley floods; the volcano erupts; the earth quakes; microbes invade.  These things kill people or make them ill.  Other people and powerful animals also kill or injure people, but that we can more easily understand.  We can see it happening, and we have a whole script of cause and effect leading up to the event.


Quarrels and war; hunting accidents; jealousy and greed:  these aren't mysterious, in and of themselves.  There is always some question why one person gets killed in a fight and the other survives; why this hunter was gored by the mammoth and not his partners;  why one rival for a mate wins out over the other.  We invent all sorts of justifications and excuses for triumph and failure, but we know from experience that war is likely to kill someone, and hunting mammoths is dangerous business.


But natural disasters come out of nowhere.  Their effect is profound on any humans in their path, and they demand some sort of explanation.


Being humans, we supply a human explanation.  Our only experience with human-caused trauma to other humans involves anger, jealousy, acquisitiveness; occasionally powerbrokering.


When the volcano goes off, obviously somebody a hell of a lot bigger than we are is mad at us.  The flood sweeps away our village and it is apparent that somebody very powerful wanted what we had.


When the lava cools and the creek goes back within its banks, we survivors begin casting about frantically for some means to keep it from happening again.    Since we have no scientific data to operate from, we behave as though our attacker were simply a super-human-being.   We can't see him, but we know he must be there, somewhere.  We entreat him to take it easy on us in the future, and we try to bribe him to ensure that he will listen to our pleas.


This is very probably the origin of worship and sacrifice, but it doesn't explain where the notion of being good to one another came from. 


That is an entirely different function of human intercourse and it arises from the fact that human intercourse has evolved into human society.  Ethical behavior is simply the most practical way to maintain a society and keep it healthy.  Optimal maintenance of the gene pool demands a healthy society.


The Golden Rule is probably older than god, unless you believe that Chimpanzees already have a god.  I mean, if you can't go along to get along, you are liable to be one dead monkey.  Your gene line ends here.


So we evolve into an ideal   creature who is aggressive enough to scare off the competition and protect the clan; but not pathologically violent or so acquisitive that he hogs everybody else's resources, whether he needs them or not. 


He doesn't have to prove how bad he is every time the question comes up; just often enough he gets left alone to go about his business.


But that still doesn't have anything to do with religious metaphysics.


The two become linked way down the line, when people start looking for complex relationships between what happens to them and the way they behave.


If you are nice to people - not wimpy; just nice - you are likely to have a more relaxed life than if you go around creating stress in the neighborhood. 


If you treat with respect the people who are big enough to kill you or powerful enough to keep you from getting a share of the hunt or the harvest, they are more likely to let you sit at the table.


If you have great talent, or you fight or work diligently on behalf of the clan, you will achieve status and reward because what you do has value to others.  They want to keep you around and happy to be there.


All these human-to-human connections are part of the fabric of any society.  Everybody understands them, even if some people are better than others at making use of them.  It is an easy intellectual step to plug those linkages into the metaphysical framework you have invented to explain what you cannot understand.


Actually, it is something of a philosophical advance.  We begin to postulate that our behavior towards one another matters to whatever it is that causes the lightning or shakes the earth.  Once we have made that intellectual leap, it is easy to identify specific instances to reinforce the connection. 


We did something bad to our family member or our neighbor, and something bad happened to us, in return.  Our wounded family member or neighbor didn't get even with us; god did it.  


Now very rarely does lightning strike us at the moment we finished sinning.  But if we know we have sinned, and we expect to be struck, when the bolt does come...days, years, half-a-lifetime later.... we know where it came from.