Sunday, February 13, 2005


Reflections on Values without Religion

Religious people may argue over what values are important, but they can argue there is authority in the scriptures that go with their religion for whatever values they do take seriously. Typically, it is taken to be true that these scriptures were dictated by god or at least by the founder of the religion, a semi-divine personage lost in the mists of time. Since these scriptures also form the basis of regular services and rituals, they have a built-in status that texts that are clearly not taken as divine do not possess.

Thus those of us who are not religious, though we may adhere as strongly to values, have a less direct means to assert the truth of these values or to “derive” them for those who don’t necessarily yet agree with them. It doesn’t matter if, say, some philosopher has worked out a moral system, because there is seemingly no imperative for anyone who disagrees with the system to take the philosopher to be correct. (Of course, it is also true that religious people don’t agree on moral matters; some self-styled Christians are hung up on certain prohibitions found in the Old Testament, whereas others like the New Testament’s Sermon on the Mount much more. Still it seems many people find their position strengthened if they can somehow locate it in Scriptures of ancient lineage, rather than in modern secular works.)

Some non-believers still look to religious traditions to justify the values they hold, on the basis, apparently, that these values have stood the test of time. But this must be a highly selective process. After all values commonly accepted today, such as the evil of slavery or women’s rights, are quite new compared to the lifetimes of most religious traditions. Other traditions of great lineage, such as burning heretics at the stake, are equally rejected by most people today.

What these simple reflections force me to conclude is that religion by itself is not the source of currently held values, even for religious people. If we could ascertain the real source or sources, why could we not derive our values from them directly?

Religious people sometimes take the view that a scientific approach, including evolutionary theory, leaves us with the notion that life simply emerged accidentally and therefore is without meaning. That ignores the fact that human actions are normally meaningful. How did meaning arrive in a random sort of world? Quite simply, humans or proto-humans invented meaning, just as we invented gods.

We didn’t invent meaning all in one fell swoop; rather, as social forms change, new kinds of meaning can be invented. Thus, in a hierarchical pre-market economy, it was possible to accept inequality. But because a money-based market economy is fundamentally associated with a notion of equality in the marketplace, the equal status of all humans seems to arise as a clear corollary, at least for some people. Later on the notion of equality itself became a powerful corrective to the market economy that perhaps gave rise to this ideal. Hence such notions as opposition to slavery, feminism, rights for the propertyless, and even socialism may have emerged from the very nature of capitalist markets.

But that story is probably incomplete. Equality as a notion takes more than the existence of markets. One has to recognize that humans are all basically alike. Where does that come from? I think it derives from the experience that different people can understand one another, in other words from the experience of empathy resulting from the ability to translate between different languages, as well as between different conditions in the same culture. The notion of consumer sovereignty that capitalism potentially implies works with the emergence of widespread travel, bi-lingual dictionaries, print, and also notions of biological connection, as well as experiences of empathy between members of close-knit communities to create a broader empathic sense. From that greater empathy, values that previously were confined to narrow communities, such as prohibitions against killing, can now be applied more broadly.

Having started with the assertion that religious people have an easier time asserting values than non-religious ones because they can seemingly derive those values from readings of scripture, I now must assert something in stark contradiction. Values that supposedly arise from scripture actually come from social, technological and scientific developments. Scriptures are red herrings that cannot actually teach values from scratch, because by themselves they could teach absolutely anything.

For what it may be worth, my own remembered story may be an example of this. As a small child, I was read the Ten Commandments. One of them struck me with especial force: “Thou shalt not kill.” Because I liked that one so much, I felt an allegiance to all the rest. But the commandments themselves don’t explain why I liked that particular one so much. Opposition to killing already resonated deeply for me. I would have to say this was partly a result of having been born during WWII and hearing very early about the Holocaust, but also out of some very basic sense of empathy. Anyway, this Commandment always seemed much more important to me than any of the others; it led me to pacifism and opposition to capital punishment, values that have endured far longer than any general allegiance to the other commandments.

If empathy remains the basis of worthwhile values, then what is important is instilling empathy, not instilling religion per se. Bible stories told to small children might help do that under the right circumstances, but other stories and other media are potentially still more potent. Even news stories such as those of the Indian Ocean tsunami can have a very powerful effect.

Empathy is not everything. Religion is very often called upon for providing strength for dealing with major turning points in life, especially with the most final one — dying. The fundamental horror of death is, I think, the sense of an abrupt end. Many religions attempt to ease that fear by suggesting that there is no end, that life somehow endures in some other plane. But a similar sense of continuity can be gained by reflecting on the fact that we live in a world of shared meanings and empathy, which implies that our minds interpenetrate; to some degree we each continue to live in the minds of others. That awareness can be a balm as much as the notion of an afterlife lived in some weird other world, or even in weird reincarnation in this one.

For now, I will end these reflections. They are highly incomplete, but still I think they point to the possibility of a renewed and strong pride in a non-religious source of values.

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