Religious Upbringing and The Basis for Ethics

A friend of mine once commented that my experience of religion, from the way I talked about it, reminded her of the way some people talk about a bad trip on LSD… the kind of story where someone ends by explaining, “And that’s why I’ll never touch the stuff again.”

Well, that’s not completely true. I do read about religion sometimes; look at the last book I reviewed here, for example! I sometimes read about the history of Christianity, or of scriptures, because quite frankly, that was the governing tradition of the West the way capitalism is our governing paradigm today. If you wish to understand Western culture, philosophy, and literature, you need to know about Catholicism and Christianity. (You don’t need to believe in them to do so — in fact, I’d argue believing in them makes understanding them that much more difficult — but you do need to know about them.)

But when I was reading this review of a book by Bart Ehrman — negative, of course, but I expected that — when I tripped on something nonsensical:

I do have some questions about the overall purpose of this book though, e.g., what’s the point? If Ehrman makes an airtight case for forgery in the NT and non-canonical literature then what are we supposed to actually do with that information? Should those of us who hold the NT as an authoritative text suddenly reject its authority?

I’m also curious about how/why a self-professed agnostic would write so much about honesty and deception as if those concepts actually have concrete meaning to a non-theist. In other words, Ehrman can talk about truth and lies all he wants, but I’m left wondering why he cares or how he grounds any kind of belief in such concepts without grounding them in God. It seems that he has to borrow from a worldview that is not his own in order for the issues he raises to even begin to be considered problematic. Ironic? Perhaps. Inconsistent? Definitely.

Now, those of you with your heads screwed on correctly will see the problem here immediately: the blogger in question seems to have some fundamental misconceptions about the relationship between religion and speaking the truth.

What I find astounding about it is just how out of line with my experience these assertions are. See, I was raised Catholic, and I remember being told explicitly about transubstantiation. I don’t think I said anything aloud, but I didn’t need to: the people teaching it to us — year after dreary year — went ahead and anticipated all of our objections directly. Sure, that looks like wine and bread, but… it’s really the flesh and blood of Jesus! How it could be so evident to them that this was contradicted by all of our common sense, and our senses, and yet how they could insist that, nonetheless, it was true, shocked me. I had that natural reaction a kid often has when being told incredible things — the same reaction, in fact, that I had when first reading about Ancient Astronauts, or The Greys, or about professional ghost hunting Catholic priests, or the secret true history of vampires, or the Nazi obsession with occult relics, or Hollow Earth theory… which reaction was this:

It sounded so crazy, so unbelievable, that maybe, just maybe, it was true, because why would anyone make such a bizarre, unbelievable, nonsensical thing up?

Here’s the thing, though: I also remember, very clearly, being pressured to state these claims about blood and flesh — and beliefs in an afterlife, in the resurrection of the dead, virgin birth, and all sorts of untenable things. There was the authoritarian old priests before whom we were supposed to assert our belief in such things; there were my parents, who after all had enrolled me in these catechism courses and forced me into Church every Sunday, and thus apparently endorsed the lessons and bizarre assertions; there were the other kids who didn’t seem to think anything of these assertions; there were teachers drilling it into our heads, week after week. And then there was all that pressure on us, the fear of, you know, burning in hell forever if we didn’t say the “truth” that was being taught to us.

This (for some kids, profoundly damaging) experience was, I can see when I look back on it, a protracted lesson is lying my ass off. In order to jump through the hoops of community membership, in order to live in peace with my family, in order to stave off the eternal suffering I’d been brainwashed to fear, I just had to do one thing: to lie, but to lie so often and so convincingly that I actually believed my own lie. Because here’s the thing: there was no point — not one single point — in my life when it actually seemed true on any level that the goblet of wine contained anything but consecrated wine; it was apparent to me that I was not a cannibal feasting on the flesh of a millennia-old deity risen out of the dead.

These things never, not once, seemed truly tenable to me. But what was palpable was the danger that people would realize I felt this way, would know somehow that I didn’t believe these things, would punish me for not believing them. Mind you–that was what I actually feared: not that someone would say I hadn’t attested to these “truths” earnestly enough, but that someone would discover the awful, horrible secret: that I simply, authentically didn’t (and couldn’t) believe in something that my senses told me was false. That I, failing to be capable of truly buying into that consensus reality, would be discovered, cast out, and would be exiled from the group. (Which included my family and most of my friends.)

So when I hear religious people saying that religion, or God, is the sole basis for honesty, I have to shake my head and wonder. For me, the first step towards truly authentic speech, towards honesty, was my own so-called apostasy. I was honest for the first time in my life when I said, “I don’t believe in God, and I don’t believe in Jesus, and I am not going to Church anymore.”

The detoxification that followed — and which may not yet be complete; we like to say one is a recovering Catholic, since one always has shards of that experience embedded in one’s flesh for the rest of one’s life — was nightmarish, and difficult. But it was worth it, because that was the road to a state wherein I could be courageous enough, and sensible enough, to actually value the truth and honesty, and to forge relationships based on honesty and the truth rather than on deception and inadmissible fears.

So to those who think that religion has a premium on honesty and telling the truth — or that the nonreligious can have no ethical standards for truth-telling–I say, you’ve got it backwards… but that being part of religious training, it’s hardly surprising.

Also, what Ben Tegland wrote in response to the same passage. That. Especially:

The question of morality is complex and an answer will not be found in a simple blog post. I will say that history has shown that society has to drag Christianity along, not the other way around. Slavery, equal rights for women and racial minorities, today we see this with the gay marriage fight, Christianity is always limping along slowly as society forces them to adapt. Eventually, god capitulates and declares moral the things society accepted 20 years ago.

While I can see how religion might have a benevolent effect on aspects of people’s lives, I have to say, my experience has mostly illustrated the way it gets misused by people to get control over other people, and how the primary means of securing it is by routinely, and often ritually, demanding dishonest or deceitful speech and behaviour from its  adherents.

It’s ironic, then, downright ironic, that anyone should proclaim religion as a prerequisite for having ethical standards about honesty and telling the truth.

6 thoughts on “Religious Upbringing and The Basis for Ethics

    1. Yep, that comment pretty much highlights the problem:

      “There’s evidence there that I’ve based my whole understanding of reality on a flawed model of the world. Do you expect me to reject that model on the basis of your evidence?”

      Sad thing is, I kind of thing we may be stuck with that particular thorn in our species’ side for the long term. Or at least the medium term.

  1. No point arguing with religitards. They already know what’s true and anything that contradicts that must be wrong even if they can’t say why. This might be why they keep trotting out the same discredited arguments over and over. Or that might just be dishonesty.

  2. Oui, though I wouldn’t use the word religitard simply because some of the best people in my life have been of the “I believe this, but I know those who don’t aren’t necessarily bad or wrong, and yeah, I reject some of the doctrines and question many more of them” type. Some people have a deep-seated belief in invisible deities, and I think it’s mostly due to childhood memetic exposure, plus perhaps genetics. *shrug* So not every religious person is a “religitard” is what I suppose I am saying.

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