The Moral High Ground (with bonus Sci-Fi parable)

I often enjoy reading Christopher Hitchens. His posts are often witty, cutting, and intelligent. However, though I respect his thinking, I found myself dismayed by his usual Monday column from Slate. While I agree with his specific points regarding Rev. Jeremiah Wright, I was dismayed when he turned the problem of Wright into further evidence of the evil of religion. As I have explained, I am not in lock-step with Dawkins nor Hitchens on these issues.

In fact, I find their insistence on the moral superiority of atheism to be mildly odious and more than a little disconcerting. Edge links to this article by John Gray which outlines some of the troubles with this line of thinking, mainly that movements with a strong atheist component in the 20th Century were responsible for an immense amount of death, violence, and oppression. While I disagree with some of Gray's points, he convincingly describe this major failing of the current resurgence in atheism.

For me, there is no moral superiority for either religion or atheism, neither is one more inherently good or evil. In either case, they can be perverted and used to justify horrific acts. This is not because subscribing to either of them inherently leads to horrific acts. It is because horrific people will utilize whatever philosophy they have available to them to justify their aims.

Yes, religion has many moral failings and some religions posits unforgivable beliefs, but many people take the core of the religion without following the letter of it. While I abhor many of the moral prescriptions of organized religion, this is not my primary criticism of religion.

To describe this critique, I have a brief parable. Imagine a genial being who visits Earth but has no exposure to religion, neither on Earth nor on its home planet. This being hears that their is such a thing on Earth as belief in a supernatural being. This concept appeals to the being, but the being is looking for something more specific. The leaders of all religions come to meet the being and explain to the being their religion. In addition, numerous scholars present to the being religions of the past.

How does the being decide which religion to practice?

First of all, this being would obviously be mentally exhausted. He would have heard for many, many people about the many, many religions currently in existence on Earth and which have existed in the past. He would also have trouble with some of the religions, because being an in interstellar traveler he would have a very deep knowledge of science. He would know about the age and development of the universe. He would have trouble with any religion which insisted on a "young Earth". However, being positive, he would ignore this and attempt to understand the core teachings of each religion.

With no prejudices, save a scientific viewpoint, it would be impossible for such a being to choose. There are no reasoned criteria to choose Buddhism over Christianity, or Islam over Scientology. You may find one less moral or moral, but its does not make one the correct religion. It just means the religion has identified correct morals.

In addition, let say that I give you intelligent design. I say, "sure an intelligent being has designed our universe." Why does it mean that it is your intelligent being and not one I came up with yesterday. In fact, I could make a religion today and it would be no more or less valid as any other. L. Ron Hubbard actually accomplished this. People laugh at Scientologist or deride them, but why should my imaginary being take Scientology any less seriously than the "legacy" religions. There is not a valid logical reason.

Its only a matter of faith, not reason. Even if you grant a creator, there is no way to determine which religion has the correct creator. You could say it is not logical, but it is a matter of faith. Well, there is a surplus of faith. Which faith? Again, one faith is the same as the other. This problem greatly troubles our genial being.

After deliberating on Earth for a long period, our being finds that his journey is not over, because there are billions of other worlds out there with life and most of those have some type of religion. In fact, they each have thousands of religions. In order to make a judicious decision, our imaginary being (who for the sake of argument lives much longer than humans) will spend the rest of his life collecting these religions and myths.

Nearing death, he returns to Earth two thousand years after he first visited, only to find there are hundreds of religions which have been created in the interim period and many which have been previously presented to him which have been abandoned.

Where does he find solace? Does he nihilistically succumb to death in despair? Does he decide there is no God? To the contrary, he looks back at his journey and is overcome by the sense that religion is beside the point. That if there was a creator, no finite being has a mind to conceive of that creator or to describe the creator with one single religion among the teeming millions of religions. If there were a creator, there is only one neutral and unmediated place to interpret its message. In the stars and atoms. In cells and molecules. He realizes that the mechanics of stars and of atoms are constant everywhere. There is no moral lesson there except that the universe is far greater and more amazing than any religious text from a pre-scientific culture could possible imagine and that life persists despite many obstacles. Our genial being dies comforted, finally having made a connection to its creator, whatever that is.

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