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Column 2
What moral values?

How "traditional" values pervert morality

By © Martin Foreman
Word Count: 773
Publication date: February 13, 2005

The clamor has died down, but the religious right is continuing to celebrate the election of George “I answer to a Higher Father” Bush and the initiatives that outlawed same-sex marriage in election states last November.

I always get irritated when bigotry disguises itself as morality. I calm down by reminding myself that most of the people who voted to deprive millions of fellow-Americans of the benefits of marriage actually believed they were doing something good.

At the heart of the problem is lack of understanding as to what morality is and how it should be defined. That’s mighty convenient for religious leaders who don’t encourage critical thinking, either in themselves or in their followers, but it’s a pain in the anatomy for the rest of us. It’s time to open up the debate and to decide what morality really is.

We can approach morality from two stances: God-neutral or God-centered.

A God-neutral approach says that morality does not exist outside human experience. The tides ebb and flow, the sun rises, rain falls, volcanoes erupt, plants grow and are eaten by herbivores, herbivores are eaten by carnivores and the dead bodies of carnivores return to the earth in one form or another to feed the next generation of plants. None of these events is moral or immoral; they occur and that is all.

Morality only enters the picture with humanity. It is based on the single premise that human life is precious and should be preserved. We are all of equal value, irrespective of age, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability or other condition. The only purpose and function of a moral code is to allow each of us to pursue health and happiness in our own way, as long as our actions do not harm others.

A God-centered approach to morality is defined by the deity. That immediately presents us with a problem, since God has several faces. “Traditional" morality has its roots in the Jewish Bible / Old Testament and the Qur’an. This morality depends not on one unifying principle - other than to worship God - but on a long series of commandments and regulations given by God, his scribes and prophets.

Note that although God makes these rules, he does not respect them. Several times in the Old Testament he commits mass murder, such as killing the first-born in Egypt, and unleashing the Flood which kills not only wicked men but every innocent child and infant on the planet.

God aside, the impact of traditional morality is to privilege some human beings over others and to place considerable restrictions around people’s lives. Men generally take precedence over women, believers over non-believers and the born-again over sinners. Eclectic rules on sexuality allow intercourse between a brother and sister, but not between two unrelated men or women. Dietary and other commandments are enforced that are irrational in the modern world.

On the other hand, traditional morality may not reflect God’s wishes. The alternative God-centered moral code can be seen in the New Testament and Jesus’ single commandment to love one’s neighbor. The impact is immediately obvious in the Gospels, where Christ heals the sick, feeds the hungry and forgives sinners, in contrast to the petulance, anger and violence that God frequently displays in the Old Testament.

Apart from its divine origin, there is little to distinguish Christ’s commandment from the God-neutral code. Both are based on a single principle that recognizes the unique importance of human life. Whether god-centered or god-neutral, both can be described as modern morality.

In some situations there is no difference between modern and traditional morality; for example the former implies “do not kill or steal”, while the latter states it. In general, however, there is a clear difference in philosophy between the two, as traditional morality tends to restrict people’s lives while modern morality frees them.

In the past this contrast could be seen in their different approaches to slavery and women’s rights. Today the difference is seen most clearly in their attitudes to same-sex marriage. Traditionalists see it as a denial of values – modernists see it as a fulfilment of those values. 

If the purpose of morality is to promote everyone's welfare, it is modern values - whether God-centered or God-neutral - that fit the bill, while traditional religious values pervert that goal.

The United States prides itself on championing freedom and in enshrining the pursuit of happiness in its constitution. It is ironic that so many Americans espouse a moral code whose impact is to restrict both freedom and happiness. America certainly needs moral values, but values that respect and honor every citizen.

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If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

wear the Scarlet letter

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