I think one of the things that bugs me not just about religion, but also about the spectrum of irrational beliefs that people can hold, is that they mask the true fragility of all of life and culture.
I believe that this insistence on finding often fallacious outside (eternal, rock solid, unchanging) reference points for morality, ethics and human behavior (as well as industrial and political policy) present a sort of foundational challenge to the prospect of our long term survival as a species.
It is the most basic truism of measurement: everything we humans measure is measured relative to something else, from the original royal “foot” to our modern “light years”. But somehow, when it comes to human morality we violently resist the notion that our measurements are at all “relative”. No. “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” sort of sums up the absolutist stance. But even when one claims to have found a true North Star of morality in God, adjustments are always made in the actual application of that morality.
We all know and understand this on a civic level (this is why we have jury trials where context and intention influence the findings of guilt or innocence). But we also understand it on a personal level: nearly everything we do that affects other people is done with an awareness of the potential social cost or benefit — to us.
We humans know from long centuries of experience that we need rules to keep ourselves and society functioning smoothly, and yet we all bend — or break — the rules in a multitude of different ways. When done to extremes, these infractions are punished by the civil authorities (our elected tribal leaders). But in our day-to-day lives there is a truth that many are loathe to recognize: though we may want to believe in an absolute standard of right and wrong that exists outside of our physical world, we are yet ever thankful that we get away with cutting the moral corners that we do dozens of times a day.
Our religions, then, have as part of their appeal the absolute impossibility of the faithful application of their moral dictates to our lives: no one can live up to the law (be it civic or divine). And so we find ourselves in constant rebellion against that which we ourselves most desire. In short, we insist on a God we can never completely obey.
For we all wobble across those lines — even the most righteous (for they, too, pick and choose which precepts of their God-given religion are the most important). It’s human nature.
Why is this? We know why we want God to be there: to lend our lives a sense of purpose and transcendent meaning. So why the impossible-to-obey-rules? Perhaps this makes God “better” than us in a way that re-enforces his “other” status (but conveniently in a form that is able to “look the other way” when we need him to!) But what about the rules themselves?
Well, one of the problems with rules and laws is that they can reach a point of diminishing returns, where their capacity to influence behavior starts to weaken. There are never enough cops (or angels, apparently) to enforce them, so it is left up to us to sort of collectively decide which rules matter the most. (This is most clearly seen in popular mass media, where public outrage over this crime or that criminal ebbs and flows, even as the attention of the public moves on from one favorite outrage to the next. If enough people are angry, a law can suddenly be applied with the full vigor of civil force. If enough people cease to care that much, then laws just as much “on the books” are easily ignored. It happens all the time).
And yet we persist in supporting the myth of a divine law that is immune to a collective human relativism. There is no such thing. We humans are the ones who make — and break — the rules.
We humans seem to be natural utopians. This can be hard to spot as it can take almost any ideological form. And so those of us that believe in the social value of a strong central government can easily fall into the trap of passing ever more laws to feel like we’re doing something (altering human behavior) that we’re actually not . While libertarians and anarchists have their own utopian vision built from the extremely silly view that no laws are better than too many.
There is, lurking in between these views, perhaps some sort of “zone of effectiveness”, or “sweet spot” to aim for.
What most upsets society is unfairness. Not so much because we care a great deal for others as we don’t want our own societal sacrifice to be greater than anyone else’s. This is where the reality of the power of perception becomes critical. (Members of the TEA Party, for example, are convinced that they are paying far higher taxes than they actually are and that their “hard earned money” is going straight into the pockets of lazy minorities).
We are quick to criticize those who govern us for paying too much attention to the polls (or “political” reality) when in truth they are making the same kinds of calculations that you or I make in our own daily actions, albeit on a much larger scale. Make no mistake: there are things citizens simply won’t stand for. This is not cynicism — this is reality. (Adding God to the mix, or putting up the Bible’s ten commandments in every courthouse just sort of muddies up the waters without adding much of use).
For unlike God, we humans have to balance out justice and mercy in the real world of our day to day interactions with each other in a way that maintains some semblance of personal integrity while also seeing to our own personal comfort and safety. The fact that we (generally) selfish humans care for each other as much as we do is one of the saving graces of our species.
Maybe it’s best not to question the myth of morality’s divine origin. Perhaps we’re better off to let that sleeping dog lie. But somehow I don’t think society will unravel once we see this divine “Emperor” naked, because he was never the one making us behave in the first place. And maybe — once we realize that — we will begin to see civil society as the delicate and vulnerable phenomena that it is, and treat it with a good deal more care and kindness than we currently do, and thereby finally take full responsibility for our malleable human morality.