Religion and morality are complicated issues for many people, and since
we are an interfaith family the subject of teaching these things is
coming up more and more regularly. Although Curious Boy is too young by
far to get any of it, we hope that by talking we can hash out some
semblance of a coherent position by the time he is a bit older
There has been a few recent articles chronicling the rise to prominence
of the "New Athiests". Most visible is Richard Dawkins (YouTube),
who even appeared recently on South Park. Dawkins' principle weakness
is that he is as much a fundamentalist as the people he derides.
A more moderate voice in the debate is Sam Harris (LINK) author of Letter to a Christian Nation.
In last week's International Herald Tribune (via The Boston Globe) Harris argues that religion is a bad reason to be good.
America's midterm elections are fast approaching, and their outcome
could well be determined by the "moral values" of conservative
While this possibility is regularly bemoaned by liberals, the link
between religion and morality in our public life is almost never
One of the most common justifications one hears for religious faith,
from all points on the political spectrum, is that it provides a
necessary framework for moral behavior. Most Americans appear to
believe that without faith in God, we would have no durable reasons to
treat one another well. The political version of this morality claim is
that the country was founded on "Judeo-Christian principles," the
implication being that without these principles we would have no way to
write just laws.
It is, of course, taboo to criticize a person's religious beliefs.
The problem, however, is that much of what people believe in the name
of religion is intrinsically divisive, unreasonable, and incompatible
with genuine morality.
The truth is that the only rational basis for morality is a concern for the happiness and suffering of other conscious beings.
This emphasis on the happiness and suffering of others explains why
we don't have moral obligations toward rocks. It also explains why
(generally speaking) people deserve greater moral concern than animals,
and why certain animals concern us more than others. If we show more
sensitivity to the experience of chimpanzees than to the experience of
crickets, we do so because there is a relationship between the size and
complexity of a creature's brain and its experience of the world.
Unfortunately, religion tends to separate questions of morality from
the living reality of human and animal suffering. Consequently,
religious people often devote immense energy to so- called "moral"
questions - such as gay marriage - where no real suffering is at issue,
and they will inflict terrible suffering in the service of their
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