Today’s New York Times op-ed features a piece with a provocative title (click on screenshot to read the article):
The author, Mustafa Akyol, is described as “a contributing opinion writer. . . the author of “The Islamic Jesus” and a visiting fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College.” Unfortunately, while Akyol properly calls out Turkey’s new, Islamist rulers as immoral, he’s wishy-washy about the title question. In fact, it’s answered simply and wishy-washidly in the subtitle, and that is all ye need to know.
This political revolution has had an inadvertent outcome. It has tested the ostensible virtues of these religious conservatives — and they have failed. They have failed this test so terribly that it raises the question of whether religiosity and morality really go hand in hand, as so many religious people like to claim.
The religious conservatives have morally failed because they ended up doing everything that they once condemned as unjust and cruel. For decades, they criticized the secular elite for nepotism and corruption, for weaponizing the judiciary and for using the news media to demonize and intimidate their opponents. Yet after their initial years in power, they began repeating all of the same behavior they used to condemn, often even more blatantly than their predecessors.
This is a familiar story: The religious conservatives have become corrupted by power. But power corrupts more easily when you have neither principles nor integrity.
Well, we all know that no religion, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, the like, is completely populated by moral believers. We also know that religion becomes dangerous when wedded with political power. But I suppose it’s useful for a Turk to point this out, though he’ll never be able to go back to Turkey after this.
But here’s what Akyol says about morality and religion in general:
On religion and morality:
Does religion really make people more moral human beings? Or does the gap between morality and the moralists — a gap evident in Turkey today and in many other societies around the world — reveal an ugly hypocrisy behind all religion?
My humble answer is: It depends. Religion can work in two fundamentally different ways: It can be a source of self-education, or it can be a source of self-glorification. Self-education can make people more moral, while self-glorification can make them considerably less moral.
Religion can be a source of self-education, because religious texts often have moral teachings with which people can question and instruct themselves. The Quran, just like the Bible, has such pearls of wisdom. It tells believers to “uphold justice” “even against yourselves or your parents and relatives.”
. . . But trying to nurture moral virtues is one thing; assuming that you are already moral and virtuous simply because you identify with a particular religion is another. The latter turns religion into a tool for self-glorification. A religion’s adherents assume themselves to be moral by default, and so they never bother to question themselves. At the same time, they look down on other people as misguided souls, if not wicked infidels.
For such people, religion works not as cure for the soul, but as drug for the ego. It makes them not humble, but arrogant.
But this is all bloody obvious—at least to us nonbelievers. What Akyol does here is conflate the source of morality with the promotion of morality. Certainly religion can promote morality, though it often doesn’t. But, as Plato pointed out nearly 2500 years ago, God cannot be a source of morality. That’s because most people don’t automatically take God’s dictums as being intrinsically moral just because they come from God, but because God is conceived of as good. That is, there’s some preexisting source of morality to which God conforms, and that’s why what He’s supposed to have said constitutes “morality”. My view is that the real source of human morals is a combination of evolved sentiments and the lesson’s we’ve learned to keep a thin veneer of civilization over the plywood of our ancestry.
There are a few exceptions, of course. One is the slick William Lane Craig, who believes in the “Divine command theory” holding that whatever God says is moral because it comes from God. But few people, on reflection, would agree with that. The realization that God is not the source of morality is, I think, one of the great contributions of philosophy to clarifying human thought.
Now saying this would have immensely improved Akyol’s piece, and believe me, it needs saying. Yes, it’s meet and proper for him to point out the immoral self-aggrandizement and corruption of Turkey’s rulers. But does that need saying more urgently than that America’s Christian rulers aren’t exactly promoting a Jesus-like morality? For that’s been said by the Left over and over again. (That’s the same Left that recoils from noting the perfidy of Islamism.)
Instead of saying the obvious, we, at least, can talk to people about where morality comes from, and point out the relentless logic of the Euthyphro argument. It’s worked for me with several Christians and ex-Christians.