There are two things that most of us have learned about religion and morality:
1.) People don’t really get their morality from religion—or at least most of it. That is, people don’t judge what is moral versus immoral behavior solely from the dictates of their faith, but rather from extra-Biblical sources that are antecedent to God’s wishes. There are of course exceptions: Christians often oppose abortion because they think fetuses have souls, and pious Muslims decree that homosexuality is a capital offense and women must be covered. But as Plato realized millennia ago in the Euthyphro Argument, most things are deemed “moral” or “immoral” not because they comport with the wishes of a deity, but because they comport with some extra-theistic versions of morality. If God, for instance, said that killing innocent people was good, not many folks would agree. (William Lane Craig is an exception, and he’s signed on to one version of that.) That’s because they think there are non-religious reasons to prohibit killing. All thoughtful morality is secular morality.
2.) When people say they get their morality from religion, they’re often picking and choosing from scripture, again taking those things that comport with a non-religious view of right versus wrong. That’s why most Christians reject the dictates of the Old Testament (approving of killing kids who curse their parents, as well as those who engage in homosexual acts or gather sticks on the Sabbath) in favor of the more comfortable statements from Jesus or the Ten Commandments. Nearly all adherents to every Abrahamic faith chooses those aspects of scripture that conform to their own notions of right and wrong—those notions that derive from #1 above.
And so Kate Cohen, an atheist writer, takes religious politicians to task in her excellent Washington Post article (click on screenshot), pointing out the flaws of bragging that your political views are good because they align with religion:
Although we’re well aware of how Republicans use scripture to support political issues like anti-abortion bills and a brake on stem-cell research, I hadn’t realized that so many Democratic candidates also claimed their politics were grounded in faith. (Of course, very few politicians are open atheists, but at least Democratic believers, who presumably support the First Amendment, don’t have to flaunt their religion).
An excerpt from Cohen’s piece:
I’m an atheist. I have bemoaned the fact that my country’s motto is “In God We Trust,” that elected officials are sworn in on holy books, legislative sessions begin in prayer, and big political speeches seem predestined to end with the phrase “God Bless America.” I think religion and government should be kept far apart. But if I ruled out all the self-proclaimed Christians in the race, I would lose a lot of great candidates. Cory Booker told a CNN town hall that “Christ is the center of my life”; Kamala D. Harris announced her candidacy “with faith in God”; Elizabeth Warren taught Sunday school and quotes the Gospel of Matthew.
That [Pete] Buttigieg is a Christian doesn’t concern me. But he’s not just a Christian; he also publicly advocates a reemergence of a “religious left.” He argues that Democrats should not be afraid to use religious traditions “as a way of calling us to higher values.” As he told Bill Maher, “When I go to church, what I hear a lot about is protecting the downtrodden, and standing up for the immigrant and being skeptical of authority sometimes and making sure you look after the poor and the prisoner.”
He told The Post that he wants to “remind people of faith why the same things that are being preached on Sunday apply to the policies that we’re making on Monday morning.” In other words, use religion as a tool for political persuasion.
It’s time to stop pandering to the faithful by parading how your beliefs support your politics. The reasons why can be seen in #1 and #2 above: your morals are antecedent to scripture, and if you buttress your liberal principles with faith, then you are susceptible to conservatives who buttress their more repugnant views with faith. After all, you can find any morality you like in the Bible. And even the Qur’an, filled as it is with hatred and xenophobia, can also be parsed as a “document of peace.”
It’s so refreshing to read stuff like this:
Here’s the thing: People bring their morality to their religious texts; they don’t get their morality from them. After all, how does Buttigieg decide what’s important in the Bible and what should be ignored, underplayed or dismissed as vestiges from another era? What does he measure each message against? His own innate sense of morality.
When Buttigieg argues that Democrats should be able to use religious traditions “as a way of calling us to higher values,” he means “higher” as in lofty. He’s not saying those values — compassion, justice, humility — are higher than the traditions themselves. But they are. Because those religious traditions also include the “values” of exclusion, patriarchy and tribalism. And, yes, even the “value” of homophobia.
The higher values that Buttigieg embraces — values I, an atheist, share — exist not because of religion but independent of it. Can he find Christian tenets to express those values? Sure. Could that help him urge “people of faith” to move their politics “in a certain direction”? Maybe.
In the second sentence above, Cohen distills the Euthyphro argument for the layperson. Kudos to her, and to the Post for publishing something by—horrors!—an open atheist.
Just don’t ask me how to pronounce “Buttigieg”. I can spell it but I can’t say it, and I’ve NEVER heard it pronounced on television.