Kate Cohen: Don’t mix religion, morality, and politics

May 2, 2019 • 1:15 pm

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.

64 thoughts on “Kate Cohen: Don’t mix religion, morality, and politics

  1. I heard it pronounced on a news show.
    Boot- e – edge

    A news article .I read said to pronounce it

    Boot – edge – edge

    So according to the news writer to tv reporter pronounce it wrong.
    Waiting for the debates.

    1. It’s good thing voters don’t have to say the name of the candidate they are voting for.

  2. I would not totally discount religious text as sources af morality. I would include them as another source on information given different weight by different people.
    Just as I don’t discount philosophy and philosophical writings as having no influence, although I would like to and made that argument unsuccessfully in college.
    The same with novels and other written works.
    All sources of information have some influence.

    1. I disagree. It goes in the other direction. The morals come from reason and then are incorporated into religions much as they are incorporated into legal systems. After all, both have keeping people in line as their goal.

  3. Here’s the thing: People bring their morality to their religious texts; they don’t get their morality from them.

    I’ve often used the one-liner:

    People don’t get their morality from religion; religions get their morality from people.

        1. I once took an advanced poetry course. To everyone’s surprise, the final was simply: name and define every literary/poetic device you know of. I aced the test (I forget how many I named), but never heard of chiasmus. That would have been a good one. Thanks for the learnings.

          1. Yeah, I learnt something too. Very cool. I didn’t know it had a name when you did that.

            1. It’s especially common in speeches, as in JFK’s famous inaugural address line, “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

              And speaking of Mayor Pete and religion, I noticed he made pretty nifty use of it in his campaign kick-off speech, when he complained of his fellow Christians “saying so much about what Christ said so little about, and so little about what he said so much about.”

    1. That comes close to “God did not create man, man created God”, and just as true, I guess.

      1. As a youngster, I found that “man made God” was the most convincing to me that religion was not a source of truth. That and the multitude of religions in the world each with their own variation of the story. Oh and the total lack of reliably witnessed miracles. And the conflicting stories in their books. It is amazing that they expect to convince anyone of anything. None of it passes the smell test, IMHO.

  4. Thanks for this distillation. While there’s a lot to like about Buttigieg, he shouldn’t get a free pass to be all goddy just because he’s smart and liberal.

    I’ve heard his name pronounced as “boot-a-judge,” as in, “I’d like to Buttigieg or two off the Supreme Court.”

  5. I don’t know if we can even really say that the republicans are so evangelically religious anymore, at least not the way they were back under Bush. After Bush, they nominated McCain, who was at best a Christmas/Easter christian. Then they nominated a Mormon. Then they voted in a guy who is probably the most atheist president we’ve had in a very long time. He lip service panders to the Christians, but it’s even more transparently phony than most of his shtick. (Anyone else remember his “Corinthians, too!”?)

    1. I think they’re just as evangelical; it’s just that the evangelicals have revealed themselves to be abject hypocrites — worshiping a golden calf with their prayers to put anti-abortion (and pro-religious-“freedom”) justices on SCOTUS.

      And I think they’re spent as an American political force. How will anyone ever again take seriously their claim to want to put a “godly” man in the White House?

    2. That is right — Trump does not believe in God. You should hang on to him for a second term so he can admit it in public without jeopardizing a reelection.

      That should confuse the Christians on his side 🙂

      1. Trump insists he is a Christian, and a good one. He told Chris Cuomo that the reason he gets audited every year is because the IRS know he’s a good Christian. The only reason he doesn’t need to ask forgiveness in the Christian way is that, he says, he does nothing that needs forgiving.

        The reality, of course, is that the god Trump worships is himself. Further, not only does he think everyone else should feel the same way, but those who don’t are heretical. He’s prepared to institute authoritarian rules to ensure people do worship him.

        Trumpism is real thing. Trump looked upon it, and saw it was great. Believe (in) me.

        1. Donald Trump has said that, although he is a nominal Presbyterian, he has never asked God for forgiveness. I figure that means Trump and God must have a mutual non-aggression pact — you know, like the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that Hitler and Stalin entered in 1939 to divvy up Poland and the Baltics. 🙂

    3. I also think that Trump is one of us atheists, but I hope he continues to stay in the closet. He is not the person I wish ingrained in public memory as representative of atheists.

  6. “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.”

    If you mean how they judge their own moral vs immoral behavior, I’m guessing most people would say that they follow the dictates of their “consciences.” This is definitely “extra-Biblical,” but not necessarily “antecedent to God’s wishes,” since most people associate “conscience” with “the voice of God” or some such thing.

    Is there a secular version of “conscience” and, if so, is it strictly material like the brain?

    1. I’m not sure whether conscience, even if it be overtly associated with God, doesn’t reflect either secular teaching when young or even evolved feelings like shame and such. The secular version of “conscience” is called “conscience”.

      1. Feelings of fairness, shame and disgust seem to be innate based on studies of babies. Probably are other instincts/ feelings that are there from birth in our DNA.

          1. “Even our fellow great apes share a rudimentary sense of fairness.”

            Maybe so, but fairness is also heavily culture-based. Americans are preoccupied with it, but I learned when I lived in Greece for three years that other cultures aren’t.

            The Greeks don’t even have a word for fairness that doesn’t also suggest a element of stupidity: being fair to your friends isn’t enough—you’d lay down your life for them—and being fair to your enemies is crazy, because they’ll kill you. This is essentially a village mentality.

            When driving my car in Athens I would sometimes, out of habit, wave pedestrians across the street, but they would never go; they thought it was a trick! Goes back, perhaps, to “wily Odysseus.” And queueing up?–forget it!

            OTOH, I’m not sure fairness and conscience are all that related in the first place.

            1. Yeah, people of Troy sure learned a hard lesson about failing to look a gift horse from the Greeks in the mouth.

          2. And jealousy too possibly.
            I just heard about a case where a couple took a birthday cake to a chimp they had raised as a human for many years but was now locked up.

            They got attacked and mauled by two other chimps.

            Unbelievably badly mauled and it was suggested that jealousy over the attention to the other chimp may have been a factor.

            Do not get on the wrong side of an angry chimp. They can and will do horrendous things.

      2. Agreed. Young children quickly learn to know they’ve done something wrong – and to experience “evolved feelings like shame” – regardless of their exposure to religion.

    2. “… is it strictly material like the brain?”

      The universe appears to be material all the way down, Gary. Though were any evidence for an “immaterial” dimension ever to be presented, I think most of us materialists are open to changing our minds on that.

        1. “Immaterial, irrelevant, and prejudicial, Your Honor!” — isn’t that the objection Raymond Burr always made on Perry Mason. 🙂

      1. “Though were any evidence for an ‘immaterial’ dimension ever to be presented. . . .”

        Ken, to give your observation a more serious reply: My problem is that I take the beauty of the world personally. For example, when I pluck and eat a plump raspberry, I don’t just enjoy it, I take it as a personal gift for which I’m personally grateful. This may be nothing more than a matter of temperament, but I’ve been this way since I was a child and can’t seem to help it.

        Now, when you take the beauty of the world personally you’re bound to be more susceptible to an “immaterial” dimension (AKA “woo”) than someone who views it objectively. You just are. At 80, I’m too old to change this perspective on experience, and I wouldn’t even if I could, since it’s been the source of much joy in my life. But hey—that’s just me; I’d never try to persuade others to my way of viewing the world.

  7. “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.”

    If you only follow parts of the buy-bull, then where does the moral sense that allows you to choose the “good” parts come from?

  8. Buddha judge

    It’s an unfortunate fact in American political life that denying belief in at least some deity (preferably Judeo Christian) virtually disqualifies one from elective office. I’m sure that many if not most politicians who wear religion on their sleeves, and especially those who merely give it lip service, are non believing hypocrites.

  9. “People don’t really get their morality from religion”

    Not they do not. People encoded what they thought was moral or immoral into their lore and religious texts. That definitely affects how people think subsequently.

    I think even Hammurabi said that he had received his laws from some god or the other.

    The idea that we would have no absolute sense of morality without God is vacuous. Regardless of whether the word ‘absolute’ makes sense in this context, people have been formulating moral principles and laws for thousands of years. We use the same process of thinking to evaluate religious texts.

    My guess is that some Christians (and people of other religions) understand this. There are however, many who do not ponder the meanings of the words that they use — EWTN is full of them 🙂

  10. As a atheist conservative, I don’t know whether I am more bothered by a candidate who is sincerely in his profession of belief, or insincere. Neither bodes well.

    1. “Hypocrisy is annoying but not evil. Someone who says one thing and does another has doubled their chances of being half right.”
      —Penn Jillette, atheist magician

  11. I’ve learned a lot from observing my granddaughter. Young children learn how to behave in a socially acceptable way long before they can articulate ‘the rules’, understand the reasoning behind them, or even remember them.

    Then some well meaning sort comes along with a Holy Book and – look! all the bits about playing nicely and being careful around strangers are written down in stories from long ago. Skipping quickly over the nasty bits, of course.

    People learn morals from other people. Successful religions incorporate that learning, and work around those bits which have fallen by the wayside.

  12. “People don’t really get their morality from religion”

    I think of it as more of a continuum, fundamentalists on one extreme and atheists / secularists on the other. Of course this too is a simplification since given the complexity of our minds and experiences it is difficult to assess where our motivations come from. I’m sure that I have been influenced by some aspects of religious culture, even if in subtle ways.

  13. (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)

    There have been few moment more cringe-inducing in politics, for my money, than watching Hillary Clinton attend some town-hall rally and seeing her get backed into the corner of vouching for the crucial role her Methodist faith plays in informing her personal life and public policy.

    She’s utterly lacking in her husband’s gift for feigning lower-lip-biting sincerity in such circumstances.

  14. “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.”

    Stop it, Buttigieg. Just stop. The Bible teaches you to be skeptical of authority? Sure, only if that authority doesn’t agree that Christianity is just the bestest. Otherwise, you’re taught to completely submit to authority — God’s authority and the Christians magically anointed to pass it down.

    1. I reckon The Boot is referring to Jesus of the Gospels being a wisenheimer with the Pharisees and getting put on trial by the Sanhedrin, and to the early Christians of the New Testament getting fed to the lions rather than submit to the Romans.

      You look hard enough in the bible, you can find anything. As Antonio said in The Merchant of Venice, even the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

      So, it seems, can Mayor Pete.

  15. I wholeheartedly agree with Kate Cohen.

    At the same time, I love Mayor Pete’s attacks on Evangelicals like Mike Pence. That group has never had to defend themselves against the accusations laid at them by Buttigieg. They live in a “holier than thou” Republican bubble, and I’m glad a Democrat is bursting it. It’s all absurd, I know, but it’s a tactic I’ve not yet seen by a Democrat resisting the religious right.

    1. Or is the bubble a false creation? According to an op-ed in WSJ Pence has been only gracious to Mayor Pete, who has repaid with attacks advancing the Buttigieg campaign.

      1. I think it would be consistent for Pence, and others like him, to be against gay people in general but be gracious and forgiving toward a particular gay person such as Mayor Pete. It is the way hateful people like him maintain their outward “godly” view of life. The same way Trump can marry an immigrant but be totally against immigrants.

  16. I think Buttigieg is a Maltese name.
    I worked with many Maltese people and some with that name, which we pronounced as butter-geeg, or butta-geeg.
    But that is way down here in Melbourne.

  17. The rudiments of morality, empathy would have been well laid down before religion became a so called authority on these traits. The ever widening circle, aided by kin selection, group cooperation would have worked it’s way through from our deep evolutionary past priming these qualities for hi jacking by sneaky individuals and interest groups, for power, control, unity and no doubt, wealth.
    The printing press arguably would have had more influence than a priest on morality and empathy, as it was not from an authority but more from a perspective of understanding of someone else’s condition, as an equal.

  18. Isn’t it not whether morality comes from religion but that religion reinforces morality in a general way? Which is why we respect one another’s religious faith; it really doesn’t matter which. Also why speeches invoke religious imagery: the pol is aligning with morality. Clearly religion isn’t necessary for morality to manifest; it reinforces, and expresses communally.

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