Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sunday Unhelpful Elisions Blogging: Religion and Morality

It's bad enough that religious believers routinely equate god-belief with morality, a confusion that goes back at least as far as the Decalogue, which elevates brand loyalty to Jehovah to the first rank of moral demands. It's arguably worse when non-believers participate in the same sloppy elision. Here's David Harsanyi:

Certainly, one of the most grating habits of the Bush administration was how it framed policy positions in moral absolutes. ... Obama has thrown around the name of God even more often than George W. Bush. Then again, no group couches policy as a moral obligation more than the left. On nearly every question of legislation, there is a pious straw man tugging at the sleeves of the wicked.
Well, no. The grating thing about the Bush administration's invocation of morals was not the absoluteness, but the baselessness and artlessness. Bush and company framed the invasion of Iraq in a variety of moral terms, not all of them patently ridiculous, but the versions that portrayed the war as a "crusade" against the forces of "Gog and Magog" will appeal, at most, only to people on Bush's particular side of theological disputes.

Throwing around the name of a god is one thing, appealing to conscience is another; referencing specific religious texts is one thing, referencing shared moral tenets is another; piety is one thing, morality is another. These are distinct and should not be confused.

We can and should couch arguments over public policy in moral terms. If we want to be convincing with such arguments, they will proceed from broadly-shared moral norms, and an interesting feature of broadly-shared moral norms is how they decrease in theology as they increase in broadness.

Making real moral arguments and talking about them is an opportunity to reinforce the distinction between them and useless (at best) theological twaddle.

Austin Dacey wrote The Secular Conscience to quash exactly this elision. David Harsanyi would do well to read that before he blunders into another argument that ends up trashing the idea of morality.

Previous Secular Conscience coverage here, here, here, here and here.

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