Ethics follows human development. It always is a few steps behind, often dragging its soiled feet. We address questions to philosophers and other thinkers on moral issues only after we are confronted by a dilemma. The ethical predicaments we pose are relevant only after certain facts are established. Those who are responsible for formulating answers are happy to sit in their citadels of learning waiting for questions to be asked or to respond to unavoidable problems, then and only then are they addressed.
Do transgender people need their own bathroom? Are animals that we now know to have shame and pain require a bill of rights, just as humans? These dilemmas are worthy of serious thought. Otherwise, they are as irrelevant as photographs of last week’s cloud formations. There is no thought about having serious discussions regarding how we should treat extra-terrestrials should our paths ever cross (other than in cinematic and other works of fiction). It is not a burning issue and therefore not worthy of study – besides, there is no one to subsidize such a non-publishable undertaking of a hypothetical issue.
This approach diametrically contrasts with the attitude of the late Steven Jobs, the central founder of the Apple company. He didn’t build things to suit people’s taste; rather he pursued projects that reflected what they would like to have – once he and his talented staff invented it. Who needs a gizmo that houses a thousand songs that could fit into a man’s shirt pocket? No one even thought of such a possibility, until he designed an i-Pod. Today, this innovation has forever altered the music industry.
The question that I pose for this blog is very simple: which paradigm fits religion better? Is it formed in reaction to what is already happening, or does it motivate? An uncomplicated way to frame this question is: is religion a pull or push mechanism?
The obvious answer (at least to me) is that religion – on both the global front and on the personal level – is a reactionary movement. It (reluctantly) changes only when it needs to and does not transform a parson’s mind until other forces compel her to do so, and then religion (miraculously) follows to reinforce our new circumstance or are our newer, modified conclusion.
It is true that the American civil rights movement of the 60’s was inextricably bound to the churches – its leaders were pastors or had a religious background – but their motivation to crusade came from elsewhere. The current mass causes – Black Lives Matter, equal and fair pay activities or the battle for transgender equality – have no religious link. There is not one cause, whether it seeks protection for a species, or argues for personal choice or shields the environment from further human erosive misuse, which is primarily fueled by religious motivation. All contemporary large-scale movements are devoid of religious-based leadership. The springs for any of these boundary-shattering protests is not religion.
Religion has been most laggard in the field of science. The last bastion for the theory that our planet was flat was religion. Joshua’s holding back the sun (famously recorded in the Bible) so that the Israelites could continue killing during daylight hours was a critical factor for this monumental error. It was a mere 350 years after Galileo proved that that sun – and not the Earth – was at the center of our universe that the Catholic Church finally recognized the novel idea. To this day, the most vocal opponents of evolution (a fact, no longer a theory) come from religious dogmatists. Even when religion’s priests accept components of evolution, it must have a deity as the source for those changes. The world (seemingly well designed) needs a Designer, and they alone know who He is and what He wants.
On an individual level too, most often religion catches up, rather than influences, the perspective of a person. A medieval Jewish philosopher (Ramban) famously announced that aJew could be a degenerate within the confines of the Torah. More recently, the late Protestant theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr, commented that the Bible is good for good people and bad for bad people. Almost weekly, we are informed of another ocean of human blood provided by Muslim zealots who claim the Qur’an as their source for inspiration.
Studying and memorizing sacred texts and adhering to its legislation does not alter you, especially if you are a degenerate or a terrorist. You can beat your spouse and abuse your children even before you go to pray; perhaps even while you are performing devotional acts to an invisible Power.
We develop our thought-components outside of religion and then drag religion to fit our mindset. Much of religion is like shopping for gloves. Regardless of the size of your hands, you will eventually find one that fits. All religions are so elastic that they can be altered to fit any temperament. Regardless of your frame of mind, you will find one – either within your inherited faith or outside of it – that will give respectability to your otherwise abominable actions.
If I were charitable I would say that religion is a weapon: it can be used either defensively or offensively. But like a weapon – for example, a handgun – I refuse to have one in my possession, I am afraid that in a fit of anger I might use it offensively, killing or maiming an innocent victim. If religion can both protect and harm, I would rather do without it. In any case, historically religious conviction has proven more to be a source of evil than of good. It falls – without a doubt – in the category of a push movement, so who needs it? I prefer to gravitate to the source of light – a candle, the sun, for example – than to a mirror that merely reflects light – like religion.
One last metaphor: Religion is like the flotsam that skims the sea: it moves, but only when and if the currents of the ocean does and then in the same direction. Better to follow and learn about the currents.