Christians and other mystics sometimes argue that religion makes people moral. I disagree: morality is a practical science which can only be understood by rational consideration, not emotionalism (the epistemological method of faith). To the extent that religious dogmas and religious people preach and act morally, they derive their principles using the same rational methods and the same evidence that is available to everyone. Since rational moral claims need no mystical basis, it is only the irrational and immoral actions which require religious justification. To the extent that religious beliefs as such influence people’s actions, they can only influence them to do wrong – sometimes unspeakable and sometimes trivial, but still evil.
For the most part, modern Western religions, such as those in the United States, merely consist of mindless time-wasting rituals. They are evil in the sense of distracting people from more productive activities, especially from more productive means of finding moral guidance. Nevertheless, for the most part, and despite their religion, most Americans are good and productive people, who pay lip-service to a dogma highly diluted by Western philosophy and modern science.
The prime candidate for the moral monopoly of religion in America is the domain of life and death. This is where the real evil of religious influence becomes evident. One particularly despicable influence of religion was out on display when John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate. One of Governor’s Palin’s qualifications for the presidential ticket is that she gave birth to a baby with Down syndrome in April.
The fact that Palin’s baby has Down syndrome is certainly tragic. Down not only severely impacts the health and life-expectancy of the child, is also a tremendous burden on their caretakers. (Aside from my personal observation, my girlfriend has worked closely with Down parents and their children.) As an unpredictable genetic disorder however, the symptom cannot be blamed on anyone. Except for this: since January 2007, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has recommended Down screening for all pregnant women, and so Governor Palin knew that her fetus had Down’s, and decided to continue her pregnancy anyway. Furthermore, she has turned her decision into political leverage in the upcoming election as proof of her moral virtuousness:
“How refreshing that now we have a woman who reflects the values of mainstream American women,” said Janice Shaw Crouse of the conservative group Concerned Women for America.
Whereas previously, a Down’s child could be born without the prior knowledge of the mother, going forward, a parent with a Down’s child will likely (at least in the developed world) have made a conscious choice to have that child. The child represents a sacrifice made by their parents for their faith. As the recommendations of ACOG are implemented nationwide, Down children (and eventually those with other genetic disorders) will increasingly become symbols of faith – a freak show meant to communicate the “family values” of their parents. They will be a symbol of religious reverence in the same way as the scarred backs of Catholics who flagellate themselves, or Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire, or Sunni Muslims who mutilate their girl’s genitals or Shiites who bloody their and their children’s heads with swords.
Genuine moral virtues – such as integrity, honesty, and productivity are not useful as evidence of religious virtue. To the extent that their practical benefit is visible to everyone, they do not represent the special domain of religion. To demonstrate religious virtue, it is necessary to sacrifice authentic moral values in favor of “religious” values. The particular object of the sacrifice is not important – there is nothing particularly “biblical” about being prolife (the Christian bible just as easily supports the opposite position.) If Christian fundamentalists decided that cutting of one’s hand sufficed as proof of moral virtue, they would still be guilty of evil, but not much more so than the numerous other ways that people of all kinds find to be self-destructive. What is really vicious about fundamentalists in America is that the prey on the most vulnerable –poor pregnant young girls and women, those dying from painful terminal illnesses, the loved ones of brain-dead patients, — and children afflicted with terrible genetic illnesses.
One can at least grasp the moral indifference with which a fundamentalist can force a single young mother to abandon her goals and dreams and condemn her and her child to poverty. But what can we say about a parent that chooses a life of suffering upon their child? If we are morally outraged by child rapists, how should we judge a parent who chooses a lifetime of suffering on their own child?