Here’s what happens when religious teachings become immoral
Religious teachings that once made sense sometimes become harmful under changing conditions. That can put believers in the awkward position of defending practices—either historical or current—that are now widely perceived to be either immoral or questionable at best.
Some of the world’s largest religions emerged during the Iron Age, and the rules in their sacred texts likely helped families and communities (or at least some subset) to thrive under Iron Age conditions. Today, we live under very different conditions. We know things our ancestors didn’t. We hold powers and face challenges they could not have imagined.
Here are a few of the moral mandates from the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) that some people still practice on religious grounds but that a growing number of others consider morally dubious given our current circumstances and knowledge.
Hitting children—The Hebrew Bible instructs parents to beat their children, most explicitly in Proverbs 23: “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die. Punish them with the rod and save them from death.” Traditional Muslim teachings exhort parents to beat boys if they don’t pray regularly by the age of seven.
Research in psychology contradicts this advice, pointing to few if any developmental benefits and an increased risk of aggression in children who are hit. Parenting experts suggest better means of raising children and managing misbehavior. Even religious leaders who may feel obliged to approve spanking because it is endorsed in their sacred texts (some of whom fiercely defend the god-given right of parents to hit their kids) now tend to send mixed messages and encourage other forms of discipline first.
Teaching children to rely on faith— Religions often treat faith or even religious certitude as a virtue. In fact, in Protestant Christianity it is the ultimate virtue, the one that sends people to heaven or hell. Believe and be saved, says the Christian New Testament, and one of the tenets of the Reformation was sola fide—by faith alone. Defenders of Christianity may marshal logic or evidence to support belief, but when backed into a corner, many default to I just know—and they teach children to do the same.
By contrast, modern cognitive science recognizes the sense of knowing as a feeling state that can be triggered under a wide variety of circumstances, not all of which have a basis in reality. Advocates for secularism argue that faith, by definition, means committing to a set of beliefs that are poorly grounded—or even contradict the best available evidence. We humans are prone to confirmation bias, for example, or self-serving “motivated” reasoning.
In belief-based religions like Christianity and Islam, doubt is seen as a sign of weakness or a moral failing, a sin. But knowing what we now know about human cognition, faith increasingly looks like a bad epistemology, a not-very-effective way of sifting what is real from what is not. By contrast, the scientific method has been called “What we know about how not to fool ourselves,” because it forces us to ask the questions that could show us wrong. Unlike faith in received dogma, the scientific method promotes a growth mindset. This is one reason that a growing number of people see religious indoctrination of children as an abuse of trust.
Restrictions on women’s movement and attire – Religious modesty and virginity rules for women emerged when a person’s place in society depended on paternal lineage. Women and men had no way of managing their fertility other than abstinence; and mama’s baby, papa’s maybe could create social havoc. Societies had a strong investment in controlling female fertility.
Modernity values people based on who they are, not on their lineage; and women now have reliable means to manage their fertility. Our life course need not be defined by the form of our genitalia. But male ownership of girls and women is so foundational in the Abrahamic traditions that conservative believers often find themselves most comfortable with gender hierarchy. Conservative Christians promote “male headship”—a version of separate-but-equal; conservative Muslims rationalize veiling—which (though it can mean different things to different believers) is rooted in male ownership of female sexuality; Orthodox Jews demand that women shave their heads and ride on separate sides of the bus.
Fortunately, although religions may slow cultural evolution, they rarely succeed in stopping it altogether. Even within conservative religious communities, leaders often claim that restrictive practices elevate women and offer them genuine equality. Their thinking may be Orwellian, but it is a far cry from that of the men who wrote the sacred texts, for whom male dominance and control of females was simply a given.
Pronatalism – “Be fruitful and multiply,” God tells man in the book of Genesis. Throughout the Bible, sons are seen as signs of God’s favor, the more the better. In the Christian New Testament book of 1 Timothy, readers are told that women, who brought sin into the world, will be saved by childbearing (2:15). The Roman Catholic Church, when it emerged, promoted a high birthrate—not among priests, which would have been a drain on church assets—but among lay practitioners, which added to the ranks of the faithful.
Today some devout Catholics and quiver-full Protestants (along with ultra-orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Muslims) still see bearing many children as a form of righteous submission to God’s will. They eschew family planning, taking a “let go and let God” approach to birth control. But as world population approaches eight billion, putting increasing pressure on natural resources and other species, many people now view large families the same way they might view gluttony. Most, including most religious believers, think it is more moral to take excellent care of a few children than to produce as many as possible.
Proselytizing mandates – Christianity tells believers to “make disciples of every creature,” and over the centuries Christians have sent missionaries to the far reaches of the planet, some willing to kill or die in order to win a “harvest” of converts. They have been celebrated as saints and martyrs, or in modern times as altruistic heroes. But many people now see cross-cultural proselytizing as a form of imperialism that disrespects the complexity of indigenous and foreign cultures.
To make matters more morally dubious, missionaries often leverage their superior access to information and wealth—enticing conversion by bundling evangelism with desperately-needed food, medical care, education or crisis services. To a missionary who sees the threat of hell as the ultimate risk and the promise of heaven as the ultimate good, the ends may justify the means; but outsiders see exploitation of power differentials, which most ethical codes discourage. Some countries now limit or constrain missionary activities to protect vulnerable communities and people.
Kosher slaughter rules – In the Torah, God commands that animals be slaughtered according to religious rules, and over time Jewish scholars fleshed these out. The animal is to have its throat slit with a very sharp knife that has no defects. It must be conscious at the time of the cut and must die from blood loss. These rules may have originally had health value for humans or animal welfare value for livestock, but with the availability of modern stunning, they have become controversial. Stunning animals immediately before slaughter can reduce suffering. Many Muslims think that Halal slaughter rules similarly prohibit stunning, but there is disagreement among Muslim scholars about this. Some animal welfare watchdog groups in Europe and the U.S. have advocated the banning of Kosher and Halal slaughter, while others are working to improve the practices in ways that reduce fear or suffering before and during slaughter.
Capital punishment – The human history of killing offenders goes back almost to the beginnings of written history. Death by axe, death by being thrown into a quagmire, death by beheading (which is where we get the term capital punishment), by boiling, by stoning . . . Over the millennia, all manner of death has been meted out for all manner of offences. The Hebrew Bible prescribes death for almost 30 transgressions ranging from murder and kidnapping to blasphemy and sassing, and the Quran is similarly enthusiastic about execution. (You can compare both texts here, or find out here if you deserve death according to the Bible.) Building on the Abrahamic tradition of blood atonement, the central premise of New Testament Christianity is structured around the idea that punishment by death can set things right.
For two hundred years, opponents of the death penalty have worked to reduce the number of capital offenses and the cruelty of execution methods or to advance philosophical and practical reasons for abolishing state-sanctioned killing altogether. Some of this opposition has been lead by devoutly religious people, and it has shifted thinking in a wide variety of cultures. Over 100 countries have abolished the death penalty.
Intolerance of other religions – In order to recruit and retain members, religions often make exclusive truth claims and promise exclusive rewards. Many also threaten those who fail to join or who choose to leave with punishments in this life or the next. Islam’s prescription of death for apostates is just an extreme version of this broader dynamic.
Inquisitions and holy wars have been seen by past generations as righteous because they compelled people to live according to the one right law. Even short of bloodshed, religious teachings can be profoundly divisive. Calvinist Christianity teaches that human beings are “utterly depraved” and can be redeemed only by accepting the crucifixion of Jesus as a personally-transforming gift. Believers learn to mistrust others, who by definition lack any basis for morality.
But this one-way mentality doesn’t seem as righteous to many as it once did. Today, when faith is compelled through holy war and purges—as under the Taliban or ISIS–most people are morally appalled, and people increasingly see religious tolerance as a virtue rather than the vice our ancestors believed it to be.
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Some people believe that the moral rules handed down by our ancestors came from a supernatural deity and should not be questioned or changed. The gods know best, and even if their rules may not entirely make sense, ours is not to question why. In the Evangelical community where I grew up, people sometimes tried to find practical explanations for biblical rules. But when that failed, “because the Bible says so” was reason enough.
By contrast, secular ethics teach that the timeless part of morality is not the rules themselves, nor the authority of the rule-giver, but rather an underlying principle. Morality, in this view, seeks to promote the wellbeing of sentient beings, especially human beings but also other animals. Actions that reduce suffering and harm or increase wellbeing are moral. To maximize wellbeing, rules have to change, because what promotes thriving in one situation may cause harm in another.
That is why humanity’s most fundamental and universal moral mandate is something akin to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Note that cultures have varied widely in their perception of who this should apply to. The answer can range from “men of my own tribe” to “all living beings.” And a more sophisticated articulation of the Golden Rule, the Platinum Rule, takes things one step farther: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.
Fortunately, few believers try to live by all of the prescriptions in their sacred texts. If they did, Christians would be defending slavery and stoning people for all sorts of reasons including witchcraft and sassiness, Muslims would be cutting off heads for a similar array of offenses, and Jews would be trading their daughters for livestock. Most of us are making progress whether or not we like to admit it.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.