Often here at TA an argument is made that if only we dumped all religion and everyone was secular without belief in doG, we would all be farting petunias.  Less war, less viciousness, evolution leads us naturally to cooperation, etc.

I admire the goal and the idealism.   As everyone knows, however, I'm on the other side of the argument, because I don't think that argument is scientifically or historically sound, nor particularly rational given the available evidence.  I'm a practitioner of religion, though, not a researcher in the field.

This month's Atlantic, however, has a very cogent piece based as close as I can tell on real data and research by the folks that do this stuff.  Correlation is not causation, and all real social science work is correlative because it's impossible to conduct true experiments.  Nonetheless, it's really quite illustrative, and supports the concerns that I have occasionally offered here much more clearly than I ever have.  It's also quite timely, and seems to accurately reflect my sense of what has been going on with the politics of my state and nation, particularly in our rural areas. 

The piece is: 


I'd be curious, after you have read and digested it and preferably after you set aside knee-jerk responses, whether it helps you understand the concerns I have been raising.  The trends here in the U.S. are quite concerning.  Dismantling religion without having a better theory to replace it with seems increasingly dangerous, since the rest state humanity is likely to return to is a much uglier version of tribalism.

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"I think religion does recognise this when it attempts to motivate people to do good, by appealing to their self-interest on some level or other.

- that's the wrong answer, in that it's not the full picture.  Plenty of altruism within religion is done for self-interested reasons, but much of it is also done out of pure disinterested charity, the desire to help people.  Of course, this is a common feature of the animal kingdom, and a particular feature of human beings, who are willing to do it more often and to invest greater effort on others' behalf. 

I think the advantage that it brings is that it's good for the community, or the world, and that's enough.  Our moral emotions say that it's the right thing to do.  Other moral emotions say that we should "look after our own first". 

"The legalistic judgemental side is viewed as some kind of silly backward joke by the rest of the world."

- of course, this can be for purely cultural reasons, as everyone tends to see their own culture as the only correct one. 

But this just highlights the fact that the legalistic rules of religion are all cultural, they are the enshrinements and legitimisations of one particular culture's practices. 

By contrast, Jesus' teachings were largely culture-free.  It's no concidence that the values he promoted belong to an earlier part of human history - before culture arrived.  Universalism crosses cultural boundaries and the values it carries with it apply to everybody. 

You're giving me a headache, @Simon. ;-)

Certainly from within a religious perspective we would not make the distinction you are making between universalism (catholicism in Greek) and what I *think* you're calling "legalistic judgmentalism".  In fact, one depends on and follows naturally from the other.  If there are a universal brotherhood of humanity and universal "truths", then there are also universal rules.   Following the universal rules promotes that universal brotherhood as well as individual happiness; failing to follow them leads to harm to self and others.

Charity then demands that we help guide and teach others to behave in accord with the universal rules, because that's our obligation to our universal fellow humans.

Now we do have a notion of "legalism", which in our vernacular we would call merely ecclesiastical laws in a church context.   These are human administrative regulations that may change from time to time, culture to culture, and group to group.   You are correct in saying that Jesus remonstrated vociferously with those who tried to elevate merely ecclesiastical laws like hand-washing and not working on the Sabbath to universal laws.

Those don't have to make a mockery of each other, though.  In most cases, merely ecclesiastical laws do serve to help individuals and groups understand and adhere to more universal principles.  Just not in all cases, and sometimes they have to change to respond to different circumstances.

"Charity then demands that we help guide and teach others to behave in accord with the universal rules, because that's our obligation to our universal fellow humans.

- then that's an example of "unconditional love" - helping and teaching rather than punishing, which belongs directly in the category of universalism. 

By "legalism" I'm talking about punishing and excluding, and final judging etc.  This is a judgemental way to deal with people's transgressions, that doesn't give much room for redemption, and isn't very helpful to people's well being, when they are cast out forever.  That's the opposite of unconditional love - conditional love.  The favours only belong to those who follow the right rules, whatever they might happen to be in this neck of the woods. 

Punishing is also a part of teaching, though, or it can be.  At very least, the experience of self-inflicted harm is educative, whether it's touching a hot stove or suffering a heart attack and realizing that you have to start taking healthy eating seriously.  

We don't think it's a good idea for people to drive drunk.  In order to help that lesson be learned by individuals and society we punish people for drunk driving.  In some countries, they are cast out from driving forever.  In many cultures, they are excluded socially.   Punishment, social exclusion, warning about the horrors and pain - all of these things are educative.  

Sin is a self-inflicted wound.   Church just tries to prevent it, and to heal it where we can.

But there are often times when people can be "banished" or "excluded" by "God" or the Church, on what appears to everyone else to be very flimsy grounds. 

My point is that when someone breaks the rules, whatever those may be, there is a spectrum of responses that attempt to rectify the situation.  At one end is "educating and forgiving" and at the other end is "if you break the rules you'll burn in hell".  From what I can see, people, and churches, vary in which end of the spectrum they favour.  Jesus was at one end, Isis are at the other extreme. 

I don't think it can be a coincidence that those which most favour judgement, punishment, condemnation and rejection seem to be those which get most upset about cultural rules being broken.  (i.e. local to a time and place.)  By contrast, Jesus' teachings were relatively culture-free, and universal in nature, and he favoured the unconditional love approach. 

Again, we see a contrast between a God who loves everybody no matter what they do (to paraphrase Nathaniel) and a God who will send people to hell for breaking X cultural rule.  I think this fundamental disconnect comes from the fact that God's unconditional love applies to the individual only, and if the individual messes up, the necessary response is to deal with the consequences and try again, carry on.  But all this talk of God's judgement, hell etc. is aimed at controlling and ensuring cooperation between people, and in this case, if the individual messes up, other people are affected. 

Examples of the unconditional love bestowed upon us by Jesus..

Matt 5:22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. 

Matt 5:29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

Matt 6:14-15 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins

Matt 7: 13 Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it

Matt 12:36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned

Heb 13:4 Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.

James 2:12-13 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment

1 Cor 6:9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men.

Examples of the unconditional love bestowed upon us by Jesus..

Maybe you are being facetious as I dont know your religious orientation, "yay" or "nay re "God".

But, how is all that "Judgement" unconditional?  "Fires in hell" for saying, "you fool"?  Really?  "If you don't forgive others, your Father won't  forgive you.."  Sounds like conditions to moi."  "By your words you will be condemned", etc.

Rulers make rules so they can keep being rulers.  "God"--the original tyrant"--is no different.  Fortunately for all of us, "God" does not exist.  It's men we have to worry about.

OK, so clearly he did sometimes threaten people with hell. 

But he was describing God, and religion, and I think there's a distinction to be made between how Jesus described God and how to please God, and how Jesus the person actually behaved towards others, in his position as an authority figure and representative of how he claimed people should behave. 

Among the most famous episodes of his life were: 

- he prevented the adulterous woman from being stoned to death, and released her, saying "sin no more". 

- he forgave Judas

- he forgave the people who crucified him. 

Jesus believed in God, and God's job (assuming he was real) is 1) to make people thrive; 2) to promote cooperation (including the vast edifice of culture and religion that grew up to support cooperation); 3) to control people's behaviour; 4) to punish offenders. 

So if he was describing God, he couldn't really say anything else.  But the way he actually treated people is full of stories of forgiveness, humane treatment, and accepting people despite their faults. 

I'm not sure why you think banishment is such a thing.  We Catholics have the notion of "excommunication" which means roughly "you have chosen not to be part of the community."  For example, if you choose to try to kill the pope, you have chosen not to be part of the community.  That seems pretty logical, doesn't it?

I'm also not sure why atheists get so hung up on the existence of hell.  It's almost like you believe in it more than you believe in God.  

What's the difference between "if you drive drunk you may end up dying in a fiery inferno" and "if you murder someone without remorse you may end up in hell"?  

Have you ever seen the drinking-and-driving videos used in driver's ed classes?   Seen the MAAD and SAAD groups on campus with the charred and mangled vehicles and pictures of obliterated young people behind them?   Apparently, warning people of possible dire consequences is viewed as being an important component of educating people about risks.  At least the MAAD and SAAD people and related psychological studies think so.

So isn't that compassionate?  Doesn't that show caring, not just for the individual who may drink and drive, but also for the other people who might get hurt?

Would it be more compassionate not to warn people graphically about potential consequences, and as a result let them pursue drinking and driving because it's fun and social?

Would it be better for society if we just let off drunks who committed vehicular homicide?  Let's just deal with the consequences, have the funeral, and let them try again?  After all, he was mentally handicapped by his affluence.  

For a parent, and for a teacher, and for a society punishment and consequences are a form of education, and warnings about consequences are a form of compassion.

It's not punishment and exclusion that I have a problem with - like you say, those things are sometimes necessary, as part of upholding the moral order. 

What I have a problem with, sometimes, and especially in the past, is what religion considers to be a sin, and the things that it will reject and punish people for. 

I also have a problem with the way that, also sometimes, religious people can forget all about kindness in favour of strictly upholding some strange interpretation of "sin". 

Oh Simon, those 'religious people' who do the shitty things are not true christians - or they could be the misguided Protestant brethren - but not True Christians


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