Suppose you had a therapy that was supposed to cure people of depression. Further, suppose your therapy was full of sharp insights into human nature.
But let’s say you did a study and discovered that your therapy cured only 15 people out of every 100 people who underwent it. In other words, it failed to cure 85 out of every 100 people who tried it.
Worse, your 15% cure rate was no better than your control group. Your control group consisted of people who got no therapy at all. But your therapy, despite it’s noble goal and its sharp insights, couldn’t cure people any better than no therapy at all could cure people.
If all of the above were true, would you call your therapy “effective”, “powerful”, “life changing”? Would you say: “The goal of my therapy — to cure depression — is far too fine of a goal for anything to be wrong with my therapy. The sharp insights of my therapy into human nature are far too truthful for anything to be wrong with my therapy. Since nothing can be wrong with my therapy, it is the fault of the patients themselves that more of them don’t get better. Give me more dedicated patients! Give me more enthusiastic patients! And I will show you then that my therapy works just fine!” Would that be your approach? Blame the patient?
One of the main problems I have with most strains of Christianity, Islam, and several other religions, is that — so far as we have any science on the matter — they are no better than no religion at all in helping people lead moral lives. And sometimes they are worse than no religion at all.
Of course, one can argue that the evidence is inconclusive, that we are not really sure most strains of those religions are weak moral teachers, and so forth. But at the same time, even Christians, Muslims, Bahá’ís, Jews, and others routinely recognize the fact their religions fall far short of being wholly effective moral teachers. For while they habitually claim their religions are powerful, effective, life changing, and so forth, they actually spend an astonishing amount of time and energy accusing the members of their own congregations (and other congregations) of backsliding, lacking better morals, or being religious in name only.
Yet, they don’t blame themselves for that. They blame everyone but themselves, often in rather sophisticated ways. “Men and women are simply too wicked to follow our True Religion”. “Materialism has corrupted everyone.” “Hollywood liberals are undermining our morals.” “Western secularism is attacking our religion and corrupting our youth.” “There is a cultural assault on our values.” “It’s the anti-Semites.” “We are born sinful.” “Homosexuals are undermining us.” “Atheists! It’s the atheists!” And on and on and on ad nauseum.
No one says, “Our religion has some good ideals and goals, and some sharp insights into human nature, but we don’t know how to make use of them. We don’t know how to translate our goals and insights into genuinely changed lives.” No one says that, because everyone is too busy claiming out of one side of their mouth that their religion is life changing, while stating out of the other side of their mouth, that not enough Muslims are true Muslims, not enough Christians are true Christians, and so forth.
I am only going to mention in passing in this post the world’s many fundamentalists — who are always the biggest fools in any religion, and always the loudest hypocrites in any religion, and always the most violent — and whose goals are seldom enough honorable, and whose insights into human nature are seldom enough sharp and accurate. Fundamentalists make for the world’s worse religious folks, whether they are Hindu, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish fundamentalists.
Yet, there is a problem with lumping them into the mainstream, alongside the average Christian, Muslim, etc. Namely, fundamentalists probably represent a psychological disorder, more than a religious failure. They are authoritarians, and authoritarianism can be thought of as a personality disorder. And while they have significant influence on religions, expecting fundamentalists to live up to ideals like compassion, justice, and love is like expecting a slow child to tackle the mathematics of nuclear physics during his or her third year in the fifth grade. It is not fundamentalists that concern us here, but the average, mainstream member of a religion — why isn’t he or she morally sane?
Anyone who thinks the average, mainstream American Christian is morally sane, should ask where that Christian stood the day America invaded Iraq. Or — let’s be honest — where he or she stood on any number of other issues. Some moral issues are genuinely ambiguous, but most apparent moral ambiguity is just dust stirred up by the sides to confuse people.
Insofar as morality is — as Sam Harris suggests — a matter of promoting human well being, then most moral issues are not as ambiguous as we might think. Raping choir boys does not promote human well being. Neither does rioting in the streets to protest a Danish cartoon. Invading another country that has neither attacked you nor genuinely threatened you is unambiguously bad morality. And so is stealing someone else’s land and water while imprisoning them in their remaining territory.
There are several strains of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and so forth, that claim — as if they have any right to claim it — they are life changing teachers of superior morals. That’s fine, but if we are going to make such claims, we had better have the science to back them up. Otherwise, how are we any different from a braggart, or perhaps even con artist? Merely because those strains have a few high ideals and some genuine insights into human nature does not mean they know jack about helping people to become morally sane. Instead, they are like Freudian psychoanalysis: A lot of lofty intentions followed by a 15% cure rate.
Perhaps it is time to shit or get off the can. That is, religions should either drop their claims to being effective moral teachers, or they should devote serious resources into figuring out exactly how to become effective moral teachers. One or the other.
By the way, I do realize that for most religions, salvation or saving people — and not necessarily improving their morality — is the religion’s real reason for being. I got that. But that point is irrelevant here. I am not addressing the claim of many religions that they offer us salvation. I am only addressing the claims that they are effective moral teachers.
Last, there is not a religion on earth whose ideals and insights are entirely good or reliable. Religions have a lot of junk mixed in with their treasures: Far and away more junk than treasure. But, again, that is not the issue here.
Here, I am only addressing whether religions are effective moral teachers. And, in fact, there does not seem to be a great deal of evidence — scientific, anecdotal, and otherwise — to suggest that several religions are. Instead, we are only given excuses as to why they are not effective moral teachers. But there is no widespread, realistic or systematic effort on their part to actually improve their effectiveness.
You know, if you do not think this blog post is the absolute best blog post of the day on any of the world’s 72 million blogs, then it is your fault. You are too materialistic to appreciate it. You lacked enthusiasm when reading it. You failed to study it enough. You did not grasp the core concepts. Shame on you. The post was perfect. Look what you have done with it!