This is a response to a comment on Google+ that really turned out too long to post there.
Are you familiar with Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development? Too many people, particularly the right wing religious people who make up a very influential bloc in North America are stuck on the obedience and punishment stage. Perhaps it is the idea of obeying religious covenants that have been firmly ingrained into their psyches or perhaps they are simply deferring moral growth to their pastors.
To take an idea from Marx; religion is the opiate of the masses, it holds back moral development. I should say it can hold back moral development rather than that it does. If we want humanity to reach a post conventional level of morality where we at least engage in a mutually beneficial social contract (that open minded and permissive morality where we don’t judge those who are different based on our own preferences) then we need to work past the restrictions that religion places on growth.
My dissent with regard to Marx’ assessment of religion as a limiter leads me to say that I’ve known a few highly moral religious social commenters but that religion per se does not promote this kind of development (neither does its absence in all fairness). I can see it in some aspects of Buddhism and if you read almost anything by the Dalai Lama you’ll see how acceptance and understanding are key to his view of personal and social happiness but you still find bigoted Buddhists. I can see some fantastic moral lessons in Roman Catholicism too. Charity for example is key to many Catholic endeavours, unfortunately the Holy See and the Bishop of Rome hardly seem to exemplify this quality. There is also an idea in Islam that encourages the questioning of dogma and its constant reassessment. Again it is something that we tend not to hear about these days but it did help Islam to advance scientifically, medically and culturally over its neighbours until our European ancestors crushed them.
I’ve said many times how I view religion as a Curate’s Egg with both good and bad parts. Every religious person cherry picks their scripture and takes from it what lessons best suit them. I think that this is a good thing and we, I mean society in general, should encourage it. We need to encourage them to cherry pick the parts that promote a better society and to explain away or ignore the parts that limit or harm society. We can do this by making society more moral and promoting humanist ideas. As something of a utilitarian I think that we should examine moral questions from the principle of the least harm caused rather than from the viewpoint of an authority who dictates moral considerations but as long as those moral considerations that are dictates are to the benefit of all then we can certainly adapt them.
The Ten Commandments dictates prohibitions against murder and theft and promotes the idea of accepting that what others have is theirs. The Eight Fold Way promotes wisdom, ethical conduct and mindfulness of others. The Sermon on the Mount promotes compassion for the poor and hungry and condemns greed and violence. I think that we can agree that these are good things that we could readily adapt into every day social contracts of morality alongside other ideas.
Let me know what you think.