July 21, 2013

Moral Relativism, Religion, and the Political Left

Elusive Summer
Elusive Summer (Photo credit: CarbonNYC)
I find myself left of center on many political issues, but I cannot ignore the failings I have seen on the left. One of the big ones involves the manner in which moral relativism, political correctness, and a willingness to tolerate the intolerable under the guise of diversity and multiculturalism have combined to create a reality-free zone in which we pretend that religious belief warrants respect and we ignore many of the atrocities committed in the name of religion.

I value diversity and multiculturalism. I also share the reluctance of many on the left to impose my values on others, especially others with a very different background. There is something about one cultural group pushing its values on another that reminds me of some of missionary efforts in which European Christians set out to convert various "primitive" cultures.

And yet, I am not inclined to accept the claim that all moral values are equal. Some values really do seem to be better than others. Moreover, I believe that tolerance has limits. There are circumstances in which tolerance leads us to ignore real harm, and we pay a price for doing so. Telling ourselves that we only oppose female genital mutilation because we live in the West does not make the practice any less barbaric, and it does not ease the pain suffered by the victims. "Well, I don't want to impose my values on others" may be a noble sentiment in some cases, but it fails miserably as a general rule.

A parent in the U.S. who beats his or her child is doing something wrong, and no amount of references to the Christian bible changes that. But what makes it wrong? Aren't I just trying to impose my moral viewpoint on others? Take a look at the body of scientific literature documenting the many effects of child abuse. This is not a matter of opinion; we have solid evidence to guide us here. A father in Jordan who orders an honor killing on a daughter who has "dishonored the family" is doing something wrong, and no amount of whining about diversity changes that. Do we really want to shield a system that allows this practice to thrive from criticism?

I know that many questions of morality do not have easy answers. But there are at least some questions of morality that could be informed by science if only we could overcome our insistence that science has nothing valuable to contribute to questions of morality. This is the thesis of Sam Harris' book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. The title is unfortunate because he's certainly not arguing that science ought to determine human values; he's arguing that we are making a mistake by not using the tools of science to inform our values. He makes some excellent points.

There are many areas in which we have reasonably clear evidence of the effects of certain behaviors (e.g., child abuse, malnutrition, brainwashing, solitary confinement, shoddy health care, lack of access to safe drinking water, capital punishment). When we have a body of scientific evidence showing us that a particular practice is extremely harmful to victims and society at large, regardless of whether it is culturally sanctioned, it seems reasonable to conclude that we should do what we can to end the behavior. The fact that the practice is based in tradition or religious authority should not change that one bit.

Muslim Extremism

The difficulty Western Europe is having with Muslim extremists is one example of where this failure of the left can lead. If we ignore or excuse many Islamic practices in the name of cultural sensitivity, we may leave ourselves without much recourse to address them, even at home. Just look at how much controversy was generated when France restricted the burkha. Many on the left howled that this was a prime example of cultural insensitivity, and some Muslims reacted predictably…with violence. Should the French government have adopted this policy? What was their rationale for doing so? Is there anything we can learn from science on this question?

Some Christian extremists believe that the only way to effective oppose the spread of radical Islam is to ban Islam and turn to Christian theocracy. In the U.S., this leads many of our elected officials to reaffirm our mythical "Christian nation" status, arguing that it is the only thing standing between us and a caliphate. Essentially, they want a holy war. Remember the controversy around the so-called "ground zero mosque" and how all the Christian nationalists came out of the woodwork? For many of us, this entire incident was a stark reminder of why secularism is the most valuable tool we have in addressing religious extremism of any variety. However, we need a secularism that is willing to put science and skepticism to work for us, even on questions of morality.

Christian Extremism

Here in the U.S., the left has created a similar scenario in which we have struggled with Christian extremists, many of whom are smart enough to use our professed love of tolerance against us to protect their own intolerance. There is an impressive body of scientific literature showing that the rate of suicide among LGBT youth is much higher than that of non-LGBT youth. Why might that be? Might religiously-motivated hate, bigotry, and bullying be part of the answer?. And yet, all Christian extremists have had to do is cry religious persecution, and we seem to quickly forget all about it.

If you have never had the opportunity to sit down with a group of atheist youth living in a religiously oppressive environment where Christian extremism is permitted to thrive unchecked, I can tell you that it is a truly eye-opening experience. The courage and bravery required even to come together like this is astounding, but the stories you will hear…I was certainly not prepared for them. I had little idea what chronic exposure to Christian hate can do. Telling these kids, "Well, what do you expect in the South?" is not helpful, and neither is trying to sell them on the idea that they should simply accept Christian extremism as a perfectly valid alternative viewpoint to their own.

Not all answers to moral questions are equally valid. Some are better than others, and some may do real harm. The left has had a difficult time acknowledging this, and I believe this has come at a price. Many on the right insist that religious extremism is the solution, but a democratic secularism where policies and moral values are informed by science may be a suitable alternative.

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