Prominent clerics in New South Wales are claiming that ethics which are not based on Christian teaching are somehow not proper. They are labouring under the delusion that ethics and religious belief are interdependent. In fact, religion is to ethics as pseudoscience is to science. In each case, the proselytisers of the former try to establish a right to make significant statements about the latter by presenting the latter as being somehow owned by the former.
In NSW, the anxious clerics are even going to the extent of insisting that they should have a prominent role in evaluating the ethics courses being tried out in ten schools because, as they falsely argue, ethics is a subset of religion.
In fact, far from the churches being allowed some role to play in the design or evaluation of ethics courses in schools, they should be not allowed within a bull’s roar of them.
Ethical and religious teachings are both concerned with how people should behave in particular situations and to this extent have a seeming similarity, but there are at least three ways in which they are starkly different and largely incompatible.
Ethics concerns itself with how people should behave so as to secure the greatest possible well being of all human beings in this life. Religion concerns itself with how people should behave so as to secure the greatest possible well being for themselves in the next life. Ethics is about securing benefits for everyone in the one existence we know we all shall have; religion is about securing benefits for yourself in a future existence that many (maybe most) do not even think will happen.
Ethical conclusions are reached from rational analysis of the effects on everybody concerned of all available ways of behaving. Religious conclusions, certainly Christian ones, are handed out by influential human beings who claim that they know the wishes of a god. In making an ethical judgment, people have to work out the course of action that will minimise the total amount of personal discomfort in the world. In making a religious judgment, people have to work out what to do to avoid hell.
To be ethical, you have to open your mind and engage your brain. To be religious, you have to close your mind and open your ears. The hallmarks of ethical behaviour are intellectual engagement with issues and their consequences. The hallmarks of religious behaviour are unquestioning obedience to received articles of faith and to observance of rituals.
Because ethical judgments are always derived from an analysis of the existing situation, the resulting “rules” can change from time to time and situation to situation - and thank god for that, as the momentarily careless agnostic might exclaim. Religious teachings, however, being based on the assumed inerrancy of god’s revealed truth in some holy book, cannot be so easily modernised.
When two consenting adults share a mutually enjoyable and private same-sex intimate experience, how could you argue that that act increased the total amount of discomfort of all people and was therefore unethical? A religious analysis, on the other hand, will find some ancient holy book comment that, if interpreted carefully, can be presented to the subservient obedient as evidence that god wouldn’t like that sort of thing - and that keeping your act private will do you no good because god will still know that you did it.
Of course, even religions sometimes have to change one of god’s inerrant teachings to take account of increased modern knowledge, just as ethics does as a matter of course, when absurdity becomes too apparent to ignore. But, as the continuing reluctance of some churches to accept Darwinian evolution, even as others give up the pretence that Creationism makes sense, shows that updating religious “truths” is a slow and painful business whose benefits to people are always belated and mostly posthumous.
In short, if new knowledge shows that a previously firmly held “truth” was wrong, ethics can adapt immediately whereas religious teaching cannot.
By the way, because religious apologists are usually quick to judge, especially if a damaging conclusion seems within reach, let me assure them that if I were one of the people involved in any form of same-sex experience, the total amount of discomfort in the world would definitely increase - greatly!
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