1 A MORAL LIFE THOUGHTS ON HOW TO GET THERE INTRODUCTION I acknowledge that I am no expert on the various aspects of defining and forming a moral life. I have done no original research. What I have done
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1 A MORAL LIFE THOUGHTS ON HOW TO GET THERE INTRODUCTION I acknowledge that I am no expert on the various aspects of defining and forming a moral life. I have done no original research. What I have done is a lot of reading and thinking about the subject over the last 55 or so years. It can be said to have begun when I started to have questions about what I was being taught on Sunday mornings in my quasi-evangelical Church. Since then I have taken a lot of relevant university level courses, both at a major university and through the Great Courses series put out by the Teaching Company and done a lot of reading. A partial list of the relevant works follows. The Territorial Imperative, Robert Ardrey, 1966 Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, E. O. Wilson, 1975 The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins, 1976 A History of God, Karen Armstrong, 1993 How the Mind works, Steven Pinkler, 1997 Concilience, E. O. Wilson, 1998 The Mind and the Brain, Jeffrey Schwartz and Susan Begley, 2002 The Future of Life, E. O. Wilson, 2002 On Human Nature, E. O. Wilson, 2004 Hallucinations, Oliver Sachs, 2012 Sublimation How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, Leonard Mlodin, 2012 The Social Conquest of Earth, E. O. Wilson, 2013 Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan, 2013 The Great Courses tapes included The Spiritual Mind and Biology and Behavior. I have also read numerous relevant articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times. I have relied in the internet almost only to access Wikipedia to verify specific dates and facts. The point is that, while no expert in any of the fields that this paper touches on, I have closely read the works of a lot of people that are. The synthesis of the facts and ideas in these works and my thoughts and beliefs on what they mean, while almost certainly not the first to occur to anyone, are my own. I wrote this paper because I think that many may find it worth our thinking about when we contemplate how to live our lives. 2 What constitutes true morality is a very old and very difficult question that mankind has struggled with for thousands of years. Yet there is no real agreed upon answer. I believe that that is at least partly the case because all of us have two different and fundamentally conflicting urges that are inherent in human nature. All of us want what is best for ourselves and those very close to us, but (virtually) all of us also have an urge to deal honestly, fairly, and supportively with a larger community. Supporting a community of any size, however, inevitably means providing somewhat less support to self and family and not supporting other communities. It also frequently means coming into conflict with others over scarce resources. I believe that the basic question of what constitutes moral behavior boils down to how much support we decide to give to a wide variety of humans and other creatures. TWO DIFFERENT UNDERSTANDINGS OF HOW THE WORLD WORKS First I will posit that to know how to live morally in the world we have to know how the world really works. I also believe that there are two fundamentally irreconcilable beliefs on that vital issue, and thus on the source and definition of moral behavior. For brevity will call these religion and science. Religions essentially state that there are supernatural beings, a God or Gods, that are all knowing and all controlling and provide the only correct answer on how we should behave. Pure secularists and scientists believe that science can explain our world and universe, and that no God is needed to explain it or tell us how to live in it, but that we must decide for ourselves. In the spirit of full disclosure I will state that I am firmly in the secular/scientific camp. I am convinced that there is no God that controls events or has any authority to lay down the true guide to moral behavior. I cannot definitively prove that (strictly speaking it is logically impossible to prove a negative) but I believe that there is enough evidence in support of my view that any impartial thinker, and one that has nothing invested in the belief in such a God, would come to the same conclusion. In this his paper I will briefly discuss the development of religion and of science and I will explain why I believe that science and not religion explains the way our world works. I will discuss why I believe that religion is not a valid guide to moral behavior. I will spend some time on why I prefer science to religion not out of distain for religion but because I recognize that the large majority of humanity disagrees with that view and will need considerable convincing to consider my beliefs as even potentially valid. I will finally lay out my beliefs on a guide to moral behavior that is consistent with today s science. THE DEVELOPMENT OF ANCIENT RELIGIONS Religion almost certainly began at the point when mankind developed the intelligence to wonder why the world behave as it does. Why does the sun rise and set, why does water fall from the sky, sometimes accompanied by flashes of light and booming, etc. Indeed, where did the world they lived in rivers, forests, mountains, etc., come from. Then there was the more practical and critical question of 3 why the harvest of edible plants and their fruit was at times plentiful and sometimes painfully small; why some hunts produced quantities of meat and sometimes nothing. Since the dramatic action was in the skies they seemed to be the place to look, and since all of these events were beyond their control it seemed reasonable to posit that they were controlled by very powerful beings in the sky. So they posited Gods. The assumed panoply of Gods included those most important to the survival of the people, those that promoted good hunting, good crops, good health and fertility, etc. Given the obvious importance of these Gods to the wellbeing of the people in the various tribes, it was very important to figure out how to influence their actions. A class of people emerged that claimed to have the ability to do just that. They were called witch doctors, medicine men, holy people of various sorts, and even tribal chiefs, etc. - all of which fit under the generic category of shamans. These individuals, through a combination of charisma, knowledge of the effects of various herbs, knowing how to induce mystical experiences, etc., gained a reputation as having a special relationship with the Gods. The shamans probably believed that they could influence the Gods and they developed various rituals and sacrifices to gain favor with the various Gods. If the desired results were not forthcoming they could always say that the people didn t perform the rites properly, the Gods were displeased by some other aspect of the people s behavior, additional actions were required, etc. A few mistakes by a shaman could be forgiven and if too many were made there were always other would be shamans happy to try their luck/skill. While the Gods and rituals varied from one tribe to another, the general pattern was pretty much constant across all the tribes throughout the early civilizations. This is probably because there was an inherent need to feel that they understood the mysterious events in their world and, absent any semblance of science, supernatural beings were the obvious answer. It was probably also because there was an inherent desire to be told what they should do rather than to wrestle with that problem on their own, and the shamans and the Gods handled that problem too. When the population of the earth was very small the various tribes very infrequently came into contact with each other and when they did they could just ignore each other. As the population grew, however, the contacts were more frequent and conflicts over territory and resources were inevitable. Winning these, usually violent, conflicts could be a literally life or death matter, and the Gods and their shamans were expected to take care of them. If they came up short too often they were abandoned, and if the defeats were so complete that the losing tribe became subjected to the victors the losers had to accept the victors governance and thus their religion. Over time this process produced fewer but larger tribes and fewer Gods and religions. I see in the development of religion some serious problems with its serving as a valid guide to understanding the forces that control the world or serving as a valid moral guide to behavior in that world. First is the obvious fact that current science has proven the original idea of Gods controlling natural events to be simply false - no even modestly educated person believes that there is a separate God for thunder, rain, rocks and rivers, etc. Second, the profusion of Gods, rituals, and religions raises the question of whether there is one true belief. Third, the war God was the one that was truly vital 4 to the survival of the tribe and, by definition, its only interest was in protecting its worshipers and killing anyone who got in their way generally not regarded as a moral stance today. Finally, I suspect that many tribal leaders perceived that religion was a valuable tool in uniting their warriors and the population as a whole to defend and gain territory and power. I will return to these themes later. While this process of God formation and survival was dominant in the early Western world. The Eastern world India, China and their environs developed a very different understanding of the Godhood. The first of the currently dominant Eastern religions was Hinduism which began to take shape around 3000 BC. There are many variants but in general it recognizes one supreme creator God and a number of lesser but important Gods. Hinduism s major premise is that humans determine their own destiny by the degree to which they submit to the supreme God and the degree to which they live a good life. Importantly, in my view, the Hindu description of the good life is entirely consistent with the 10 Commandments and the Golden Rule. Hindus believe in reincarnation, the process wherein a creature s spirit is reborn in a different body after death, the form of that body depending upon how well the creature s life had comported to God s will and a good life. A good performance led to a higher form of body and poor performance led to regression down the scale. Successive good performances would lead to being allowed to live with the Gods in a perfect state, while inadequate performance meant that one slipped back and had to keep trying. The other dominant Eastern religion is Buddhism which began about 600 BC with the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama who adopted an ascetic life of meditation and mystical contemplation. He agreed with the Hindu prescription for a good life and believed in reincarnation. He did not, however, believe that there was a God. He believed that only through meditation and renouncing all material gratification could a person enter Nirvana, the state of true and eternal happiness. Because the Eastern religions would take a great deal of time to discuss even briefly, and because few of those who might read this paper are likely to be their adherents, I will end my discussion of these religions here. I will just observe that while reincarnation cannot be disproved since it is technically impossible to prove a negative it certainly has not been in any objective way demonstrated and certainly runs totally contrary to current science. I will also observe that the continued fervent belief by a large portion of the developed world in one religion that believes in multiple Gods and another that denies the existence of any God again casts serious doubt on the existence of one true God. THE DEVELOPMENT OF MONOTHEISM So I will move to a longer discussion of the three major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Before beginning this discussion it is important to understand the concept of traditional stories. A traditional story is neither fact nor fiction. It is rather a tale told to illustrate or reinforce an idea that is strongly believed to be true. Almost all religions throughout history have many of them, an example being that virtually all of them have a creation myth wherein a God or Gods create the universe and the earth out of chaos or nothing at all. The much later developed monotheistic religions all are based on, and still accept, the Old Testament which is replete with scientifically impossible events. While many fundamentalists in all three religions will adamantly reject this, the facts are as follows. The earth and 5 the universe were not created in six days or six thousand years. Adam and Eve were not banished from the Garden of Eden because a snake with legs convinced Eve to eat an apple. Jonah was not swallowed by a big fish and regurgitated in good health three days later. Noah did not build a boat big enough to hold a breeding pair of all the worlds species plus enough food to sustain them for 40 days nor was the whole earth ever covered with water. And so on. These stories were never intended to be literally true, they are intended to convey to an unsophisticated and largely uneducated audience in pre-scientific times that God is all-powerful, will punish those who disobey him, but will care for those who repent their transgressions. My discussion of monotheism s development will include the events as described in the scriptures even though many of them are clearly stories. Most of these occurred outside times and places when/where there was any non-scripture history. When there are conflicts between the scriptures and what other existing history records or suggests I will note them. All three monotheistic religions began in an area that includes modern day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and parts of Egypt, Iraq and Syria. All of the prophets were born, and virtually all of the events of the three religions scriptures occurred, there and it is commonly referred to as the Holy Land. At the time of the scriptures this area was obviously divided into different states with different and changing names and hereafter I will use the names provided in the scriptures without further geographical location. Abraham, a tribal chief in that area born around 1800 BC, is the father of all three monotheistic religions. He was visited by Jehovah, one of the more powerful of the surviving Gods of that region, who promised him that if he and his descendants worshiped and followed Jehovah exclusively they would inherit Canaan, a large part of the Holy Land which was known to Abraham s followers as the Promised Land. He told his story well and probably believed that it had happened see my later discussion of hallucinations. Abraham developed a large following and his tribe thrived for a while but before long fell under the rule of the Egyptians who essentially enslaved them. One of Abraham s followers, Moses, was visited by Jehovah through a bush that was burning but not consumed. Jehovah tells Moses that Moses will be Jehovah s agent to free his people from Egyptian rule. Moses calls on the Egyptian Pharaoh to do so and when he refuses Moses calls on Jehovah to unleash as series of plagues on the non-abrahamic Egyptians. These plagues, locusts, frogs, etc., culminated in the killing if their first born son. The Pharaoh relented, the Israelites named after one of Abraham s twelve sons departed, but the Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his troops after them. Moses saves the day by parting the Red Sea so that the Israelites can cross safely and when the Egyptian troops try to cross Moses lets the waters return and drown them all. The Israelites wander in the wilderness for 40 years but finally arrive in Canaan. When they arrived they carried out Jehovah s specific orders: Deuteromomy20: As for the towns of these people that the Lord thy God is giving you as inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them all the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites just as the Lord your God has commanded 6 This accomplished, the Israelites set about to work establishing a working community/state. Shortly later Jehovah commanded Moses to go to Mount Saini to receive his commandments on how his followers must conduct their lives. Moses went with a group of followers, but went to the summit alone. He came back with the stone tablets containing Jehovah s instructions only to find that in his absence his followers had set up an idol to Baal, one of Jehovah s few remaining competitors, Baal at the time was the God of Fertility and Jehovah was the God of War. Moses gave them a stern talking to and they repented. The Israelites thrived for centuries and in about 1000 BC King David and his son Salomon ruled a prosperous kingdom. Around 900 BC, however a man named Ahab took the throne. His wife Jezebel, who had remained a strong supporter of Baal, campaigned strongly for Baal as Israel s true God. At that time there was a self-declared Jehovah prophet named Elijah who railed against what he saw as this heresy and arranged a contest between the two. Jehovah won convincingly. And just to make the point clear Elijah ordered Baal s 450 supporting priest slaughtered on the spot. This was done and, not surprisingly, Jehovah remained pretty much the only Israelite God from there on. MY PROBLEMS WITH EARLY MONOTHEISM This seems to be a good time to take another look at my problems with religion as a guide to living a moral life. First, many of the events cited in the scriptures are pretty obviously, to any critical thinker, stories that are mostly designed to illustrate the great power of Jehovah, and many of today s believers regard them as just such stories. It is likely, however, that the majority of believers regard them as the literal truth probably because the scriptures, as a whole, form the basis of their belief system/worldview, and accepting any part of them as not the literal truth opens the door to their questioning of the rightness of their whole worldview. This is a very uncomfortable and therefore unacceptable position for them and it is easier to simply deny any questioning of the scriptures. While this may be understandable, the fact remains that the prevalence of such beliefs casts serious doubt on religion as a valid guide. A valid worldview must be based on facts and not on myths. What is fact and what is story can be difficult to sort out definitively but, while history was far from comprehensive in that area and time, there did exist a pretty good record of the major events. It is very unlikely that the simultaneous death of the first born son of every Egyptian and the drowning of the Egyptian army would have gone unrecorded. It is also unlikely that a whole nation wandering around for forty years would have escaped notice. Yet no non-scriptural history has any record of any such events. On another front, the reported annihilation of the original inhabitants of Canaan, and the slaughter of Baal s followers puts the lie to any idea that Jehovah today s monotheism s sole God cared for the wellbeing of mankind as a whole. Jehovah began as a war God who cared only for the victory of those who worshipped him. He was typical of the primitive religions. Whether or not such slaughters actually took place is secondary to fact that they are still accepted by most monotheists as having been carrying out the will of God the right thing to do. Again, not an acceptable moral guide in today s world. 7 THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHRISTIANITY The Jews, at some point named after another of Abraham s sons Judah, thrived for centuries, but were conquered and then broke free from a succession of outside states. They were finally conquered by the then all powerful Rome in 63 BC. Rome was polytheistic but they dealt with the Jews very cleverly. They did not force the Jews to abandon their religion but rather pursued a strategy of
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