Thursday, April 13, 2017

Where Religion Ends and Ethics Begins

Most civilized people agree that it is none of our business what other people believe. We support separation of Church and State. And as good neighbors, we do not mock the faith of others, even though it is not our own faith. We don't argue about whether so and so arose from the dead or whether that sea was parted so those people could cross, or whether there really is a purple multi-armed goddess who provides for people. Civilized people know to leave others to do their own thing, engage in their own ceremonies, cherish their own beliefs about historical events and just avoid confrontation when another person's mythology clashes with our own. You believe in unicorns and I'll believe in  leprechauns, and we can agree to disagree. That's separation of Church and State.

But there is a point at which religion ends, and ethics begins. No matter what somebody's religion says, we're not going to allow them to kidnap our child and sacrifice him to their god. We are not going to allow them to burn down our house, just because their holy book says that is the right thing to do. And we are not going to allow them to discharge our debtor in bankruptcy when it's to us that the money is owed and not to them. When they start to argue that we should forgive our debtors so that our creditors will forgive us, that's where we draw the line. You forgive your debtors, we say, but only after you have paid your creditors in full. Forgiving a debtor when you still owe money to someone else is a gift in fraud of creditors and is not allowed.

Freedom of religion, really, is something that we tolerate only to the extent that what our neighbor believes is not materially important to us. The moment it starts to affect our rights, then we can't allow it. This means, among other things, that to the extent that religion preaches stealing, fraud or hurting others, then we can't tolerate it. Our tolerance is only for meaningless chatter and ceremonies and symbolism. We tolerate religion in the same way we tolerate literature -- if it's only just words, it's okay.

Sadly, religion can affect the morals of people who grew up steeped in it, even when they leave the church. Many believe that it's okay to steal from creditors, long after they have given up on  the idea that that fellow rose from the dead.

It does not matter what cosmology our neighbors believe in, It totally does not hurt me if they believe in the Easter bunny or in miracles. But when their religion tells them it's okay to steal from me, that's where their rights end and mine begin.

A horseshoe I found yesterday


  1. I am just tired of judging people because of their so called generosity. However, I have discovered some of the people who supposedly the most generous with their money when it comes to charity, they really do not seem all that interested in what their friends are doing. I think we should only do things we are interested in, but how are we even the real friends of people when we take zero interest in the things they care about most? I actually was reading a study today that found many of the people we think are our friends are not. So I know it rubs people wrong, but I think charity is sometimes just used as a bragging mechanism, and some people do have professional careers making money off non-profit work. There is nothing wrong with that if it is something you truly believe in, but it has opened my mind to what Steve Jobs was saying. People used to say he was a horrible person because he did not really give to charity, but he wanted to put more of his time into innovation. But would would not have the ipad if it were not for him, so if a person is contributing their time to creating something that will benefit many, I do not always think that is inferior to someone who donates money to some charity. I still struggle with this thinking because I grew up with a very Christian concept of what charity is supposed to be, but I am trying to open my mind.

    1. Hi, Julia. I think you are very open minded. It is one of the things I appreciate about you most, even when we occasionally disagree. It is true that we often do not know who our real friends are, and one clue is if they take an interest in finding out who we are and what we like. I also agree we should do things we are interested in, and that we end up helping others the most when we find a common interest and an activity that advances the well-being of both ourselves and those who join us due to mutual self-interest.