How do we decide what is right and wrong? Is there even such a thing, or just "right" and "wrong"? Who are we trying to please, or relate to, when we act ethically, outwardly or inwardly?
All intriguing questions, which are ably addressed by anthropologist David Eller in his "Christianity Does Not Provide the Basis for Morality." This is a chapter in a book I'm reading, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.
Every religion is deluded, of course -- not just Christianity. Likewise, no religion, spiritual belief, or mystical practice can provide the basis for morality. Eller shows how they all make invalid assumptions that mess up moral decision-making.
I found his observations about "agency" to be particularly interesting.
If there is, nevertheless, one quality that religions seem to share, it is what has been called "agency." Agency essentially means "intelligence" or "will" or, perhaps most profoundly, "intention."
Agents are the kinds of beings who have intelligence or will or intention, who are not mere objects of natural forces but who make some choices on the basis of their own nature and interests.
Agents are, in short, "persons," and human beings are the agents or persons with which we are most familiar.
Sure. There's nothing strange about this.
We humans recognize our own intentionality, and we also know that other people share our capacity to act willfully (some animals also can do this). So we can visualize how what we decide to do will affect others. Religious weirdness only creeps in when agency is attributed to inanimate objects or supernatural entities.
In a seemingly mild form, this is reflected in the frequently-heard comment, "It looks like the universe is trying to teach me a lesson." As non-religious as I am, I've said this myself.
But after reading Eller's chapter, I now recognize how religous'y are the words trying and teach when used in reference to the universe. Not to mention in reference to God, angels, Jesus, cosmic consciousness, an ascended master, or some other divine entity.
There is no evidence that the universe is an "agent," in the sense described above. Nor is there any demonstrable evidence of supernatural beings who are agents.
Yet most people believe that something or someone non-human takes an interest in them, has intentions toward them, and is pleased or displeased depending on what they do.
What is important is that humans are inveterate agent-detectors, looking for will or intention or purpose or goal-oriented behavior in each other and in the world around them. And we tend to find it, whether or not it is there.
Thus the characteristic feature of religion is the claim that there are nonhuman and superhuman agents in the world, lacking some of the "qualia" of humans (like bodies or mortality) but possessing the most important one -- mind or personality or intention.
This "religious perspective," if you will, humanizes the world or, more critically, socializes the world, because these nonhuman religious agents (like a god) not only can be spoken with but also must be spoken with. They are understood by members of the religion to be a real and inescapable part of their social world.
I used to consider that God, or my guru, (who were pretty much the same thing, to my believing mind) knew both what I was doing and what I was thinking about. Most religious people have a similar belief.
This can be pleasantly reassuring, as you always have a secret invisible friend around who cares about you. Even if you're physically alone, a conversation, albeit one-sided, always can be carried on with a supernatural being.
But here's one problem, among many, with this sort of religosity: basing one's morality on a relationship with an imaginary metaphysical entity can, and usually will, screw up our relationships with people and other living beings here on Earth, in addition to how we relate to our self.
Our attention is focused on how we believe God or some other supernatural being will react to what we're doing, not on how human beings (including ourselves) will be affected by an action or thought.
Examples of this abound in every religion. I'll offer one from my own experience as a member of an India-based mystical/meditation organization.
Vegetarianism was a core moral commandment. This went so far as to include eggs, whether fertilized or not. Eventually animal rennet, found in most cheeses, was included in the No Eat list.
I used to be very strict about trying not to eat even a speck of meat, fish, egg, or other animal'ish product. If you'd asked me "why?" at the time, I wouldn't have been able to offer any coherent answer. I simply believed that there would be negative consequences, bad karma, from ingesting the tiniest bit of proscribed food.
If I'd had a single bite of an egg-filled pastry, I wouldn't have hurt any human being -- including myself. But I imagined that a metaphysical entity was aware of me. And this supernatural being would be disturbed or disappointed if I ate a speck of egg.
Yet entirely in line with the "agency" assumptions of religious teachings. You'd better be good, not for goodness's sake, but because God/ guru/ karma/ whatever knows what you're thinking or doing, and will be pissed off if you do it.
This sort of morality isn't really moral. It passes off the responsibility for deciding what is right or wrong to someone other than us. Worse, that someone other isn't real. So our morality becomes fake as well.
What religion does for morality and for society in general is move the authority, the responsibility, for rules and institutions out of human hands. Each religion adds some idiosyncratic elements to the nonreligious human tendency to create and enforce behavioral norms and appraisals and then attributes the whole system to a nonhuman and superhuman source.
...In the end, the return of morality back to earth, to the natural world and the human world, puts morality in the hands of humans who create and sustain it in the first place. It does not "solve" the moral problems of humanity -- since there is still no agreement on what the solution or what the very problems are -- but it empowers us to be the ones to decide.
(Here's a short piece by Eller that covers some of the same ground as his considerably longer chapter.)