Antipathy and Propathy

I was planning in any case to say a few things about the case for the other side. In a laborious attempt to be fair, to avoid groupthink and confirmation bias, etc. No not really, that’s only a joke – there actually are some things to be said for the other side that I find persuasive. Not for the basic truth claims of religion, but for the idea that religion can be a good thing in some ways. (Not much of an admission, believers will think, but it’s the best I can do.) I was planning to do that today in any case and then by pure coincidence I got a reminder or reinforcement from Chris Bertram at Twisty Sticks. He cites as his reason for not sharing my antipathy to religion, the very thing I was going to talk about.

One of the reasons I can’t bring myself to share the antipathy to religion that is expressed by someone like our esteemed regular commenter Ophelia Benson, is that, at its best, religion succeeds in a symbolic articulation of universal moral concern that secular morality finds it hard to match up to (motivationally, I mean). Secular morality is a thin gruel compared to the notion that, as children of God, we are to think of ourselves as brothers and sisters.

I know. I wish I didn’t, I wish it were otherwise, but I do, and it isn’t. At least not generally, not here and now. There have been times and places where secular or mostly-secular forms of morality in fact did motivate people to be good. Stoicism, Epicureanism and other Hellenistic schools did do that kind of work, and I think so did Confucianism. And then of course there is Marxism. Now there’s a secular motivator that’s not thin gruel! But the dire effects of some of that motivation spring to mind and one has to wonder if motivation and irrational conviction are entirely inseparable, and hence dangerous. Can one have the motivation without the tendency to seize the bit and run blindly off into the land of revenge, cruelty, ruthlessness and massacre? I really wonder. That ‘at its best’ that Chris has there is crucial – one couldn’t even have that sentence (not honestly) without it.

But all the same I do know. A thought about this that struck me fairly recently has to do with loyalty, and how that is probably a large motivation factor. A more familiar factor is the one about judgment and punishment or reward – that’s the factor that James Mill had some harsh things to say about, to mention only one critic. But that doesn’t have to be the only one. To the extent that people are able to feel love for whatever deity they believe in – love, as opposed to fear – then they want to do what they think will please the deity. If they think of the deity as kind and loving (which is a bit of a trick, given the world as it is, but never mind that for now), then they will want to be kind and loving. They will feel not just squalid, self-regarding, calculating reluctance to do mean, cruel, pain-causing things, but more generous, other-regarding reluctance. And that does happen. Which comes first, which causes which, is a nice question – whether people who would be like that anyway are the kind who have that view of the deity, or whether such people actually become better than they would be otherwise. But some sort of link seems at least possible.

So that’s one item, and I can think of others, having to do with community and so on. I’ll save them for later.

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