A Clarification on Unethical Religiosity
Seems my foray into biblical mythology distracted from my larger objective, which was to draw attention to the paradoxical conflict that can arise between being religious and being ethical–or, to put the conflict in objective terms, between the content of divine command and the conclusions of ethical thought. Permit me to approach the paradox from a different angle and without venturing into the controversial waters of biblical hermeneutics.
I call this conflict paradoxical because it arises for those who see a relationship between the rightness of ethics and the goodness of religious morality. For anyone who denies the existence of God or any association of God with “the good,” there’s no paradox. However, if for you God is the source of all goodness, indeed Goodness itself, then sound ethics, which seeks to construct practical rules for living in accordance with the good, would logically lead to conclusions perfectly coherent with the commandments of this God. And yet it is questionable whether this is always the case.
Take, for example, the Catholic condemnation of contraceptives (because we haven’t talked enough about that!): the moral opposition stems from a religious understanding of the meaning and purpose of human sexuality. According to this understanding, God intended sex for procreation and has revealed the rules and regulations for sexual behavior to a select group of religious authorities, who instruct the faithful to engage in sex in accordance with its God’s given purpose and never intentionally in opposition to that purpose. These authorities also teach that this meaning of human sexuality can be discerned in the intelligibility of the sexual acts and in “the natural law,” of which they are the authoritative interpreters.
Now, if you subscribe to natural law theory, or perhaps another sort of moral realism, then you’re not likely to see any conflict between the conclusions of ethics and religion regarding this matter. Each may lead to the same conclusion. However, not even all Catholics buy into the idea of natural law. As theologian Cathleen Kaveny noted to Jon Stewart, natural law ethics doesn’t have the persuasive power it once held. It’s not a common morality.
Today’s common morality says that contraception is neither immoral nor morally neutral; rather, it’s a moral good. Sexually active people ought to use contraception. Contraceptives ought to be universally accessible. Very ethically-minded people think this way. Catholics who share this common morality and acceptance of contraception as a moral good therefore find themselves at odds with the moral teaching of their church authorities. Others may acknowledge the reasonableness of the religious condemnation given the the belief-based premises that support it, while seeing no firm ethical grounding for those premises. Believers such as these may conclude that their church calls them to act unethically by forbidding the use of contraceptives.
What is such a believer to do? How ought a person of religious faith decide when her religious tenets conflict with her ethical conclusions? In answer, I can offer no imperative. As I said previously, my inclination given this situation is 1) to test every moral claim by religious authority against the ethical as I understand it and 2) to deconstruct my ethical methods and conclusions with an ear to the “voice of God” or the “voice of alterity.” Ethics contributes to our understanding of what it means to act rightly, but its voice is not alone in speaking to us about rightness and wrongness. Ethics can be terribly wrong, and even the truest has its limits. Art, literature, myth, religion–these also have something to say. On the flip side, they can be put to ill use. As the new atheists never tire of telling us, religion has done grievous harm.
I recognize, however, that not everyone is as content in undecidability as I am. It seems natural to desire resolution and certain answers, and so I’m not at all surprised that the conflict between ethics and religion often triggers culture wars aimed at the cultural defeat of one side or the other. This undecidability will not stand.