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The Moral Case Against Religious Belief

Marilyn Kane reviews The Moral Case Against Religious Belief by R.A. Sharpe.

Once, asked to comment on a book, Abraham Lincoln replied, “People who like this sort of thing will find this is the sort of thing they like.” Lincoln’s reply doesn’t reveal much about his own evaluation of the book. But it does make the point that a book may be well liked by a certain segment of the population, yet perhaps thoroughly disliked by another segment.

I suspect that R.A. Sharpe’s latest book, The Moral Case Against Religious Belief, will be such a book. Probably readers who are fervently religious will dislike or even detest this book. Readers who are non-religious or atheistic may very well enjoy the book immensely. Neither of these groups are likely to switch camps after reading this (or perhaps any other) book.

But Sharpe doesn’t address The Moral Case… to either pro or anti religious readers. Rather he hopes to persuade the group in between, “those whose faith is somewhat frail, and those who, though believers, have some independence of mind.” This group, like a mule standing between two bales of hay, and not knowing which way to turn, may have clung to their religious position for a long time, and may be reluctant to change it now. Like an old Dutch farmer in another Abe Lincoln proverb, they may feel it is not best to swap horses in midstream. As Sharpe remarks, losing one’s faith can be profoundly disturbing. But there may be good results from doing so, possibly including improved moral judgement. To convince this group, Sharpe must present thoughtful and forceful arguments, but that is exactly what has always been his trademark and his forte.

Sharpe’s primary aim is to draw the distinction between morality and religion, and to show that religious leaders are not the foremost authorities on morality. Sharpe contends that “religious belief does not necessarily make its possessor an authority on moral matters and that spokespeople for religion are often badly wrong about moral questions as a result of their religious commitment.”

Consider the official position of the Catholic Church regarding artificial birth control: the Catholic Church says it is sinful and morally wrong. In effect, the Catholic Church is saying that those people who use artificial birth control are sinners. That is, those people who would rather impede a mindless spermatozoon than bring an unplanned, perhaps unwanted, child into the world are sinners.

Can this difference of opinion be attributed to religious people having higher moral standards? Or are there not many religious people who are wicked as well as many who are good? Serbian Orthodox people killed, and were killed by, Muslim Bosnians. As Sharpe states, “one fact about religious commitment and conflict is that it leads its adherents to set aside such ordinary reactions as compassion for the suffering.” Sharpe wonders how someone could be more convinced of the ‘truth’ of one’s religious beliefs than s/he is of the truth of the wickedness of such things as torture and killing.

To Sharpe, one who puts more faith in religious doctrine than in one’s ordinary reactions has been corrupted by those religious doctrines. For example, someone watching Huguenot families burned at the stake as heretics, and accepting this as just, and therefore quelling the intense pity that would otherwise be considered natural when witnessing such horror.

“It is a heretic that makes the fire,
Not she which burns in’t.” 1

Another example where religious commitment might sully one’s moral judgement involves the motivations which impel a person to do good deeds and refrain from base or unkind ones. Suppose one helps someone who obviously needs help: a passing stranger stopping to help a fellow human or animal that has been injured. Compare this to one who stops to help, not because one feels compassion, or because it seems like the moral thing to do, but rather because s/he hopes for some reward, not from the stranger, (although perhaps that too) but from God. This is a different motivation, less to do with morality and more to do with self-interest.

A whole range of issues are discussed in The Moral Case Against Religious Belief. Religious people look forward to eternal bliss in Heaven. Eighty-one percent of adult Americans polled in a recent Time magazine article answered ‘Yes’ to the question: Do you believe in the existence of heaven, where people live forever with God after they die? Sharpe wonders whether this might not be all it’s cracked up to be… perhaps becoming a bit tedious after the initial burst of enthusiasm. Sharpe also questions whether some of the rituals of religious worship such as selfflagellation, abstaining from sex, and so on, might not be somewhat passé. He finds it difficult to imagine that God would be interested in such odd ways of showing affection and loyalty. (There is a lot of subtle humour in this book.)

But, primarily, Sharpe wants to draw a line in the sand, with morality on one side and religion on the other. Religious leaders are certainly authorities on religion… it is not so certain that they are authorities on morality. Many people are of the opinion that religion and morality are essentially linked, and that without religion, morality is without foundation. This is one reason why Nietzsche’s momentous statement that ‘God is dead’ causes such a stir. These people fear that without God, moral values lack justification. Sharpe is not of this opinion: he believes that morality is separate and autonomous from religion.

R.A. Sharpe is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wales in Lampeter. As an author, he tends towards thoughtful arguments, presented succinctly and with wit. His books are refreshingly jargon-free. Incidentally, his previous book,2 on the subject of aesthetics, displayed similarly witty iconoclastic reasoning: his opinion of Keats’ “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” maxim was that it is “embarrassing”.3

Before reading The Moral Case Against Religious Belief, one may well ask: “But if morality is separate from religion and one needn’t act so as to please God, or so as to not displease God, then what is morality? Why be moral?” It is as if the criminal code was still said to be in effect except there would no longer be punishment for offenders. As Banquo says to the three witches in Macbeth: “Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear your favours nor your hate.” This question of what morality is, when freed from religion, is addressed by Sharpe in chapter 1, ‘Religion and Morality.’ But I won’t make the mistake sometimes made by a reviewer of a detective story, who spoils everything by revealing the secret. Read The Moral Case Against Religious Belief yourself. It may turn out to be the sort of thing you like: a damn good read.

© Marilyn Kane 1997

1 Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, iii.114
2 R.A. Sharpe, Contemporary Aesthetics, 1983
3 John Keats. These lines are from his poem Ode on a Grecian Urn: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, ‘- that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Illustration: an engraving by Dodd, c.1770, entitled Jean Calas a French Protestant Merchant Broken on the wheel.

The Moral Case Against Religious Belief by R.A. Sharpe. £7.95 (paperback), SCM Press Ltd. 1997 0-334-02680-6

Marilyn Kane is working towards a PhD in Philosophy at the University of British Columbia.

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