Curing the Religious Disease, Part 1: Diagnosis

Over the last year I've been reading and interacting with some ideas that have shown some interesting convergence. The convergence speaks to what tends to go awry in religion and what needs to be in place to correct the diseases of religion.

What is the disease of religion? What happens when religion goes awry?

In my opinion, religion becomes diseased when its adherents settle into an insular, static, morally convicted ideology. Let me unpack this:

The religious person or group rejects any sort of external critique or outside commentary.

The religious person or group feels that they are in possession of the "Truth." Thus, they cannot change. To change is to deny the truth. This position is very problematic in that conversation becomes impossible. The only conversational mode available to the group is evangelistic and never dialogical. To be always in the evangelistic mode is to be always in the position of Teacher and never the Student.

Morally Convcited:
I've written about the psychology of moral convictions before, but a review might be helpful to new readers (what follows is taken from Skitka, L., Bauman, C.W., & Sargis, E.G. 2005. Moral conviction: Another contributor to attitude strength or something more?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 88, 895-917).

First, moral convictions are experienced as OBJECTIVE MORAL FACTS about the world. For example, if someone is morally convicted about abortion being murder then they experience this conviction as a fact. Nothing could be more obvious to them than this "fact." They don't experience their conviction as a subjective moral judgment. No, it feels like a "fact." Obviously, this experience of "facthood" causes a problem. The reason is that if a person disagrees with the moral conviction (as Pro-Choice people do about abortion) these dissents appear to be coming from epistemologically broken or deviant persons. "I mean," the Pro-Life person exclaims, "can't these people SEE that abortion is wrong! Isn't it obvious?!" This stance is self-evidently problematic: You treat all dissenters as either idiotic or demonic.

But it gets worse. Beyond the experience of "facthood" the moral conviction is also experienced as a UNIVERSAL. That is, if you hold a moral conviction you believe that everyone must conform to your conviction. There is no opting out. No middle ground. No let's agree to disagree. This facet of moral conviction means that we will get into each other's stuff. We can't allow people to behave differently from our conviction. Thus, we'll work to try to get you to conform. And this boundary crossing increases the conflict.

But it gets worse. The third and final feature of moral conviction is EMOTION. That is, when moral convictions are being discussed people will get very emotional very quickly. Which means that the conversations become irrational shouting matches. The rhetorical object becomes to defend and attack rather than to learn.

So, to conclude this post, I just wanted to paint a picture of the "religious disease" as I see it:

Morally Convicted

The question then becomes, how do we treat or prevent the illness?

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21 thoughts on “Curing the Religious Disease, Part 1: Diagnosis”

  1. Richard -

    I couldn't agree more on (1) and (2), but I'm grappling with the implications of (3).

    Remove abortion in the above paragraph and replace with, for example, "euthanizing individuals on the basis of their race": are you saying that we cannot reach epistemological certainty about any moral issues? If you make the suggested substitution, it seems to me that we must have moral certainty on that. And if on that, where do we draw the line?

    I certainly agree that there are morally ambiguous issues (abortion probably being one of them), but your conclusion seems to place all moral issues in the ambiguous category. Doesn't it?

  2. Hi Jeff,
    I think you are right, that #3 is unavoidable. The issue, rather, is the combination of #1-#3. That is, will a person/group allow for input into #3? Phrased another way, are your moral convictions open to change and evolution? If so, how can we insure that this is/will be the case?

    My argument in the coming posts will be that all moral convictions must have criticism built into them before they get deployed.

  3. I think I would tend to agree with Jeff. 1 and 2 are clear to me, but 3 is definitely more ambiguous.

    Maybe a better term would be something like morally absolute? I guess I don't see a problem with being morally convicted and holding strongly to those beliefs. I'd be bothered if someone gave up what they believed at the drop of a hat.

    I agree with what you're getting at: that there is a problem when people are so convicted about their beliefs that they can't articulate a discussion or be open to understanding the values/ideas of other people. I just think morally convicted sends the wrong idea.

    I hate abortion and am "morally convicted" in the belief that it is wrong, but I also realize that other people don't hold the same beliefs/values I do. So, I'm open to dialoguing about it and understanding the unique issues that come to play in every situation.

    I think being "convicted" is great. What is a problem is when we approach our convictions with a closed mind and an inability to see the issues from other people's views.

    I'd suggest a different term/concept than morally convicted. I don't know if absolute is a better term, but something that connotes the inability to discuss differing moral views. Although, to me, this sounds like "insular" but with a specifically moral focus.

  4. Richard,

    Again, very interesting post.

    I have never put religion under this light before, but after I read your post I realized that the topics you addressed here are one of my tripping points. This post, for me, is related to your "Theology as Self-Expression" post (see my comments under that post - which, to my surprise, you didn't comment on - I'm wondering about out here in cyberland).

    I believe that what you wrote about is one of, if not the major stumbling block, for the modern world to Christianity. The general public doesn't philosophize quite so deeply, but I expect these problems simply smack of general hypocrisy. They are just below the surface and not an easy thing to tease out.

    These are some great insights. If they were absorbed and applied it would cause a tectonic shift the perception of the right by the left. (to put it politically)

    One question presents itself though. The line between moral convictions and objective moral facts is somewhat blurred. The Bible generally presents as moral fact. Homosexuality is a good example. But, these "hard" moral codes can become quite twisted in modern society. Being XX or XY isn't quite as simple anymore. Where do these transgendered (I use the term rather narrowly) people fit in to the moral code?

    i.e. - How does religion, or theology for that matter, differentiate between a moral conviction and a moral fact? Think about the gray areas (as in the example above) - the black and white are easy. Are there objective moral facts? The alternative seems situational, and that makes everyone a bit nervous. I hope I stated this clearly enough. (Feel free to read between the lines!)

  5. Richard wrote: "Phrased another way, are your moral convictions open to change and evolution?"

    Most are, some are not. For instance, I have the opinion (belief, view, etc.), and I think it comes from a moral basis, that intentionally torturing an animal is always wrong. I am not open to other opinions about this and have no interest in a dialogue with someone who thinks it's OK, other than possibly to better understand a deviant mind. I'm close-minded on this issue, not seeking further input.

    I think we can have certainty -- not to know that our views are True with a capital T, but to feel 100% certain in our own minds about what is right or true -- and I think that at that point there's no reason to listen to more information or differing arguments.

    Perhaps I am a good illustration of someone suffering from the disease of religion!

  6. Hi Daniel and mw,
    When I wrote the post I figured that the words "moral conviction" might trigger some responses. Those are words from Skitka et al. so I went with it.

    Undoubtedly, we all feel some moral conviction. Which makes me pessimistic about the human future. That is, I feel good about what I'm convicted about. As do you. But so did the 9/11 high-jackers. So who is to adjudicate among the convictions? Those who scream the loudest? Win the majority vote? Or wield the biggest stick?

    I do understand your point, but if we step back and look at the situation holistically, and not personally, moral conviction is at the root of much bloodshed. Which leaves us, I admit, with quite a puzzle. But I think it important to be honest about the destructive potential in all moral convictions.

    Thinking along with you, I think you hit on a couple of important points. First, one of the diseases of religion is to treat the Word of God as an objective moral fact. But this conclusion only comes from a particular way of being religious or reading scripture. I think there are theologically coherent ways to allow for a developmental moral perspective, where the "good" grows and evolves over time. Issues relating to gender and human sexuality are a good examples of this.

    And this has some application to your earlier comment (sorry for not commenting sooner; busy week!). When I've tripped in the past it has been over religion and not God. I've always felt, deeply in my being, that there is a God. It's not a conviction. It's more like a hunch. And it comes and goes. The point is, when I "tripped" over evolution God was never at stake for me. Only certain ways of reading the bible were at stake. So during my theological development I've rejected, in multiple rounds, one theological configuration after another. But my hunch about God--or that Something that gets labeled "God"--has persisted.

    This may explain the difference between the trajectories of our beliefs. Do you have a similar hunch? If not, then this may explain the differences. Of course, my hunch could simply be a product of circumstance or a hiccup of my neuroanatomy. I fully recognize that. But what can I do? We express our current causal unfolding.

  7. It seems to me, Richard, that you are approaching morality with a scientific perspective. The scientific method uses data/observations evaluated within a community to make its judgments. Is not that what you are asking people to do with morality? Make their moral judgments based on evidence (i.e., experience)? Allow new experiences to change your moral judgements? To approach morality with the same skepticism and criticism that science approaches the physical world with? Sounds reasonable to me.

  8. Richard,
    I think this is one of the most important points you have made on your blog. A blog, I might add, that is full of excellent material. But this point about emotion being part of moral conviction is not only correct but is probably the key reason why morally convicted people with differing views rarely come together.
    Emotion is the enemy of communication for sure but emotion can be a friend. It is the canary in the mind, so to speak. If I become emotional then I know that I’m holding on too tightly to allow my mind to work clearly. I know this to be true considering how often I have been wrong in my life about morally non-negotiable beliefs. Just feeling right does not make it so and questioning others and yourself is a good thing.
    Here are some of my cherished beliefs that I no longer hold.
    The Bible is inerrant and literally true.---- Science plus finding contradictions showed me this to be untrue.
    The history of the Jews is as written in the Bible. ---- Archaeology shows a different picture.
    God wants us to be blessed with wealth and health if we obey him. ---- Well, Jesus didn’t teach this but my church did.
    Evolution is of the devil.---- Kill 2 birds, too much evidence for natural selection and a study of the devil leaves it also obvious that he doesn’t exist.
    This is just a short list of things that I thought were unassailable. But, I’ve been wrong about a lot and knowing this makes me not hold on as tightly as before because if I was wrong once then, well, you know.
    Rick T.

    p.s. Art,
    “If they were absorbed and applied it would cause a tectonic shift the perception of the right by the left.”
    Don’t you mean “of the left by the right”?

  9. Hmmm. As usual your blog keeps the wheels turning. Sorry if this comment is too late, I too have had a busy week. Well, I don't have any answers to how we can prevent and treat "this illness" you speak of. All I know, which I think is worth stating, is that Christiantiy is different from other forms of faith and religion because it is based on a person and not moral teachings. Perhaps many Christians are confused because they think that their faith is based on some teachings rather than a man. Maybe I'm wrong here, which is very likely, but what I mean is that Christianity is about following Jesus and not neccessarily his teachings. I mean if we took out Jesus would there still be Christianity? I dont' think so. That might not be the case for other religions since they seemed to be based more on the teachings...And this is what makes Jesus so unique in our world, because he actually lives by example, he lives by his rules. When he teaches about adultery or idolartry or murder, he really lives by those words, he doesn't just preach it. So in following Jesus is to follow his teachings, but there is also grace. Grace is another form in our faith that makes it unique from other faiths and religions. (I think) The truth is, is that we don't have to follow the "law" perfectly, we don't have to have all the right answers, we don't have to believe the right doctrine, or be morally correct per say, Jesus never said anything about that sort of thing, all he really wants from his followers is to love God and love one another.

    I agree with you that there is a religious disease out there, a disease of wanting to be right, wanting to be the only ones to be loved by God, and as you put it, insular, static and morrally convicted.... I can't help but wonder if this would be prevented if we kept our eyes on the person Jesus and not his teachings...if we followed Jesus in a manner of love and humility and not as a way to justify our insular, static, morally convicted behavior. But seeing that the disease is so far spread, treatment seems impossible to me. Perhaps preventing it in new comers is a possiblity!

  10. Anonymous,

    I did mean "the perception of the right by the left.” Perhaps I should have said the "Left's perception of the Right".

    I see the right continually scoffed by the left because of what Richard is writing about. They don't have the same moral convictions, but they see the inherent problem with the rights' moral conviction (as defined by Richard). If the right would align their moral compass to what Richard proposes I think it would change the perception of Christianity as a whole. Of course, there is no "one Christianity"; nevertheless, there is a perception of such and those perceptions, I believe, are grounded in what Richard has pointed out. It seems the left is correct (I almost wrote right).

    I too, like you, think this is one of the most important insights that Richard has written about.

  11. One of the most important emotions in this is FEAR. Sometimes the tiniest contradiction or argument or feature of personal grooming provokes fear. This FEAR originates from being frightened that if we are wrong in one thing, the whole house of cards will come down. I see it in others and at times I see it in myself when someone who is very articulate and smart communicates in a very convincing way something that challenges my world view and say that what I have believed and committed my life to is wrong. I try to control myself and not feel this fear. I think I do. Do I?

  12. About #3

    from Mark

    And he said to them: "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God, then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that."

    He went on: "What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean.' For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.' "

    On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, "Is it not written: " 'My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it 'a den of robbers.'"

    Here is Jesus being morally convicted, offering no middle ground, becoming emotional. If you want to discount the Bible or to say it doesn't mean what it seems to say, then that would solve the moral conviction problem. But if the Jesus of the Bible is my model, it seems that there are times when moral conviction, as you define it, is required. The one difference may be universality - these teachings are for God's followers. But it doesn’t change the fact that they are correct. Of course we’re very weak and flawed, in need of a teacher ourselves, but that doesn’t mean all convictions are signs of religious illness.

  13. Pecs,
    Yes, I think I am approaching morality with a scientific attitude. Building in criticism and the data of the human experience (a kind of “peer review” if you will).

    It really is a Catch 20/20. Morality without emotions is simply a cognitive calculus, the content of a good ethics class. But a morality connected with emotion is a volatile mix. Potentially explosive. I guess that is my point: Handle With Care. Many people don’t.

    I like the switch from following morality to following a man. I think that is helpful.

    When I think about the Right (or the Left) the think I’d like to see is a bit more circumspection from them. A little more epistemic humility. I mean, it seems to me that the existence of God is an open question. I, personally, believe in God, but I fully understand how an intelligent person could disagree with me on that. But to proceed from God’s existence to God’s preferences seems greedy to me. That is, you’d be moving too quickly past one big claim (“I know God exists.”), where you should be pausing in a reflective way, to an even bigger claim (“I have an intimate knowledge of God’s likes and dislikes.”). I think the more responsible thing is to say, “I have my hunches about God’s existence and God’s preferences but I’m very willing to enter into conversation on both these topics and, potentially, learn something.”

    I think the fear traces back to death anxiety. I think there is this deep egocentrism built into a lot of religious conversation. Fearing hell we need a means to self-verify on this side of the grave that I’m “IN.” That I’m on the lifeboat, so to speak. This need to self-verify means I need a clearly defined “OUT,” a group I can contrast myself with to note that “I’m not like them.” In short, many Christians need the Damned to feel comforted by their faith. Which seems kind of sick to me. But I truly believe that is what is going on.

    Hi Jane,
    Great comment. I think it helps my post nicely.

  14. Nice dismissal of me. So I guess you're teaching me that it's an objective and universal fact that holding moral convictions is wrong? I'd like to opt out! :)

  15. Richard -

    I think it's a misnomer to attach moral conviction exclusively to "religion".

    Vis a vis my earlier post, there are several moral convictions that appear to be universal to human civilation (that is, the acts are considered immoral and criminal by all human society). Things such as lying, theft, murder, etc. The interpretation and application of these moral principles vary, but they are all considered immoral. This may or may not be related to religion.

    The point being that there seem to be a set of moral convictions written into the fabric of the human species (read into that whatever helps you sleep better at night - a "tao" of human consciousness, a "benevolent creator", or good ol' natural selection). These are treated as fact, are passionately defended and are considered universal. Again, with or without religion.

    What are we to take from that?

    Could be we assume these attach to some absolute, ideal, objective "truth". Could be that they are pragmatic universal "laws" of nature (as it relates to stable human social structures).

    So, while insularity and stasis are appropriately defining of a kind of intellectual pathology, the latter category suggested (i.e., moral conviction) is not sufficiently defined to be added to the list without qualification.

    Are there things that are not a part of this universal subset of moral convictions that get treated as moral convictions incorrectly? Of course. That is what the debate should center on: what is the criteria for moral conviction? what are the hurdles a moral position must clear to reach the level of moral conviction? It should not be about whether moral convictions are real as universal human instincts.

  16. Richard's last comment is getting close to what I wanted to add to this discussion. Specifically, I think the tendency to be insular, static, and morally convicted of an ideology is a general human tendency rather than a phenomenon seen only in religion. Atheists, for example, tend to exhibit the same behaviors as theists in that they are pretty darn sure they are right and everyone else is wrong. Put another way, I firmly believe that "fundamentalism" is a general human tendency rather than something restricted to religion. My personal definition of fundamentalism goes something like this: To believe with certainty that you have the Truth and to then feel justified in showing disdain to those that don't share your Truth. Unfortunately, some go beyond mere disdain and justify acts of violence and aggressive attempts to export those views. The most obvious example of this today is the terroristic acts of Islamic fundamentalists. But to make my point regarding this not being restricted to religion, horrific behaviors have been justified in the past (and present) by those espousing atheism as the state religion. In fact, it you're just comparing numbers, deaths at the hands of religious fundamentalists are far exceeded by the death count wracked up by Communist regimes (in Russia, China, etc.). I'm not trying to make one better/worse than the other. I'm just making the point that religion isn't the problem. Fundamentalism is (no matter the brand).

  17. However, human aren't generally "taught" to be fundamentalist, so while there certainly are atheist fundamentalist(which, please keep in mind, in most cases their fundamentalism has absolutely nothing to do with their atheism), religious fundamentalists out number atheist fundamentalists by FAR, because that's how they are being taught.

  18. This is the first time that I heard lying is considered as immoral. Every body lies, and a lot of times it's necessary, try living a month without telling a lie and see how well that goes for you. And if the theft has a reason to be a theft, there are times that not only he can get away with it, but also gain a lot of empathy from the public. Also murdering doesn't seem to be an immoral thing when you are on the battle field. How about death penalties?

    The point about these things being universal is moot.

  19. "Religion doesn't get you into heaven."  Jesus does.   Who can love at all times?   That's where Jesus comes into play.  It's called Grace, and it covers all sins.  If we must love at all times in order to earn God's Kingdom, no one will enter.  When I feel a moral conviction, it hits straight in my heart.  No where else in my body.  I feel a pain deep in the chest, not in my head, nor anywhere else.  Could it be the Sensor of the Holy spirit of God telling you that something isn't right?

  20. It is the dangerous idea that morals are relative that creates bad consequences. Hitler thought what he did was good. Was it? According to you it was, since morals are relative. That is called "dangerous, sick" thinking.

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