Between religion and morality

The preaching of pompous czars of virtue on the right doesn't hold up in the face of hypocrisy.

Published March 27, 2002 8:25PM (EST)

For a long time now, we secular humanists and other skeptics have been denigrated as the apostles of decadence and social decay. A rowdy parade of right-wing pundits has used those of us who refuse to wear our religion on our sleeves as scapegoats for all that ails the United States and the world.

What apparently defines us "nonbelievers" in the minds of right-wing talk show hosts, the Christian right, pompous czars of virtue such as Bill Bennett and the arts censors of the Catholic Church is that we have abandoned religious certainty -- the rights and wrongs that ensure passage to heaven or hell -- for a grayer area of moral relativism in which we have to decide for ourselves what is proper behavior. The assumption is that our decisions, as opposed to those of true believers, inevitably will be hedonistic and most likely perverse.

Let me confess that I do not conduct my life with a constant eye on the literal truths of scripture because they seem often contradictory and at times downright immoral. For example, the proper procedure for branding one's slaves discussed in the Old Testament and the equally forceful condemnation of eating crustaceans and lying with the same sex all seem provincial when not primitively cruel.

And the notion related each year at Passover of God's killing the firstborn of Egyptians smacks of primitive animal revenge. Sorry, but the Talmudic explanations and harsh rules of the rabbis in my mother's family tree work only as interesting tribal lore.

As to my father's Lutheran relatives, most of whom still live in Germany, they would be the first to tell you that during World War II their fascist pastor appearing in his Nazi uniform was hardly a stalwart in the battle against genocide. As the child of European immigrants, I spent the first 10 years of my life confronting the horror that my father's relatives were drafted to massacre my mother's people because of their religion.

Growing up in such moral ambiguity, I came to be attracted to the sermons on a New York radio station broadcast by something called the Society for Ethical Culture. The message, similar to that of Unitarians, deists and some of the New Age and Eastern religions, was that life's creation remains a mystery and therefore morality, in any mechanically simple way, cannot be derived from ancient texts or assumptions about the rewards and fears associated with an afterlife.

Instead, we are left -- as in the writings of such deists as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine -- to sort out decent moral principles from the welter of human experience, including that of all religions.

Never a fully satisfying exercise, I know, compared with the moral certainties expounded by those who claim a direct link with an almighty power.

In my section of the Bronx, the Catholic Church, with its magnificent structures and frightening crypts, expressed that authority in its most intimidating form. There were many times when I envied the moral clarity of those priests as they tended their flocks of young believers, incessantly preaching the demands of sexual purity.

Even nonbelievers in my crowd would shun sex, autoerotic or otherwise, before taking a major academic test for fear of weakening the brain, such was the ancillary influence of the church in matters sexual.

How then to explain that for a significant number of priests, the fear not merely of failing a college midterm but rather of spending an eternity in hell did not still their sexual impulses?

What we have learned from recent headlines and from the exposure of similar transgressions by fundamentalist Protestant and Jewish leaders is that "traditional values" are not necessarily best upheld by traditional institutions.

Repetition of divine commandments is an insufficient guarantee of exemplary behavior, and blind allegiance to the leadership cadre and moral cant of any church can be quite dangerous.

The imperative to question the words and actions of religious figures of authority should, of course, be applied to all associations -- whether political, academic, social or cultural -- including those populated by secular humanists. The record of the Catholic Church is likely no more hypocritical than that of other institutions claiming to inspire behavior that rises far above that demanded by the animalist dictates of survival of the fittest.

In the end, it is up to us as individuals to figure out what makes us human and then to act accordingly.

By Robert Scheer

Robert Scheer is a syndicated columnist.

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