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Worship is immoral March 8, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Ethics, Religion.

Religion is not only false; it’s immoral. One reason it’s immoral is because it’s false: holding beliefs for which there is no good justification is irresponsible, since actions guided by false beliefs often have disastrous consequences. Of course, even if one of our religions were true, that wouldn’t mean that all its precepts and commandments are moral: even if the Bible was authored by the creator of the universe, executing homosexuals and blasphemers and adulterers would still be wrong.

Apart from all this, however, even if some religion’s doctrines were true and all its rules were ethical, it would still be intrinsically immoral — because religion requires worship. As pointed out by Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse:

The thought is frequently associated with Bertrand Russell: The worship of anything is beneath the dignity of a rational creature.  That is, we argue that worship is immoral.  Consequently, for any type of religious belief, if it requires one to worship anything, then it is intrinsically immoral.  The argument turns on the claim that any conception of worship that’s worth its salt will involve the voluntary and irrevocable submission of one’s rational faculties to those of another.

If there did exist a being vastly more intelligent, more powerful, and more moral than us (and the Biblical God certainly doesn’t meet that description), it might merit gratitude, admiration, respect — but never worship. And what kind of supreme being would want to be worshiped, anyway? Or glorified? Or obeyed blindly? The best humans we know never seek such things.

Just like religious faith, worship is inherently immoral, and encouraging it causes much evil in this world — whether the object being worshiped exists or not. There’s always some human authority happy to step in and take advantage of the religiously cultivated inclination towards submission, obedience, and servility.

(via Butterflies and Wheels)


1. Guy - March 8, 2011

I disagree with one of your points. Holding a false belief is not immoral, in part because we do not control our beliefs. The worst one can say about a believer in something that is false is that she is foolish.

Consider a less controversial subject. 10% of women on the dating website OKCupid.com reported to believe that the earth is larger than the sun. I call these women foolish and ignorant, but would hesitate to call them immoral on the basis of this error alone.

Ezra Resnick - March 8, 2011

Anyone can be mistaken or ignorant, and I agree that that doesn’t automatically make one immoral. What I call immoral is willfully holding beliefs for bad reasons: wishful thinking, self deception, dogmatism, etc. I am talking about (religious) faith: belief held in the absence of any good evidence and against all available evidence. This is the point made by Clifford in the essay which gives this blog its name.

Guy - March 9, 2011

I don’t think bad reasons such as wishful thinking and dogmatism are necessarily immoral either. The worst that can be said about them is that they are foolish. Someone who has had a good education in biology and still believes in creationism can still be moral even though they disqualify themselves from being taken seriously on the topic of biology.

Ezra Resnick - March 9, 2011

I certainly am not saying that all creationists are bad people (in general); but (assuming they have had access to modern education), I think we can judge their belief in creationism to be non-normative. Our beliefs inevitably constrain our thinking and guide our behavior, and cutting yourself off from reality is a very dangerous thing to do. Even seemingly innocuous beliefs can turn out to have terrible consequences. Dismissing evolution, for instance, hinders our ability to fight disease. Or consider the belief that a “soul” enters a zygote at the moment of conception — this might seem like a harmless belief, but it is the cause of immoral stances on abortion and stem-cell research, causing great suffering. People who believe such things are not merely mistaken, they are irresponsible. We have no (moral) right to believe things for which there is no good evidence.

Guy - March 9, 2011

It sounds like you agree with me that a distinction can be made between false beliefs and immorality since morality applies to behavior and truth applies to claims. The only area where I might agree with you is on racism and other beliefs with the purpose of denying people of their dignity. Even then, it can be argued that racism does not become immoral until the racist exhibits racist behavior.

Ezra Resnick - March 8, 2011

By the way, since you mentioned OkCupid, they have extracted some interesting statistics about religion (among many other topics) from their dating data, for example here and here.

2. david resnick - March 9, 2011

I’m always interested in the political consequences of making any foolish belief immoral and then, ultimately, illegal. indeed, who has the authority to enshrine logical positivism as the arbiter of truth, immorality and illegality.

of course, many have gone down that road before (Stalin, for one) and it’s difficult to see how, once you are in power, you won’t do the same.

Ezra Resnick - March 9, 2011

As I clarified in my previous comment, I don’t think that every foolish belief is immoral — only those where the believer ought to know better, e.g., ignores the available evidence, engages in wishful thinking, etc. And who said anything about making all foolish beliefs illegal? Your “slippery slope” argument doesn’t hold water: there are many things we consider immoral but not illegal, like adultery or lying (in certain circumstances). My point is that we have a responsibility to do our best to ensure that our beliefs match reality — that we have good reasons for believing as we do. To do otherwise is intellectually dishonest, which I consider to be a (certain kind of) moral failure.

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