One of the most distressing qualities of religion as we know it is its coopting (taking over) the field of morality. Most people regard religion and belief in some kind of deity as a bulwark of living a moral life, and they feel people who do not believe in such "high concepts" as God live shallow, pointless, even criminal lives.
These comments also have relevance to "religions of state."
In fact, quite the contrary.
Think about it for a minute. In the extreme case, if someone were to abandon all reason and start speaking in tongues, most of us would not regard that as an indicator of moral behavior. The person is hopelessly nuts. Most serial killers and psychopaths experience delusions, often of a religious nature, that tell them people are evil and must be set free from the material world. Is that a sign of psychological or moral health?
Now take the milder everyday case:
Most of us were encouraged as children to accept Christianity without concern for logic or scientific evidence. "Don’t ask questions, believe." We were even led to think of organized Christianity as wonderfully benevolent—in gross contradiction of the historical record. And we tended to acquiesce. I, too, for a while. But as adults we "give up childish ways."
The adult, moral act is to reject negative authority/peer pressure and to think for oneself. Indeed, morality requires at its foundation an act of will to know the truth and then to act upon it. Truth is only possible with use of reason and logic. Thus the foundation of morality is not obedience to religious concepts, but selfish acts of reason.
Why do people grant religion the moral high ground? Perhaps brainwashing and absence of reasonable alternatives (for example, "Godless communism" is not a reasonable alternative).
Well, humanity now has an alternative:
Morality simply is "a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions." The words ethics and morality have come to have a similar meaning, though some people consider ethics to apply to the intellectual principles of proper behavior and morality to the actual manifestation of that behavior.
For advocates of reason, fundamentally, morality is rationality and rationality is morality. Other moral virtues: productivity, pride, honesty, and so on are integral to the root virtue of acting in accordance with reason. Once one has accepted reason, how to be true to that choice becomes intuitively obvious to many.
Finally, and this is a big notion for Rand, who wrote the Virtue of Selfishness, the purpose of morality is one’s own life. That seems intuitively obvious, too. Self-sacrifice has a sordid history. On the level of simple logic, one cannot divorce the actions of an organism from the beneficiary of those actions. Morality is a code to guide one’s own choices and actions, its purpose being successful life of that entity performing those choices and actions.
ReasonToFreedom.com, Reason 101
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