Skip to content

Morality and Prisoners’ Religion

April 3, 2014

A month or so ago, I got embroiled in yet another Twitter debate; this time about morality. It started when I tweeted:

If morality is independent of God, who decides what it is? The majority? The strongest? The loudest? Morality is not self-evident!

This caused a number of atheists to disagree (no surprise there), pointing out both that a lot of non-believers are moral and upright people, and that a lot of religious people do horrible things to others. Both of these statements are of course true, and my point wasn’t that you need to be religious to be good; my point was that without a source of absolute right and wrong outside of human opinion, you can’t really talk about “right” and “wrong” as absolutes.

But most people don’t accept that; they still think that there are absolutes that nobody could argue with. One person claimed that you don’t need an outside source of morality; all you need is logic and empathy. But you just need to use some of that logic to see that it’s not that easy.

It’s perfectly logical to force people to worship God, if they would otherwise go to hell. It’s perfectly logical to stop people from wasting time and money on religion, if there is no god. Both actions have been considered morally “good” (although obviously not by the same people).

If morals were purely logical, wouldn’t they be the same everywhere? But it’s quite clear that morality differs widely from culture to culture, as well as from century to century. A hundred years ago, it was self-evident to most people that executing criminals was right, whereas homosexuality was wrong. Today, it’s the other way round. In ancient Rome, it was OK to leave new-born babies out to die; today, it’s only OK to kill unborn babies; a few hundred years ago, that was considered murder.

How about Russia’s recent annexation of the Crimea? Perfectly logical from a Russian point of view, and it could even be construed as showing “empathy” with the Russians living there. But was it right? Not according to international law…

As for empathy, how does that help you decide whether it’s OK to leave your current partner because you’ve fallen in love with someone else? Who gets your empathy: the unwanted unborn child or the distraught pregnant woman? The poor man who steals a loaf of bread for his children, or the baker whose bread was stolen?

There seems to be no real reason why we should even have to concept of “right” and “wrong”. From a purely evolutionary perspective, “empathy” is counterproductive; for gene survival, killing your rivals and raping their women makes perfect sense. So the fact that we can even have this debate suggests that the human race has been equipped with a conscience, which makes us realise that survival isn’t always the highest good, at least not at any cost. Where did that come from?

As a Christian I believe there is a God, existing outside of humanity, who has created us with an innate sense of right and wrong. This conscience isn’t flawless, and in a humanity that doesn’t recognise the authority of God, it can and often does go wrong (even in Christians) – but it’s still a sign that there is a God who has installed a sense of morality in us.

Basically, you have a choice: either you believe that conscience and morals are a side-effect of evolution, in which case there is no real reason to worry about right and wrong; or you believe that a creator made us moral beings, in which case moral absolutes, right and wrong, can exist – because they have been set by our Creator.

In trying to refute this point, my atheist opponents like to argue that atheists are actually more morally upright than religious people (which is beside the point). And they brought out these stats, which were new to me: “only 0.2% of prison inmates in the US are atheists, all the rest are religious”. Proof that atheists are more law-abiding and ethically-minded than all the rest of us?

Well, not so quick. As we know, there are lies, damned lies and statistics; so first question: does this check out? And the answer is: yes, to a certain extent – but it’s not as clear-cut as we would wish! I found Hemant Mehta’s blog “Friendly Atheist” most helpful [1]. We both agree that we must make sure we use reliable sources, and  observes that a) the self-declared atheists are very few indeed: 0.07% of the total; b) not all prisoners reveal any religious preference; c) nearly a quarter (23.44%) report “no religious preference”, “other” or “unknown”. I imagine that most of those would probably fall in the “no real faith” category – they just haven’t gone as far as to declare themselves “atheist”. This means the stats are not as telling as some might like!

Anyway, that’s the US. How about here in the UK? In 2010, 48% of prisoners in England and Wales registered as Christian (half of whom ticked CofE), whereas 32% professed “no religion” [2]. By comparison, 59.3% of population self-identify as “Christian” [3], whereas only 25% report “no religion”. This means that in the UK, the “non-religious” are actually over-represented in prison, contrary to the assertion of my atheist debaters – and that’s even if the 7.2% who didn’t answer the question are all religious, which seems highly doubtful.

So statistics can hit either way. But that’s not the whole story, anyway; here are a few additional observations.

To begin with, “religion” has never been a guarantee for good, ethical behaviour. Religious people killed Jesus. Religious people persecute and torture other religious people. Westboro Baptist Church was very religious in its hate. So even if these stats are true, that’s no real indictment on genuine Christianity. Jesus wasn’t religious; he wasn’t interested in starting a religion, and his early followers were even accused of being irreligious!

Secondly: In a nominally Christian country, it’s not surprising that most prison inmates should self-identify as belonging to the official religion. Most Britons, if having to fill in a form asking for their religion, will say “Church of England”. That’s the default; that’s where they were christened and married, and that’s where they expect to be buried. Most of these do not practise this inherited religion, as humanist Nick Cohen points out: “When millions of people tell the census takers they are “Christians”, therefore, they are muttering the title of a childhood story they only half remember[4]; still, they are not quite prepared to call themselves “atheists”. Thus: self-identifying as CofE, whether prisoner or not, doesn’t really say anything about a person’s actual faith. It’s a cultural, rather than religious, label.

Thirdly: religions sometimes disagree with society on what is right. If a certain religion encourages behaviour that society has deemed illegal, it will obviously have a high number of adherents in prison! For example, we might soon see a number of Christian pastors – myself included – in prison for refusing to perform same-sex weddings… not because of unethical behaviour, but because our ethics clash with those of our country.

Another point to consider is that being “religious” doesn’t mean being perfect. Even a practising Christian might fall for the temptation to cook the books or drive dangerously; we shouldn’t, but it happens. This constitutes a failure to live according to God’s will, but it’s not God’s fault when his followers fail; and it certainly doesn’t prove that there is no God!

Christianity isn’t primarily about doing what is right, anyway. It’s about acknowledging that we repeatedly fail to do what is right. It’s about accepting that we need to be forgiven and rescued from God’s righteous judgment, and that Jesus is the rescuer that God has provided. This doesn’t mean taking right and wrong lightly; but it does mean that the truth of Christianity doesn’t hinge on whether Christians are more or less moral than atheists.

Let me conclude with a quote that is quite popular with atheists:

Morality is doing right, no matter what you’re told. Religion is doing what you are told, no matter what is right” (H.L. Mencken).

There’s a lot of truth in that – religion has often demanded blind obedience, and “doing right” is obviously better than “doing religion” (although religious authorities who try to tell you what to do, generally do so because they are convinced that what they’re telling you to do is right!) – but it also brings us back to the beginning of this discussion: without an outside authority, there is no way of knowing for certain what counts as “doing right”, only what counts as right by a particular society – or even by a particular individual.

When discussing this, a colleague of mine opined that it simply boils down to people not wanting anybody to tell them what to do; and I suspect he might be right. Claiming that you are perfectly able to discern right and wrong on your own makes for easy autonomy and making your own rules; but if this is the case, I’m a bit disappointed. If all this is only about rejecting authority, whether divine or societal, there is really no point in discussing morality any further. But if we agree that there is right and wrong, regardless of personal opinions, we should also be able to give some thought as to why we agree on that…








From → Christianity, Faith

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: