Imaginary Crimes

It’s exam season, which means that I don’t have as much time for blogging as I’d like, but this post on Daylight Atheism prompted me to write about a subject that’s been on my mind for quite a while.

Perhaps one of the most baffling aspects of organised religion is its insistence on creating a prohibitive list of thoughts, emotions and actions that are outlawed despite the fact that they do no harm to anybody at all. Homosexuality is of course an excellent example of this, as is almost any rule you care to name that prohibits the various other sexual ‘perversions’. The sheer amount of activities that have been outlawed by one religion or another over the course of history are truly mind-boggling: drinking alcohol, being naked, masturbation, wearing certain kinds of clothes, not wearing certain kinds of clothes, forgetting to pray in certain places or at certain times of the day, working on Sundays, displaying images of certain religious figures – the list goes on. These religious rules fall under what I like to think of as ‘folk morality’, or as the Religious Right calls it, ‘traditional family values’.

How much of the wisdom you received from the previous generation do you actually question? Think back on all of the things your parents, grandparents, pastors and teachers told you about right and wrong, and then try to count how many you’ve really, truly thought about. Keep in mind that I’m not suggesting a wholesale abandonement of morality, only that our moral codes should be as rigorously tested as possible. By definition, the imaginary crimes of organised religion are immune to questioning. “Who is harmed by homosexuality?” is a question that is often asked, and the replies are almost inevitably unsatisfying. “You are, because you go against God’s design”; “The world is”; “Society is”.

But what does it actually mean to act against God’s design? What does it mean that all sin offends God equally? To a Christian or Muslim it no doubt means quite a lot, but to those who don’t believe in God or in the divine nature of the Bible or Qur’an, it means nothing at all. I’ve already examined several arguments against same-sex marriage, and they all eventually com down to vague warnings about damaging ideas of the family or parenthood. I’m not denying that ideas have effects beyond the theoretical, but it says something that I find the religious objections against same-sex marriage to be less ridiculous than the secular ones.

This is the inherent flaw in religious morality – it is completely nonsensical to those who are not religious. Even between two different religions can be at odds with each other on basic matters of right and wrong. A moral argument has no ability to convince non-believers so long as it rests entirely on the authority of a holy text, which is why the likes of Gregory Koukl must scramble to erect semi-defensible comdemnations of homosexuality that don’t rely so obviously upon the Bible.

One of the many ways in which atheism liberates a person is that they no longer need to worry about condemning actions or thoughts that their own reason tells them couldn’t possibly be wrong. For an atheist, there is no omnipresent diety to offend, nor are there any senseless codes of conduct to be adhered to. An atheist does not have to feel guilty for committing ‘sins’ that do no harm to anybody.

Socrates is crediting with saying that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, and plucked from its original context, that holds particularly true for morality. Too many people frame problems of morality in terms of people thinking wrongly, but my greatest worry is that the world refuses to think about morality at all. This is a state of affairs that organised religion thrives in.

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1 Response to “Imaginary Crimes”


  1. 1 Dana C. Larocca January 7, 2009 at 4:09 am

    “…but my greatest worry is that the world refuses to think about morality at all. This is a state of affairs that organized religion thrives in.”

    I fear we live in a world that cares more about “win” and “lose” than “right” and “wrong.”


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