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Wednesday, September 10, 2008


In a New Yorker essay on the influence of evangelicals in American politics (Peter J. Boyer: “Party Faithful”, 08 Sep 2008) a professor of constitutional law is quoted saying: “Religion necessarily is a source for morality, and morality necessarily is the place we draw laws from.” Ignoring the clumsy grammar, I want to explain why the second clause is correct, but the first one is wrong. Morality is the name for practices that are customary in a community or society. “Mores” means “customs” in Latin. (The same word in Greek is ethos, from which we have “ethics.”) So morality is always relative to a community. To be educated in this, you need only live for a time in another community, especially one where they speak a language different from yours. Religions grow up in and are sustained by communities or societies. So religions always reflect the moralities of the communities in which they originate. When a religion migrates into a new community, it takes on the morality of those people. It adapts, as it must, to become acceptable to new adherents. Now you might be thinking to ask, “What about religious opposition?” Of course, opposition to prevailing morality arises. That’s because morality, like language, is historical. Everything changes with time. One of the ways change occurs is that old interests lose their authority; new interests emerge. People frequently invoke religion to justify replacing old authorities with new. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an example. Mohandas Ghandi is another. But you don’t have to do this. The philosopher from whom both Ghandi and King learned the principle of “non-violent resistance—Henry David Thoreau—did not appeal to any imaginary “higher authority” when he argued for his insight in Civil Disobedience. But people like authority. So it’s still popular to imagine that some kinds of morality are supernaturally justified. It’s still popular, but it’s false.


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