Friday, January 05, 2007

How Religion Impedes Moral Development

First of all it is important to define moral behaviour. To help us in this task here is an amalgam of various dictionary definitions of the word “moral”: ‘relating to principles of right and wrong; i.e. ethics’; “standards of behaviour and character based on those principles i.e. a "moral sense"; a notion of duty and virtue’ and finally from an old Concise Oxford “conforming to or required or justified by conscience if not law”, “the courage to do the right [thing] unmoved by odium or ridicule” and a “standard of conduct respected by good [people] independently of positive law or religion”.

Marvin W. Berkowitz, Ph.D. in an article entitled “The education of the complete moral person” quotes studies in Canada by ‘Walker, Pitts, Hennig, & Matsuba’ that have resulted in the following “twelve most common descriptors, in descending order of prevalence: compassionate/caring, consistent, honest, self-sacrificing, open-minded, thoughtful/rational, socially active, just, courageous, virtuous, autonomous, and empathic/sensitive. Berkowitz also states that he has “less formally found the same basic set of responses in the USA, Scotland, Switzerland and the Netherlands.”

Berkowitz then points out that much human activity is condoned as a result of a state of “social agreement” or “social convention” which does not necessarily make such activities morally ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. He then states… “Therefore, when schools teach social conventions, they must be prepared for moral evaluation of the validity of those conventions, no matter how widely accepted they might be. The personal domain is concerned with those issues, which should not be socially regulated; i.e., matters of personal preference and taste. No one should be able to tell me what my favourite colour should be or whether I should prefer the taste of chocolate ice cream with or without fresh raspberries. Schools certainly should not teach children which flavours or colours they ought to prefer.”

When we look at religion closely, surely by intellect and reason we must immediately come to the conclusion that neither is religion moral, nor do many of its leaders qualify as apt examples of sound morality. Take some the current Pope’s (previously Cardinal Ratzinger) questionable behaviour. If a recent documentary on BBC has it right he was the primary architect of a major cover up and responsible for the withholding of information from civil authorities regarding cases of priests who committed child molestations with what so far has amounted to ‘holy impunity’ for many of the perpetrators. Also you could name a number of Muslim muftis that with the issuing of various fatwas may do what is acceptable to their social congregations however much of what they advocate in no way can be viewed as moral. The call to murder the now famous cartoonists is a great example. I guess also the infamous call for the killing of Salman Rushdie by the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini calls into question the morality of that individual. Khomeini claimed that Rushdie's murder was a religious duty for Muslims however that is a cultural issue, (as religion is merely a component of culture) and in my view both he and his fatwa were totally immoral under an objective test of ‘Berkowitz’s twelve factors’ and the dictionary definition. It is worth remembering that Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of the book The Satanic Verses was murdered and that two other translators of the book survived attempted assassinations.

Another commentator and the original writer that stimulated this particular blog posting, Brad N. Clark, a correctional educator in California sheds some more light on the uselessness of religion as a moral standard setter. In a 1994 article for the “Free Enquiry” he quotes a body of literature that offers, “observations” regarding “religion's negative effect on the development of those functioning at low moral reasoning levels.” His views in the article are also apparently based on his first hand observations of the high levels of religious converts and religiosity levels in US prisons, apparently encouraged by the US government to have the inmates ‘develop’ into more moral citizens by their release. By ‘develop’ I guess he is referring to their personal growth toward being healthy social functioning individuals able to effectively live with those around them. This of course must also assume that the relevant society as a whole is a ‘mature’ and ‘enlightened’ group functioning in a ‘civilized’ manner.

He goes on: “The underlying assumption that religion and morality are interrelated is simply untenable. For example, Freud suggested that religion served to undermine moral responsibility while promoting fanaticism. He contended that people who behave morally only out of fear of supernatural penalty would be unlikely to respect and care for others from an altruistic perspective. This argument receives support from the theory of moral reasoning developed by the late Lawrence Kohlberg.”

“By moral reasoning, Kohlberg (1981) meant the process behind the conceptualisation of the rights and obligations that define an individual's relation to others and to society as a whole. He recognized that moral growth, like cognitive growth, is developmental in nature. Maturation proceeds from a desire to enhance one's self by any means as long as one escapes penalties (stage 1), to a willingness to do for others if there is a clear reciprocation (stage 2), to a need to conform to peer expectations (stage 3), to a need to follow the law uncritically (stage 4), and finally to concern for the rights and humanity of every person that is not bounded by conditions (stages 5 and 6). At the highest "post conventional level," (5&6) moral judgments must be justified on rational-moral grounds rather than by appeal to the order of nature or to religious authority or revelation. Healthy people normally move from one stage to the next, progressing as each stage is understood. In studies involving various cultures, researchers have found that individuals work through these stages between early childhood and young adulthood, although they estimate that only about 20 percent of the population reaches the post conventional levels of stage 5 or 6. What does this research say about the role that religion plays in moral growth? Clouse (1985) summarizes, ‘It would appear from the literature that adults who accept the basic doctrines of the Christian faith are less apt to reason at Kohlberg's highest stages than those who do not accept the Christian faith’ (1992).”

“While Kohlberg never explicitly examined whether religion could arrest moral development, a study he conducted in Turkey found individuals in a strict Muslim community demonstrated no ‘post conventional’ thinking. Clouse's assessment of the relationship between Christianity and moral growth finds confirmation in the circumstances surrounding the quick religious conversions and renewals of prisoners that result from moral reasoning on Kohlberg's lowest levels. The prime motivation is to assure pleasant circumstances in an afterlife, an incentive that has nothing to do with examining one's relationship to others. Accepting ‘Jesus Christ’ as your ‘Lord and Saviour’ under these conditions is an example of a stage 2 ‘deal with God’. Most religious texts are concerned with defining human-to-God relationships. Four of the Ten Commandments dictate rules of behaviour toward [YHWH], not other humans.”

It might be a good place here to reflect on the definitions of EQ and SQ intelligence and consider what religious indoctrination is doing to these two facets of our existence particularly in the area of moral development:

‘Emotional Intelligence is the way we recognize, understand and choose how we think, feel, and act. It shapes our interactions with others and our understanding of ourselves. It defines how and what we learn; it allows us to set priorities; it drives many of our daily actions.’ (Freedman)

‘Spiritual Intelligence, is an internal, innate ability or functioning of the human brain and psyche, which draws on its deepest resources. It is a facility developed over millions of years that allows the brain to find and use meaning in the solution of problems. SQ is what we use to develop our longing and capacity for meaning, vision and value. It allows us to dream and to strive. It underlies the things we believe in and the role our beliefs and values play in the actions that we take and the shape we give to our lives.’ (Zohar)

So if our emotional intelligence levels are limited by a religious dogma that defines us as a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim, or worse still, as someone governed as a sect of one of those religions and if that dogma then expects us to act on those sectarian principals what chance is there for us to lead a moral existence? More particularly if by labelling us (and others) our religious teachers diminish the worth of others who are ‘different’ (as infidels etc), what chance do the religious have to even come to grips with a basic understanding of ‘inherent’ human moral principles? Spiritual intelligence development hijacked, particularly at a young age, by a mindless adherence to a dogma such as ‘all I need is Jesus and I will be all right’, does not promote a thinking, dreaming, vision developing human being that is able to grow and shape his or her own moral future.

Clark continues: “The Bible, and most other religious books, contain numerous examples of low-level moral reasoning, and this makes them poor vehicles for moral development. Consider, for example, the popular Sunday school story of David and Goliath. In the tale, David becomes enraged at the taunting challenge Goliath makes to the Israelites. After volunteering to answer the challenge, David brutally kills Goliath and becomes a tribal hero. To the literal understanding of most children and inmates, the story teaches that violence is an appropriate way to resolve conflict and its use will gain you respect among your peers. Inner-city youths use the same level of moral reasoning when they commit drive-by shootings against those who have offended them.”

“If, then, biblical instruction and the basic doctrines of religion do not contribute to moral growth, does a high level of religiosity improve moral reasoning? This question has special relevance since inmates seem particularly inclined to ‘zealotry’ and are attracted to extremes such as the Calvinistic view of humanity as vile and depraved. Such a perspective seems to speak directly to their own inadequate self-esteem and sense of identity. But it reinforces a belief that they are compelled by their nature to sin, a view that can serve as a rationalization for committing further crime.”

“The high number of religious child molesters illustrates that religiosity provides no guarantee of moral behaviour. It is well recognized that religiosity is central to the personality structure of certain types of child sex offenders (Schouweiler). The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (Hathaway and McKinley), a widely employed psychological assessment, uses religiosity as one indicator of paedophilia. In the reasoning often associated with such individuals, they have been forgiven for all sin (and criminal behaviour) through acceptance of ‘Jesus Christ,’ who redeemed their sinful deeds before they were born. As a consequence, they relinquish all personal accountability for their actions. In addition, a religiously deterministic rationale for criminal behaviour could claim that such conduct is all part of ‘God's Plan.’"

“Research thus indicates that both religious instruction and high levels of religiosity should not be expected to contribute to moral development. Advancement in moral reasoning depends on exposure to the thought processes of Kohlberg's higher stages. The absolutism of religious reasoning encourages an inflexibility that stifles the cognitive conflict. This stifling obviates the mental processes required to advance to the next stage/s of personal moral development.”

Zohar Again: ‘Where IQ and EQ are naturally bounded, and can be quantitatively measured; it is in the nature of SQ to defy boundaries, to continually seek a broader perspective, a bigger picture. As such it resists quantification. Indeed, its essence is not about quantity, but quality.’

Point: By breaking the constraints of “absolutism of religious reasoning” more developed levels of SQ intelligence will help us overcome “naturally bounded” IQ and EQ limits, which in turn can lead us to defy implied doctrinal or cultural boundaries and to therefore continually seek a broader perspective and embrace a bigger picture. Perhaps that’s why madrasas, church schools and other single view organizations try to overcome the very nature of children by using repetition of a limited amount of specific information… to stifle both EQ and SQ.

“A fundamentalist position also limits an individual's ability to understand situations from another's point of view. It creates a personal and subjective orientation that interferes with the development of effective problem solving skills (Hanson,). Further, as Wendell Watters (1992) has noted, emphasis on the human-God bond inhibits the development of supportive human bonds required for adaptive interpersonal and social functioning. These human connections are what prison inmates need to develop most. It must be concluded that the use of religion for correctional rehabilitation is counterproductive to the type of growth that inmates need to make for their successful reintegration into society.”

Brad Clark’s final statement is particularly interesting: “When the issue of the religious indoctrination of children is raised it should be recognized that, from a developmental perspective, the use of religion for moral growth is clearly inappropriate.”

Now although one could argue that this is all theory and conjecture there is some statistical evidence for these statements. Ex Catholic Priest Father Emmett McLoughlin in his book “Crime And Immorality In The Catholic Church” makes the following statements:

“Catholicism, especially in America, now has the most unique opportunity in all history to achieve its goal and fulfil the purpose for which it claims to have been founded. Its most important product, its reason for existence is morality, the moulding of lives that are not only good but better than others, with a greater assurance than that of other religions that its members will be far less sinful, much better emotionally adjusted throughout life and thus more certain of eternal happiness in heaven. The purpose of this [his] book is to show that the Roman Catholic Church in its most important work is a failure. Among its members crime and immorality are greater than among the un-churched or the members of other churches. Whatever else the Roman Catholic Church may be able to do ‘in Heaven, on earth and under the earth,’ it cannot, it has not, and it does not make the majority of its members better and holier.”

In chapter two of his book he quotes prison statistics that show a disproportionate number of Catholics in jail in relation to state population proportions. Here a just a few of the statistics: State Name / Catholic % of population (Catholic % of prisoners);

Arizona/33.16% (53.26%) California/16.83 (43.61) Colorado/10.91 (37.42) Illinois/19.04 (32.35) New Jersey/26.82 (47.66) New York/26.73 (56.46) Oregon/5.95 (18.96) Washington/6.35 (29.43)

From Wikipedia the following also adds to the position that religion and morality are in conflict…

‘All theistic religion devalues human compassion and morality. For a principled atheist/humanist these are the foremost concern. For a religious person, obedience to a deity/scripture is morality and conscience has to take second place. The most widely known example of this is the order to murder Isaac. The Bible contains many injunctions against following one's conscience over scripture. Also, positive actions are supposed to originate not from compassion, but from the fear of punishment.’

This passage for me bears further testimony to Kohlberg’s view that religion is decidedly linked only to lower levels of moral behaviour, if linked to morality at all.

Meta-ethics addresses the question "What is goodness?" and is seeking to understand the nature of ethical properties and evaluations. Divine command theory is the “meta-ethical” theory that holds the view that “moral behaviours are only those that conform to the instructions given or commanded by a god or gods”.

May we for the sake of our children and their children, someday have the collective wisdom to rid the world of these bickering, loathsome, world destroying, simple minded, god bothers.

Edited excerpts from Magazine: Free Inquiry Issue: Summer 1994
(vol. 14 no. 3) - Author: Brad Clark
Freedman et al. Handle With Care: Emotional Intelligence Activity Book, Intro, 1997/1998


Ryan M said...

This is a great post. I've been interested in this topic for a while now, after working in the area of meta-ethics and moral cognition, and following the implications of Kohlberg's theory of moral development. I wrote a similar essay, but it doesn't have the statistical support that yours does.

If you don't mind, I may cite this essay in future work.

Annie Japannie said...

You're making a lot of assumptions here. You're saying "religion" as if it were one thing. You're equating Islam with Calvinism and Catholicism and every other faith. Many of these belief systems directly contradict one another. How can such vastly different worldviews make the same impact on people's lives? Have you examined all of the world's very diverse religious beliefs? Are there some that DO seem to increase the morality of their believers? And are all "believers" the same? Martin Luther King Jr., one of the classic exemplars of stage 6 moral development who would risk his own comfort and be thrown in jail to protest the injustice of the socially acceptable laws of the time, was an extremely religious person.

You also make some dangerous associations by correlating statistics such as Catholicism and prison populations. Are there more Catholics in prison than in the general population? It appears so. But could there be other confounding variables at work? I can name a very obvious one - socioeconomic status and ethnic heritage. Catholicism is very high among certain ethnic populations in the United States and those populations also live under the poverty line at levels much higher than the majority ethnic groups. Because more of these populations who come from traditionally Catholic backgrounds are living in economic and social situations that have been proven to lead to a higher incidence of drug use and crime, no wonder there is a correlation between their traditional religious affiliation and how many of them end up in prison. Is it because Catholics don't teach their followers to be moral people? No - it's because the largely Catholic populations have been dealt a crappy socioeconomic hand.

Finally, you cannot cherry pick from the Bible to show how it is a poor moral teacher. The entire New Testament is a stunningly clear example of the difference between conventional (stages 3 & 4) and postconventional (stages 5 & 6) moral reasoning. Jesus confronts those in the conventional stages of blindly following traditional law time and time again. Perhaps the clearest example is when a group of angry nobles brings an accused woman before Christ and says "Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?" Christ responds to their invocation of "the law" with a very morally advanced argument. "So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." This story clearly illustrates very vital aspects of Kohlberg's theory. Can people who are relying on religious dogma to make moral choices be stunted in their own moral development? Clearly. But does this mean that "religion impedes moral development?" Certainly not, seeing as it is the teachings of their very own religion that contradict this substandard morality.

Do some people justify immoral behavior on the grounds of their misunderstanding of religious teaching? Yes. Some people rely on religion as the authority figure for their stage 3 and 4 moral reasoning. Some may cite their belief in Jesus's atoning sacrifice as exonerating them for terrible crimes. But do you know what? Some people think that committing a heinous crime will impress Jodie Foster. Criminals don't tend to be morally well-developed people. Concentrating on those populations to try to prove a causal argument about religion in a backwards chain of logic is not an effective method. Looking at the actual teachings of individual religions, and looking at the people who follow those teachings (rather than looking at cultural demographics to identify "religious people") will show a very marked increase in moral reasoning that is very compatible with Kohlberg's theory.