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The Soul of a Murder

If we somehow got rid of religion, would we kinder, less judgemental and more peaceful? Dan Barnett is not convinced...


Lady Justice at the Old Bailey, London. cc Ian Britton, Freefoto

 

The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance which fancies that it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness. (Albert Camus, 1948: 110)

 

The term ‘morality’ is often used without considering what we really mean. A cursory glance at a dictionary defines morality as “conformity to the rules of right conduct; moral or virtuous conduct”. However, this seemingly simple definition raises a more complicated question; namely how do we decide what constitutes right and wrong? What is our point of reference for moral behaviour and who sets this ethical bar?

 

For thousands of years, humanity has attempted to answer this question by sourcing our sense of morality from outside of ourselves. In other words they have turned to God, in whatever form this God may take, in order to set clear boundaries regarding our notions of right and wrong.

 

“Be ye therefore perfect,” demands Matthew 5.48. Quite a tall order really. After all, the basis of Christianity (and in fact most religions) is that we humans are imperfect; that’s why we need guidance from the heavens in the first place. Besides, how do we know what constitutes perfection in the first place? If we don’t have something to aim for, what is an already difficult issue becomes even more confusing.

 

“The just shall live by faith” (Galatians 3.11) is another central tenant of Christian faith* promoting an attitude where people become unwilling to question what we mean by “right” and “wrong”. But if we take this view of morality, surely we excuse ourselves from any real sense of accountability. After all, if we simply take what is “right” at face value it means that on some level we’ve stopped thinking about why we act the way we do (other than because someone else says so).

 

The character Tayper in Iris Murdoch’s The Bell sums up this view in a somewhat frightening nutshell:

 

“We should not consider what delights us or what disgusts us, morally speaking, but what is enjoined and what is forbidden. And this we know, more than we are often ready to admit. We know it from God’s word and from his church with a certainty as great as our belief.” (1981 ed: 132).

 

There we have it. According to this view of morality, something is either allowed or it isn’t; our actions should not be based on anything but the standards set by a power that lies outside of us. Granted, Tayper is a fictional character and of course it wouldn’t be fair to use him to speak for every religious person on the planet. But there are people who use similar logic to justify their actions and there are implications to this attitude that are too frightening to ignore.

 

The presidency of George W. Bush, for instance, was mired in controversy; the aim of this article is not to be drawn into a debate regarding the Bush presidency per se but rather to demonstrate how deeply ingrained this view is in the mentalities of some of the world’s most powerful people. After all, what was one of Bush’s alleged justifications for some of his more violent policies? The most powerful man in the free world, the man leading a war against a brand of terrorism fuelled by religious hatred took comfort from the fact that “there is a higher father that I appeal to”. This irony, staggering though it may be, is not new. Invoking a God or Gods allows us to put our more unsavoury actions into an acceptable context.

 

Thus we arrive at the heart of the matter. People will commit atrocities in the name of “moral righteousness” provided that they believe that they are condoned by a higher power. This is why it starts to get really tricky. The observations that I have just made are by no means original. An approving God has been used to justify wars, bigotry, slavery and countless other distasteful acts over the course of human history. The question that concerns me more is if we somehow got rid of religion, would this problem go away, as some of the more vocal atheists of our age claim it would? I’m not convinced. Religion has been the most convenient means for people to remove a sense of accountability from their own actions but that fundamental need to do this in the first place is, and always has been, something inherently human. If we consider this need to be the root of the problem we can see how it is present in other areas of our lives, if only one knows how to look for them.

 

The problem for many people is that, if we abandon the notion that a higher power is the source of our morality, we immediately lose our basis for distinguishing right from wrong. The absence of a higher power means that we are completely responsible, not only for our own actions but for our judgements concerning “proper behaviour”.

 

With the decline in religious belief has come a rise of psychological explanations for understanding our drives and motivations. Nevertheless psychology contains the means for us to abandon our sense of responsibility concerning our own actions just as much as religion does if it is misused.

 

Psychologists talk about ego and we talk about the unconscious. For the layman, generally speaking, we use the word ego to describe “the part of the personality which is experienced as being oneself, which one recognises as ‘I’” (Rycroft, 1968:43). We all have sense of ‘I’ – an identity which we feel is unique to us. Likewise, when we talk about the unconscious, we usually refer to things out of our awareness, more often than not because they conflict with our sense of “I”.

 

We often take for granted how narrow our sense of ‘I’ can be and how much it can limit our understanding of how we interact with others. As humans we see ourselves as being at the centre of existence and, whilst the events which take place in our lives may have meaning for us, it doesn’t have to follow that it has any universal meaning. However our sense of ‘I’ lets us put ourselves in specific roles in whatever story we tell ourselves – hero, leader, a force for good in the world and so forth.

 

Nevertheless, our life experiences influence us in ways so subtle that we often take a prejudice for a fact, an opinion as truth, without ever considering the fact that we are being influenced by it in the first place. We often ignore these prejudices because they clash with our sense of ‘I’, and this is how many people attempt to explain where our sense of morality comes from if it’s not God.

 

However, very often we treat this aspect of ourselves as though it was a separate entity. We talk about things that our unconscious made us do, as though it is something distinctly separate from us. As Sartre once put it, this attitude suggests that when we explore inwards, it is on the understanding that “I am the ego but I am not the id” (2003 ed: 74).

 

So as we can see, we don’t necessarily need religion in order to remove our sense of accountability. As soon as we treat our actions as though they were done on behalf of someone else, the easier it becomes to vindicate ourselves of them.

 

Genetics, neuroscience and other areas of research are raising further questions about free will and therefore about morality; we will return to these in a future article. However, as I hope this article has made clear, if we separate morality from responsibility then it arguably becomes more about compliance, rather than goodness.

 

If we understand where our own desires come from, we will be better equipped to take responsibility for them. It may be the case that as science progresses, its findings will clash with our current notions around what it means to be human. Perhaps, if it does turn out that what we are conscious of only accounts for a fraction of how we relate to each other; it will raise new questions about how we perceive responsibility. This in turn could raise questions regarding our understanding of “good” and “evil”, as notions of free will are called into question.

 

However, if we learn to accept that the aspects of ourselves that we dislike are still as much a part of us as anything else (even if they have been unconscious) then we can start to take responsibility for them, even if it is simply a case of understanding that there is more to being human than we had previously understood to be the case.

 

Conversely, if we continue to act on the assumption that our sense of ‘I’ is rigid and at the centre of all things, we will be able to make the leap that right and wrong are equally rigid. As long as we are acting as though right and wrong are set in stone, we will lack a true understanding of our actions. Without this understanding, we will remain as blind as the soul of a murderer.

 

* I’m not just picking on Christians. However Christianity has helped shape a huge amount of Western civilisation as we know it, and I’m speaking as a Westerner.

Dan Barnett

About the Writer

Dan is in his late 20s, lives in Croydon and is training as a counsellor.

 

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