There is an ongoing trend amongst atheists to frame religion in a historical context in order to assert that it was at a time “useful” but is no longer relevant. This way of framing religion is asserted by taking up one of the principles of Evolution which suggests man’s quest for survival is written deeply in his psychology and anthropology. Taking this principle and suggesting that the most obvious way for mankind to survive is through creating a civilization that is governed by some type of morality is the principle theory applied to religion. It is argued that with this instinct to survive, deeply rooted in man’s psychology, man generated religion as a means to foster a type of morality. Placing a moral structure upon a civilization had to be done with a sense of stability, and thus to place such moral ordering into the constant flux of human-opinion was not as stable as suggesting that morals came from a type of authority; be it all-powerful (to evoke fear), all good (to evoke trust), and all knowing (to evoke in combination with the latter, a sense of integrity). It was clear that mankind did not trust himself or others, and as a result needed something perfect to appeal to, in order to fasten oneself to some type of moral structure.
This view does not suggest that man’s creation of religion was somehow intrinsically dishonest. Rather, man sought to invent religion, but as a result of a deeply subconscious tendency that developed such a narrative (theology) in order to bring about the conclusion he sought (survival through moral-civilization). In other words, religion may have been believed to have been true, but underneath the impulses of the human heart was actually an impulse to survive by developing a network of relationships that were bound to some type of morality.
The argument is thus made that mankind has since transcended his need for such a fictitious God, and now has come to a deeper awareness of how becoming “morally-good” does not rely upon a belief and adherence to a moral law dogmatically asserted. To the religious, this statement certainly comes across as condescending – especially since they suggest we are following something that is ultimately unenlightened in contrast with today’s people “in the know.” On the other hand, we as religious individuals should be aware of the common experience of condescension when dialoguing with non-believers. Both expressions of condescension could be the result of a type of defensive posture, where one feels looked down-upon. Thus, in order to defend oneself, he puts the other down, to raise himself up. Thus the cycle goes on indefinitely.
In order to avoid this cycle, I might suggest to both atheists and believers that having a sense of “morality” is a matter of “human-nature” and thus ought to be universally attributed to both atheists and believers. The quest to be “good” cannot be understood as the quest to be “better than others.” Typically this type of moral competition makes people arrogant, proud, and selfish, willing to lie, deface another’s good-name, and so on. Of course, this is a general sentiment in regard to morality, not something I am attempting to defend – but I would think most people would agree in principle. We’d agree that seeking to be morally better than others is self-defeating.
I would like to however argue some contrary points, and by no means will they be presented in an exhaustive manner. Prior to these contrary points I would prefer to discuss the underlying assumption that Religion’s central focus is on morality. These contrary points are particularly in regard to the assertion that “morality” solely springs from man’s desire to survive. Furthermore, that religion and faith’s credibility hinges upon this well-meaning attempt to survive, but was in reality a fictive creation in order to maintain such survival. Also, it would be worth voicing concern over the hierarchy of priorities between morality and survival, and where in some situations it becomes a contradiction, making an argument in promotion of amoralism in certain circumstances.
On the Contrary: Religion as a Moral Philosophy
I can only respond to this characterization in regard to Catholicism. While I have studied academically at university various religions, I would not consider myself as having an expert ability to characterize one religion as not adhering primarily or identifying beyond a code of ethics. That is to say that perhaps this theory should be considered in regard to religions, but each religion should be judged by a standard of research, rather than a mere generalization. This does not mean that the little information we have about other faiths should not raise concerns or foster a sense of appreciation or agreement; what it does mean is that for the purpose of this blog, I would prefer to stick to what I know best which is Catholicism.
Catholicism is often the first target amongst criticism merely for its historical mark on the various civilizations that the west has built. Monasteries helped foster scientific advancement during the barbarian invasions in Europe. The Catholic view of science, philosophy, scripture and Divine-Tradition led to the creation of the university system. The Church was quick to avoid fundamentalism as it went through the period of “Hellenization” unpacking various dogmas through philosophical categories and language. This effectively was the baptism over rational discernment, whereby the Church demonstrated a view that faith and reason were not antagonistic dimensions. In this process, the Church has made mistakes, and the few mistakes that have been made have often been sensationalized or grossly misrepresented, eclipsing the vast majority of advances the Church has offered the world in regard to art, the scientific method, the big-bang theory, and many other well-known developments. This alone is a subject many atheists, in my experience, are terribly unaware of, and I would encourage a more critical examination of the advancements made by Catholics, as not something to merely gloss over. The narrative of today seems to assert an antagonism in the Catholic faith, between faith and reason which can be the result of attempting to distance oneself from something people have been trained to sneer at: faith and religion, especially when they find themselves appreciating something (Reason) in a group of people they are supposedly meant to abhor.
In this regard, the Catholic Religion still remains the largest charitable organization on the face of the planet. It houses, educates, feeds the poor, and supports countries when in dire need. Yet, the Catholic Church, while being the one organization that does the most is often also the most criticized for not doing enough. One must again, be careful to study how the money works in the Vatican and the Church, because if one were to sell everything in the Museums of the Church, they would actually be causing more harm to the poor than doing them good. Furthermore, it would be good for any individual in any situation to examine what they themselves are doing to help the poor. The Porn industry, for instance makes much more money than the Vatican, and if anyone who criticizes the Church for her charity work, should probably criticize the porn-industry first, since it grosses much more money than any other institution on the planet and does what for the poor? This might perhaps give some perspective, at least to the money that is spent from the individual currently reading this blog: that is you.
But let me arrive back to the original point, placing all the various misconceptions and false narratives aside, that are boringly recapitulated without any underlying facts or facts out of context. The original point is to question what the Catholic Religion is for. Is the Catholic Religion, as purported by us Catholics, invented by God to primarily make us morally good? The answer is an unequivocal “no.” The Catholic-Christian Tradition emphasizes in her doctrine vividly that:
“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” 1 John 4:10
Pope Benedict XVI discussed the problem with treating our religion as if it is reducible to nothing more than a moral philosophy – and encouraged the lay-faithful to understand that religion was not about becoming morally good, but primarily about a relationship with God and our neighbour. This relationship is not instigated by man-willing it, according to how Catholics self-identify, but rather that God initiated His love for us. Here is what Pope Benedict XVI said:
“Christianity is not an intellectual system, a packet of dogmas, a moralism. Christianity is rather an encounter, a love story; it is an event.”
This does not mean that dogmas, moral-truths, and intellectual arguments are absent from Catholicism. Rather what it means is that there is a broader context that they are meant to be integrated into, which is that all of it is born out of a God who intimately loves us, and the only right and proper response is to love Him back. Without this context, neither the Christian nor the atheist have begun to understand Christianity as it is in itself. Rather, in their minds, Christianity is merely an attempt to “be good.” Thus, the common argument is brought forward that “one doesn’t need to be Christian to be good.” For the moment I will hesitate to respond to this objection, since I do not yet feel confident enough that the more fundamental truths are yet conveyed. It nonetheless remains an objection that “assumes” the Catholic Religion is reducible to making “good people.”
Why might this have happened? If we had studied scripture, those who try to “use religion” to make themselves good are often the ones Christ speaks most sternly too: they are the self-righteous. That is to say, those who attempt to “make themselves-righteous.” Religion becomes nothing more than a means to convey one’s superiority over others, and thus how humiliating it often was when someone was chosen by God from poverty and unpopularity to be closer and more pleasing to God. Nonetheless it was humiliation well-earned, as the result of using religion in the most perverse fashion: which is contrary to its original meaning: to encounter God.
Imagine for a moment if children approached their parents merely to be the best sibling. They sought the approval of their parents merely to have a sense of worth that was all built on being “better” than someone else. What is absent in all of this? Many things. But one might quickly notice that what is absolutely absent is a love for their parents. Their parents approval is what they seek, but for completely self-seeking reasons. They do not simply love their parents, but rather attempt to use their parents “love” to inflate their own ego. Putting all this aside, it’s worth noting we are entirely focused on the Children’s behaviour and have forgotten to stress the parent’s love. This is why moralism without the context of “relationship” is utterly meaningless. What is the point of “morality” if it is merely to puff oneself up or to continue one’s existence? There are higher things being aimed for, and they are “relationships” of genuine love.
The Catholic Religion is therefore more preoccupied with God’s love for us, than a moral system that he put into place. For instance, Jesus teaches during the Sermon on the Mount that it is insufficient to merely avoid murdering our enemy, but that we ought to love our enemy. His point? That the interior man has to not only avoid bad-behaviour and bad-actions, but to from the heart, develop an actual relationship with his neighbor. Likewise, this is most prominently being directed towards God.
Theological-morality is man’s quest for God, but Catholic-Religion is God’s quest for man. Christian-religion is about the manifestation of God reaching out to us in deep, penetrating love, a love that is willing to die for us to demonstrate our worth to Him. While one drop was sufficient, Jesus gave every drop to demonstrate to us that His love isn’t minimalistic. These types of truths are meant to penetrate the cold indifference of sinful man and arouse within Him a spirit of gratitude, and a willingness to reciprocate to God, exactly what He has done for us: directly to God, and indirectly to God through our neighbour. This is anything but “survival” in any natural sense, since the result leads us to the death of all apostles except St. John, and the early martyrs of the Church. In fact, Jesus sweats blood in the Garden because he suspends this very natural impulse in Him to preserve His life for something superior, which is His relationship with the Father and His saving love for mankind. The Catholic Religion was therefore founded on acting contrary to this natural inclination of survival – explicitly – by placing a relationship with God on a greater scale than our natural life-itself.
Often people will say, “yes, but you have to die to get the cookie of heaven.” As if God would reduce a relationship with him to nothing more than a bunch of moral-hoops to jump through in order to obtain heaven. But anyone who suggests this has completely ignored the whole premise of Jesus’ teachings which is that the moral law is not some type of “positive-law” that God arbitrarily imposes upon us, but rather teaches us how to objectively love Him and our neighbor. Therefore, as Catholics when we hear these types of objections we simply understand that the opposing view is merely asserting what logicians would call a “straw man” which is a logical fallacy. They are asserting that God/religion is merely moralistic – and thus defining it contrary to how it self-identifies and has thus proven itself as such in her dogma and doctrine. When we read the creed at mass, we are not recapitulating the 10 commandments, but rather who God is and what He has done for us. This is the essence of our faith, it is not about what we do, but what about God does. Our receptivity to His love does have moral implications, but those are always secondary to who God is, and what God has done for us. So we shouldn’t be shaken by such objections, because they convey a false-narrative which makes atheist arguments easy, but inevitably lazy.
Furthermore, it might be worth noting that hypothetically guessing what people’s intentions were 2000 years ago, when founding a religion, still does not suffice as a disproof for God’s existence. Any psychological argument for why people believe of itself does not disprove the object of their belief. It may cause us pause and concern about the objective criteria for examining our beliefs – but atheists themselves do not transcend the subconscious which may have directed them towards their own conclusions for a slew of separate reasons. None of these arguments nonetheless prove God’s existence. For instance, if there was a room full of people activity of debating whether Australia existed, people’s reasons for belief or disbelief would not determine whether the country existed. Its existence is independent of their own intention. People can believe the correct thing for the worst of intentions and vice-versa. Actually discerning cosmological proofs of God’s existence from the stand point of physics and philosophy would be a much more reasonable manner of discussing the subject.
Finally, the notion that evolution develops morality for the sole purpose of helping the human race survive is somewhat of a dangerous statement. From this view one could conclude that morality of itself is unimportant, but is merely a relativistic mechanism to accomplish the ultimate end which is survival. If this was the case, when morality suggests something contrary to the principle of survival, one would excuse themselves from this system of morality and merely adopt an amoral view. I would suggest the same thing that Aristotle taught: what is most fundamental to mankind is not survival but the pursuit of the good or man’s own perfection. All of this is to say that it is more fundamentally the case that man seeks the good, and derivative of this designation of man’s will include but is not limited to: survival. This view does not stand in contradiction to the theory of evolution, but rather would fit into it quite well. Survival is “a good” but not the only good. That is to say that seeking the good is intrinsic to each individual’s own nature, and offers a broader context than a reduction of survival. While survival is primal, and certainly fundamental to man’s condition, it is not the only thing worth considering when examining man’s nature in general. The good or reaching one’s own fulfillment or perfection is more meaningful than merely surviving. To merely survive but to subsist in a miserable state is to have lived an empty life. In this regard, it might be advantageous for us to understand that the true meaning of man to exist and survive is to bring about a higher and more relatable end which is “happiness.” Aristotle would assert that man’s quest for survival, food, relationships, and so on is ultimately rooted in the highest desire which is for happiness. To Aristotle happiness was not merely an emotion, since emotions can be fleeting and changing, but rather to one’s potential being entirely actualized, whereby man would become truly himself in every regard. Christian humanism assets that God became man so as to restore us to a genuine humanism which his example exhorts is to and His grace enables such actualization. It would later be argued that Aristotle’s notion of happiness, that all men desire, points itself towards something either impossible or possible. Man’s quest for happiness either ends at death, thereby never being fully secured, or man accomplishes this in some type of eternity. Here the anthropology suggests that man does not wish to have his happiness end, for to do as such would be to wish he not be happy. Rather man desires of himself an endless happiness. This endless happiness is univocal to eternal happiness or bliss. But this desire and designated end of man does not prove the existence of such an end‘s possibility, but rather merely demonstrates that it is man’s ontological or intrinsic nature to desire eternity. Therefore the conclusion must be made between two things: is man’s nature which is inclined towards eternal happiness arbitrary and therefore a reason to despair, or is it possible that his existence is actually rooted in something possible?
If it is the case that man cannot live on forever and therefore must deny his longing for never-ending happiness, he must not truly be himself, and delude himself with the illusion of purpose (existentialism) or live in the dissonance of desiring what cannot ever be (nihilism). If it is true for man to be objectively oriented towards happiness that need not end, then mankind becomes religious and thereby is truly who he is, both by evolution and by reason. Nonetheless, in either case, none of this proves God’s existence. What it does prove is that man was made for God, and if he doesn’t believe in God, his existence is arbitrary.