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Religion and the theory of moral duality

I recently received a mail from David, who had read my first book. He told me that he liked my book and that it had freed him from unrealistic expectations and false guilt, but that he disagreed with my view on religion. Religion had helped him find activities with intrinsic value to him, which is why he disagreed with what he perceived of my portrayal of religion as a destructive force.

Of course, David was right. Religion has motivated many people to do good, pointing them towards activities with intrinsic meaning, motivating them to contribute to what they were passionate about. In my book, I wasn’t trying to deny that.

What I was trying to say was targeted on the dark side of religion. My point is this:

  1. Religion can give our lives meaning.
  2. Meaning feels good.
  3. We want to maintain this meaning.
  4. The threat of losing this meaning scares us.
  5. We want to do what is necessary to avoid losing this meaning.

It’s always dangerous when someone or something else controls how we find meaning in life. In this way, religion can influence us to act destructively.

  • Religious leaders can threaten to take the religion’s approval away from us if we don’t act as they demand, thereby using fear of loss to influence our behavior directly.
  • We might think that we could lose our religions approval if we don’t act in a certain way, thereby allowing fear of loss to influence us indirectly.

Since my book is about doing what has intrinsic value to us, I concluded that by focusing on intrinsic value, we can avoid the negative effects of religion.

The difference between supporters and opponents of religion are mostly semantic

There is a reason why David and me misunderstood each other. It’s the same reason why discussions about religion often go nowhere. To understand this reason, let’s look at an example: love.

In many ways, religion resembles love. Both are strong emotions that can cause positive effects, but both can make people act destructively if they fear they might lose them. In contrast to religion, however, love is widely considered the most positive emotion of all, even though people murder in the name of love just as often as they murder in the name of religion.

In many ways, religion resembles love. Both are strong emotions that can cause positive effects, but both can make people act destructively if they fear they might lose them. In contrast to religion, however, love is widely considered the most positive emotion of all, even though people murder in the name of love just as often as they murder in the name of religion.

This difference is because we have a name for the negative side of love – jealousy. We can tell our children that it is great to act on love, but that it is bad to act on jealousy, and we have told them how to avoid many of love’s negative aspects. Only a few people condemn love; we condemn jealousy instead.

For religion, we lack a similar concept. When we discuss the motivation of a suicide bomber and a man helping at a homeless shelter, we have to use the same word – religion. This insufficient vocabulary limits the accuracy of our thoughts, forcing us to address different issues with the same terms, causing misunderstanding and confusion.

This semantic deficiency has fueled the conflict between supporters and opponents of religion, even though both sides mostly say the same thing: “If you treat religion as a philosophy that helps you to lead a good life and be happy and content, who has the right to criticize it? But when you are trying to force others to believe what you believe, you are causing more harm than you do good.”

Having one name for both actions is insufficient because they are caused by different motivations. We can use religion to aid our search for intrinsic value – much like love – and we can use religion to give ourselves a feeling of superiority. In the first case, nobody can take our religion away from us, which is why we feel no need to defend it. In the second case, however, our self-image is easily threatened by everything that suggests that our belief fails to make us superior, which makes us defensive and aggressive against every perceived threat to our self-image.

Psychologists have long proven that we react with anger towards anything that threatens our self-image. In one experiment, researchers showed test subjects two pictures, asking them to pick the picture that they consider more attractive. Then researchers asked the subjects to justify their decision while secretly switching the pictures. With the picture they deemed less attractive in hand, the test subjects came up with all types of good reasons why this picture is the more attractive – they were less concerned with making the best possible decision than with being right.

Similarly, once we include religion into our self-image, we become more concerned with maintaining this image than with doing the right thing. Instead of using religion as a tool to find meaning in our lives, we are primarily concerned with defending our belief against perceived threats, wanting everyone to believe the same way, dividing the world into us who believe and them who don’t, concluding that we are better than them.

This inflated sense of religion changes the moral consequences of our actions. We might still promote noble ideas, but because we promote them without allowing any dissent, our actions have lost their noble moral quality. We take the big step from merely believing in something to considering ourselves believers, from letting an idea guide our action to considering this idea a part of us.

Religion isn’t the only idea that needs a dual concept of moral

Religion is a prominent example of an idea that can generate both noble and evil results. It is, however, far from the only idea that has caused this effect. Throughout history, people have been murdered in the name of all types of political, racial, and economic ideas, all of them claiming that they wanted to create a better world. The desire to create a better world has killed more people than the black plague.

The difference between religion and political ideas is that religion’s history reaches back further, providing us with plenty of examples for good and bad results. Most modern ideas of government are only a few hundred years old, making their ambiguity less obvious.

As a result, we treat political ideas without the sense of ambiguity that we admit to religion. Naively, we apply the same moral concepts that we have learned from our individual interactions on the micro level (personal interactions) to political ideas and the macro level (society). We think about our personal interactions in terms of good and bad, and we apply the same terms to government, wanting government to do more good and less bad.

In line with this logic, we are quick to dismiss the acts of evil governments as the acts of a few evil politicians, ignoring the systematic factors that made these acts inevitable and that, when repeated, will create the same results, regardless of the nobility of the politicians in the system. We think that evil leaders think and act like the villains in superhero movies, trying to do evil for evil’s sake, only focusing on their own benefit, completely disregarding human life. But that’s not how many of the most evil people in history thought. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao all believed that their actions were necessary to benefit the greater good and that the human rights violations they committed in their pursuit were creating more good than evil. Most of their followers agreed with them. Similarly, after the French revolution of 1789, tens of thousands of people were killed in the name of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

How could these evils governments happen? Where did their beliefs come from? Why do some ideas have the potential to create an evil momentum hidden to its supporters? And how can we recognize ideas with such a destructive potential before they create disastrous results? A one-dimensional concept of moral is insufficient to explain the negative results noble ideas and ideologies often create. The theory of moral duality aims to explain these connections better.

If you liked this article, you will probably enjoy my book The Theory of Moral Duality: How to Avoid Destructive Political Ideas, Heal Divided Societies, and Deal More Kindly With One Another. Get it on Amazon now!

Published in Politics

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