Video: Religion vs Morality with Andrew Bernstein

The structure of the talk was a tripartite one, as follows:

• Professor Bernstein identified the philosophic essence of religion

• He then explained the fundamental requirements of human life

• He demonstrated, point-for-point, how these clash.

Part 1: The hazards of organised religion

The idea was presented that a proper ethics, required for the flourishing of human life, requires a wholesale rejection of religion, of all its premises, tenets and consequences. The mediaeval world embraced religion as the basis of fundamental truth and the source of moral guidance. Religion prescribed doctrine and proscribed free thinking. As a direct consequence, the world witnessed theocratic dictatorships that advocated (some which still advocate today) the torture and killing of heretics and non-believers.

Religion’s answers to life’s fundamental questions are, in a nutshell:

• What is the nature of the universe? It is created and governed by God and exists in two dimensions, the supernatural (spiritual) and the natural (corporeal), the corporeal being governed by the spiritual.

• What is the nature of human beings? Man is a dualistic being, flesh and spirit; part godly and good, part human and sinful, a being torn by the soul/body conflict.

• How do human beings gain knowledge? They do so by the means of faith in the truth of God’s word presented in holy texts.

• What is the good? It is obedience to God.

• What are the principles of a good society? They are whichever principles are espoused by the expert interpreters of God’s word.

Part 2: What are the requirements of life on earth?

A rational, fact-based theory of morality was expounded by Rand. Prior to Objectivism, philosophers rejected the ideas that morality could be deduced from facts. Rand was the first philosopher to state that any rejection of reason for an alternative is a rejection of mankind’s survival instrument, and thus is a rejection of man’s life. This is in direct conflict with Hulme’s repudiation that an ‘ought’ proposition can be derived from an ‘is’ proposition. Consequently, morals are subjective with no logical connection to the physical world. Man’s struggle in life do not contain any fundamental good.

Rand’s three questions and answers pertaining to moral philosophy were:

1. What is the standard of moral values? The factual requirements of human life.

2. By what means are human beings to attain those values? Fundamentally, by means of the rational mind.

3. Who or what should be the primary beneficiary of those values? The individual acting in pursuit of those values.

These 3 principles constitute her ethical code of life. They must be embraced and upheld if we are to prosper in life.

Part 3: How are morality and religion irreconcilable?

Tragically, religion stands in opposition to Rand’s list of three requirements for moral philosophy. Religion is irreconcilable with that which is required to sustain life because religion subordinates reason to faith. This is the primary reason of its destructive power, and ultimately, its evil. Faith morally requires and often physically coerces a person to accept the precepts of a received text. Religion forbids any questioning and attempting to find rational answers about the fundamentals of human life. Religion squashes the free-thinking mind, retarding progress in areas such as the arts, philosophy, science, medicine, technology.

Andrew then referred to the example of education: for most of the Middle Ages, under the aegis of the Catholic Church, the majority of the population was fully illiterate. In the modern day we see parallels with Islamic fundamentalism, e.g. the Taliban threatening violence such as shooting and throwing acid in the faces of girls who dare go to school.

Andrew also took issue with the religious idea that thoughts, rather than actions, are sinful and must be punished. The idea that thinking impure thoughts about another man’s wife can be morally damning (even if they are resolutely not acted upon in accordance with one’s own principles) was rejected.

These examples illustrated the fundamental principle in religion that man’s life is subordinated to God’s will. Egoism, the rational quest for value, is anathema to religion because on a God- based ethics virtue was achieved by means of selfless service to the deity. Countless actions that are rationally self-interested, such as charging interest on loaning money, drinking (even in moderation), sex (interestingly, Andrew uses the phrase “making love”) out of wedlock and so forth.

One of the most striking arguments made by Andrew about Objectivism was its very modern understanding of the importance and psychological significance of human sexuality. Andrew rejected the puritanical impulses of religions to police the dress and behavior of women. There run parallel streams of thought in the major religions that men are lustful creatures who are slaves to their impulses and women are the guardians of virginity. Any female enjoyment of bodily pleasures must be renounced, in favour of purity and obedience to God. The burden of guilt on women who enjoy sex is a very destructive one. The failure to incorporate healthy sexuality into its world view is therefore a great failure of religion.

Conclusion

Many good people pay lip service to religion but are in fact of mixed spirituality. By analogy, the United States has a mixed political system, a combination of individualism and collectivism, of Capitalism and Socialism, of freedom and statism. The free Capitalist elements lead to greater achievement and prosperity and the controlled statist elements lead to stagnation and suppression. Similarly, many religious people have a mixed intellectual system; a combination of reason, self-interested policies and, of course, religious self-sacrifice. The degree to which religious beliefs are renounced is the degree to which a person’s life is successful.

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