Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Religion and Morality: A Rejoinder


Maryam Sakeenah

Irfan Hussain, in his article ‘Morality and Atheism’ published in DAWN, February 17, 2010, has cited an array of facts and figures to assert his point that despite rising agnostic/atheistic trends in secular Europe, those societies demonstrate better standards of morality as opposed to corrupt and decadent religious societies. This proves, according to Hussain, that there exists no direct link between religion and morality, and that atheism as opposed to religion, is equally moral, if not more. On the face of it, Mr. Hussain is thoroughly correct, given the facts and figures he cites. However, making statistical data the sole basis for drawing assertive conclusions on a subject as complex, multi-layered and profound as the relationship between religion, morality and atheism is at best a forensic approach, very often misleading. The argument misses essential links in its logical progression and, relying merely on a handful of statistics and facile, apparent facts, concludes with a perfunctory yet vigorous assertion. A lot remains to be said.
To begin with, there is no contention with Mr. Hussain’s accuracy in citing his facts. However, the inadequacy of his approach is obvious at the outset when he refuses to be appalled by the prospect of the majority of births in Europe occurring out of wedlock, because these individuals have full ‘legal rights’ in secular societies. What rings loudly out of this is the question he leaves unanswered: Does a human individual need no more than ‘legal rights’ in order to develop wholesomely into a stable, healthy, sound personality? Is the provision of ‘legal rights’ sufficient enough to make the comfort, warmth and security of being part of a stable family utterly unnecessary? The gaping omission in this particular statement runs through the entire piece and the mindset at the back of it; as if forensic data, matter and material were all that counted.
At the heart of the debate lies our perception of human nature. The Quran says in Surah Shams: “And indeed He has inspired it (the human self) with evil and with God-consciousness (or goodness).” Most thinkers, regardless of their Western or Oriental affiliations, assent to the fact that the human being is morally neutral, with both the capacity to do good and the instinct to commit evil. This inherent moral neutrality emphasizes the importance of external influences, surroundings and the milieu which will in large part determine whether the individual exercises his will to enact good or evil. The verse after the aforementioned states: “Indeed, he is successful who has purified it (from evil).” The necessity of this act of purification to restrain the evil impulse and the importance of the social milieu to facilitate the process through external stimuli is central to the Islamic understanding. As the human being is capable of destruction and harm for selfish ends, he needs to be reined in through the presence of social institutions that guard moral values and the inner moral imperative that comes from belief.
In all fairness, to reach a correct understanding, one must first establish the moral bases of religious and secular morality. Traditional morality having its basis in religion and its echoes in Kantian Idealism believes the rightness and wrongness of an action is based upon the motive of duty and conscientiousness with reference to a rationally acceptable moral rule, regardless of the consequences. Secular morality is rooted in Utilitarianism, which defines an action to be right or wrong based on the context and social utility_ given that it serves the end of ensuring the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ While for the traditionalist the ends no matter how noble cannot justify the means_ if the means violate some established moral principle, the Utilitarians believe in expediency, that is, for a useful end, any means that help may be used.
The question of ends and means brings into the discussion the dynamics of human relationships. Professor Don Mc Niven writes, “Utilitarians see human relationships merely as exercises in self-interest. For them, all human relationships are essentially instrumental. People use each other merely as means to their own ends, and not as ends in themselves.’ For Immanuel Kant the Idealist, seeing people as means and not ends in themselves was perhaps the greatest crime. Certainly, all human relationships cannot be viewed commercially or as power relationships, given the more altruistic sentiments of love, sacrifice, sincerity and friendship. With the Utilitarian concept prevailing, laments Professor Mc Niven, “manipulation of others for selfish ends becomes the paradigm for all human relationships.”
Here lies the catch. This gives a glimpse into the ethos of Western society, the amorality of which is deplored by many many voices from the West. Deploring Western morality, Mr. Hussain seems to think, is an exclusively Muslim enterprise, born out of a sort of ‘holier than thou’ attitude prevalent among believers in God. What would Mr. Hussain make of the many Westerners, a number of them secular and agnostic themselves, who have denounced the decadence and depravity running wild in Europe? Professor Mc Niven goes on: “The neglect of moral education has had dire consequences for our civilization. It explains, in part, the wide gap which has developed between our technologies and our moralities. There appears to be a real decline in moral standards in Western civilization. Moral scandals occur in the increasing numbers in every area our lives, in politics, in medicine, in business, in science, in sports and in religious institutions. Our civilization seems to be becoming amoral. It is not simply that we are becoming more evil, but also that evil no longer concerns us. We no longer believe our professional lives have moral dimensions.”
This amorality manifests itself in three aspects of contemporary Western life: i) the crisis of the family, which is directly linked with permissive Hedonism and sexual perversion ii) commercialism which has links with environmental degradation and prevailing competitive materialism, iii) racial prejudice and social exclusivism; marginalization of non Western communities. This aspect is related to rising Islamophobia and post-9/11 politics vis a vis the Muslim world.
Mitt Romney expressed horror over this moral decay taking its toll on family values and personal ethics: “Europe is facing a demographic disaster. That is the inevitable product of weakened faith in the Creator, failed families, disrespect for the sanctity of human life and eroded morality...” Christopher Lasch examines contemporary Western culture and believes its inherent utilitarianism and materialism to have created a culture of Narcissism: “People have retreated to purely personal preoccupations. Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is physical and psychic self-improvement: eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or belly-dancing, immersing themselves in Yoga meditation, jogging etc. Harmless in themselves, these pursuits, elevated to a program and wrapped up in the rhetoric of authenticity and awareness, signify a retreat from the big things in life… to live for the moment is the prevailing passion_ to live for yourself. ‘Survival’ has become the catchword, and ‘collective narcissism’ the dominant disposition. The society makes sense only of living for the moment, to fix our eyes on our own private performance, to become connoisseurs of our own decadence, to cultivate self-attention. The world-view emerging among us centres solely on the self and has individual survival as its sole good.”
The fundamental difference between conservative societies and those based on secular-utilitarian morality is that while the traditionalists believe in the sanctity of human life as the central social principal, the utilitarians consider the quality of life to be of prime significance. Professor Mc Niven enlightens on the subject: “Attitudes towards social morality are also essentially different. Utilitarians want to create a benevolent or caring society while traditionalists want a just society based on respect human rights. Many utilitarians hold that a just society is a necessary condition for a benevolent society, but attempts to reduce justice to forms of utility have proved difficult if not impossible.”
It must be acknowledged, however, that Western societies have achieved high levels of comfort, quality of life, social welfare and protection for the generality of masses. Individual liberties are guaranteed across Western societies as an inviolable right. For one, the surviving influence of religious values as the basis of modern ethics even in secular Europe needs to be acknowledged. Secular Europe has effectively established ethical principles_ which it shares in common with religion_ through its social and political institutions. This has given a firm ethical footing to modern European life where the system facilitates and encourages moral behaviour which ‘increases the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ and minimizes suffering. The system makes any violation of ethical principles enshrined in secular law (which, it must be noted, it shares with religion) difficult and punishable. The presence and influence of religious morality in secular West is substantive, and Hussain’s assertion of a ‘widespread rejection of religion in Europe after the Enlightenment’ is only partially true. While institutionalized state religion meddling in politics was certainly rejected, and in this sense Western states ‘secularized’, religious morality was not overturned in its entirety, and survives in contemporary social ethics despite the widespread utilitarian premise. Mc Niven considers the conservative moral tradition to be related to both secular and religious humanism, containing elements of the classical natural law tradition. The Hebrew-Christian tradition is part and parcel of Western culture despite its current secular persona.
How, then, does one explain the appalling crimes European-American political history is replete with? Sultana Saeed, in her essay “Islam: From Revelation to Realization” questions, “History records that countries with written constitutions, democratic principles, fundamental rights and freedom were able to wipe out entire populations... one has to read the records in the Amnesty International Yearbook. We have become immune. We seem to accept all kinds of atrocities against man. With the light of ‘knowledge’ we have reached the moon and become very grand... we no more burn witches at the stake, yet we accept the possibility of the whole of mankind being blown to pieces in a holocaust.” What is striking about Mr. Hussain’s work is how he entirely sidesteps this glaring phenomenon, despite the fact that the terrible atrocities committed by Western governments in the wake of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ have flung this fact rudely in our faces, necessitating a rethink. In 2004, horrifying images from Abu Ghraib prisons in Iraq were released into the media showing humiliation and abuse of prisoners. Shortly after, similar information about widespread prison abuse at Bagram prisons in Afghanistan was revealed. It afforded a glimpse into the inhuman barbarity unleashed on suspects and detainees that had been going on unabated behind the scenes. According to the New York Times, “What happened at Abu Ghraib was no aberration, but part of a widespread pattern. The investigative file on Bagram showed that the mistreatment of prisoners was routine: shackling them to the ceilings of their cells, depriving them of sleep, kicking and hitting them, sexually humiliating them and threatening them with guard dogs -- the very same behavior later repeated in Iraq.” The widespread use of water-boarding for investigating suspects has been condoned by several within government ranks even though the use of high degree torture (which this method constitutes) is officially outlawed. However, expediency is the norm here, as one U.S official put it with raw honesty: "If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the time, you probably aren't doing your job.”
In an earlier article, this writer analyzed the same in some depth hence: “A perfect illustration of how this mindset operates is in those stories of violent, inhuman prison-abuse by U.S soldiers at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, as if the inmates were some vile, despicable, lower-order beasts that you kill under your heavy boots. This is the absolute subversion of morality by narrow nationalism, humanity by blind ‘Americanism.’ And it is not an aberration, it is a malaise spread deep into the very roots of Western civilization. Such things happen because the minimal individual, whose world is its Narcissist paradise, cannot create a link based on its discarded human values with that part of humanity that does not share its particular limited set of values. The Narcissist, whose vision is severely limited to the mirror-image before itself, is appalled at the lack of these values of individual freedom and personal liberty in societies that still uphold the traditional universal code of conduct and curtail the individual’s freedom within limits dictated by that code.” Recent opinion polls show racist and prejudicial tendencies in Europe and the West have dramatically risen over the past few years. The ‘superior moral standing of the West’ that Mr. Hussain seems to be taken in with, does not account for this pervasive trend.
It is very telling that majority of those Americans who oppose the Iraq and Afghan wars, as had been the case with Vietnam earlier, do so on the grounds of the rising death toll among NATO soldiers. Other than the small groups of leftist scholars and writers in Europe and the United States, the public opposition is not for the much more humungous human tragedy there; not for the exploitation and abuse and madness and megalomania that the war is all about; not for the criminal brutalities that nations of innocent millions is suffering. The ‘morality’ of anti-war movements in the West is overwhelmingly limited. In a refreshingly courageous article by Charles Ferndale, this expedient morality and narrowness of vision is lamented: “If one were to observe only the coffins of the British carried through the streets..., one would have observed only 245 such casualties to date, whereas over 600 Pakistani civilians have died in the last two months alone as a direct consequence of the Af-Pak wars. Thousands, or depending upon when you start the count, millions of the natives of Afghanistan and Pakistan have died because of Western actions there, and these terrible numbers greatly underestimate the real damage done. So counting the British dead... gives a wholly inaccurate idea of the devastation the Western forces have wreaked upon the hapless people of that region, whose only crime is to want independence from Western geopolitical designs, especially those connected with energy resources.”
This said, one must necessarily add that highlighting the moral depravity pervading in European societies does not automatically imply the moral superiority in conservative Muslim societies. Mr. Hussain is correct in how he deplores this trend among Muslims of absolving themselves while condemning the West for immoralities. He is also correct in his assertion that most Muslim societies reflect abysmal standards of fundamental social ethics, rampant corruption and dishonesty. However, he fails to look at these irrefutable facts insightfully, taking into account all of the many dimensions involved. He also overlooks a fundamental reality that true and authentic religion differs markedly from its pretense that comes garbed in religious jargon and ritualistic veneer. The decadence of the powerful clergy in Europe eventually led to the breakaway between Church and State which may have salvaged Europe from the perversion of religiosity, but also laid the groundwork for secular-Utilitarian morality which has culminated in the widespread degeneracy manifesting itself in varying forms in different periods of time. In the Muslim world, following the failure of post-colonial Muslim societies to establish the Shariah in letter and spirit, religion, reduced to ‘religiosity’, suffers a similar ‘perversion’. Will Durant writes, “The nadir of perversion is reached when the clergy, whose function is to console and guide a harassed humanity with religious faith and hope and charity, are made the tools of theological obscurantism and political oppression.” This very aptly sums up the state of affairs in Muslim societies globally.
Technically speaking, the task of establishing and regulating the Shariah of Islam belongs to governments. Given the endless chain of corrupt, exploitative and inept regimes plaguing Muslim societies after freedom from colonial rule, successive governments have utterly failed in the task, ignored or neglected it or worse still, allowed it to be manipulated and misused for the extension of political power. Although traditionally Muslim jurists have performed the job of checking and curtailing the limits of governing authorities and binding them within a framework of commitments to uphold fundamental human rights and dignities stipulated by the Shariah, this is no more the case. Muslim jurists are either marginalized from legislative process by governments, or have voluntarily disassociated themselves from the system owing to its many un Islamic elements. Those who remain are self-serving, salaried state functionaries who do little more than assent and approve. Traditionally, it was Muslim jurists who determined the law, while states used their powers to implement it, provided their strategies and regulations did not contravene Divine law. While it was the Shariah as interpreted by the consensus of the eminent mainstream jurists that was the fountainhead, politics was its protector. The fatal mistake made by contemporary conservative Muslim states like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan is that the State has been given legislative power over and above divine law. An example may be given of the government-imposed ban on women’s driving in Saudi Arabia, which seeks justification as a ‘precautionary measure’, using the logic of ‘blocking the means’ to a suspected violation of morality or law. This is clearly an instance of overweening State power that is not moderated and held in check by the guardians of the letter and spirit of the Shariah. A more indepth analysis of the malaise within Muslim societies is offered by Khalid El Fadl in his treatise on Democracy and Islam. According to him, “the disintegration of the role of the ulema and their co option by the modern praetorian state with its hybrid practice of secularism have opened the door for the state to become the maker and enforcer of the divine law; in so doing, the state has acquired formidable power that has further ingrained the practice of authoritarianism in various Islamic states.”
Yet another aspect is the dichotomous understanding of the Shariah which drives a wedge between its ethical content and its legal aspect. In the Muslim mind, the Shariah has been reduced to a set of laws disconnected from their accompanying moral basis which the law simply facilitates and guards. Unless the Shariah is understood and established as a whole_ with its essential values of respect for human rights and dignity, equality, plurality, justice and mercy highly emphasized by the Quran, imposing a bare set of laws will do little more than give a veneer of religiosity to a spineless legal code lacking its true ethical base. This is exactly what Muslim societies suffer from. Added to this the contemporary problems of poverty, lawlessness, social disparity, what is left is the utter morass we find all over the Muslim world.
And yet, in the heart of the terrible crises, Muslims manage to find solace in the spirituality of religious belief, adherence to social and personal values and the traditional honouring of filial ties. That has prevented these ravaged Muslim societies from moral anarchy and chaos. In contrast, the rising incidence of suicide, anxiety, depression and psychosis in the affluent, prosperous and comfortable Western societies drives home the point very effectively. Mr. Hussain fails to realize the immense psychological and social value of the ‘solace for their wretched condition with promise of compensation in after life’, as well as the moral imperative to ‘assuage guilt by giving alms generously, thereby hoping to buy a place in heaven.’ The absence of the sense of duty to pay taxes to the state is yet another symptom of the utter failure of political systems and the absence of trust among citizens for their corrupt and dishonest rulers.
Quoting Einstein, Mr. Hussain asserts the preposterousness of the fear of punishment and the incentive of reward as the basis of morality, believing morality to have a scientific, logical basis. In other words, being good is sensible as it helps maximize happiness and minimize suffering, and the system ought to ensure this, so that people make the rational choice to behave morally. The need and desire for retributive justice goes deep within the recesses of human psychology, and is an archetypal human attribute. Human behaviour is curtailed within moral limits through law which carries a punitive aspect in order to be effective. When worldly systems are made effective with this understanding of human psychology, how can this be denied as a fundamental basis of any veritable moral code?
The miracle achieved by religion is that while taking into account this fact for all practical purposes, it manages to make the believer transcend fear of temporal punishment and lust for worldly reward, making the individual achieve a higher morality of altruism beyond immediate consequence, capable of sacrifice and selfless choices. This morality is the command of the conscience that lives on in the human heart. While utilitarianism refuses to recognize it, religion puts it to best use, rendering the individual capable of astounding acts of selflessness. Some enlightenment proving the falsity of the utilitarian premise and the superiority of religious morality comes from the work of Immanuel Kant. Will Durant explains Kant thus: “If mere worldly utility and expediency were the justification of virtue, it would not be wise to be too good. And yet, knowing all this, having it flung into our faces with brutal repetition, we still feel the command to righteousness, we know that we ought to do the inexpedient good. How could this sense of right survive if it were not that in our hearts we feel this life to be only a part of Life, this earthly dream only an embryonic prelude to a new birth, a new awakening; if we did not vaguely know that in that later and longer life the balance will be redressed, and not a cup of water given generously but returned hundredfold? Finally, and by the same token, there is a God. If the sense of duty involves and justifies belief in rewards to come_ which is no proof by reason_ the moral sense, which has to do with the world of our actions, must have priority over that theoretical logic which was only developed to deal with sense-phenomena. Our reason leaves us free to believe that behind the thing-in-itself there is a just God. Our moral sense commands us to believe it. Rousseau was right: above the logic in the head is the feeling in the heart. Pascal was right: the heart has reasons of its own that the head can never understand.”
The superiority of a social order that establishes itself on this philosophical premise now emerges as self-explanatory. Whether this philosophical premise is present in an Oriental or a Western society is not what matters any more. Religion very realistically embraces this premise, and this code of absolute morality is most strikingly apparent in the pristine Shariah of Islam_ ethics and legality, beyond clerical or statist manipulation. It is the poet-philosopher Iqbal who has the last word, writing in his ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’: “Both nationalism and atheistic socialism, at least in the present state of human adjustments, must draw upon the psychological forces of hate, suspicion, resentment which tend to impoverish the soul of man and close up his hidden sources of spiritual energy. Neither the technique of medieval mysticism, nor nationalism, nor atheistic socialism can cure the ills of a despairing humanity. Surely, the present moment is one of great crisis in the history of modern culture. The modern world stands in need of renewal. And religion, which in its higher manifestations is neither dogma, nor priesthood, nor ritual, can alone ethically prepare the modern man for the burden of the great responsibility which the advancement of modern science necessarily involves, and restore to him the attitude of faith which makes him capable of winning a personality here and retaining it hereafter. It is only by rising to a fresh vision of his origin and future, his whence and whither, that man will eventually triumph over a society driven by an inhuman competition, and a civilization which has lost its spiritual unity by its inner conflict of religious and political values.”