Prior to the holiday season, a dear friend was alarmed at something she witnessed while visiting Disneyland. She had watched the Santa Claus Parade on Disneyland’s Main Street and it was the song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” that she found – as she put it – “creepy”.
The part of the lyric that bothered her most was;
“He sees you when you’re sleeping,
He knows when you’re awake.”
You see, my friend is Jewish and has had very minimal exposure to Christmas traditions and songs, so imagining a bearded stranger peeking in the bedroom windows of children was disturbing to her.
Beside being charmed by her fresh perspective, her observations got me thinking about imposed morality; moral behaviour elicited through a promise of reward or threat of punishment, and continual monitoring by a supernatural being …
“He’s making a list and checking it twice,
Going to find out who’s naughty and nice.”
Most religions are enforced through a system of reward and punishment in a post-death judgment ritual, and many offer heaven or hell as the two alternative final destinations. We must answer for our “sins”. So, the message is; If you are “good” then you will go to heaven, and if you are “bad” you will go to hell. Catholic-based religions add the third locale of “Purgatory” where your sins will be stripped away through a painful purification process.
In the Islamic faith system, when men die – especially while killing the enemies of Allah - they will be rewarded with 72 virgin sexual slaves and an eternal erection. Not sure what the women get, although some Islamic Clerics claim that upwards of 95% of the occupants of hell are women.
But can morality that is derived through threat of punishment and reward truly be moral? If one believes that he must live by rules of conduct imposed by a powerful and judgmental supernatural being, can he claim true morality? Or is he just following orders out of fear?
There have been hundreds of studies that clearly demonstrate that punishment does not achieve the purpose it is intended for. Punishing children for “bad” behaviour can result in two probable outcomes; In the first, the child learns to lie about and conceal their actions in order to avoid punishment; In the second, the child becomes so fearful of punishment that they are paralyzed from taking healthy risks that can aid in their development.
On a societal level, the best indicator that punishment doesn’t work is that if it did, we wouldn’t have prisons – all citizens would have learned “right” and “wrong” in childhood through being punished at home and at school.
There is also the question of how we can define “good” and “bad” behaviour in a universal way. Most religions have a set of rules that dictate these concepts, yet in real life they are often not so clear-cut.
For example; Lying is a sin. Yet during the Nazi occupation during WWII, if the Gestapo arrived at your front door to ask; “Are there any Jews living here?” Would you lie? Or would you tell them about the Jewish family living in your attic whom you had given protection to?
Even more striking are challenges to the 10 commandments such as; “Honour thy mother and thy father”. What if that mother or father was abusive to their child? What if a parent sexually abused their child causing long-term psychological harm? Is that child still required to “honour” that parent?
Dr. Alice Miller had a lot to say about that in her book; “The Body Never Lies – The Lingering Effects of Cruel Parenting”.
There also is the question of interpreting scripture. One of the prominent arguments by the Christian right is that gay marriage should not be allowed, this according to book of Leviticus. Yet most Christians don’t follow the rest of Leviticus’ rules; That men aren’t allowed to shave their beards; That they should never work on the Sabbath; That it is okay to own slaves so long as they come from a foreign country; That having bacon on your cheeseburger is a sin.
Historic scholars understand that the laws laid down by Leviticus were an attempt to strengthen the tribes of Israel by protecting individuals from disease, promoting propagation, and ensuring that members maintained their identities as Jews.
But when we are faced with ancient laws that are no longer applicable in our modern world, who among us gets to choose which are imposed and which are left behind in the annals of history where they belong? Most religions have appointed clerics or religious leaders - [some self-appointed] - who claim authority to make these decisions; Pastors, Reverends, Priests, Rabbis, Mullahs, and so forth. Yet even with a mortal religious scholar making moral decisions, it is still expected that the individual should comply with that imposed morality.
As a Humanist, not only is morality an active exploration and learning experience for me, I also ascribe to Eric Ericson’s concept of syntonic and dystonic to describe actions or events and their relationship to people. If something is syntonic, then it is beneficial to a person [such as lying to the Gestapo]. If it is dystonic, it negatively impacts a person. To live as a Humanist requires thoughtful consideration of all points of view – it is an active philosophic process that does not rely on following an imposed set of rigid moral rules but rather by following one’s reasoning, knowledge and empathy for self and others.
When I engage in this internal debate, I am often reminded of a statement made in “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck; A preacher, who had become disillusioned by the suffering he saw during the Great Depression, came to the realization that he no longer had answers. He said that all he really knew was; “Anything living is holy. Anything that hurts it is a sin.”
Personally, I think that’s a pretty good place to start.
Aaron D. McClelland, RPC – www.interiorcounselling.com/aaron