Saturday, July 28, 2012

What if God were Amoral: Spirituality and Morality at the Crossroads

Hidden Path leading to Vancouver's English Bay

When it comes to matters of morality, our main focus is on the human race. We, theists and atheists alike, expect humans to behave in an ethically responsible manner. Ethics, in its most simplistic form, can be summed up as and divided into two levels: There are actions that increase happiness, peace and harmony, and others that decrease them or have opposite effects, such as sadness, pain and suffering.

Again, this is at its simplest form since I am fully aware that certain actions may be blessings in disguise in the sense that they seem to foster happiness when, in fact, they are destructive and vice versa. For example, we may smother a child with love and rob their independent functioning in the outside world, or we may punish and discipline them and they might suffer for a while, but the benefits will eventually outweigh the negatives. Incidentally, the ideal would be a harmonious balance between the two.

Morality is mostly a relative issue and in some cases, we may commit certain “bad” acts for ultimately “better” benefits, the famous and controversial Machiavellian means justifying the end. I am not going into details on this point now but just want to underscore that absolute statements about morality, more often than not, lead to a dead end, a cul-de-sac.

However, animals seem to be exempt from those moral standards. Not that they lack mental and rational functioning - in fact, I believe animals to be generally more capable than what we give them credit for - but because their “world” is quite different from ours. In order to survive they must kill to eat. Animals do not have the moral choice of becoming a vegetarian or cannot calculate their calories or how much protein they need to consume to function on a day-to-day basis.

In addition, there is no private property, there are no laws, except the all-embracing “law of the jungle.” One of our main sticky points that fills up tabloid papers and divorce court rooms is the matter of sexuality and its (supposed?) link to morality. Animals act more on their instincts than we do because if we did, we would get into trouble.

From an evolutionary perspective, we can say that morality was necessary for our own survival but more importantly for the survival of our species and civilization. From a religious point of view, at least from a Christian perspective, it is the decree of God to reach eternal salvation through an ominous and mysterious mix between faith and morality, though bizarrely in some cases the former can override the latter.

My argument, however, is the following. I fully support morality from the bottom of my heart, and I think it is the necessary link or glue between religions and philosophies (sorry, Hedonism or your distant cousin Nihilism). We need to behave in a responsible and respectful manner toward ourselves, each other and our environment. Yet I believe that morality and spirituality are not as compatible as they appear to be.

Let me explain. Morality - being good and leading a good life - can lead to the realization of spirituality, call it the awakening of the divine or God. So morality brings us closer to the Almighty or the powers that be. But our problem lies in the fact that we expect this special entity to be the same as us and to have the same conceptions of morality. There is a serious case of anthropomorphic bias here.

Why should higher levels of spirituality be held accountable to and limited by the rules of the lower level? It is like animals insisting and demanding to follow the law of the jungle. In my view, morality may lead to God but breaks down on that level and becomes, from an enlightened point of view, merely the babble of an infant.

I am speaking of the unspeakable and ineffable place sometimes referred to as TAO. Our human conception and understanding of the world may merely be a stepping stone to higher dimensions. Look at our tiny earth in proportion to the universe, and then we claim to have it all figured out! We are the anthill in front of a skyscraper and expect the latter to conform to our limited views and perspective. 

If, as I am claiming, spirituality can be exempt from morality, or rather follow other rules and dictates than the ones that exist for us, then a lot of conceptual problems about ethics can be resolved, to some degree at least.

For example, the problem of evil would not be an issue anymore. God will not be omni-benevolent in a human sense. So the pain and suffering exist for a reason beyond our grasp. Christianity has tried to explain it in the form of free will, that we are to be blamed for it, but that argument loses steam when we talk about children being exposed to suffering. Original Sin or the Fall of Eden story just won't suffice to explain this fact. Christians also use the phrase that the Lord works in mysterious ways but that is saying nothing and everything at the same time.

The second problem that this view would resolve is the issue of determinism. To have morality at all, we need to be aware and held accountable for our own actions. A person who is mentally ill cannot necessarily judge right from wrong (though some may fake it to get out of prison). But let us look at it with a concrete example. If I get intoxicated, get drunk or high and commit a horrible deed under the influence, say kill someone, I may not be directly responsible for the act since it was most likely not premeditated or planned, but at least I am responsible in the sense that I chose to get intoxicated.

Now let us add a twist to it. What if somebody against my will and knowledge spikes my drink with a certain substance that leads to the consequent murder. Now I was not aware of what I was doing and cannot be held responsible for my actions. And let us add that the guy who spiked my drink was not even invited to the party!

This would also solve a personal dilemma I have with morality. What if, and I am influenced by deterministic philosophy here, we do not have free will or a choice at all. We do not choose our genes nor our parents nor our place of birth and have rather limited control over our experiences in daily life. What if some of us are simply born with a brain defect that makes us relish evil acts and blocks the circuit to our sense of compassion.

While, on the other side of the spectrum, there would be people who have the “privilege” of being born and bred with love and goodness all around them. Can we really blame or reward the one over the other? Does the other lose all their spirituality and often their humanity as a result of matters outside of their control? Is that a just way of seeing the world, of judging people? I believe in my idealistic heart that no one in their right mind would want to purposely hurt or cause suffering to others.

So let us bring it all together now. Morality and spirituality may be cousins, but they are not one and the same. In other words, a person who may act in evil ways still contains that level of spirituality whether he knows it or no, whether he acts upon it or not. This is, I must admit, a very Buddhist understanding of human nature, but it helps us explain that everything is spiritual due to the fact of its mere existence.

It is a hopeful view that perhaps one day hatred will be eliminated and that there is a level where the accuser and accused, the perpetrator and the victim can hug each other and can talk about their experiences over afterlife-coffee, free of physical or emotional turmoil. Yes, remember those days on earth. I am sorry for what I did. Oh, you don't have to be. It's not really your fault after all.

No hellfire, no purgatory, only idle chat about a life of illusion that occurred eons ago on a distant planet called earth.

1 comment:

Arash Farzaneh said...

Thank you for your comments!


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