The longevity of religious texts through the centuries is due in no small part to their poignant and often poetic lessons on morality. Unfortunately, many people assume morality comes from religion, or at the very least, that religion played a central role in its advancement.
In actuality, nothing could be further from the truth.
Morality today exists largely in spite of religion, not because of it.
The world’s most popular religions, namely those derived from Abrahamic belief systems, have long claimed that human morality is mandated directly from their God in the form of their holy doctrine. And more than any other, it is the Judeo-Christian faiths that insist their path is the only path to God.
These belief systems persist today, despite centuries of evidence to the contrary, and are responsible for humanity’s worst crimes against humanity. The immorality they sanctioned was executed on a scale never before seen in recorded human history.
Irrespective of their original inspiration, today’s evangelical, Catholic, and like-minded churches continue to embrace doctrine that demands male-dominated, traditional family and societal structures. Conservative leaders and their wealthy donors have long recognized the power in weaponizing religion and inciting fear and rage to unite their voting base. It has led to record numbers of legislative assaults on Black identities, women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ equality, and gender-affirming health care.
These assaults are not the disjointed actions of a few conservative extremists. They are the result of a well-funded, highly-organized movement known as Christian nationalism. It is a movement devoid of morality.
Amanda Tylor, the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), describes it this way,
“The ‘Christian’ in Christian nationalism is more about identity than religion and carries with it assumptions about nativism, white supremacy, authoritarianism, patriarchy, and militarism.”
It is a mistake to underestimate the power behind white Christian nationalism. To see the effects of that power, one need only look at how white Christian evangelicals praise Trump as God’s candidate and how the anti-woke crusade of DeSantis captures the vote of both protestants and Catholics. It has given new life to white supremacists who once hid in the closet but have now been made flag-bearers of Marjory Taylor-Greene’s cult-like following. The morality of Trump, DeSantis, and Greene can hardly be considered Christian, even considering the version of morality espoused by the most alt-right evangelical sects.
In his book, A Natural History of Human Morality, Michael Tomasello (co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany) presents some 30 years of research on the evolution of human moral psychology. From this research, it is clear that modern humans evolved far beyond other species in our cognitive ability to collaborate and thus improve our collective chances of survival.
Tomasello’s experiments led to conclusions about how the human struggle for survival compelled the development of ultra-collaborative skills, rooted in a collective understanding of trust, respect, and responsibility. These skill sets, in turn, resulted in objective norms of right and wrong. Tomasello comes to the inescapable conclusion that it is this uniquely human shared intentionality that began governing individual interactions as well as interactions with the community as a whole – what we call morality.
The essential elements of morality are the result of societal evolution and its impact can be traced to even the earliest civilizations.
Our future as a species depends on ultra-cooperation. Some churches do practice their faith in a way that moves us toward cooperation and not division. King’s social gospel and vision of the Beloved Community is the embodiment of this approach. The Community King envisioned would exist in a World House, where “Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation.”
The re-branded GOP with its Christian nationalist ideology, however, is antithetical to King’s vision. The social gospel is fiercely condemned as a liberal, socialist, or even communist agenda that seeks to destroy God’s creation. In this respect, not much has changed since FBI Director Edgar J. Hoover set out to neutralize Dr. King as a threat to the American way of life.
It may be tempting to look at the increasing awareness of racial, social, and economic injustices as a sign of progress in and of itself. But this illusion of progress can become a sedative that lulls advocates into a false sense of security and inaction. The systems of injustice in place today do not care if a majority of the population disagrees – those systems have always been disproportionately controlled by a relatively small, but enormously wealthy and influential elite. Even when we make gains, we are only one election cycle from having them reversed.
The weaponization of religion has proven time and time again to be resistant to arguments based on reason. It is irrational for us to keep debating the humanity of Black, LGBTQ, and immigrant children thinking we will have a different outcome.
Yes, we must continue to get out the vote, to fight this legislation in the courts, to try to open hearts and minds – all of these things are necessary, but in no way sufficient.
It is the very nature of faith that makes it susceptible to the most egregious forms of manipulation and corruption. Armies can be raised, and conquests fought by framing any topic as a battle between good and evil. In Medieval Europe, the Catholic Church declared itself good and anyone who challenged the power of the church was of course evil. Not much has changed.
It seems we have enabled the weaponization of religion by our collective inability as a species to get comfortable with uncertainty. No one can say with any certainty, for example, what happens after death. But the fear of not knowing is so unsettling to some that they choose to believe religion holds the answers to all the great mysteries of our existence. Rather than inspiring curiosity, fear closes the mind.
It’s been about five centuries since the start of the Scientific Revolution, when great minds like Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton began to publish scientific discoveries that contradicted Holy Scripture. These early scientists sought truth, not by relying on interpretations of Christian doctrine, but through logic and reason.
It’s time to admit, the Scientific Revolution fell short. We fell short. Now we must make amends.
The age of Scientific Rebellion is upon us and it begins with embracing these four words: faith is not fact.
We must do what countless generations before us could not. We must once and for all recognize that any decision affecting the citizens of this country must be based on facts, data, and evidence – not supernatural speculation — and that is the real reason for separating church and state. Neither morality nor rule of law should be driven by religious doctrine.
This acknowledgement does not imply that any religion is false, for we can no more prove that God does not exist than we can that God exists. Nor does it diminish an individual’s religious freedom.
But it does prevent anyone from weaponizing religion by claiming they have the religious freedom to dehumanize, condemn, or persecute others. Dr. King spoke of how our constitution addressed this very issue in his 1965 sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta,
“The first saying we notice in this dream is an amazing universalism. It doesn’t say, ‘some men’; it says ‘all men.’ It doesn’t say ‘all white men’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes black men. It does not say ‘all Gentiles’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes Jews. It doesn’t say ‘all Protestants’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes Catholics. It doesn’t even say ‘all theists and believers’; it says ‘all men,’ which includes humanists and agnostics.”
Even within a particular faith like Christianity, morality has always been defined by men in power. When conquest, genocide, slavery, and segregation helped them gain or maintain power, they declared those actions moral, and God ordained.
We see it today. When conservatives needed to spur their Christian base to the polls, they declared trans kids an abomination and LGBTQ identities a threat to God’s creation. Red states criminalize gender-affirming health care, casting parents and doctors as child abusers, groomers, and pedophiles. Black history is being whitewashed to court white Christians whose faith is still deeply rooted in white supremacy.
In every other aspect of our lives, we insist that decisions affecting our rights and freedom will be based on facts and evidence. It’s the foundation of our rule of law. Similarly, morality does not have a religious or supernatural lineage, nor does it require religious doctrine or faith to endure. Yet, we continue to allow the most egregious injustices to be carried out in the name of religious freedom.
Acknowledging that faith is not fact does not impinge on a person’s right to believe, any more than separating church and state does. It does not diminish an individual’s religious freedom, rather it preserves it by ensuring that no religion or supernatural claim can be used to dehumanize and oppress others, including other religions.
We can’t let conservatives weaponize Christianity nor can we allow any religion to claim moral superiority. It may seem impossible, but that’s why they call it rebellion.
In the earliest days of the African American Freedom Movement, I’m sure many doubted whether segregation could ever be overturned. But as we learned from Rosa Parks, it starts by saying, ‘Nah.’
About the author: Peter Tchoryk is an engineer and a dad who discovered he had a lot to learn from his kids. He is committed to making this world safer for all those who are persecuted for trying to live authentically. To learn more, check in with us at ScientificRebels.com, listen to our Podcast, or contact the author directly.