Thirteenth Democracy Café discusses morality and religion

‘Which came first: religion or morality?’ was the topic which won out at the Democracy café on 8 September 2018.  Religion is always a tricky area but this was a reasoned debate on this intriguing subject.  It was quickly pointed out that babies and animals do not have religion but do have morals of a kind.  Were morals innate?  Some thought that children had a strong sense of what was fair from quite a young age which argued that it was innate, but others felt that this was learned behaviour.  Children brought up in homes where few rules were set were quite unruly when they met others.  This was the nature v. nurture argument.

It was argued that as societies expanded, so there was a need for myths for them to live by and to make sense of the world.  Those who provided answers were able to assume power and perhaps this was one of the early explanations for the rise of religion: they seemingly had answers to the puzzles of life such as what was thunder?  This gave them power and the link to power was a key factor in the growth of religion.  We did not discuss this but in recent history, many monarchs sought divine justification for their power and religions were only too happy to oblige.  The French revolution ended both at the end of the eighteenth century in that country.

A recent book¹ has pointed out that we seem to need myths and an example was a company like Renault, bitcoins and even money itself.  These things sometimes had little tangible substance but needed people’s belief for them to work.  So myth is not confined to religion but seems to be part of the human psyche.

We discussed the idea that religion codified ideas which were already present in society.  This suggested that morals and social behaviours preceded religion.

We were reminded that there were many religions – perhaps thousands – and even more gods so it wasn’t just ‘religion’ singular.  Each had different belief systems and the Aztecs for example sacrificed huge numbers of people to assuage their gods.  This suggested there wasn’t some eternal moral truth but that each religion codified what was believed at the time.

Was there a war which wasn’t about religion? someone asked but it was agreed that many were about power, land or to secure wealth and slaves.  So although religion featured in some wars – the Wars of Religion for example – there were many that were not.

We moved on to discuss the morality of threatening children with hell if they misbehaved.  Although some had apparently experienced this, it was unlikely to be permitted today and would be seen as a form of abuse.  More widely, Richard Dawkins has argued that teaching religion to children is a form of abuse and it is true that most people assume the religion of their parents, if they have religion at all.  This led onto a discussion about whether parents should be free to chose which school they go to.  This was phrased in terms of religious schools.

Ireland was mentioned and how were the awful things that happened there carried out by people with religious convictions.  Part of the answer was that priests genuinely thought that what they were doing was justified.  There was also fear against speaking against religious leaders.  We might have added that they would not have been believed had they done so.

On the subject of religion providing answers, the idea of the ‘God of the gaps’ was mentioned.  Science gradually has peeled away ignorance and provided theories for many aspects of the natural world.  Some have argued that religion has sought to provide explanations for the remaining ‘gaps’ in our knowledge.  This led to a discussion on myths and narratives and that science provided a narrative explanation for life.

There were some interesting quotes at this point:

a myth is story that never was but always is

There was a discussion about population (a little off the point but arose in connection with the need for myths in a growing society) and in this connection it was remarked:

whatever your cause, it is a lost cause without population control.  Paul Ehrlich

The argument between altruism and the ego was briefly mentioned and perhaps this is a topic to be discussed at a future time.

Should we have a second Referendum?

This was the second most popular topic and views here were divided.  The overall impression was that members were dissatisfied with the direction we were going in and with our political class as a whole.

The first point was should it be the same as the first Referendum (i.e. in or out?) or on the nature of the deal once we know what it is?  A second point is who will be able to vote: 16 – 18 year old’s; EU Nationals or UK nationals living overseas?  These were excluded last time yet the young in particular had a special cause to be involved since they will around longer to experience the results.

Will people be properly informed?  The problem with our media today is that much of it is not about informing but promoting their – mostly – Brexit agenda.  The role of our media is discussed in detail by Alan Rusbridger in the current edition of the New European.  The question therefor is there any point in a rerun of the first Referendum if people are deliberately misinformed?  We have since learned about Cambridge Analytica in this connection for example and the role of ‘dark money’ in the campaign.

The need for clear binary questions was emphasised with clear outcomes for each.

One of the paradoxes of the current political situation – especially from the European Research Group led by Jacob Rees-Mogg – is that we entered the Union when it was largely an economic union and they object to the widening of the remit into the social sphere.  So although we entered for economic benefits, they now argue that we can do better economically outside the EU.

It was recognised that the Leavers argued their case well and were much more media savvy that Remainers.  They clearly focused their arguments on people’s fears on immigration and immigrants for example whereas the Remainers used factual arguments.  If there was to be a second referendum then the Remainers need to pitch their arguments much better than they did before.

It was noted that many people are switching off through boredom.  The endless arguments in Westminster are interesting fewer and fewer people.  Many just want us to ‘get on with it.’

Another point is the vexed question of ‘balance’ with interviews especially on the BBC.  Because there must always be a balance it means that experts are pitted against people who were not simply to maintain this ‘balance’.  This week it was announced that Lord Lawson will no longer have free rein on programmes like Today to talk about climate change.  He declines to say who funds him (allegedly coal and oil interests), he is never asked who funds him and his nonsense science is not properly challenged.  Interviewers are to be offered training to try and counter this in future.  But if, in the interests of supposed balance, the Referendum is run again, will the same outcome result if false information is not challenged by interviewers?

The point about representative democracy was also made, namely that we vote for an MP to represent us and not to be a delegate.  They should use their best judgement to take the appropriate decisions and if they fail in that we can vote them out.  Some felt that John Glen MP was failing in this and was just acting as a delegate.  On this point, it was argued that Salisbury did not vote for Brexit but that the county as a whole did.  In fact, Salisbury was in line with the national vote at 52% in favour of leaving (which explains John Glen’s position).

It would be difficult to summarise the discussion but perhaps it is true to say that we were not confident that without a number of major changes to the system and improvements to the reporting of the debate, a new referendum was unlikely to see a change in the result.

Those who are interested in European matters might be interested in Salisbury For Europe.   We are not aware of a ‘leave Europe’ campaign in Salisbury.

Peter Curbishley

  1. Sapiens; a Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari, Harper Collins (2014)