Souls for the Soulfather: Nadine Dorries and Religious Morality

August 30, 2011

If there’s one thing I despise, it’s religious morality. Not religion; I have no problem with people believing in whatever macro-scale pixy they wish. However, any conception of morality that provides a ready-made package of quick answers to complex issues is not simply incorrect, it’s positively dehumanising.

The most fundamental freedom imaginable is the freedom to understand the world on your own terms; to make judgements about the best course of action using your own reason and the advice of those you have chosen to respect. Anything that tries to short-circuit this process – as religious morality does, by providing a set of answers divorced from all human experience – necessarily diminishes that freedom. This does not encompass those religions, like Sufi Islam, Buddhism and gnostic versions of Christianity, which steer towards promoting an ethical system rather than a prescriptive set of moral rules. ‘Always act with compassion’ provides a lot more for scope for determining your own principles (not in the least, whatever compassion is) than ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’. The approach adopted by Nadine Dorries and her ilk leaves little room for wisdom.

More than that, as a conception of morality it is positively perverse. The twin notions of heaven and hell appear to be positively designed to subvert an understanding of the Good based on the Good-in-and-of-itself; rather, acts are to be judged in terms of their impact upon your afterlife prospects. This eliminates any prospect of their adherents living good lives – if at the back of your head is a little voice calculating the impact of a particular act on the state of your immortal soul, you will never be able to act without one eye on your self-interest.

This brings us to the issue of the day. Nadine Dorries wants to restrict the right of abortion providers to also provide counselling services to those women considering having abortions, on the grounds of a conflict of interest. This, at the outset, nearly seems reasonable if one is willing to forget the regulatory framework governing these matters and the professional integrity of those delivering the counselling.

But, in seeking this outcome, does Dorries not have one eye upon her immortal soul? If one looks at the Biblical scripture used by anti-abortionists to justify their stance, it seems to proclaim that opposing abortion is something God wants them to do. There’s a logical gap between that and using the machinery of the State to enforce what they think God wants them to do, but that is incidental: this is about the status of their soul in the eyes of God.

I want to introduce a new notion into our legislative lexicon: that of eschatological advantage. This is advantage that an individual expects to accrue to them with regard to their afterlife as a consequence of a particular action. I propose that this advantage is taken into account in exactly the same way as Dorries proposes we take the financial interest of abortion-providers into account when determining who can provide counselling to women considering abortion. After all, we accept that someone who expects to see an improvement in their standard of living from another person making a particular choice is not funded by the State to advise that person on that choice. Why do we not think the same about someone who expects to see an improvement in their standard of afterliving?


7 Responses to “Souls for the Soulfather: Nadine Dorries and Religious Morality”

  1. Matt said

    Hi Adam

    I find this stuff:

    >If there’s one thing I despise, it’s religious morality. Not religion; I have no problem with people believing in whatever macro-scale pixy they wish. However, any conception of morality that provides a ready-made package of quick answers to complex issues is not simply incorrect, it’s positively dehumanising.

    …bizarre. It comes across as more judgmental than the most simplistic of creationists. That you talk about “macro-scale pixy”s suggest that you actually have a huge problem with them believing what you think they believe.

    What is this dismissal of ‘religion’ if not precisely such a ready made simplistic package?

    I’d argue that religious experience is not *divorced* from human experience, it *is* human experience (where do you suppose they came from?).

    Can I ask whether you’ve engaged with religion beyond philosophical debate? Particularly your awareness of just how little time is actually spent worrying about immortal souls? It’s not very much in most circles.

    I may respond, but it would be a bit off topic for my main site.


    • Adam Bell said

      Hi Matt,

      I will admit that I debated whether to use the expression ‘macro-scale pixy’. I fully accept your point that it produces an impression of being overly dismissive of religion; in this context, I was aiming to make a slightly facetious point about the role of vested interests in the abortion debate. If that point was lost in my attempts to be ‘funny’ I have only myself to blame.

      On your point about religious experience, I would urge that in this piece my aim is not to claim that such experience is impossible or devalued. People can grow and experience life through a framework of their own personal relationship with God. To dispute that would be churlish. What I am taking aim at is rather an understanding of religion that sees it as a set of ready-made answers that forestalls further introspection. As I attempt to bring out in my reference to other faiths, religion can permit the kind of fulfilment in terms of personal development which I am advocating. However, it is not clear that this is the case in the institutional context of some types of religion, even if it may be the case for individual adherents.It is also not clear that this is the case in the context of a strong scriptural interpretation of faith.

      In terms of my own engagement with religion, I was raised a Methodist and lost my faith at a relatively young age. However, I have remained in contact with the religious community via my family, and I understand the role it plays in inspiring people to do good works. These good works, I would aver, are not necessarily the product of a packaged-up morality but rather that person’s growth into their own faith.

  2. Matt said

    PS You characterise ND as a religious believer. Is this the case?

  3. SteveR said

    I think you over-do the idea that religious people lose their moral freedom by subordinating their own decision-making to a set of rules. Your link to the abortion bible verses is a pretty good example of why. The ratio of strained interpretation to scripture is pretty damned high there, showing that even those following a book as, er, religiously as evangelical Christians have massive scope to decide how it applies to their actual lives. That’s why there are hundreds of denominations all believing different things, based on the same bible.

    I’m pretty sure this was Sartre’s response to religion: that *everyone* is radically free because even the religious have to decide how to apply their given axioms to the complex world they find themselves in.

    Also, you seem to assume that people believe in a particular religion’s god and then accept its rules. But there must be at least some believers who are attracted to a religion precisely because its rules/’answers’ match those they have independently come to themselves based on their own free introspection.

    • Adam Bell said

      I think it’s certainly true that the religious have the freedom to determine how their axioms apply to their own lives, however this rapidly becomes an exercise in bad faith – in the Sarte sense. Living in accordance with particular interpretations of axioms when you are aware of alternative interpretations of axioms involves pretending that a given interpretation is correct, when you are aware of other options. Far better to determine one’s own axioms and leave them open to revision by experience.

      On your second point, I would urge that my position does not preclude someone accepting religion following their own introspection. However, if that religion then acts to impede further introspection, then it becomes a problem. Of course, it could quite easily aid it.

  4. Steve R said

    Hi again,

    I guess I tend to assume religious people are acting in good faith. Outside the fundamentalist fringe they certainly seem (to me) to be. Your concept of ‘eschatological advantage’ kind of suggests your priors are the opposite of mine: that religious people only act with one eye on the prize, and not as part of an honest seeking of the good society like everyone else.

    Perhaps this is irrelevant anyway. Even if it were true, British society is sufficiently far removed from theocracy that the Dorries of this world can’t argue for policy on the basis that ‘God says this is right’; they have to give reasons. In which case, they can be responded to with other reasons. It’s a shame for them that they exist in bad faith, but as long as politics retains its near-as-dammit separation of church and state, then policy can still develop along lines driven by an honest seeking of the truth.

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