Monday, March 31, 2008

Abraham revisited

I have been reading a book by American author, Austin Dacey, called "The Secular Conscience". Dacey makes the case that liberals have boxed themselves into a corner in moral debates because they have for so long insisted that matters of religion equate with matters of conscience and such matters are private and not for public discourse. This argument was advanced and adopted to fight against the intrusion of religion on public institutions. The problem is that it also thereby restricts liberals from exercising opinions and views related to their conscience.

Dacey says that unless conscience can be relegated to the public space there can be no meaningful discussion on moral issues between the religious and the non-religious. He says that religions do not honour the notion that their moral views should not inform the public institutions because they do not accept that religious morality is a matter of private conscience. Liberals have simply hamstrung themselves in the face of religious conservatives and need to rethink that position.

He devotes a significant number of pages to establishing that conscience, both biologically and in a evaluative sense, is independent of religious authority, and, in fact, religious notions of morality only have meaning because humans developed the faculty of the conscience before religious prescriptions and, without this faculty, they would have no way of evaluating religious moral edicts. He uses the story of Abraham to illustrate this point.

A refresher for the non or lapsed religious types.

Abraham is considered to be the Godfather of the three so-called monothesitic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

God appeared to Abraham one day (one of his rare appearances, even Moses only rated a burning bush) and said to the good man that he should travel to a distant land to a particular mountain and there perform a dutiful sacrifice and a burnt offering to show his love for God. The sacrifice and burning the deity had in mind was Abraham's only begotten son, Isaac. So, Abraham did as he was told and on the appointed day, in the named location, raised the knife above his son who was tied to the altar. But before he could strike, the Lord God sent one of his flappy flunkies (ie. angels) to tell Abraham that he could put the knife away, God was satisfied that Abraham was a truly pious man.

This story is cited by the religious as an example of faith, the obedience one owes to God, above family and all earthly things.

Dacey's point is that this story only makes sense if Abraham has a conscience that tells him it is wrong to kill his innocent son, that gives him a choice because of that sense of right and wrong and allows him the capacity to refuse to do God's bidding. If Abraham is no more than an automaton, doing what he is told without reflection and remorse, then the story has no real moral point.

The upshot for those religious folk who believe that a conscience derives only from religious edicts, and that in the absence of religion, the world would be a riot of rape, pillage and murder is that they are full of shit!

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