Sunday, September 13, 2009

No Morality without Religion

Benjamin Rush was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence and is one of our lesser known founding fathers. He was (nominally) a Presbyterian and a founder of the Philadelphia Bible Society.

His greatest impact in the founding of our country was his unremitting advocacy for Christianity in public life and in education. He advocated that the U.S. government require public schools to teach students using the Bible as a textbook, that the government furnish an American bible to every family at public expense and that the government require that the following sentence be inscribed in letters of gold over the door of every home in the United States: "The Son of Man Came into the World, Not To Destroy Men's Lives, But To Save Them."

Rush is, naturally, a favorite of the "America was founded as a Christian nation" crowd. After all, besotted by religion, and incapable of stopping, he publicly continued to advocate such government actions even after the ratification in 1791 of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion ...." and is famous for saying: "Where there is no religion, there will be no morals."

But as we now know that simply isn't true:
Other rural Chinese kids, as well as city children in China and Canada, generally agree with the village boy’s opinions, says psychologist Charles Helwig of the University of Toronto. His new findings support the idea that universal concerns among children — such as a need to feel in control of one’s behavior and disapproval of harming others — shape moral development far more than cultural values do.

“It’s remarkable how little cultural variation we have found in developmental patterns of moral reasoning,” says Helwig, who presented his results in Park City, Utah, at the recent annual meeting of the Jean Piaget Society.

Helwig and like-minded researchers don’t assume that kids’ universal responses spring from a biologically innate moral-reasoning capacity. Instead, they say, children gradually devise ways of evaluating core family relationships in different situations. Kids judge the fairness and effectiveness of their parents’ approaches to punishing misbehavior, for example. These kinds of relationship issues are much the same across all cultures, from Helwig’s perspective.

Children everywhere stew in the same pot of family conflict, with different cultural seasonings added for flavor, in Helwig’s view. When parents restrict behaviors that children regard as personal choices, such as what clothes to wear or which friends to hang out with, disputes inevitably arise. Parental restrictions on behavior that kids view as morally wrong or as a violation of conventional social rules are often accepted, even if grudgingly.
In short, children, regardless of the culture in which they're raised, pretty much learn morality the same way. And learn very similar moralities. Regardless of the dominant religion in the culture, here being Christian (Canada) and Chinese Ancestor Worship mixed with some Buddhism (China).

Of course, we also have all those studies that note the correlation of morality and religion, at least in European-descent peoples, seem to be inversely-related as well. So this should come as no surprise.

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