Defining Moral Borders

Where Do We Draw the Line Between Religion and Culture?

Photo David Barlow-Krelina

People take their morals from their families, religion and society. Morality can be such a personal matter that many have come to believe it is entirely subjective. But the highly vocal presence of religious evangelicals and fundamentalists, as well as the increase in immigrant religious communities in Canada, the United States and various other Western nations, has been raising important issues on where to draw the line between respecting religious and cultural beliefs and protecting human rights. Just how subjective can we really claim our value systems to be in a society we all have to share?

The Wall Street Journal reported last week on a child abuse trend within a Slavic Evangelical Christian community in Oregon. Two parents lost custody of their six children and were sentenced to seven years in prison after one of their sons reported the abuse to the police. Members of that community asserted that the parents were disciplining their children according to Biblical law and that the government should not have intervened.

The justification of corporal punishment of children and even women, in the Bible as well as in other texts of the Abrahamic religions, is commonly brought up in debates over whether such methods of discipline are acceptable or even effective. It has become less and less socially acceptable in our own society but for many, the old proverb of “spare the rod and spoil the child” still holds true.

The pressing question—which, due to its sensitive nature, often leads to these important issues receiving insufficient treatment—is whether ancient texts are still relevant in our modern, developed societies. There are abundant examples of biblical teachings that go by and large unenforced among most participants of these religions in our society; for example, those regarding slave ownership and the view of women as the property of their father or husband.

However, fundamentalists of all creeds in various parts of the world still live by these teachings. Stories pervade our news media of African immigrants to the United States forcing their daughters to undergo genital mutilation, women being sentenced to be stoned to death in Iran, and that now-famous case of an Afghan woman whose nose and ears were cut off for attempting to flee her abusive husband. Such instances of inhumane treatment, which some attempt to explain away as cultural or moral relativism, outrage individuals and human rights organizations alike.

But what can we really do? It’s their culture; it’s acceptable by their standards. Is it possible that some things are just wrong on a basic human level?

As impossible as it seems to concretely answer these questions, some are speaking out—saying that boundaries need to be established and that science can play a role. In American author and neuroscientist Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape, he claims that the key to discerning right from wrong can be found in analyzing human and animal well-being by judging conscious experiences as peaks and valleys on this “moral landscape.”

Harris argues that we now know enough about the human mind that we can determine certain inherently human qualities that do not change depending on the culture or religious beliefs an individual subscribes to.

But what can we really do? It’s their culture; it’s acceptable by their standards. Is it possible that some things are just wrong on a basic human level?

It is also important to note how societal value systems all over the world tend to change over relatively short periods of time. Women’s rights only began to radically change on a global scale around the beginning of the 20th century, and this process was certainly not helped by archaic religious traditional notions of female inferiority and servitude. As women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady-Stanton wrote in 1896, “The Bible and the Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women’s emancipation.”

More recently, homosexuals have been granted equal rights to serve openly in the United States military, and in many places—yet still only in a select few U.S. states—they are now allowed equal marriage rights. Once again, these shifts in our collective perception of morality were largely held back by religious doctrine that deems, on a purely dogmatic basis, that homosexuality is an “abomination.”

What has brought us to this new frontier of equal rights for all people is secular logic and skepticism as to why, and for what purposes, should one group of people be denied equality. Perhaps there is simply something about our fellow humans suffering injustice that gets to us; after all, evolutionary biologists have long argued that we have evolved sympathy for others.

Falsely equivocating worldviews that oppress and even brutalize certain kinds of people does not make us more civilized, nor does it make us more open-minded. It only means we are tolerant of the very behavior that repulses us on a basic level of evolved sympathy for our fellow humans. We may not be able to forcibly change or end these world views, but we can control what we deem acceptable within our society.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 21, published February 1, 2011.