Wednesday, November 18, 2009

On Religion and Ethics

(fm the BC thread "Forlorn hope")

Max Weber made the case for The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In fairness he might have overstated the influence of small nations with bad climates on the Northern periphery of Europe and understated the amount of scientific innovation and entrepreneurship that arose in Catholic regions of Germany and areas influenced by German culture, such as Northern Italy, France and Hungary.

The disproportionate influence of Scandinavians and Scots may have been due to their willingness to relocate and the significant contributions of the Northern Catholic regions may have been obscured by two factors. First they were contained between hostile Islamic and Protestant regions and relatively land locked. Second, and this relates to the first issue, their intellectuals and entrepreneurs were less likely to relocate. Northern Italians often identify more with Germanic Mitteleuropa to the North than with their co-nationals to the South. If the country ever broke in two I think the North would debate naming itself Ostrogothia, New Lombardy or South Switzerland.

The Protestant emphasis on individual salvation and moral responsibility is consciously modeled on the Jewish concept of Righteousness. Puritans would call each other a "Good Jew" as a compliment. That did not mean that they were not anti-Semitic if they ever encountered an actual "Hebrew." In Judaism there is a tension between two forces. First is the need for the collective, it takes ten to make a minyan. "God will meet with 10 street sweepers but not with 9 rabbis." Community and family are what makes us human. They are the manifestation of a divine blessing. The ultimate punishment that can befall a sinner is to be cut off and have no parents, wife or children. Second is the idea of individual responsibility. God only absolves sins against God and not harm done to another person. You have to clear your own debts.

It is possible though for the sins present in a community to result in harm to an innocent. The consequence of that increases the responsibility of the individual sinner within the group who failed to act to reduce the risk to the innocent. Each person in Sodom was responsible for the harm that befell any innocent trapped in the city when it was destroyed.

The Commandments are not policy instructions for a Leader acting on behalf of the collective but obligations on each person to conduct themselves ethically. Each is obligated to treat God's creation fairly, not to abuse or be wantonly cruel, as in the laws on diet or not yoking a mother and her calf together. Each is obligated not to abuse their family, as in the sexual prohibitions. Each is obligated to love the stranger.

While both Christian and Moslem advocates would argue that at heart their ethical messages are the same the differences are important. In Catholicism, and other traditions that rely on the absolution of sin through the Eucharist, individual responsibility is subsumed in a collective and God absolves you of responsibility for Sins committed by harming other people. In Protestantism the difference from Judaism may be more subtle. Judaism is not a proselytizing religion. The stranger is left alone to seek their own truth and leadership is shown by example. For Christians the obligation to Witness takes on a more positive nature. This can be shown in the desire to reform and change the world through Good Works or political action that secular Liberals who come out of the Protestant tradition, or Counter-Reformation Catholic movements, exhibit.

In Islam the concept of individual responsibility is overwhelmed by the ever present example of the conduct of Muhammad, the emphasis on ethics being the responsibility of a political ruler who acts and instructs on the communities behalf, and the need to submit to the judgements of experts on how to interpret a welter of conflicting precepts. The cost of error is so high that for any individual to take responsibility and act ethically against a popular but sinful pressure is almost impossible. For a Lot to face down a crowd to protect two strangers in an Islamic community would take a lot.

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