an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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Posts Tagged ‘laws

23 – bonobo morality superior to Christianity

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the Cyrus Cylinder, dated to 539 BCE

In his strange but interesting book, Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari reveals an obsessive interest in religion. While recognising that the traditional religions such as Christianity, which dominated Europe and its colonies and offshoots for a millennium and a half, no longer provide a template for our political and social organisation, he’s happy to label the isms that he claims are traditional religion’s successors, namely humanism, liberalism, progressivism and scientism, as religions too. And the final section of his book bears the title ‘the data religion’, and is all about our new-found worship of algorithms. 

Personally I much prefer a tighter definition of religion, being a belief in gods and god-like entities, or spiritual, or spirit-ish, beings such as sprites, fairies or mischief-making bunyips and such – thingummies that have an effect on our world but are too superior to ever be caught by hand or on camera. Or they belong to another world or dimension or something. Harari dismisses the non-believers’ dismissal of these beings as supernatural, but he offers no better alternative. He seems to have caught the Nietschean affliction of trying to stand outside of everything so he can be disdainful of it. 

Traditional religions, however, suffer from the hearsay problem. I first heard about the Judeo-Christian god from a Sunday School teacher who no doubt heard about him from either his parents or rellies, or some other churchy elder, and so on down the generations, with mostly increasing conviction as we go back in time. Another way to describe him, or gods and religions in general, is as memes, thought-bubbles, differing in detail and import as they pass between people, but always presented with a sort of prestigious vagueness. God, for example, is divine, but what does this word mean? How do we collect evidence for divinity? Much easier to collect evidence for the processes involved in the Earth’s origin. Humans are lazy that way. 

I don’t want to enter into a philosophical or theological discussion here – god forbid – but I’m concerned about the baleful effect that certain religions, those that still influence large numbers of human apes today, have on morality. Religion, as we know, tends to congeal morality in the time-frame of that religion’s founding, or its high-water mark. And even then it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Take the story of ‘the woman taken in adultery’, in the soi-disant gospel of John, about which there’s much argy-bargy as to authenticity (it may have been a later interpolation), as if any of these writings are particularly authentic. The issue here, for me at least, is about whether the ‘sin’ is really a sin, or more generally what is a sin, though in the religious context of the time, the point of the story is that, since everyone sins, this woman’s sin deserves forgiveness, like everyone else’s sins, as long as she sins ‘no more’. Of course, it’s a pretty piss-poor argument, even if you equate sinning with wrong-doing according to the legalities of the day. Context is everything, and no context is given in the story. Adultery isn’t even clearly defined. It’s well-known, and other biblical texts bear witness to the fact, that women were treated as chattels in this era and region, and very often married off as children to men twice or thrice their age, with no fellow-feeling about it. Bonobos wouldn’t have stood for it. So my advice to this youngster would’ve been ‘go for it lassie, and pay no attention to those arseholes’. Depending on the context, that is.

And yet this sort of context-free drivel is still taken seriously by those who aren’t religious and should know better. I’ve heard a professional philosopher, much younger than myself and by no means religious, argue, or simply claim, that our legal system is based on Christian teaching. That’s total bullshit. Some years ago I did a deep dive on Christian morality as expressed in the five ‘gospels’, including Thomas, and found no clear moral message – again because context is everything, so that general remarks like ‘blessed are the peace-makers’, or indeed the cheese-makers, are essentially meaningless. Bonobos are pretty peaceful, but they’ll fight when they have to, to keep the greater peace. It’s a pretty good general rule, but the particular action and its extent depends on context. 

Another example of context-free ethics that I’ve heard being extolled is the Ten Commandments, or at least those that still make sense in the modern world – don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet (note the negativity), don’t commit adultery (makes no sense to bonobos, and why and when did human apes start marrying?), and honour your parents (hmmm, shouldn’t parents, and any others, be given the respect they deserve? Not based on titles or positions, but on observed behaviour and effects? Automatic honouring, or respect, strikes me as a bad, even dangerous idea. Political leaders often benefit from this automatic, fawning respect, especially in non-democratic countries, where those leaders are allowed to hang around for a long time, like an ever more fetid odour). 

None of these commandments should be considered as absolutes, which is why the nuance of laws based on the complexity of civil society is far superior, and that nuance is displayed in rather more earthly laws of the time, such as those of Solon in Athens. And another near contemporary, Cyrus of Persia, renowned for having emancipated the Jews of Babylon, had rather more humane laws (or really just policies, and possibly short-term) written on a cylinder uncovered more than 2000 years later, and celebrated by some (mostly Persian nationals) as the first versions of human rights. 

Laws change, as they should, as we learn more about human flourishing, and that such flourishing depends on a broader, more vital flourishing of that narrow band of life that covers the surface, and a tiny sub-surface, of our planet. From whence we emerged. Only recently, rather shockingly, has the so-called developed world caught up with bonobos in their understanding and acceptance of homosexual behaviour – and that acceptance is very far from universal. Perhaps such intolerance has sprung from the old idea that ‘the world must be peopled’, but these days we’re well aware that it has been peopled enough. Nowadays we don’t want so much to have children to carry on for us, but to carry on ourselves, hale and hearty for 200 years or so. But that’s another story. 

References

Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, 2016

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Commandments

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Solons-laws

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyrus_Cylinder

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 15, 2021 at 7:52 pm