Imaginary Morals
Representation in Counter-Strike

Religious Stories

Because of the role of imagination in sustaining moral ideals, the stories that humanity tells have had a huge influence on the history and development of morality. In the West, non-religious people tend to underestimate the importance of the handing down of traditional stories, perhaps because the excessively dogmatic aspects of the history of Christianity threaten to be given centre stage. Western intellectuals have tended to suffer cognitive dissonance in the face of religious stories which are deemed "untrue", but in other cultures, this has been radically less important. To Hindus, for instance, the story of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana have been greatly esteemed without any need to determine (or even ask!) whether they are historically true.

There is an oft bandied about suggestion that religion has held back a natural morality that has always been present, just simply repressed. History does not support this view. The modern values of freedom and equality, so central in the discussions of Western democracies, are recent inventions. The Greeks, who invented democracy, did not extend it to women or foreigners, and their economy relied upon slavery. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has demonstrated that modern humanist notions, such as Human Rights, have emerged from the long process of the reform of Latin Christendom. The beliefs of Christians and secular humanists are radically different, but many of their values are held in common.

Hannah Arendt, who came from a secular Jewish background, observed two particularly potent political possibilities that had emerged through the Western religious traditions. She suggested that the power of promising may have originated with Abraham of Ur, while forgiveness was elevated as a value by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. While religion has certainly contributed problems, it has also helped ethics develop, and the stories each religion tells are a valuable repertory of moral ideals. We all derive our values from traditions such as these – both religious and secular – although the instinctive drives we have inherited from the evolution of life on our planet have certainly set the stage for these later developments.

Part 11 of 23 in the Pentenary series.


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There is an oft bandied about suggestion that religion has held back a natural morality that has always been present, just simply repressed. History does not support this view. The modern values of freedom and equality, so central in the discussions of Western democracies, are recent inventions.

One could argue that the rising of such values have come about as the enlightenment weakened the grip of the theocracy, and as education (or at least communication) improved within the lower classes.

If one accepts that for a society to survive its members must obey certain rules (I'm going to call these rules "morals" as I've yet to be convinced that there is a distinction) surely religion (once it has developed as a way of answering questions of metaphysics best not pondered whilst running away from sabretooths) survives because of its utility in enforcing such morals?

Jon: The enlightenment is definitely key - this is Charles Taylor's point about the reform of Latin Christendom, since the enlightenment was borne of this endeavour. There's a two thousand year arc, of which the enlightenment serves as a major accelerating period.

However, I would question how much Europe conformed to a theocratic circumstance prior to the enlightenment, since the power of the monarchs was extremely significant and the church was often exploited as a tool of the ruling powers. So this is less theocracy than it is a kind of dual-branch oligarchy. (Perhaps more than two branches, actually, since the wealth of noble houses also made them significant players).

Distinctions between rules and morals? Well if we are talking about "society's" morals, then the two are largely indistinguishable, because the way a social group shares morals is by agreeing to codes of conduct. But individual morals can be held as values instead of rules. I contend, however, that all moral systems are essentially transformable - you could express those values in rule-terms, it would just look clumsy. :)

You suggest religion survives because of its utility in *enforcing* morals... Well there was always an element of this. Gibbon says in 'The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire':

"The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosophers, as equally false; and by the magistrates, as equally useful."

This is precisely your point about the utility of religious practice in enforcing a moral code.

But my claim is that religious stories in and of themselves serve to establish moral *concepts*, and that this is key to morality. This is aside from any role that formal religion might have in enforcement of morality.

And today, when we face a nova of alternative beliefs, the role of religious stories in providing moral concepts strikes me as the one of greatest value for the future, because the issue of a single "moral authority" has become untenable once again - leaving us with a suite of moral concepts as our common heritage.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

I'm confused as to the distinction between morals and moral concepts. By the latter, do you mean a more concrete, "perfect" version of a moral idea, or do you mean the more nebulous idea itself? I would hold that religion had the effect of crystallizing the general idea into a more concrete, less malleable version. This might have been useful in times/places when/where society was changing only very slowly but it is causing serious issues now.

Religion generally has a second effect on morality; most religions that I'm aware of say that there is always something watching you even when you're alone.

It would be interesting to see whether those who oppose the steady encroachment of CCTV into our lives have a tendency to be atheistic :-)

As an aside, Peter sent me your URL after a discussion on the nature of the "enemy" in WoW. I can see this thread touching on such matters (morality in games) at some point, but given it seems to be your forte is there another thread on the site somewhere devoted to it?

Jon: I use the term "moral concept" (following, broadly, Julius Kovesi) to refer to the ideas behind words used in discussions of morality. Thus "kill" is a concept, but not a moral concept, while "murder" is a moral concept. So when I say "moral concept" you could read "the concept underlying a word with moral relevance".

The term "morals" is not one I use as such because it could mean many different things - it could mean virtues, or it could mean duties, or it could mean desired standards of consequence. I'll leave it to you to determine whether what you mean by "morals" corresponds to what I mean by "moral concepts".

"Religion generally has a second effect on morality; most religions that I'm aware of say that there is always something watching you even when you're alone."

This is much more common in Abrahamic religions, and even among these the idea of the "couch potato" God is pretty closely associated with a fairly childish form of Christianity. As a counterpoint, the Sufi Muslims believe that God renews the universe in each instance of time - it is not so much that "God is watching", but that everything that happens happens within God. This doesn't tend to produce the same kind of over-the-shoulder paranoia of the couch potato God.

In the Eastern, Dharmic traditions heaven and earth are much more divorced in this regard (and in certain Buddhist sects, the notion of heaven falls away entirely). In the way heaven is used, say, in Chinese folk religion news only reaches the Celestial Emperor when a witness conveys it. I could cite other examples from other traditions that break with the general model, but I trust one will suffice. :)

Didn't realise Peter was responsible for sucking you into the Game. :) I'm afraid I don't have a specific discussion on that aspect of World of Warcraft anywhere that I remember, I'm afraid... I tend to skirt the MMO issues somewhat, because I stopped playing after the MUD era and now observe these kinds of play from a scholarly distance. :) Sorry I can't offer you more in this regard.

All the best!

I wasn't querying the presence or absence of heaven so much as the presence or absence of a watcher or judge. To that end the "Cheng Huang" or city gods would seem to fit - the Wikipedia entry at least says they "judge the dead" although whether or not they are omnipresent is not stated. However it does seem that with the large number of spirits involved with the Chinese religion (as you can probably tell I've learned all I know about it in the last 5 mins!) it might be hard to be unseen by anyone.

I was thinking more along the lines of Karma with regard to the Dharmic traditions - not a god exactly but a universal tendency for one to get what one deserves (at least that's how I understand it from a western perspective).

Not to worry WRT WoW - I suspect we'd rapidly come to the conclusion that in actual fact Blizz have thrown any attempt at a coherent moral stance away in the name of playability - and hell, it isn't as if they're losing customers over it.

Jon: Yes, Chinese mythology has something of this element of judging to it, but it's very different from the West's approach - it's a celestial bureaucracy, with no real interest in what mortals do, but some kind of obligation to sort them after death. :) Says a lot about Chinese mentality in the early millennia of the empire. ;)

As for karma, this was originally like a negative energy, a weight on the soul that the individual carried around with them. There was not so much a sense that anyone was watching, so much that one was beholden to ones own soul. (See also the note on karma in 10 Common Mistakes About Religion).)

Re: WoW, I'll happily lend you the Open Court book on the intersection between philosophy and World of Warcraft (I'll give it to Peter next time I see him). A lot of the essays are weak, but it has some interesting points about the artificial nature of the (alleged) conflict implied.

Best wishes!

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