Salon has an excerpt from Michael Shermer’s forthcoming book, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom (Henry Holt, January 20th).
Today, of course, most Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that moral principles are universal and apply to everyone, but this is because they have inculcated into their moral thinking the modern Enlightenment goal of broadening and redefining the parameters of moral consideration. But by their nature the world’s religions are tribal and xenophobic, serving to regulate moral rules within the community but not seeking to embrace humanity outside their circle. Religion, by definition, forms an identity of those like us, in sharp distinction from those not us, those heathens, those unbelievers. Most religions were pulled into the modern Enlightenment with their fingernails dug into the past. Change in religious beliefs and practices, when it happens at all, is slow and cumbersome, and it is almost always in response to the church or its leaders facing outside political or cultural forces.
Of course will read this book and report.
It begins thus:
A world city like Paris, London or New York contains ten million or more people within an area no larger than the average American cattle ranch. If the citizenry were all of one religion, one race, one world view, the issue of free speech might never arise. In the conditions of modernity however, a city may contain within a couple of acres every race on earth, every imaginable religious, political and existential world view. Those who believe their sacred texts are the literal word of God may live a stone’s throw from those who are not even atheists: the question of supernatural authority does not even come up, any more than the existence of extinct religions, of Thoth, Frigg or Apollo does for everyone else. From their various temples religions daily blaspheme in each other’s faces. Is Jesus the son of God? Not if you’re a Muslim. Is Mohammed God’s last messenger on earth? Not if you’re a Christian. Is the universe best explained or explored in the terms of physics-based godless cosmology? Not if you’re a Muslim or a Christian.