Case study: religion pushed to change its “morality” by secular considerations

Alert reader Sigmund called my attention to a 3-minute video on the BBC News website, “Ashamed to die: stigma of HIV/Aids in America’s south.” (The title comes, as the site notes, from an upcoming book by Andrew Skeritt.) Rather than rewrite Sigmund’s take, I’ll just reproduce it here.  Do watch the video.

I thought I’d draw your attention to a small item on the BBC website about a town in the south of the USA that has a big HIV problem (they claim this is common in the south).
It is interesting to me for two reasons.

First, this is a disease that has a treatment strategy that is derived from evolutionary biology (a combination therapy that simultaneously hits several viral specific pathways, rendering it improbable that the virus can mutate into a resistant form). In treatment terms it is enormously successful and is a model that cancer biologists are aiming to replicate.

The second is the religious aspect of the piece. The piece focuses on a female pastor who seems to have dropped her religious teachings about sexual behavior in favor of practical measures such as handing out condoms and encouraging people to get tested and treated —in other words,it is a good example of religion being pushed into a moral change, not by any theistic insight, but through applying basic secular morality to the situation.

As I said in my debate with John Haught, there’s neither a method nor an inherent trend in theology to reassess and alter its moral stands in view of changing conditions. Religious morality appears to change under only two conditions: either secular morality moves ahead of religious morality, causing it to change (e.g., treatment of women and gays or, in this case, condom use and birth control), or scientific advances show that the scriptural basis of religious morality is simply wrong (e.g., there’s no Adam and Eve and hence no Original Sin).

If a religion’s moral dictates remain fixed in stone for centuries, even under the press of secular advances, then that religion loses adherents.  This, of course, is what is happening to Catholicism in so many places.


  1. alopiasmag
    Posted December 3, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Establishing once more, the simple fact that morals are derived from humanity. We determine what’s moral, not other people’s illusionary god.

    • Jouras
      Posted December 3, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

      And if the Eastern Block had prevailed in the Cold War, then Officially Atheistic States would be determining what is moral.

      Gulags, torture, murder, forced “mental treatments, you name it…all if the service of the coming Utopia.

      You know, it always amuses me that after atheists tell us there is no God to tell us what we should do, then they turn around and…try to tell us what we should do!

      I expect the atheists will have many victories in the coming century…and in the End they will lose.

      • Jouras
        Posted December 3, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

        I love it how “free”thinkers censor and “moderate”…which makes true assesment of what kind of responses you are getting impossible to make.

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted December 3, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

          Umm. . . care to apologize, Jouras? I can’t be around 24/7 to instantly approve the comments of first-time posters like yourself.

        • alopiasmag
          Posted December 3, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

          Dude, WTF? “We” does not mean Atheists. “We” means humanity. Look at Martin Luther King Jr, he paved the way for improving the Civil Rights of many citizens. Rights denied by bible preaching citizens. MLK, a baptist, changed the way many of us think and act, making us realize that it was immoral to treat others the way they were being treated. Humans, citizens of this nation, caused that change; not religion or the bible. Rosa Parks did the same thing. She stood up for what was right, and now we are a better society because of it.

          Moral values change and adapt with and because of “us”.

          And BTW, people of all religions and beliefs comment on “atheist” blogs. I’ve yet to see a “religious” blog (AIG for example) allow others to comment. They don’t.

      • Posted December 3, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

        Prison camps, torture and murder are the exclusive products of atheist regimes? Please. Religion has plenty of blood on its hands.

        Mao and Stalin weren’t motivated to commit their atrocities simply by acknowledging that nothing magical is going on out there. They were driven, rather, by their paranoia and lust for power.

        Simply answering the question “do you believe in magic” with “no” doesn’t lead one to behave badly.

        Imagining that some supreme being has endowed you with special knowledge/authority certainly can and has.

      • Posted December 4, 2011 at 2:17 am | Permalink

        If there IS a God to tell us what to do, why can’t his believers agree what that is? Birth control, divorce, genital cutting, homosexual acts, dancing, booze, war, lending money at interest – name an issue, and you can find one lot of believers who’ll tell you he forbids it, another who say he’s OK with it – and sometimes a group who’ll say he demands it.

      • raven
        Posted December 4, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        Jouras: I expect the atheists will have many victories in the coming century…and in the End they will lose.

        The graveyard of the gods is almost full. There are thousands of dead gods.

        Religions are born, they evolve, sometimes they die. Yahweh will follow Odin, Zeus, Marduk, Ahura Masda and all the rest someday.

        US xianity is slowly dying. Killed off by people like Jouras and the fundies. As you sow, so shall you reap.

        PS Jouras is, of course, here to drop off a threat. His imaginary friend is going to torture us forever after we are dead. It’s not much of a threat but it is the thought that counts.

        • Sunny Day
          Posted December 4, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

          “The graveyard of the gods is almost full. There are thousands of dead gods.”

          Don’t worry Dead Gods are vanishingly small, there’s still plenty of room.

          • Posted December 4, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

            Yes, but the human brain’s need for magical thinking is unquenchable.

            • chrisd
              Posted December 4, 2011 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

              and that is why we also have the gospels of Harry Potter..

              • gr8hands
                Posted December 5, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

                Soooo close to blasphemy there . . . you closet muggle!

  2. raven
    Posted December 3, 2011 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    “If a religion’s moral dictates remain fixed in stone for centuries, even under the press of secular advances, then that religion loses adherents. This, of course, is what is happening to Catholicism in so many places.”

    That happened to the US Catholic church.

    Just recently they have lost an astounding 1/3 of their members, 22 million people. Half joined Protestant churches, half remain unaffiliated.

    This is by survey data. The RCC’s official statistics say they were up 1% last year. They count baptisms and assume, once a Catholic, always a Catholic. This is simply lying to make them look larger and more powerful than they are.

    The bishops know this, and they know why. They don’t care. They are still ranting and raving about birth control and the gays long after anyone sane has stopped paying any attention to them. The proportion of relevant Catholic women who use birth control is 98%.

    • Posted December 3, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      Also, consider that the vast majority of nominal Catholics do not adhere to the fundamental behavioral teachings of the Church: 98% use artificial birth control and abortion rates among Catholics are the same as society in general. Church leaders seem to look the other way in order to keep the “faithful” in the flock, although this remains a sore point among conservative, ie, orthodox, Catholics whose numbers are dwindling.

      • Posted December 4, 2011 at 2:13 am | Permalink

        Fr John Haught himself, in his debate with Jerry, said he did not accept every Roman Catholic teaching. (He should say which teachings he does not accept, so that the Pope can bring the church up to date with sophisticated theology in these matters.)

    • MosesZD
      Posted December 3, 2011 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      Mormons do the same. I don’t know about any other denominations, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

  3. Sastra
    Posted December 3, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    When religions change their moral stance they always deny that they’re changing their moral stance. Instead, they claim that they’re keeping the underlying commandment, rule, or precept — it’s just that now they have a better understanding on how to apply it. Now they’re even closer to God than ever! And they’re on the same moral high ground over the low ground of the world that they always were!

    Funny how that works.

  4. Posted December 3, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    It always gives me a little hope for humanity when even those who are so committed to the cult that they join the lower rungs of its hierarchy end up defying the theocracy to do the right thing.

    But don’t conflate that with the theocracy itself changing. This is one person seeing sense, not the corporation.

  5. Posted December 3, 2011 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    When religious leaders are confronted with science they suspect or know is true, they are not willing to jeopardize their position or/and embarrass themselves by admitting their error. It is just human nature to cover their butts.

  6. Hempenstein
    Posted December 3, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    But since the average person seems to have no sense of time, or at best a poor sense of it, they have little sense that what they hear from the pulpit hasn’t always been that way.

  7. Posted December 3, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    What’s with the sexy car ad?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted December 3, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

      Out of my control, though I’ve filed a complaint about that one and WordPress has promised to pull it.

  8. MosesZD
    Posted December 3, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Mormons do that all the time.

    July 13, 1859: In an interview with Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, Brigham Young was asked: What is the position of your church with respect to slavery?

    BY: We consider it of divine institution and not to be abolished until the curse pronounced on Ham shall have been removed from his descendants.

    A hundred years later and nothing’s really changed in the Mormon outlook, though they can’t own slaves anymore (and some did). In 1958, Bruce R. McConkie writes in Mormon Doctrine, 10th printing, pages 527-528:

    “Those who were less valiant in the pre-existence and who thereby had certain spiritual restrictions imposed upon them during mortality are known to us as the negroes. Such spirits are sent to earth through the lineage of Cain, the mark put upon him for his rebellion against God and his murder of Abel being a black skin…. Noah’s son Ham married Egyptus, a descendant of Cain, thus preserving the negro lineage through the flood….The negroes are not equal with other races when the receipt of certain spiritual blessings are concerned, particularly the priesthood and the temple blessings that flow therefrom, but this inequality is not of man’s origin. It is the Lord’s doing, based on His eternal laws of justice, and grows out of the lack of spiritual valiance of those concerned in their first estate.”

    Twenty years later, a full decade after the Southern US Civil Rights movement secures many victories and nominal equality for blacks:

    1978: Spencer W. Kimball announces that the priesthood ban on persons of color is lifted. Bruce R. McConkie, announces: “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.”

    In short, after a fifteen year Civil Rights Movement secured, for blacks, their rights as US Citizens, a decade later God finally noticed and gave the Mormons the 4-1-1.

    And so it goes for all religions. Secular first, doctrine second.

    • MosesZD
      Posted December 3, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      Not to just pick on the Mormons. Many Catholic Bishops in the US owned slaves. And it was okay according to the Church who’d gone backward from their position in the 15th and 16th Centuries.

      Papal bulls such as Dum Diversas, Romanus Pontifex and their derivatives, sanctioned slavery and were used to justify enslavement of natives and the appropriation of their lands during this era. These papal bulls, effectively, de-humanized the indians and made it ‘ok’ to enslave them. Something that, prior to the Church’s ok, had been stymied.

      Another example: In 1866 The Holy Office of Pope Pius IX affirmed that, subject to conditions, it was not against divine law for a slave to be sold, bought or exchanged. It wasn’t until Vatican II (1965) did the Catholic Church finally put slavery down as ‘wrong, end of story.’

      Which, of course, went against many teachings in the bible that okay’d slavery.

  9. Dr. I. Needtob Athe
    Posted December 3, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    I’ve made the point before in debates with Christians that they they admire Jesus’ teachings because, for the most part, those teachings only confirm things that most of them already know. In other words, they’re not learning from Jesus as if he was their teacher, they’re grading him as if he was their student.

  10. Marella
    Posted December 3, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    I hate to disillusion you, but I don’t think that they have given up original sin or are likely to any time soon. Without it the Christians are fucked and possibly the Jews and the Muslims as well. The day the pope announces that the churches understanding of original sin is now more clearly understood as not existing will be the last day of catholicism. WTF is it all for if not to save people from sins they didn’t commit, and the stain on their soul which they don’t have?

  11. Jose
    Posted December 3, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Yep. It happens with everything not only morality. The church used to endorse an Aristotelian universe with perfect, circular spheres and the earth at the center of the universe. This was official dogma back in the day. Since religion doesn’t have an operative method to find truth (because revelation doesn’t work) or to reject bad answers, they are always behind and need to catch up constantly, frequently moving into safe territory: areas which arent susceptible to investigation, that is, “mysteries”. The bad news is these mysteries are indistinguishable from gratuitous assertions pulled out of someone’s ass.

    I think that tendency is good for society because the more the religious move into deism, the less harm their practices do.

    Some religious people may see this drift into watered down versions of religion as an attack and become defensive, and that could be seen as a problem. I don’t see polarization as a bad thing. The reasonable peiple doing less harm and the crazies isolated, shifted to the extreme, unmasked before the rest of their group as crazies? That’s better than what we have now: the crazies disguised as reasonable and moderate and the reasonable making excuses for them. This is pretty much what has happened with gay marriage. Despite the danger that comes eith it (crazies are always dangerous), polarization is a good symptom

  12. PB
    Posted December 4, 2011 at 4:01 am | Permalink

    This is a good story for humanity. Maybe slow, may takes 50-100 years (with Islam at the rear), but eventually religions must adapt or perish.

    The saddest thing is that the female pastor has to have unnecessary burden to do the right thing, that is actually help the sick and needy.
    (most people will not accept a personal loss for somebody else’ benefit, so this is quite rare).

    Stone by stone …

  13. Posted December 4, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    The central sales pitch of all ideologies is that the ideas, themes and practices will never change. Then all the magical and supernatural gobblygook special pleading and wish fulfillment/ “your mind over all matter.”

    The evolutionary/bio benefit seems to be spending much less brain energy thinking about things which is experienced as emotional relief and relaxing, a largely parasympathetic, unconscious response.

    Don’t think any sort of reality testing around the edges is going to erode that much. If only.

    But evidence-based knowledge is really only 50+ or less, if the web is the real broad distribution of facts-based knowledge, yrs old so the process is in its infancy.

  14. Simon
    Posted December 4, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    A shocking situation. A scientific methodology exists to help these people. But the theistic community, all except one brave woman, fail to help their congregations. I wonder if any theist would care to explain why?

  15. Nate W
    Posted December 4, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    What’s the difference between religious and secular morality, anyway? Most religious traditions don’t deny that most morality is “secular” in the sense that it concerns practical approaches to problems that concern people of any or no religious background. Most major religions don’t actually deny “the secular,” after all; they only resists “secularism,” or the insistence that secular concerns are the only ones that matter. This whole post seems to rely on a false dichotomy between the religious and the secular.

    But what do you make of something like, say, the Natural Law tradition in Roman Catholicism, which quite explicitly says that most ethics can be discovered simply by the use of reason, whether one is a Christian or not, and so most morality is “secular” in the sense that seems to be at work here?

    This idea that for something to be “religious” is must fall down ready-made from heaven is a horribly inaccurate idea. Granted, it’s one that too many religious people themselves seem to share, but it’s still a straw man nonetheless, and it ignores most of the best writings from the great religious traditions.

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