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July 25, 2014

In Sudan, Meriam Yehya Ibrahim was sentenced to hang in early May 2014 - basically for being a Christian.  After global protests, she was freed and although initially barred from leaving Sudan she has now arrived safely in Rome.   More.

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It is easy to confuse beliefs and values – especially for Christians.  If you belong to a religion that says “Jesus wants you to do this”, then it’s easy to assume that it’s only because of Jesus that you value certain things (e.g. life). Jesus wants you (or commands you) to love your neighbour, and follow the 10 commandments.  But any moral person does these things anyway.  This includes people from all religions (and no religion) – this means that irrespective of religion, most people have the same values although they may have quite different beliefs.  There are of course exceptions where beliefs do make a difference – for example what you believe determines which Church or mosque you go to, if any.  But in most cases, values are determined by your upbringing and by the society that you live in.

values-beliefsValues come first: how many children are taught about God before they are told “don’t do that”?  And one of the  first values one learns is to believe what parents tell you. So whatever they say, you believe – at least when you are very young.  For most people, your beliefs at least start out with the pre-requisite of your values.  Your initial beliefs are whatever your parents tell you.  Later, one of your values is that teachers and authority figures should also be believed.  It is then natural to believe ministers and priests.  Values are learned before beliefs and form the foundation for accepting what you hear – values cannot come from beliefs. [Note the distinction: valuing what parents say and therefore believing what they say is a value; the “story” they tell about god is a belief].

So it is contradictory when a minister or priest says that beliefs determine morals (values). There are some cases where this is true (e.g. abortion)  but beliefs only determine a very narrow range of values and they are the exceptions and not the normal case.  Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs are all brought up with mostly the same moral values – societies would not work if they weren’t.  Putting it another way, people of all religions and beliefs mostly have the same values.  None would dispute the 10 commandments or the “love your neighbour” thing.

So Christians should stop their pompous posturing that only Christians know the right values.  Some even want to plaster the 10 Commandments around the place as if it’s news to anyone.  We all know the rules of society – if we didn’t we couldn’t function in society.  But the rules do not come from beliefs.  That idea is itself a belief.  Some Christians believe that contrary to evidence, their values do come from their religion – that is, they come from their beliefs.  But no amount of saying they do by sanctimonious parsons will make it true.

But despite this generality, some values DO come from beliefs.  If you believe all infidels should be killed – then you’d not value the life of an infidel.  If you truly believe in an afterlife in heaven – then you would not value your own life.  If you truly believe family honour is more important than a human life, you’d not value the life of your children.  If you believed you deserved property more than your neighbour, you’d not agree that stealing from him was wrong.

Another exception is the case of abortion where belief modifies one core value.  This involves applying a definition of separate life that not everyone agrees with.  We all share the same value that a life must not be taken by another person – but we disagree on whether this applies to a fetus not yet independent of its mother.

But these are exceptions.  It is because  a few people have different  values that we have laws and a police force.  However, a few exceptions do not change the general principle – values do not come from beliefs.  Religions do not have a monopoly on good values.

Is the reverse True? Do beliefs come from values?

In some cases (like mine), it’s easy to see that it may be the other way around.  My beliefs (atheism) came from my values.  I value honesty, integrity, truth, logic and rationality.  This led me to think deeply about the religion I was brought up with and inevitably led to the rejection of religion.  That’s because it’s irrational but also cannot meet the test of being proven true.  I wonder how many other people this applies to?  Does (or did) your set of values impact your beliefs?

 

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