Righteousness trumps morality (and civility)

By Lorenzo

It is a persistent feature of religious systems that they create outcasts. At its most extreme, such outcasts are deemed worthy of being put to death, as is the case for Jewish apostates under Deuteronomy 13 or Islamic apostates under the traditional interpretation of Sharia.

Even if outcasts are not deemed as marked for slaughter, they are deemed to be stripped of social standing and of moral protections available to others. Their lack of righteousness, of adherence to religious precepts, weakens the moral protections they would be otherwise subject to.

Gatekeepers of righteousness
The creation of outcasts is very helpful to clerics and priests. It is a very direct demonstration of their authority as gatekeepers of righteousness. For how can they be said gatekeepers if there are not those outside the circle of righteousness, if they cannot “cast out” from righteousness? And being able to so “cast out” manifests their authority.

But it is not only a matter of object lessons for the social authority of priests or clerics, but also their epistemic authority. Their authority as delineators of righteousness. A priest or cleric is such because they have knowledge of the specific qualities of righteousness, the specific ways to please the divine. Without such specific knowledge, what differentiates one set of priests or clerics from another? What does one need priests or clerics for at all?

Righteousness is not the same as being moral. For merely being moral does not signal righteousness, it does not signal adherence to a specific deity or belief system. For that, one needs something extra. And the more such precepts of righteousness can limit or suspend the operation of morality, the more authority they embody.

Hence apostasy warranting the supreme suspension of morality, being put to death. It may be presented as displaying the supreme authority of God, but what it actually displays is the supreme authority of righteousness at its most basic (worshipping the correct God), and of the role of priests and clerics as gatekeepers of righteousness.

Signaling righteousness
Food and clothing make fine signals of adherence to the precepts of righteousness. As does participation in public rituals. The contraceptive pill was something of a disaster for organised Christianity because female-controlled contraception greatly undermined the value of church attendance as a sex-and-marriage signaling device.

(Secular systems can also use  signals of righteousness — modern political correctness makes public speech its prime marker of righteousness; an ideal marker in a highly literate society pervaded by electronic media, especially to signal righteousness among the intelligentsia. And any system where people aspire to be gatekeepers of righteousness is going to create, or seek to create outcasts. Hence the “noxious belief” tagging which is such a feature of secular opinion-righteousness. Elementary civility is an early and easy casualty of the display of righteousness.)

And by adhering to those extra precepts, one signals one’s membership of the religious community (or relevant secular group), one’s righteousness. Including — indeed especially — by participating in the out-casting, in public rejection of the unrighteous. The less empathy for the outcast, the easier participating in such signaling-by-outcasting is. By participating in drawing the line between the righteous us and the outcast, unrighteous them, reassurance is provided about one’s own status as being of the righteous. The cleric or priest’s role as gatekeeper of righteous mobilises identity, status and disgust in its service. A sense of superiority allied to authorised malice is a potent brew.

Morality is thus subordinated to righteousness. Righteousness offers authorised, targeted relief from the burdens of morality. Indeed, the more grand the moral pretensions that are taken on, the more appealing is relief from the burdens of morality. And the more of an affront the failure to adhere to righteousness is (one of the many ways Islamism is like Leninism, for example). The value of creating outcasts is central to why clerical  Christian theology, and its apologists, spends so much effort subverting the second principle of Christianity.

Religion and moral order
Religious precepts do incorporate morality — among believers. Because to create an enduring community requires a moral order. And a moral order is a public good. (More precisely, it is a club good, as membership in the moral order can be denied; it can be blocked or withdrawn.) Any religion interested in persistence down the generations has to be concerned for creating and maintaining moral order — within its adherents. Indeed, it has been argued that religion arose in the first place as a way of getting over “free rider” problems in creating and maintaining a moral order. Be that as it may, social selection pressures will tend to favour the spread of religions able to generate and maintain internal moral order.

Especially as the creation of a strong and resilient moral order can be a recruiting point for a religion. Extending to a social order more generally. Monotheism had selection advantages in the Middle East because it was able to generate a unifying moral order able to bridge the herder-farmer gap and bind across lineages.

The commercial advantages of Sharia compared to competing commercial codes seems to have been a recruiting path for Islam in the Malay world. Setting Islam up to be a counterposing identity to the ostentatious Christianity of Portuguese and Dutch colonisers. A sense of righteousness can be a powerful counterpoint to social subordination; a compensating and “trumping” sense of status. (If the English had stayed Catholic, the Irish would probably be raving Calvinists.)  This is particularly so amongst any elite who feels denied power and standing it feels otherwise entitled to — the jihadis are much more likely to be educated professionals than genuinely poor, who tend to have more immediate concerns. The otherworldly can be a refuge from the frustrations of the world, in all sorts of ways.

Casting out the vulnerable
The powerful might be outside the righteous, but they will not be outcasts. That requires a degree of social vulnerability. Outcasts tend to be vulnerable groups or isolated individuals (or vulnerable groups made up of isolated individuals). People with smelly or unpleasant occupations, who are disturbingly different, who fail to play the proper social “game” (especially in ways which appear to undermine those who do) or who contradict any logic underlying or natural to the specific system of righteous belief are all classic outcast groups.

The Abrahamic monotheisms have tended to repress “paganism” (i.e. polytheism and animism) and oppress alternative versions of Abrahamic monotheism. Since there is only One God, any worship of multiple deities or spirits must be pernicious error. And how else can one truly signal righteousness except by adhering to the one true path to the One true God? There are also obvious advantages to being the priests or clerics of the version of One God worship that has monopoly access to office and preferred treatment by state power.

Another recurring feature of monotheism is very strong gender and sex taboos. The Abrahamic monotheisms and Zoroastrianism all regarded homosexual activity as warranting death. They also have strong anti-nakedness taboos and overwhelmingly masculinise religious authority.

Though the level of the subordination of women by Abrahamic monotheisms has varied, it is a persistent pattern. If there is only going to be One God, the probability that said One God will be masculinised is very high. God may not have a sex, but He is gendered. (A God whom nuns “marry” by being celibate is not a sexualised deity.) Instead, sexualising the divine is “idolatry” and subject to severe condemnation — concern over idolatry moves any realm of dispute from morality to righteousness. Monotheism, in its worship of a One God who is so profoundly Other, has recurring bitter disputes about whether images and other forms of worldliness (such as music, dancing and other public pleasures) are distractions from, and so offenses against, the One God. Not merely as a way of distinguishing themselves from animists and polytheists (“pagans”) but also a way of signaling righteousness against other One God believers; a pattern than extends from the Iconoclast disputes through Reformation denunciation of graven images to contemporary Islamist severity, most recently in northern Mali (via).

Given that anthropologically the public realm tends to be male and the domestic realm female — a pattern that goes right back to the hunting males and gathering females of our foraging ancestors — the ultimate embodiment of authority — the One God — will naturally be gendered as male. As will be His priests and clerics. Predictably, this does not have good consequences for the standing of women as decision-makers — particularly their control over their own fertility. Abrahamic monotheisms are full of hostility to female sexuality and particularly female control over fertility. When added to a gendered doctrine of monogenesis — that the male seed is procreative, the female is merely its field of growth — the rightful notion of male control over fertility and link with a solitary Creator gendered as male is much reinforced. Queer Australian Biblical scholar Michael Carden puts it rather nicely in analysing Jewish natural law philosopher Philo of Alexandria‘s masculinising of the One God:

Philo’s masculine ideal is both potent and in charge of that potency. This control is the avenue to knowing the divine, that ultimate potency in Philo’s universe (p.65).

For Philo, same-sex activity both sterilises and feminises the male, thwarting his God-connecting male creative potency. An act so heinous that Philo recasts the attempted gang rape story of Genesis 19 as being about getting the mechanics of sex wrong, warranting the destruction of the cities of the plain. From Philo comes what is now the traditional Christian interpretation of Genesis 19 and the story of Lot and the cities of the plain, one that also turns up in the Quran. (Philo read Genesis 19 in the context of Hellenic natural law philosophy and Leviticus, but not in its wider scriptural context. This is in defiance of rabbinical tradition, hence the failure of his it-is-about-the-mechanics-of-sex interpretation to take within Judaism.) Christian theorists, such as Aquinas, take up Philo’s notion that same-sex activity is treason against the purposes of the One God, so warranting death.

Though the Quran does incorporate the Philo-Patristic interpretation of the story of Lut (Lot), traditional Islam was much less bothered by same-sex activity than Christianity if it kept to the approved patterns of submission — an adult male believer penetrating a male slave or dhimmi (thereby “feminising” and subordinating them) was not nearly as confronting to the approved social hierarchy as a male believer permitting himself to be penetrated. Teenage-adult relationships also kept within approved hierarchies (hence phenomena such as “caravan wives”). In Pathan areas, the notion of women as “unclean” led to patterns of preference for teenage male lovers. More recently, the abandonment of slavery and official dhimmitude within Islam has encouraged a more rigorous denunciation of same-sex activity, particularly to shore up Islamic clerics’ role as gatekeepers of righteousness and to pander to a sense of righteousness among their followers; a sense of righteousness all the more affronted by, and so consoling about, the power of the infidel in the modern world.

Philo’s recasting of the Genesis 19 story as being about the mechanics of sex rather than exploitive, xenophobic cruelty makes it about righteousness rather than morality; about pleasing the divine, not respecting others. On the contrary, it licenses the murderous enforcement of the precepts of sexual righteousness and glorifies the purifying slaughter of the outcast — a notion reiterated in best-selling late medieval compilation The Golden Legend‘s story of the “Christmas day massacre“. (This is in dramatic contrast to the Rabbinical literature, which emphasizes the cruelty, rapacity and malice of the people of the cities of the plain; some of the literature claiming that was the punishing of those who acted well towards vulnerable outsiders that provoked God’s wrath.)

This notion that sex can only be justified by procreation — without that, it is a distraction from attention to the divine and polluting offense to the natural order — and that the male, in his God-connecting creative potency, is fully, authoritatively, human in ways women are not (Philo’s misogyny is a pervasive element in his thought and feeds into similar formulations and patterns in Patristic and Islamic thought), naturally leads to hostility to female control over fertility, which then manifests in attitudes that play badly in contemporary society as women gain more income dependence and control over their fertility. If one believes one is peddling eternal verities, changes in background constraints become somewhat problematic.

Given that the One God is not going to be sexualised — there is no being for Him to have sex with — so sex is going to be a distraction from Him, the strong nudity taboos of One God worship and the deep concern to repress sexuality follows naturally; the fear of uncontrolled sexuality as distracting and lawless. (The Virgin Mary is the perfect mother because no sex was involved in Christ’s conception, while it is a marker of Christ’s divinity that He was conceived without the “impurity” of sex.) The only connection of sex to the divine is going to be via procreation. Hence the strong gender roles, conceived pro-creatively, and focus on procreative sex. Which leaves the queer — those who do not adhere to the procreative gender roles, whether due to same-sex attraction or orientation (homo- or bisexual), or identification with the other sex (transgender), or indeterminacy of sex (intersex) — well out-cast.

As queers grow up as isolated individuals within overwhelmingly “straight” families and social milieus, they amply fulfill the vulnerability criteria to be outcasts. Prelates such as Cardinal O’Brien, in their denunciations of giving queers equal protection of the law, are seeking to keep queers in the category of outcasts in much the same way that preceding Princes of the Church did with Jews. Whether it is Jews or queers, the Catholic Church in particular has a long tradition of putting the outcasting boot into the appropriately vulnerable; though evangelical Protestantism and Pentacostalism also enthusiastically outcast the queer. All the time, of course, claiming that said vulnerable outcasts have great corrupting power and are an enormous affront to God. But one has to say that, otherwise it is too obviously a huge majority bullying small and vulnerable minorities to signal and reinforce their own righteousness.

Authorised malice
A recurring feature of the righteous is their maliciousness, and the more righteous, the stronger the tendency to display malice. They do not see it as maliciousness, of course, as it is righteous malice, rightful opprobrium directed to the wicked, the unrighteous. So, denying the unrighteous equal protection of law is not malice, it is defending righteousness which is, itself, higher morality (which is to say, trumps morality).

Conservative Catholic commentator Philip F. Lawler, in his perceptive analysis of the collapse of Boston’s Catholic culture, takes the march of queers towards equal protection of the law — that is, the collapse of their outcasting — as being a sign (indeed, “the most painful” such sign, p.4) of the decline of Catholic influence. The conservative Christian blogosphere is full of regret, even outrage, over the progressive collapse of the social outcasting of queers. (A retreat of social power in more than one sense.) The more invested one’s sense of self is in the structures of righteousness, the more confronted and hostile one is likely to be towards the unrighteous — particularly them aspiring to any sort of (insulting) equality with the righteous or achieving any acceptance of the legitimacy of their unrighteous perspectives or aspirations. (A point that operates as much to opposition to legal recognition of same-sex relationships as it does to attempts to limit freedom of speech.) Moreover, part of the appeal of righteousness is precisely its license to suspend morality and to engage in ill-feeling. For such licensed ill-will signals one is a member of the righteous, not merely moral.

Hence righteousness trumps morality. (And, of course, civility.)


  1. Alex
    Posted November 14, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    ummm WOW.
    That post was orgasmic.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. John H.
    Posted November 14, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Given recent events in Australia it appears righteousness is more important than the law. That Cardinal Pell insisted if a priest declares being a pedophile in the confession box and this must be kept in confidence is an issue that is going to very much damage the Catholic Church.

    Minorities like LGBT have no choice but to fight back. I am even prepared to excuse their excesses on occasion because their treatment at the hands of the Church has been deplorable.

    Good post Lorenzo. Thanks.

  3. kvd
    Posted November 14, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    This is a very interesting post Lorenzo. The comment about the Calvinist Irish while very funny, is indicative of one basic issue: in order for any group to survive there needs to be an ‘other’, and that ‘other’ must be in some way clearly distinguishable, and that ‘other’ must be regarded as undesirable, or threatening.

    Now you’ve said all this, but you confine your comments to religion, whereas I see that as just one subset of a fairly basic human need to belong ‘somewhere’ – i.e. I think we are basically pack animals or, at the least, are more comfortable when others agree with us.

    Perhaps your concentration on religion is understandable given the various ‘others’ that organised religions have chosen to treat as threats. But I can’t see much difference in the level of group solidarity and group exclusion displayed in conflicts between cultural, political and even sporting groups, or the methods used to either maintain group cohesion, or demonise the ‘other’.

    This is not a disagreement with your post; more just examining my own thoughts.

  4. John H.
    Posted November 14, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Maybe queers should embrace being deemed being outcasts by the Church because the Church is now an outcast group. There are probably less numbers of “true beleivers” in Australia than there are LGBTs.

    I am an outcast much moreso than queers and have been all my life. I am fully aware, both personally and empirically of how damaging that can be. I am pleased that the queers have found wider acceptance in the society, at least they are a long way ahead of people like me.

  5. RipleyP
    Posted November 16, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    I found linking the secular organisations to the idea iof a righteous position very helpful. I think that particular part of the discussion strengthens KVD’s commentary in regards to the base need for the other.
    Watching some of the interactions within atheist circles dealing with gender equality issues seems to support the in group righteousness as against the outcast group. I wish I had had the benefit of this post when the extreme men’s rights discussions were in full swing.
    Although ordinarily the other for the atheist would be the theist there developed some interesting interactions where there was a level of the correct moral basis of the atheist.
    Thanks, very thoughtful post

  6. stuart chignell
    Posted November 18, 2012 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    I find myself agreeing with much of what you have written but disagreeing with many of your comments on Christianity. I think Jesus would as well. One of the most controversial aspects of Jesus’s teaching was that he stressed morality over righteousness or rather that to be truly righteous was to follow God and be moral. Jesus was full of compassion for the outcasts (prostitutes, adulterers, tax collectors and the like) and highly critical of the “vipers” and “hypocrites” living lives like “white washed tombs” that they and the rest of society deemed the righteous. Their actions towards their fellow men and women regularly drove Jesus to anger and on at least one occasion violence.

    Sadly today many people who call them selves Christians do not show the compassion or the morality of the Son of God. If anyone devalues the “second principle of Christianity” then they are not an apologist for Christianity they are a false teacher and Jesus had a few choice words to say about them as well.

    The mislabeling of so called Christians who are politically far to the right in America and elsewhere as “fundamentalist” is a great error and shows a true lack of understanding of the teachings of Jesus and the founders of the new testament church. If they were truly “fundamentalist Christians” then they may still condemn the sins but they would have compassion for their neighbours despite theirs sins and at the same time acknowledge their own failures to live up to the moral code laid down by Jesus.

  7. kvd
    Posted November 18, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] with respect I would suggest that the term ‘fundamentalist’ has escaped into the wild as it were, and assumed a generally perjorative descriptive flavour. I think it might be a little late to ‘recapture’ the meaning you suggest.

    On another point, I paused at your comment that ‘they may still condemn the sins’ – wondering what place that has in a kinder, gentler fundamentalism?

  8. TerjeP
    Posted November 19, 2012 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    Hence apostasy warranting the supreme suspension of morality, being put to death.

    Hence righteousness trumps morality.

    Nicely put and insightful. Especially the point about the need for outcasts to demonstrate power. Also rather tragic.

  9. Posted November 19, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    John H,

    Given recent events in Australia it appears righteousness is more important than the law.

    To be fair, the law could be described as essentially a complex system of righteousness itself. It’s hardly free from being used as a justification to engage in less than moral behaviour either.

    While there are plently of grounds to cricise the church’s conduct in this area, I’m not sure the immediate surrender to the morality of the law or popular concensus is something we can reasonably demand from spiritual leaders.

  10. Jolly
    Posted November 19, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Human survival and cohesion depends on creating an external threat of the “other”. People in power exploit this human condition to maintain their control over the masses. In the Australian context we have the ‘boat people’, the opposing political party, the opposing sporting groups, etc. The bogey-man is still alive in the human psyche. Gillard has created the (albeit false) ‘misogynist’ idea (the other) to capture female votes, created ‘class-warfare’ to claw into ‘working-class’ votes. What is the difference between George Pell and Julia Gillard? They maintain power by creating the ‘other’. And we are all suckers!!

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