I find it interesting that when apparently sensible moral codes are applied in an extreme way across society, it simply does not make people “better” even by the standards of that moral code (let alone in an absolute sense). There have been comments on Lisa’s blog about how prevalent homosexuality is in the Arab world, linking this to the strict gender segregation that is enforced in these societies. You might think you could make people chaste by separating the genders, but it seems not. Another example is how much more dangerous it is for a woman to travel around North Africa alone compared to sub-Saharan Africa, even though the religious mentality is supposed to promote respect and dignity for women. I’ve travelled alone in the latter part of the world, even across national borders, but I wouldn’t dream of doing that in the former. In Cairo, women are sexually harrassed in the street, which is puzzling when you consider that wearing of hijab has become widespread there in the last few decades – the intended effect being the exact opposite.
I seriously doubt whether any society or culture is really more moral than another. The majority of people are probably pretty self-serving, even in a culture with a strong religious component. Different cultures have different emphases. My own – western Europe – emphasises fairness and equality and tolerance, and it falls down on this too of course, but this emphasis has shaped our cultural mentality. I think it’s possible for different cultures to equally view each other as being less moral than themselves.
Do our own efforts – for example, religion – make any difference? I think there’s room for free will, in the same way that there’s room for individual earthquakes’ sizes to be dynamically determined despite their following a well-defined distribution overall. I think that religion can be a tool to lead someone towards being a better person. At the very least it can inspire you to think about acting selflessly. But does being religious automatically lead to this? – no. Religions do not have a monopoly on morality either.
It’s usually taken for granted, but actually quite interesting if you think about it, that religion takes morality and spirituality and yokes them together. Why should that be? Why should it be that God (or gods) is about goodness? Why is that so universal a concept?