Sunday, August 09, 2015

Swearing As A Moral Issue

This morning the Deseret News, one of Salt Lake's two primary newspapers, ran an opinion piece about the Book of Mormon musical. Being what and where it is, this musical is getting a little more press attention than is typically the case.

The piece hit a nerve with me and prompted me to write about an idea that has been spinning in my head for a while. The title of the article was "Profanity laced productions demonstrate society's moral decline."

If you spend any time with believers, particular of the more conservative stripe, they will let you know that they don't like swearing. If you spend time with such people regularly, they will let you know about their distaste for swearing... regularly.

In fact, similar to the title on the article, they will often articulate something beyond mere distaste. A moral element will become attached. Swearing is not just distasteful, it is immoral.

This is a common religious drum to beat and yet, even while I was still a believer, something struck me as disingenuous about all of the purity proclamations regarding words. How could a word be so encrusted with... evil?

I remember the first time I realized that there might be something amiss about all of the preening that goes on in religious circles concerning swear words. I was 16 and spending a number of weeks backpacking in Israel. A Bedouin chief was giving a friend of mine and I a tour through the Negev desert on camel back. The chief spoke at least 7 languages that I knew of.

My camel and I were alongside the chief when nature called. I said to him, "Hey, can we stop? I gotta go." He looked at me quizzically. "I have to go to the bathroom," I amended. He cocked his head a little more to the side, trying to interpret my meaning.

"He has to take a shit!" my friend called from behind us.

The chieftain's eyes lit with understanding and he smiled. "Oh yes! Sheet! We stop!"

I reflected later that, contrary to what my religious community taught me, my friend had done nothing immoral, neither had the chief. "Shit" was just a word.... nothing more. Any negative values were our associations, but there was nothing inherently moral or immoral about the word.

So then, why does the issue of swearing garner such attention and bluster among religious folks? Why do they try to make it a MORAL issue?

My family and I recently made the trip back to Michigan to visit all of our relatives. Most of these folks are Christian but in the past few years I find myself in Christian circles less and less. One thing that really stood out to me was how much the issue of swearing came up. I was constantly being informed that they don't swear, they don't like entertainment that swears, and they don't like to socialize with people that swear. Spend anytime with a religious conservative, and they will let you know that they don't swear.

Why?

My theory is that one can get a lot of piety points on this issue with very little cost. In fact, no cost. If you are going to resist poverty, or not gossip, or love your enemy... there is going to be some work involved. It will cost you. To make a fuss about swearing costs nothing, and yet it lets the religious person get a sense that they have made a moral step up.

Moving out of faith has shown me that this maneuver is a farce. Religion encourages the believer to develop many contrived moral positions. As an atheist, I have come to realize that true moral foundations are built on harm and help. Does an action harm others? Does an action help others? Swearing affects neither of these questions. It is a question of mores' not of morals.

Yet, the writer of the Deseret News opinion piece has convinced himself that he is making a moral statement when he announces his aversion to swearing. He isn't. He is just taking his place alongside scores of religious figures, both present and historical, who have learned to speak fluent religion on a topic that changes nothing.

Or, as St. Paul observed, he has learned to bang the gong and clang the cymbal.
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