Morality and Religion

There is absolutely no correlation between morality and religion. Don’t misunderstand: there are probably many moral people who happen to be religious too, just as there are probably many moral people who are not religious. The opposites and contrapositives are also true: there are probably many religious people who happen to be moral too, just as there are probably many religious people who are not moral. All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t be all that surprised when you encounter an atheist or agnostic who contributes money to worthy causes or hear about a minister caught with his hand in the till.

Morality is based on considerations of goodness. What is the greatest good? What is a lesser good? What is the greatest evil? What is a lesser evil? Religion is based on faith and obedience to the representatives or the tenants of that faith. There are subtle but important differences between the two.

Religion may have provided a kick-start for morality back in the old days. It probably went something like this:

“Thou shalt not kill!”

“Why should I listen to you?”

“Because I represent G-d Almighty and He’ll send you to Hell if you don’t do what He says!”

Then along came Immanuel Kant and wrote a philosophical treatise on Categorical Imperatives. Click for more information. Basically he said that the Ten Commandments, among others, make sense to abide by them, not because of the personal consequences of doing so, going to heaven or hell or getting some other reward or punishment, but because of the criterion of universality. The criterion may be applied to any action or inaction under consideration. Take an action A. Ask yourself hypothetically what would happen if everyone were to do A? Would world order thrive, at least survive, or would it break down? If world order would break down, then it’s not a good idea to do A. If world order would thrive, then A is a good action. If world order would continue to survive, then there’s no reason why you can’t do A. You may substitute “kill”, “lie”, or “commit adultery” for A and see what you get. Now let’s see what you get when you substitute “attack someone with the possibility of killing” or “defend yourself with the possibility of killing” for A. Yes, “attack” would lead to the break-down of world order, whereas “defend” would not.

Kant’s system of morality is not the only system that analyzes morality independently from religion. As a matter of fact Kant was preceded in this endeavor by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Thanks to Michael Dickel for pointing this out to me. Religion is counterproductive when it comes to analyzing moral dilemmas. Religions start out with a cosmology and a history to establish their credentials, power, and future. Morality is considered an attribute of their commandments but is not to be questioned. It is not for you to question the will of G-d. Who is man to understand His ways? G-d moves in mysterious ways. If you follow His commandments to the letter then you will be rewarded with life everlasting; if not, you’ll be condemned to burn forever in the fires of Hell along with the rest of the nonbelievers. The measure of a man’s faith is that he believes even if it is absurd to do so. To analyze why it makes sense for us as a group not to kill, not to tell lies, or not to commit adultery is not a legitimate activity within religion. Some religions, however, do encourage the analysis of modern actions or modalities in an attempt to correlate or trace them back to some original religious commandment.

So what are the sources of morality that do not necessarily originate from G-d or religion, sources that can teach us or at least stimulate us to learn what is right or wrong? The simple answer to that is everywhere and everything.

Philosophy trains us to analyze the logic and the consequences of our words and actions. Literature, poetry, music, and art train us to feel things we’ve never felt before, to sympathize, and to empathize with anyone and anything around us. That guy walking unsteadily towards your car window holding out a Styrofoam cup in one hand and a cigarette in another at his side who looks like he hasn’t eaten a decent meal in a month is a challenge and a test of our morality. So is that nice looking girl at the office. So is your dog who would give up his life for you in a heartbeat and doesn’t want you to go away. So are the cats who have no one to feed them and give them water. So are the animals we slaughter wholesale for our insatiable appetites, the trees we cut down, the plants we plow into extinction, the soil, the water, and the air we befoul.

Analysis leads to paralysis. Yes, we walk a tightrope between too little and too much. To mix another metaphor, awareness is the burden of our consciousness. Nobody else can hold that burden for us, not even if they say they can. If we analyze too little or too lightly we are at risk of doing or not doing something we’ll regret later. The consequences of our actions or words can never be retracted. Time’s arrow only flies forward. The consequences can only be buried under new consequences which hopefully might be less regrettable.

Religion says differently. It is predicated on the premise that regrettable consequences may be forgiven. I ask you this: what would happen if we substituted “forgiveness of our sins” for A?

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel



Filed under & Philosophy, Dilemmas, Essays

2 responses to “Morality and Religion

  1. Christine Pisan, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Rousseau, and the Eblightenment suggest that morality and ethics derive from the implied social contract that allows for governing and society. Pisan puts the contract in a religious framework while the later authors move to secular humanism. However, the point is that your argument has deep and well-watered roots. Nice piece.

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