Religion and Morality

Air Date: 
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Tom Shipka

The popular view among religious people is that religion is indispensable to morality in that religion affirms the existence of a God who has revealed a law to direct humans how to live. (1) There are problems with this position, however, from the perspective of philosophy. Religion relies on faith while philosophy relies on reason. The three central beliefs of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam which have a bearing on morality and which are embraced on faith are that 1) There is a God, 2) God is good and not evil, and 3) God has ordained rules for living which humans can learn. Although some believers past and present have accepted the challenge of philosophy to prove these beliefs by reason, their efforts have fared poorly in the judgment of professional philosophers.
The third belief - that God has issued a moral law which humans can learn - is particularly intriguing.
On the one hand, there are strong differences within and among the religious traditions as to where one should look to find this law. Shall we turn to scripture? If so, should we consult the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, or another holy writing? Shall we turn to a prophet? If so, should we consult the teachings of Moses, Abraham, Jesus, Mohammed, Bahaullah, or another holy person? Or shall we turn to our local pastor or a famous televangelist or to our central church administration or to ourselves?
On the other hand, within the same religion, it is difficult to find a moral consensus. There are often strong differences over issues such as divorce, plurality of spouses, the status of women, abortion, homosexuality, same sex marriage, birth control, stem cell research, and how to deal with followers of other religions, sects, and the non-religious. On this point consider the gulf between Episcopalians and Baptists in America, and Sunni and Shia in Iraq.
The fact is that religion is not nearly as important to morality as widely believed. Consider these points:
Firstly, some of the most perceptive and inspiring discussions of ethics in the past generation have come from seculars such as Paul Kurtz, Kai Nielsen, Peter Singer, and Arthur Kaplan.
Secondly, largely secular groups, such as scientists, and largely secular societies, such as the Netherlands, are at least as well-behaved as predominately religious groups and societies.
Thirdly, Utilitarianism (Always seek the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people) and Ethical Egoism (Always seek your own long-term happiness), the major classical teleological or consequence-based moral theories, and Kantianism (Always act on a maxim that you can wish to universalize), the major classical deontological or duty-based moral theory, are all products of reason.
Fourthly, the Constitution of the United States and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, documents which set out moral frameworks for modern living, make no reference to God or religion except to guarantee freedom to practice religion.
Fifthly, research by Harvard anthropologist Marc Hauser shows that religious and non-religious people have the same moral intuitions when faced with the same ethical dilemmas. (2)
Finally, the Golden Rule, the only moral rule which all the world's religions affirm, has been established on entirely rational grounds by Immanuel Kant, arguably the most important writer on ethics in modern history, as what he called the categorical imperative.
1. One prominent science, Stephen Jay Gould, also seems to support the view that we should turn to religion to learn how to live. See "Nonoverlapping Magisteria," Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16-22. Here Gould argues that science and religion are not in conflict for their teachings occupy different domains or magisteria. Science tells us how the universe works and religion tells us how to live. Science tells us how the heavens go and religion tells us how to get to heaven.
2. Marc Hauser, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. Also, see M. Hauser and P. Singer, "Morality without religion," Free Inquiry 26: 1, 2006, 18-19.

© Tom Shipka 2007