The Relationship Between Religion and Morality

Morality (sometimes called “true morality” or “high morality”) should be distinguished from those rules which are simply those which are considered necessary for the efficient running of a society. Such rules of a society are enshrined in law, custom and convention; and are supported and enforced by society through the legal system and public opinion. These rules are usually obeyed because of self-interest, a kind of “social contract” in which, for example, we agree not to steal from anyone else in the society if they agree not to steal from us.

In very early societies these social rules were supported by religion, and presented as behaviour which the gods insisted humans obeyed. It is arguable that some (ie numbers 5-9) of the Ten Commandments (13th Century BCE) are just such social rules.

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However such a system of social rules may break down, particularly in a secular or pluralistic society. For example some people may consider that the society in which they live is unfair, and only benefits certain groups in it; or the legal system may be too inefficient to prevent other people stealing. In such situations individuals may think it is no longer beneficial for them to continue to agree to the social contract, and then there would be no compelling reason why they should continue to obey society’s laws.

What we consider to be true morality is different from social rules in two important respects:

1. It is based on real concern for others as human beings of equal value to ourselves

2. Our motivation for behaving morally is that such behaviour is “right” and we feel we “ought” to do it, even when it is inconvenient to ourselves.

Is Morality dependent upon Religion?

The evidence to support this view is:

* All religions insist upon a moral code as a central part of the religious life.

* Even non-religious people when discussing where ethical values came from will refer to religious sources, such as the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20. 2-17), or the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5. 3- 7.27).

* When people (eg newspaper reporters) require an expert opinion on moral issues they will ask religious leaders.

* People expect higher standards of moral behaviour from religious people (a story of an adulterous vicar is more likely to appear in the newspapers that a similar tale about a bank manager – unless, of course, the latter is a churchwarden!).

* Even in our largely secular society, “high” morality is often referred to as “having Christian values”.

* When people talk of someone being “a good Christian” they are usually referring to their moral behaviour (ie how they treat others) and not to their doctrinal orthodoxy (ie whether they hold the traditional Christian beliefs).

* True morality sprung up within religion. Arguably the first clear and unequivocal expression of true morality was the insistence by the Israelite prophet Amos in the 8th Century BCE that Yahweh (God) required honesty, truth and justice among his people more than religious observances (sacrifices, etc): “Even though you offer me [Yahweh] your burnt offerings…I will not accept them;…but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5.22-4).

* No society developed morality without having developed religion first, and all morality was originally proclaimed in the name of religion. It could be asserted, therefore, that morality is a product of religion, and true morality can only derive from religion.

* Conscience can be interpreted as the voice of God telling us what is right and wrong.

* It can be argued that even when societies lose their interest in practising a religion, they still maintain the moral values which that religion originally instilled into the society. Thus it can be claimed that in Britain today, where about 1 person in 30 is a practising Christian, the moral values which the society proclaims, believes in and tries to live by are Christian moral values (secularised).

* It can be claimed that people will not chose to be moral unless encouraged to do so by religion.

Is Morality independent from Religion?

The evidence to support this view is:

* Religions existed for many thousands of years before they developed a real morality. This suggests that morality is not an essential part of religion.

* Atheists and agnostics, who do not believe in or follow any religion, can still live truly moral lives, with a selfless compassion for other humans.

* Whole societies (eg China and the former Soviet States) can be officially atheistic, and there is no evidence that such countries or governments are necessarily more wicked than ones which claim to be religious states.

* The origin of moral values can be explained in terms of Evolutionary Ethics (ie as societies develop and become more complex and sophisticated so social rules become more demanding, evolving into true morality).

* Conscience can be explained in other ways (eg Sigmund Freud’s concept of the internalisation of parental norms).

* Agriculture, families, medicine and learning all developed within a religious context, as did morality. They have now all entered the secular domain, and are considered independent of religion, so the fact that morality developed in a religious context does not mean that it is necessarily dependent upon religion.

* Plato posited the “Euthyphro Dilemma” which raised the question that good must be independent of God, or there would be no way of knowing if God’s commands were actually good or not.

Can we come to some kind of conclusion?

How you evaluate the above evidence, and the conclusion you come to about where the balance of the evidence lies is something you have to do for yourself; but you must do it honestly, thoughtfully and intelligently.

You may like to consider the following thoughts:

* All people have some kind of beliefs concerning the nature of humanity, what is of real importance and value, and what one should do with ones life.

* Religious people will refer to these beliefs as their religion, and associate with groups of like-minded people who share the same religion. Atheists and agnostics will tend to refer to their beliefs as their philosophy of life, and may consider them a more individual matter.

* These beliefs (whatever we call them) affect our behaviour, and we legitimately judge a person’s philosophy of life by how it affects their moral decisions and actions.

* So ones beliefs determine ones morality.

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