Religion and Morality

Philosophy of Religion
Religion, Morality and Ethics
The Questions
III. Religion and Morality as Identical
IV. Religion and Morality as Autonomous
Morality as Secular and Utilitarian
VI. Morality as Based upon Reason
VII. Secular Morality as Inferior to Religious Morality
VIII. Final Questions
All societies need moral codes in order to survive. Without moral rules
there is disharmony and chaos that no society can long survive. The
question for this century is where are these codes to come from? Upon what
foundation will society build its ideas of what is right and what is wrong, of
what is expected of human beings and of what is to be disapproved and
possible prohibited and punished?
For millennia humans have rested their ideas of morality within the
foundations of the religion itself. Indeed some theorists believe that in one
way or another the need for moral guidance or some form of rule for human
behavior is at the heart of religion. It is one of the most characteristic
features of a religious tradition to have a moral code. So pervasive is this
within the cultures of the world that many question whether or not it is
possible to have any other foundation for morality.
During the last century post modernist thought had removed religion from
serious consideration as a secure foundation for moral rule making. Indeed.
in the post modernist age ethical relativity has come to be one of the most
popular theories with both ethicists and ordinary folk in western
technological societies. Descriptive ethical relativism has led to normative
ethical relativism. Part of the difficulties facing contemporary societies is
finding a common foundation for a moral order. In the absence of a move
toward religious revivalism it is difficult to foresee how a new moral order
will emerge. Much of the world has moved to a renewal of the religious
foundation for that order. Islam is rapidly spreading its rule of religious law
throughout much of the world. Part of the appeal of Islam is its clear
depiction of a moral life. Even within the advanced technological societies
there are indications of a desire for such order. Buddhism has found new
followers among some of the most well to do of what are essentially
materialistic cultures.
Against the religious revivalism is there any other alternative for finding the
basis for a moral life?
The Questions
1. Does Morality depend upon religion?
2. Are religious ethics and secular ethics similar or essentially
3. What other foundation is possible for moral codes?
4. Do non-religious (secular) ethics actually work as a foundation for
5. Can a Society sustain itself for very long without a religious
foundation for its morality?
III. Religion and Morality as Identical
So identified with religion has morality been that one of the most views finds that they
are inseparable.
Consider that for many the basis for morality is the laws that emanate from the divine.
For those that believe in a Supreme Being it is God’s law that is the basis for morality.
Whatever God commands must be God because God commands it and God is Good.
But if whatever God commands must be Good because God is Good then of course
whatever God commands is Good, just and only, because it is God that commands it.
God makes it Good by commanding it.
Then God could command anything at all, even a murder or torture, and it must be Good
because it is from God.
This view makes God’s Goodness redundant. Of course God is Good if anything God
does must be Good just because God has done it! Whatever God does is automatically
Good by virtue of God’s doing it!
Question: Is it Good because God commands it or does God command it because it is
It was a form of this question that Socrates posed to the Athenians that marked him as a
philosopher. In the Euthyphro Plato has Socrates ask:
“Do the gods love holiness because it is holy or is it holy because the gods love it?”
What this question is asking is whether or not there is a basis for making an ethical
judgement separate from religion, separate from reference to an absolute, universal and
eternal source of values?
Those who hold that religion and morality are inseparable link God with the base of
morality. God provides the basis for a universal morality. Without God , they hold,
anything is possible. Without God as the basis for morality all that is left would be a
nihilistic ethics.
Philosophers have attempted to locate another source of morality that would fill the void
between the absolute, universal morality based upon religion and belief in a God as the
source of moral authority and the nihilism of relativistic ethics and the post modern moral
IV. Religion and Morality as Autonomous
There is also that view which holds that religion and morality are separable. There are
those who hold that they must be separable. There are those who hold that the basis for
morality is separate from God or a belief in a God and spiritual realm. They go so far as
to hold that even God or spirits are accountable according to a morality that exists apart
from them. Even God is to be held morally accountable. Even God follows the moral
Emmanuel Kant held that religious morality and independent morality are autonomous
but essentially identical and must be so. For Kant a religious ethics is not in any
substantial manner different from ethics based upon philosophical reasoning.
V. Morality as Secular and Utilitarian
Patrick Nowell Smith holds that not only are ethics based upon philosophical reasoning
different from and autonomous from ethics based upon religion but philosophical ethics
is superior to religious ethics.
Secular ethics are a more mature and reasonable basis for morality. This is so because it
is not so absolutist and considers consequences.
Religious ethics
Secular ethics
Religious ethics is so rule bound, similar to Hebrew morality, and non-reasonable,
whereas, philosophical or secular ethics is oriented toward results and consequences.
Reason based morality understands that moral rules are intended for rational animals and
to serve a purpose. The rules are needed to resolve conflicts. The rules are for
convenience. The rules govern by mutual consent. The adult understanding of the rules
are as instruments with which a society achieves a purpose. Adult moral realism holds
that if the rules are not achieving their purpose they are to be revised or abandoned
VI. Morality as Based upon Reason
Philosophers from Plato to the present day have sought for a ground for ethics that would
serve as a basis for morality. As belief I the gods or God was not based upon reason and
the tales of the gods or God had a number of irrational elements philosophers have sought
for a more reliable and stable basis for morality. What is needed is a foundation for
morality that is rational, universal and eternal. Philosophers have developed a number of
ethical traditions including:
Philosophical Tradition
Principle of the GOOD
Categorical Imperative
Utilitarian Principles
Prima Facie Duties
Rawls Principle of Justice as Fairness
Universalizable maxims
Greatest happiness for the greatest number
Basic duties
Maxi/ Min=maximize freedom/minimize
What they have in common is that each has a basic principle which is used to develop
moral rules and which serve as the basis for moral judgements. Each has a principle of
the GOOD. None of the traditions is without faults and none has become the basis for
human conduct.
In the postmodern period some (maybe most) philosophers have abandoned the attempt
to find universal principles and have argued for relativity of values. There are a number
of ethical theories that hold for one form of relativity or another. These movements
include: Existentialism, Pragmatism, Feminism.
Secular Morality as Inferior to Religious Morality
There are those who argue that any attempt to arrive at a philosophical ethics or a basis
for morality that is independent of religion is bound to failure. This is so because with
secular ethics there is no fundamental motive to be Good.
George Mavrodes:
Mavrodes holds that secular ethics is too superficial. It lacks metaphysics and a basis for
values and obligations. He holds that secular ethics can not answer the questions:
Why be moral all the time?
Why ever consider sacrificing personal welfare?
Mavrodes holds that humans experience a sense of obligation, which if followed would
result in no net benefit in a Russellian world with no after life and no spiritual realm.
There exists a sense of sacrifice and gift that serves as the basis for a moral life. This
sense can become part of the pattern of life itself.
Religion makes sense of morality by teaching and supporting the idea that Morality is not
absurd or for naught.
Religion also suggests that Morality is Not the DEEPEST thing that exists or that can be
experienced. Morality is a transitional phase for the individual and the species. It is
transitory. Morality will pass away for something even deeper and richer. Religion
supports the feeling of obligation to that which makes sacrifices worthwhile. Religion
supports the hope in something better or richer which is to come and makes being Good
and sacrificing worthwhile.
Religion supports that which enriches life.
Final Questions
1. Does Morality depend upon religion?
2. Are religious ethics and secular ethics similar or essentially
3. What other foundation is possible for moral codes?
4. Do non-religious (secular) ethics actually work as a foundation for
5. Can a Society sustain itself for very long without a religious
foundation for its morality?
6. Is Religion necessary for a truly moral community?
7. Is Religion necessary for society to flourish?
8. Is Religion necessary for the survival of the species?