Wednesday, July 12, 2006

God and Ethics: What Is the Relationship Between Religion and Morality?

Dostoevsky said that "Without religion, everything is allowed," the idea being that some supernatural authority is a necessary precondition for morality. This is wrong, of course, one can be a perfectly ethical person without belief in God and ethical statements would be meaningful in a universe without a Divine entity. But it is worth a look at where religion and ethics coincide and where they diverge.

First of all, acting ethically has two parts: (1) figuring out what is the right thing to do in your particular situation and (2) doing it. The first requires ethical theory and the second is a question of one's moral character. The place where religion often comes is in (2). Doing the right thing is often difficult and, next to empathy, religious belief is surely the other reason many folks have the moral courage to do what they need to do. When we listen to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Dorothy Day, or so many others talk about the ethical power of faith, this is what they mean. When you look at the response by members of faith communities to disasters like the South Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, much less the daily work with the hungry and homeless, it is hard to doubt that for some religion is a source of moral strength.

Of course, it is also true that some of the most heinous acts in history have been committed by extremely religious people in the name of their religion. And here we come to (1), determination of what is the right thing to do.

Now, it is certainly true that religions have codes of behaviors and that these codes often overlap with morality. "Thou shalt not kill" is both a good religious and moral rule of thumb. But simply because something is required or forbidden by a religion does not make that action moral or immoral. If one eats a hamburger, one may be a bad Hindu; if on Good Friday, a bad Catholic; if with cheese, a bad Jew. But none of this means that one who eats a hamburger is necessarily a bad person. It may be immoral to eat meat, but that requires an ethical argument beyond a religious proclamation. That additional argumentation may refer to rights, duties, care, virtue, or utility, but it will be an argument on moral grounds, not religious. There are devout people on every side of any given moral issue. The hard ethical questions require deep thought and careful consideration, to cite religious belief as an excuse to not have to do this work is a cop out.

The idea that faith may replace careful rational thought about ethics runs into several problems:

The Problem of Interpretation

Putting aside all of the metaphysical issues about the existence of God, the problem of evil and the suffering of innocent children, and the ability of God to create a rock so big that He/She canĂ‚’t lift it, the first problem is that defining moral rightness solely in terms of the Divine Will means that making any moral judgment at all requires the ability to read the mind of God. Helpful hint from your Uncle Steve: any time you are in the presence of someone who claims to have a direct psychic connection to God, put your hand on your wallet and run like hell. If the Almighty were really speaking to us through Pat Robertson, Pat Robertson would be saying much smarter things.

The historical claim, of course, is that this Divine will is exposed to people not through reason, but through revelation. Certain people at certain times have had God appear to them in one of a variety of forms, and He has revealed His desires to them. Some of these experiences have been recorded as Scripture. Moral rightness therefore requires strict adherence to rules written in ancient languages and translated into English with a lot of thy's and thou's. The Scriptures of any religion are written words, and written words may be understood in many different ways. This is especially true with the Bible and its many allegories. There are not unambiguous meanings to many passages. What you are accepting is not the Word itself, but a human interpretation of the words. The question, then, is that if moral rightness derives from the Word, but we only have access to it through a human understanding of the words -- and there are several -- how could we ever know which is right? How could we ever actually make moral judgments?

The Problem of Completeness

The second problem is that religious codes, like any code, will not be sufficient to cover all cases. What happens when new technological advances raise new questions? Old rules may give us a place to start thinking, but they will not account for the complexity of a changing world. The word "internet" appears nowhere in the King James version. "Thou shalt not steal" is a fine command, but what do we mean by steal? The notion of intellectual property is an attempt to apply an Enlightenment concept to a changing commercial situation; to claim that ancient concepts bring simple answers to questions aNapsterpster is to grossly oversimplify.

The Problem of Soundness

The third problem is that when one considers all of the behavioral demands made by various religions, there are some that are morally problematic. Here'incontroversialrcial claim: "Slavery is immoral." Yet, one does not find "owning another human" ruled out in the Old or New Testament. Indeed, there are passages (Exodus 21: 7-11, Exodus 22:1-3, Deuteronomy 15:12-15, Leviticus 25: 44-46, Ephesians 6:9, and Colossians 4:1) that seem to tacitly endorse or provide rules governing slavery. The arguments against abolition in this country were often based on these Biblical passages.

Plato's Chicken and Egg Problem

In one of Plato's dialogues, Socrates comes across a young man named Euthyphro and has a discussion about the nature of morality. When Euthyphro defends the religious picture of ethics, Socrates asks whether an act morally right because God prefers it or does God prefer it because it is morally right? It's the moral equivalent of the chicken and the egg, but it has some very serious ramifications for the view no matter which side of the bet you take.

If one says that God prefers acts because they are morally right, then you have to accept that the act was morally right before God took a look at it. This requires that moral rightness exist independently of God's desires and that God then only prefers it because it was already morally right. This takes God out of the moral picture. We need only understand the nature of moral rightness, and do not need any understanding of God at all.

But if the reason an act is good is simply that God prefers it, then that means that if God enjoyed seeing people set infants on fire and roasting marshmallows over them, such horrendous acts would be morally good.

The immediate impulse is to say, "But God would never prefer such a thing." Why not? "Because it is morally wrong to set an infant on fire in order to make smores." But that move just takes us back to the first horn of the dilemma, where acts are morally good independent of God. You can't refer to the morality of an act when that morality is completely determined by what God likes and doesn't like. You can't say that God wouldn't like it because it is immoral, because to be moral just means that God likes it. If there is a reason why God would or wouldn't like it, then it is the reason and not God that is important.

So, there are serious problems with trying to use religion as a substitute for ethical deliberation. This is not to say that religious people are not capable of living good, moral lives. The person who pulls over to help you when your car breaks down in the rain is just as likely to be religious as an atheist. But when we face a tough challenge and it is unclear what is the morally preferable choice, to ask "What would Jesus (Rashi, Buddha, Shiva,...) do?" does not end the conversation.