Religion and Morality

Religion and Morality
Religion and Morality

Morality is closely associated with religion in the minds of many people. When religious leaders speak out on moral topics, their opinions are often treated with special deference. They are regarded as moral experts. This raises the question of whether morality depends in some way on religion. Many philosophers have held that it does.

John Locke, for example, argued that atheists could not be trusted to be moral because they would not consider themselves obliged even by solemn oaths, much less by ordinary promises. The answer to this question may be of considerable practical importance.

If morality does depend on religion, the process of secularization, in the course of which religious belief and practice wither away, seems to pose a serious threat to morality. At one time many social theorists were confident that secularization was inevitable in modern and postmodern societies. Experience has undermined this confidence.


Secularization no longer appears to be an inevitable consequence of modernization. Moreover, the process seems to occur at different rates in different modern societies. Thus secularization is more advanced in some Western European societies than it is in the United States.

Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to be concerned about whether morality will decline to the extent that modern societies become more secular if it is the case that morality depends on religion.

This entry discusses several ways in which morality may depend on religion. It considers causal, conceptual, epistemological, and metaphysical dependency relations. It also explores the possibility that morality and religion may come into conflict.

metaphysical dependency
metaphysical dependency

But a fruitful discussion of how two things are related must rely on some understanding of what those two things are. Hence the entry begins with characterizations of domains of morality and religion.

Morality and Religion Circumscribed

Understood in broad terms, morality consists of answers to the general normative question of how one should live one's life. It covers a wide range of topics related to the conduct of human life. Morality concerns actions that should and should not be performed and rules of conduct that should and should not be followed.

It also comprehends motives for actions that people should and should not have and character traits or habits that people should and should not try to develop. Another subject of moral concern is ideals of saintliness or heroism to which some people may properly aspire, even though not everyone is called upon to live up to these ideals.

Morality and Religion Circumscribed
Morality and Religion Circumscribed

Yet another subject is social and political arrangements that people should and should not strive to create or to sustain. Thus understood, morality consists of a diverse array beliefs and practices, and it is probably not possible to give an

illuminating definition of its scope. Philosophers often say that the realm of morality in this broad sense coincides with the realm of the ethical.

When philosophers reflect on the contents of the ethical, they find it useful to distinguish within it two domains, each characterized by a distinctive family of fundamental concepts. One is the axiological domain.

deontological domain
deontological domain

Its basic concepts are goodness, badness, and indifference. The other is the deontological domain. Its basic concepts are requirement (obligation), permission (rightness), and prohibition (wrongness).

Duty is the chief subject matter of the deontological domain. Some philosophers— Bernard Williams, for example—have proposed that morality be conceived narrowly as restricted to the deontological domain. On this conception, the domain of morality is a proper subdomain of the realm of the ethical.

Discussions of whether morality depends on religion frequently focus exclusively on the deontological domain. It is not hard to see why this occurs. Deontology consists of a system of requirements, permissions, and prohibitions. It is structurally similar to systems of law. Hence it is natural to think of deontology as the domain of moral law.

moral requirements
moral requirements

Once this way of thinking has been adopted, the question arises as to whether moral law's binding force depends on the authority of a divine lawgiver. Most of the discussion in this entry will address the issue of whether moral requirements (obligations) and prohibitions (wrongness) depend on a deity of the sort to which the major monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are committed.

However, some consideration will also be given to the topic of whether axiological goodness depends on such a deity. For this reason, the narrow conception of morality—which restricts it to the deontological domain—will not be adopted in this entry.

Religion, too, consists of beliefs and practices that exhibit great diversity. Most scholars who study it doubt that the concept of religion can be defined or analyzed in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions for being a religion. Some philosophers—for instance, John Hick— take the concept of religion to be a family-resemblance concept.

ancient cults of Moloch
ancient cults of Moloch

On this view, religions resemble one another as members of a family resemble one another. For example, the ancient cults of Moloch, Christianity, and Theravada Buddhism may be classified as religions because they resemble one another in various respects, without supposing that all three of them satisfy a single set of necessary and sufficient conditions for being a religion.

A more refined version of this view is provided by accounts developed in cognitive psychology of concepts organized around examples that serve as prototypes or paradigms. As a result of complex patterns of similarity to—and difference from—the prototypes, other cases lie at various distances from the prototypes in a similar space.

Cases near the prototypes fall under the concept; cases far enough away from the prototypes do not fall under the concept. In between there may be a gray area in which can be found borderline cases.

concept of religion
concept of religion

In attempting to define the concept of religion in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, there is often disagreement about whether commitment—in theory or in practice—to superhuman beings is a necessary condition for being a religion. A celebrated debate in anthropology nicely illustrates such disagreement.

Melford Spiro made the following proposal: "I shall define 'religion' as 'an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings'". However, there is an obvious objection to Spiro's proposal.

In its purest form, Theravada Buddhism does not postulate superhuman beings. Yet most scholars think that pure Theravada Buddhism counts as a religion. So Spiro's proposal fails to provide an adequate necessary condition for being a religion. It is too narrow.

Clifford Geertz
Clifford Geertz

Clifford Geertz (1966) offered a more complex definitional proposal. According to Geertz, a religion is:
  1. a system of symbols which acts to 
  2. establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by 
  3. formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and 
  4. clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that 
  5. the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. 
Theravada Buddhism will count as a religion by this definition. But so too will the system of symbols characteristic of Nazism, although most scholars wish to classify Nazism as a secular political ideology rather than as a religion— or at least to insist that it is religious only in some extended or analogical sense.

Thus Geertz's proposal fails to provide an adequate sufficient condition for being a religion. It is too broad. Disagreements of this kind fuel skepticism about whether it is possible to frame an illuminating definition of the concept of religion in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.

paradigmatic religions
paradigmatic religions

For historical reasons, the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the prototypes of religion for people brought up within European and North American cultures. Discussion in this entry will focus almost entirely on the theism that is common to these paradigmatic religions.

Causal Dependence

Morality would depend historically on religion if moral beliefs and practices were derived by causal processes from prior religious beliefs and practices. It is often imagined that early human societies had worldviews in which no distinctions were drawn between moral and religious beliefs and practices.

All norms of human conduct were then religious in character; their authority was taken to rest on superhuman sources such as the prescriptions of gods. Independent moral beliefs and practices emerged from such religious worldviews in the course of cultural evolution as a result natural processes of functional differentiation.

Causal Dependence
Causal Dependence

Rules governing the performance of religious rituals, for example, were distinguished from norms of ordinary human social interaction. The idea that all early human societies had tightly integrated worldviews dominated by religious concerns is, of course, highly speculative.

There is little direct evidence that supports it. Perhaps studies of tribal societies by anthropologists during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries lend this idea some indirect evidential support.

But the inference from structural features of the worldviews of those tribal societies to structural features of the worldviews of early human societies is problematic. After all, when anthropologists encountered them, the tribal societies they studied had themselves been evolving for a long time.

historical origins
historical origins

Moreover, even if something such as this story of the historical origins of morality were true, it would not have important philosophical consequences. It would not establish the conclusion that human beings would never have developed morality if there had been no antecedent religion because a function of large parts of morality is to make possible human cooperation for mutual benefit.

People would have encountered problems of cooperation even in the absence of religious beliefs and practices. Given human ingenuity, therefore, it is plausible to suppose that some form of moral belief and practice would have arisen in the course of human history, even if religion had never existed. Nor would history show that the truth of moral beliefs depends on the truth of religious beliefs.

In general, it is fallacious to infer from the premise that one belief grew out of another that the truth of the former depends on the truth of the latter. Though modern chemistry grew out of alchemy, it is believed that modern chemistry is true, whereas alchemy is viewed as mostly false.

Morality would depend psychologically on religion if religious beliefs were causally necessary to motivate general compliance with the demands of the moral law. If human beings are sufficiently selfish, many of them will not behave morally when the moral law requires large sacrifices from them—unless they believe that it is in the long run in their self-interest to do so.

The common theistic belief that in the afterlife God rewards those who obey the moral law and punishes those who do not will thus serve to motivate compliance with the demands of moral duty. Maybe this purpose can only be effectively served by a belief that morality has the backing of a system of divine rewards and punishments in the afterlife.

If this is the case, people who lack a religious belief of this kind will also lack what it takes to cause or motivate them to live up to the demands of morality when the going gets tough.

However, there are compelling reasons to think that the view of human nature on which this line of thought rests is inaccurate. Living in a social world in which many people lack belief in an afterlife, experience shows that many people are motivated to comply with the most stringent demands of morality even though they lack any belief in a system of divine postmortem rewards and punishments.

It was clear to thoughtful people who inhabited social worlds—worlds in which belief in heaven and hell was nearly universal—that belief in divine punishment in the afterlife all too often did not suffice to motivate people who did believe to obey the moral law.

What is more, according to some moral theories, morality requires not only that people comply with the moral law but also that their compliance be motivated by respect for the moral law itself. For example, Kantians hold that actions that are in compliance with the moral law but are motivated by hope for rewards or fear of punishment have no moral worth, even though they are legally correct.

In other words, morality demands both that people do their duty and that they do it for duty's sake. They will do the right thing for the wrong reason if their obedience to the moral law is caused by the belief that obedience will be rewarded or the belief that disobedience will be punished.

On a view of this sort, religious belief in rewards and punishments in the afterlife constitutes a danger to morality; such belief may tempt people to rely on motivational factors that will deprive their actions of moral value, even when they are the actions prescribed by morality.

Conceptual Dependence

Some philosophers have maintained that concepts of moral deontology contain religious content. In a seminal paper defending a modified divine command account of wrongness, Robert M. Adams (1987, 1999) proposed a theory in which being contrary to the commands of a loving God is part of the meaning of the term wrong in the discourse of some Jewish and Christian theists.

And in her famous attack on modern moral philosophy, G. E. M. Anscombe (1981) recommended getting rid of the concepts of moral obligation and moral duty—and the concepts of moral right and wrong—because they belong to an earlier conception of ethics that no longer survives. The earlier conception she had in mind was a law conception.

In it, according to Anscombe, the ordinary terms should, needs, ought, and must acquired a special sense by being equated in certain contexts with terms such as is obliged, is bound, or is required, in the sense in which one can be obliged or bound—or something be required— legally.

She contends that "it is not possible to have such a conception unless you believe in God as a law-giver; like Jews, Stoics and Christians". In the absence of this religious belief, the concepts of moral deontology have no reasonable sense; they are not really intelligible outside a divine law conception of ethics. Modern moral philosophers who lack belief in God would therefore do well to cease using the deontological concepts in their thinking.

Anscombe realizes, of course, that some nonreligious moral theorists will wish to retain a law conception of ethics without a divine legislator. In a Kantian conception of the moral law, for example, practical reason substitutes for God in the role of moral legislator.

One's own practical reason engages in self-legislation; it is the authoritative source of moral obligations. Anscombe alleges that the idea of self-legislation is absurd. She remarks: "That legislation can be 'for oneself ' I reject as absurd: whatever you do 'for yourself ' may be admirable; but is not legislating".

However, she does not offer an argument to support the charge of absurdity. Hence Kantians are in a position to take issue with her cursory dismissal of the idea of moral self-legislation.

A deflationary approach to the deontological concepts provides another nonreligious alternative to the divine law conception. According to the account of this kind proposed by Williams (1983), obligations are not always prescriptively overriding; they do not always beat out ethical considerations of all other kinds.

Instead, they are constituted by considerations to which some deliberative priority is granted in order to secure reliability in human social life. High deliberative priority is, in the case of some obligations, responsive to the basic and standing importance of the human interests they serve. Such obligations are negative telling people what not to do.

In the case of positive obligations, high deliberative priority is responsive to the demands imposed by emergencies. Williams thus indicates how it is possible for nonreligious moral theory to salvage at least deflated versions of the concepts of traditional moral deontology.
Anscombe's claim that the main concepts of traditional moral deontology have theistic content is intuitively plausible.

However, moral belief and practice seem capable of surviving, almost unchanged, the replacement of such concepts by successors without religious content. And nonreligious moral theorists may even welcome the deflationary features of such a replacement if it is carried out along the lines envisaged by Williams.

Epistemological Dependence

Many religious believers hold that their moral convictions acquire some positive epistemic status, such as being justified or being warranted, and thereby count as moral knowledge, by virtue of being rooted in religious sources.

Among the sources widely acknowledged in theistic religions are divine revelation recorded in sacred texts, divinely inspired prophetic utterances, and the teachers of divinely guided institutions. Frequently such sources purport to reveal divine commands by means of which God promulgates moral obligations.

In addition, calls from God to perform particular actions or to enter into religious vocations are taken to be revealed in individual religious experience. Perhaps the most celebrated example in the history of Christianity comes from Augustine's Confessions.

In retrospect, he took the childish voice he heard saying "Take and read" to be an indirect communication from God, because the biblical reading he did in response served providentially to trigger his conversion to Christianity.

Because they hold that these sources are reliable—at least in certain circumstances—theists suppose that their deliverances, when properly interpreted, have positive epistemic status.

Religious diversity furnishes the grounds for an objection to this supposition. Survey the entire religious scene and it becomes evident that there is enormous disagreement among religious people about which sources are reliable, as well as how to interpret the deliverances of these various sources.

Consequently, theists disagree among themselves about what God has commanded, and so they disagree about what is morally required or forbidden. Such disagreement undermines the claim that religious sources confer positive epistemic status on their deliverances. Positive epistemic status for one's moral convictions can only be derived from nonreligious sources, because only they can yield agreement. Jeremy

Bentham clearly articulated the epistemic asymmetry implicit in the objection. He remarked: "We may be perfectly sure, indeed, that whatever is right is conformable to the will of God: but so far is that from answering the purpose of showing us what is right, that it is necessary to know first whether a thing is right, in order to know from thence whether it be conformable to the will of God".

In other words, people do not first come to know, from religious sources, that actions are commanded by God and then, on that basis, come to know that they are morally obligatory. Rather, they first come to know, from nonreligious sources, that actions are morally obligatory and then, on that basis, come to know that they are commanded by God.

Religious disagreement clearly does have a negative impact on the degree to which moral beliefs derive positive epistemic status from religious sources. At least for those who are sufficiently aware of it, religious diversity reduces that degree to a significant extent.

After all, moral convictions would acquire a higher degree of positive epistemic status from religious sources if all the sources produced exactly the same outputs. However, nonreligious sources also yield conflicting moral judgments in pluralistic societies that tolerate free inquiry into moral issues.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of secular moral theory in the modern era is apt to think it unlikely that agreement on a single moral theory will ever be achieved under conditions of free inquiry.

So unless people are prepared to live with extensive moral skepticism, they should be reluctant to think that moral beliefs derive no positive epistemic status at all from religious sources merely because those sources yield conflicting deliverances.

Few people who live in religiously pluralistic societies rely exclusively on religious sources for epistemic support of their moral beliefs. Most people think the moral beliefs they form when responding intuitively to their experiences or to works of imaginative literature— or those beliefs acquired from interaction with parents and peers outside of religious contexts—often have positive epistemic status bestowed on them by nonreligious sources of these kinds.

Even the religious people who inhabit such societies typically find themselves with moral convictions that stem from a plurality of sources, some religious and others nonreligious. However, unless the religious worldviews that serve to accredit their religious sources are disqualified for rational acceptance— which would be difficult to establish—religious people seem to be entitled to trust those religious sources and to regard them as conferring positive epistemic status on their deliverances.

Hence the moral convictions of religious believers apparently can, in principle, derive positive epistemic status from both religious and nonreligious sources. Bentham's view is therefore one-sided. While religious believers in pluralistic societies may acquire knowledge of what God commands by first coming to know their obligations, they may also acquire knowledge of their obligations by first coming to know what God commands.

At least some of the moral convictions of such people can be epistemologically dependent on their religious beliefs and yet possess positive epistemic status. Or, at any rate, this view is more plausible than Bentham's if moral and religious skepticism is ruled out.

Metaphysical Dependence

Beginning in the last third of the twentieth century, interesting ideas about how morality might depend metaphysically on God were developed and defended in the work of proponents of divine command theories of morality.

In an influential paper offering suggestions to divine command theorists, William P. Alston (1990) proposed that axiology and deontology depend on God in different ways. In the axiological domain, in Alston's view, God is the paradigm or supreme standard of goodness.

An analogy to the situation helps to clarify Alston's suggestion. He maintained that the meter could be defined in terms of a certain metal bar kept in Paris. What then made a particular table a meter in length was its conformity to a certain existing individual.

Similarly, according to Alston, "what ultimately makes an act of love a good thing is not its conformity to some general principle but its conformity to, or approximation to, God, Who is both the ultimate source of the existence of things and the supreme standard by reference to which they are to be assessed" (Alston 1990, p. 320).

There is, to be sure, a disanalogy as well. While it is arbitrary which particular physical object was chosen to be the standard meter, Alston does not suppose that it is similarly arbitrary whether God or someone else serves as the standard of goodness.

Thus understood, moral axiology depends metaphysically on the nature and character of God. By contrast, within the domain of deontology, moral obligations and moral wrongness depend metaphysically on God's commands, and ultimately on the divine volitions expressed by those commands.

Alston's suggestions have been developed into a framework for ethics by Robert M. Adams. According to his theistic Platonism, God plays the role that the Form of the Good plays in Plato's metaphysics. God is the Good Itself, the standard of goodness; and other things are good by virtue of resembling or being images of God in various ways.

Modifying again his modified divine command theory of wrongness, Adams has claimed that wrongness bears the metaphysical relation of property-identity to contrariety to the commands of a loving God. He asserts: "My new divine command theory of the nature of ethical wrongness, then, is that ethical wrongness is (i.e., is identical with) the property of being contrary to the commands of a loving God" (Adams 1987, p. 139).

And in presenting his framework for ethics, Adams sometimes says that an action's being obligatory consists in its being commanded by a loving God and that an action's being wrong consists in its being contrary to the commands of a loving God. The fundamental principle of obligation of a theory of this kind asserts that actions are obligatory if and only if, and solely because, they are commanded by a loving God.

Its fundamental principle of wrongness claims that actions are wrong if and only if, and solely because, they are forbidden by a loving God. The metaphysical dependency of moral deontology on God is expressed in such principles by their requirement that actions are obligatory or wrong just because a loving God commands or prohibits them.

Of course, many philosophers have mounted objections to divine command theories of morality. Perhaps the most famous objection alleges that divine command theories render moral deontology arbitrary because God could have commanded absolutely anything.

Thus, for example, God could have made cruelty for its own sake obligatory simply by commanding it. A defense against this allegation is available within the framework proposed by Alston and developed by Adams. God's nature and character, which constitute the standard of goodness, constrain what God can command.

Though they may well leave some room for discretion in what God commands, God cannot command absolutely anything. If God is essentially loving and so could not be otherwise, it is impossible for God to command cruelty for its own sake. Hence, according to a divine command theory of this sort, it is likewise impossible for cruelty for its own sake to be obligatory.

Divine command theories have been defended against many other objections in work by Philip L. Quinn (1978) and Edward R. Wierenga (1989). As a result, it seems that these theories are good candidates for adoption by theists. If the larger theistic worldviews in which divine command theories are embedded are themselves rationally acceptable, an account of the metaphysics of morals, according to which morality depends on God, is a live option in moral theory.
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