Ans. (a) In seeking to determine the link between morality and religion it is necessary to look back into previous civilizations such as those of Egypt and India where the existence of God and the divine world was almost unquestioned, and the after-death fate of human beings was decided by the purity and goodness of their conduct during this life.
In India for example the principle of universal moral order, called dharma, is to be found in the operation of natural law and in the laws of morality. According to Indian thought, all actions have consequences. As we sow, so shall we reap, and the fruits of actions are like their seed : if we act with harmful or selfish intent, then not only will other people be hurt, but we also suffer in the long run. If we act with benevolent intent, not only will others be helped, but our actions will purify our hearts and bring us closer to God.
In ancient Greece however the philosophers began to challenge and question the link between morality and religion and indeed began to question religious belief itself.
Plato argued that virtue is knowledge and that people will be virtuous if they know what virtue is, and that evil or vice is the result of ignorance. Socrates believed that if people are educated about what constitutes virtue they will become moral.
The ethical systems of Greece did not extend to non-Greeks, who were called ‘barbarians’; nor did it extend to slaves.
The coming of Christianity, however, with its vision of moral citizenship and equality for all, irrespective of social position or race, appealed to the peoples of the west.
Christianity, as taught by the early Church, maintained that, ultimately, a person achieves goodness only with the help of God`s grace, and that human will or intelligence alone cannot achieve righteousness in the eyes of God.
In common terminology, someone who is described as a ‘good Christian’ is someone whose behaviour is thought to be kind, loving and moral.
While it may be a gross over-simplification to equate being a good Christian with good moral behaviour, it is clear that the Bible serves as an important source document for moral teaching. If we removed from either the Old Testament or the New Testament those passages concerned with morality – especially about behaviour towards others – we would be left with very thin volumes indeed. It is not entirely unjustified, therefore to say that religion is seen to go in tandem with morality and that believers are expected to live up to the codes of moral behaviour outlined in scripture.
The fundamental nature of much biblical moral teaching is illustrated by the latter five of the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, which are considered to be foundational to a moral society. Many of the laws in the Pentateuch, which were clearly established in the interests of a settling community that needed clear guidelines for the daily problems of adjusting from a nomadic life, are redundant today, but we have simply replaced them with others that suit our modern needs and circumstances.
The New Testament continues this pattern. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declares that he has come not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it (Matthew 5: 17). The so-called ‘Golden Rule’ – ‘ In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets’ (Matthew 7:12) – suggests that the essence of Godly and Godlike living lies in morally good behaviour.
Profound ethical teachings can also be found in the Books of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon (known as Wisdom literature); and in the utterings of the Prophets (Hosea, Micah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah) who taught that religion and justice, equality and compassion are all one and the same.
The life and teachings of Jesus become the essence of Christian morality. As well as being a moral exemplar Jesus is also the Messiah ushering in a new Kingdom of God. He is portrayed as being the living exemplar of Kingdom Ethics, his miracles and teachings recorded signs of the Kingdom. Jesus is depicted as proclaiming ‘Light’ and ‘New Life’ in contrast to darkness and death; teaching a community ethic built on love, forgiveness and loyalty : ‘Love one another, as I have loved you’ (John 15 : 12), the essence of the life of the Kingdom being love or agape (self-giving concern for others).
Believers would claim that they believe in an objective lawgiver, a moral commander, who should be obeyed. The lawgiver is, of course, God; the guilt and fear that we feel when our consciences prick us is the voice of God. It makes no sense for us to be afraid when we violate the moral law if we are not afraid of someone to whom we are answerable for our disobedience. It is possible that the guilt we feel is guilt at having disappointed or betrayed our partners, children or employers, but the believer argues that human sin and rebellion, even if it affects someone else, is ultimately rebellion against God – sin – and it is to him that we are ultimately answerable.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) argued that the moral law demanded the existence of God. The moral law, to be just, required that human beings be rewarded or punished according to their deeds. However, this was evidently not the case in the world, where evil people prospered and the good suffered. An afterlife was therefore necessary to redress the balance, and God must exist to make this adjustment and to satisfy the demands of the moral law.
For the Christian therefore morality and religion are inseparably linked. The Bible contributes to ethics in the following ways :
* It gives Christians a theological basis for moral obligations, in terms of the individual`s obligations to do the will of God.
* It provides Christians with an account of the relation of morality to God`s purposes in creation, explaining how God`s purpose is hindered by wrong living and how God`s grace can restore righteous living.
* It depicts the ideals of the Kingdom of God that Christ came to establish
* It reveals God`s moral law, declaring duties in many aspects of law.
* It teaches principles of human justice, love and mercy, reflecting God`s nature.
(b) Examine and discuss the reasons for arguing that morality should not be linked to religion (15 mks).
Ans. Not everyone of course agrees that morality and religion are, or should be, linked.
Humanists for example, unlike Christians, reject the idea that our moral sense comes from God. Rather, they argue morality springs from human needs and human interests. Humanists believe that sympathy, compassion or love (sources of morality) all spring from our nature as social animals. Like all gregarious creatures, much of our behaviour is quite naturally cooperative and altruistic. Francis Bacon held that ‘ The inclination to goodness is deeply imprinted in the nature of man’ – in contrast to the Christian teaching that as a result of the Fall of Adam – the human heart is sinful and in a state of rebellion against the Creator.
Humanism emphasizes morals without religion and strongly refutes the view that morality must entail a religious base. Whereas the Christian regards morality as something that has been imposed on man from above by a supernatural lawgiver, the humanist regards it as something that has been worked out and is still being worked out – by men themselves, in the process of learning to live happily together in communities.
In the absence of belief in God as a motive for directing moral behaviour, humanists are directed by what they claim are the ‘altruistic, co-operative tendencies that are fundamental in human nature’. As Margaret Knight (‘Morals without Religion’) writes : ‘There is no need to postulate a God to account for social behaviour. To quote Darwin himself “The social instincts – the prime principle of man`s moral constitution – with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, lead naturally to the Golden Rule (‘Do onto others as you would have them do onto you’) and this lies at the foundation of morality’.
Unlike Christianity, humanism has no absolute 10 commandments – but rather principles. The Ulster Humanist Association `Principles and policies’ pamphlet lists the following Code of Ethics for humanists to follow :
1. Think for yourself
2. Respect truth and reason
3. Be sceptical, yet open-minded
4. Respect Values
5. Respect Life
6. Be Open and honest
7. Be loving and kind
8. Help the weak and needy
9. Respect Nature
10. Support Worthy causes
N.B. Humanists would argue that there are very good reasons as to why morality should not be linked to religion.
They would cite for example the fact that Christian ethics has often bred intolerance (eg. different churches / religions have at times persecuted each other as well as people of other faiths. Sectarianism and bigotry in N.Ireland are often cited by the Ulster Humanist Association as an illustration of religion failing to deliver morality and in fact contributing to very unethical behaviour – including killings. The German philospoher Feurbach (an atheist) stated ‘ Wherever morality is based on theology, wherever the right is made dependent on divine authority, the most immoral, unjust, infamous things can be justified and established’.
Humanists would also cite that : Christian ethics are built on fear, and a system of reward or punishment. Traditionally, churches have taught that immoral behaviour is punished in the torments of ‘hell and damnation’, frightening people to conform out of fear and not allowing them the liberty to strive for inner conviction.
They would also argue that Christian ethics are repressive – ie. sometimes Christian ethics are viewed as a set of ‘do nots’, interpreted in a life-denying way, making them appear restrictive and curtailing individual autonomy and freedom.
Hector Hawton (humanist) explains humanism`s rejection of moral absolutes when he stated ‘Humanists in rejecting divinely-ordained moral absolutes, opt instead for relative autonomy for man in relation to ethical considerations. The humanist emphasis on free-thinking and reason – also explains its rejection of moral absolutes (which in the humanist view are an insult to human intelligence – which the religions mistrust).
Clearly we must recognise that it is possible to be moral without being religious and that therefore morality can exist independently of religion. The most ardent atheist can live a life of good works, clean living, integrity and compassion, and will be able to explain why the moral standards by which he / she lives are the best possible standards for humankind. To suggest otherwise is not only arrogant but also would be to ignore a wealth of evidence which humanists are quick to cite – where religion has contributed to many unethical / immoral activities (eg. millions killed over the centuries inWars of Religion not to mention religious sectarian bitterness in N.Ireland, the involvement of religious people in the Slave trade in 19th century, forced conversions of native peoples of Latin America by `Christian’ missionaries, abuse of children by Christian clergy etc.) throughout history.