Chapter 5 Religion and Ethics


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If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.


What is the relation between religion and ethics? Many people insist on their close connection. They also often claim that the only way to provide an alternative to the “anything goes” attitude of the relativists is to turn, or return, to a set of strict ethical rules grounded in religion. This chapter examines these claims. We will do this by looking at two of the most important approaches to providing a foundation for ethics in religion. The first emphasizes the authoritative character of religion, highlighting one traditional role played by God in monotheistic faiths, that of providing laws for human conduct. This approach is known as Divine Command Theory and is most popular, in the United States, among conservative Protestants. The second emphasizes the order inherent in the natural world, considered as something created by and reflecting the plans of a divine creator. It is known as Natural Law Theory and is the official ethical theory of the Roman Catholic Church. Before we get to these particular theories it is worth considering in more general terms what motivates them both. What are they trying to accomplish and why?

It almost goes without saying that when any public figure in the United States speaks about things like “values,” or “morality” they are usually talking about religion. Hence it probably wouldn’t come as a surprise that the political organization called The Moral Majority was a Christian group that advocated a much greater role for religion in public life. But on what basis do we make this assumption that morality and religion are so closely connected? There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Many of us learn about what matters, about values, early in life in the context of religion. We are often taught about right and wrong in more or less explicitly religious terms.
  • Religious leaders have the reputation of being experts on moral and ethical issues, they serve as ethics and morality advisers to political and military leaders and often express concerns about the morality of scientific research and new technologies.
  • In many religions God plays the role of the source of morality – he/she/it is often considered the highest good and the giver of the laws.
  • Societies lacking strong religious traditions have a tendency to embrace moral and ethical pluralism, or at least an openly tolerant attitude about many questions of individual conduct and social roles.

Now this doesn’t yet show that morality and public order must be based on religion as Voltaire seemed to assume when he asserted that “If God didn’t exist we would have to invent him” as a method of social control. But at least it shows that many people are comfortable with asserting a close connection between the two. It is important to keep in mind, however, a distinction between three things: the origin, explanation and justification of a thing or concept.

NOTE: we should keep in mind the distinction between three things.

  1. The origins of an idea, thought or principle.
  2. An explanation of why someone might have it.
  3. The justification of that idea, thought or principle.

Even if religion is often a source of moral ideas, does this mean that religion is necessary for morality? Even if we can explain the role of religion in societies in part by its role in providing moral guidance, does that mean that religion is the only possible source of moral ideas or that it can in fact provide an adequate justification of those ideas? Backers of the theories we will be looking at here claim that we need religion, or at least a religiously inspired conception of reality, if there is to be any hope of avoiding the trap of moral relativism. Likewise, they assume that their theoretical attempts to provide a detailed account of how religion might provide a framework on which to build morality are up to the task. We shall see soon how things work out.