Religion and Morality

Religion and morality have much in common. Both arouse deep passions and are marked by personal commitment. Religious and moral claims aren’t the sort of ‘claims’ we ‘prove’ by reference to our five senses. There are also differences between religion and morality. Morality, that is, in the sense of making ‘moral’ judgements seems unavoidable whereas religion seems to be optional. Some form of morality is an almost universal feature of human life.

This is not true of religion – especially in the West since the Enlightenment – religion is no longer seen as ‘compulsory’. Since then (and Kant) morality has increasingly been regarded as having an autonomous status – independent of religion. Few now quote Dostoyevsky, “If God is dead, everything is permitted”. Many now think that morality exists and can be pursued independently of any religious profession. Historically, it is accepted that ethical awareness has been greatly influenced by religious beliefs.

A variety of relationships between religion and morality:

* For some (R.M. Hare) religion is a form of morality. Hare reduced religion to a commitment to an agapeistic way of life. Religion becomes a commitment to an ethical lifestyle.

* For others, morality only makes sense if religion is true. Many think that to behave morally is pointless if there is no God to reward or punish us.

* For many critics of religion morality is opposed to religion because religion demands unqualified commitment and obedience whereas ‘true’ morality requires that we make truly free (autonomous) decisions. These regard religious morality as infantile. According to Bertrand Russell (atheist) religion is “the dragon that guards the door” to mankind’s rational life. His response to the claim that religion makes people ‘good’ was “I have not noticed it”.

* Some think that religion transcends (goes beyond) human morality. Kierkegaard thought that faith demands obedience to God that suspends the ethical – as with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God’s command. Karl Barth took the view that the task of Christian ethics is to respond to God’s command. What you see here is this – the only true ethics is divine ethics which cannot be judged by human ethics.

Within Christian thinking there are two main accounts of the relationship between morality and religion: the divine command theory and the theory of natural law.

The Contribution of Christianity to Ethical Understanding

A special contribution is made in three ways:

* by its claim that morality is an integral part of human life, that it is the ultimate measure of its worthiness, and is subject to the judgement of God.

* by specifying certain rules and principles that should govern human life.

* by providing the inspiration to make possible a higher level of morality based on agape love – the unselfish love of others.

God’s will for the way in which life is to be lived is revealed in various ways: in the Decalogue and in the further message of Jesus who called for a higher ethic of tolerance and compassion and forgiveness. The setting for biblical ethics is the relationship of the individual with God. Moral living is not merely a matter of rules or consequences – it is rather the fulfilment of a duty of personal respect and obedience towards God who is seen as protector and judge. This makes biblical ethics quite different from other systems such as utilitarian or Kantian ethics which are rational and impersonal by comparison.

On the other hand, biblical ethics has a lot in common with both utilitarian and Kantian systems. All of the accepted moral principles governing the behaviour of humans that can be defended on utilitarian and deontological grounds are also found in the Bible. That we should relate to others on the basis of reason and justice is central to biblical ethics. This gives biblical ethics a claim to be both true to reason and guaranteed to produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number. However, the biblical approach has the uniqueness of making humans at the same time subordinate to the demands of reason and to the law of God. Its stress on personal responsibility to a personal creator gives biblical ethics a far more relational dimension than purely secular ethics.

Morality depends on Religion – Divine Command Theory

According to DCT, God decides what is right and wrong since God is all powerful. Human reason plays no part in legitimising moral rules – God has absolute authority. All humans do is accept God’s revelation of what is right and wrong. So, morality is dependent upon religion. William of Occam: “God cannot be obligated to any act. With Him a thing becomes right solely because he wants it so.” Christians who accept DCT look to scripture to provide our moral standards – the Decalogue (10 commandments) is an example of a set of moral rules. So, religious ethics are ‘guaranteed’ by God – God says that something is right or wrong and that’s it! A thing is good ONLY because God commands it and evil because he forbids it. Emil Brunner (theologian) put it like this, “The Good consists in always doing what God wills at any particular moment.”

Philosophical definitions:

Absolutism – the view that there are certain types of action that are always right or wrong……it does not depend on the context or the outcome.

Deontological (from the Greek ‘deon’ meaning ‘duty’) – the view that there are certain acts that OUGHT to be carried out and some that OUGHT not. This gives rise to rules, codes and laws.

Moral Absolutism is often identified as a deontological approach.


* Key attraction – without this ultimate foundation (that morality depends on the existence of God) of our values no other values have any justification. Rashdall (1858-1924) argued that there must be an ultimate value if any other values are to exist – “to the man who regards all spiritual life as a mere inexplicable incident in the career of a world which is essentially material and as a whole essentially purposeless there can be no objective foundation to morality and, in the end, no morality at all.” This sort of reasoning goes back to Plato who argued that our changing world cannot be the source of values but that there must be an ultimate unchanging reality which gives our world value. Even some atheists seem to recognise the presupposition that moral behaviour and belief in God are linked: “If God is dead, everything is permitted.” Sartre

* So, the argument has intuitive appeal….morality must have a firmer foundation than human thoughts and wishes. Some argue that a life lived with this sense of the existence of an ultimate value of goodness will be more likely to be a happy and worthwhile one.

* It appears to make sense; if the assumptions are true then the rest of the argument follows.

* It suggests that human beings are unable to work out right and wrong on their own…….this is the experience of many.

* Such a religious view gives us guidance in a complex world………if God is as Christians describe……we can trust his wisdom and therefore his moral rules.

* Believers would argue that a merely rational and secular approach to ethics leaves the individual stranded on a second-highest level of moral attainment because it lacks the dynamism and inspiration to motivate the individual.

* Many believers think that social problems (increased abortions, drugs, violence) can be linked to a society which has moved away from God.


* Is it sufficient to say that a thing is moral just because God has commanded it? If God said murder was good then according to DCT……it would be so. Many people find this unacceptable because it makes moral law arbitrary depending on God’s whims. Kai Nielsen (atheist) argues that merely commanding something doesn’t make it moral. Believers reply that it’s wrong to think of DCT as ‘blind obedience’ – we follow a person’s advice because they are trustworthy and we consider them wise.

* How can the individual be sure about knowing God’s will?

* DCT sets up God as a dictator… we have moral responsibility under such a system?

* What about situations where no express divine command has been given?

* Moral behaviour might be said to be motivated by fear of God’s punishment…..a questionable basis for morality?

* Critics of DCT see this as disallowing atheists from the outset – since atheists do not look to divine revelation for their knowledge of right and wrong. Yet atheists can be moral. The believer might reply that all moral knowledge comes through a society that was in the past influenced by religious beliefs.

* If humans are not free to decide their moral choices can their choices be called moral at all? If an action is coerced is it a genuinely free action? So, it’s objected that obedience to DCT undermines the individual’s moral autonomy/freedom to decide for himself. It’s claimed that living in obedience to some external power such as God, robs us of our autonomy and dignity. Basil Mitchell (believer) argues that autonomy is not undermined by accepting DCT – “Autonomy requires that the standards used shall be, in some sense, the judge’s own standards; not, however, in the sense that he must have invented them; only in the sense that he must have rationally accepted them.” Believers are arguing that it far from immature to recognise that God is the Supreme Power. Ordering one’s life in response is an exercise of maturity and autonomy.

* Human beings are capable of making their own moralities without any higher authority.

* Can it be proved that such a higher authority (God) actually exists?

* DCT requires that humans are capable of finding out what God wants……..some find this problematic. DCT assumes that the Bible is the word of God and that we can interpret the commands contained there.

* Can the moral rule always be applied? Is it always wrong to lie or to kill? Some think that a more flexible approach to morality is needed. Some DC theorists might agree that there are ‘hard’ cases but generally rules such as the 10 commandments are applicable.

* Many have believed they were doing what God required……when in fact they carried out evil deeds. Indeed, many atrocities have been carried out in the name of God.

* Even if it is accepted that God is the ‘decider’ of what is moral………is it right that people do good for personal gain or out of fear of punishment……compare Pascal’s wager.

* Don Cupitt (a modern radical ‘Christian’ thinker who rejects the old ‘realist’ notion of God) argues that dependence on a higher moral authority suffocates human creativity.

* The burden of proof is on the Divine Command theorist to show that here can be no morality without God.

* Richard Holloway (Bishop of Edinburgh) thinks that people want to retain absolute moral standards because they find it difficult to live with moral ambiguity. Holloway thinks we should reject the power-relationship implicit in the DCT

Morality does not depend on Religion

The Euthyphro Dilemma (must be included in any discussion of the relationship between morality and religion) is one of Plato’s dialogues in which Socrates and Euthyphro discuss the nature of the good; Socrates asks “Do the gods love what is good because it is good, or is something good because the gods love it?” Some philosophers think that the ED shows that it is impossible for God to be the foundation of morality because:

* If God loves what is good because it is good then there must be a standard of goodness independent of God.

* If something is good because God loves it then why should we agree with God’s judgement? If God decided that lying was a good thing would we have to accept this judgement?