A lot of things have been said about human morality and how it cannot exist without religion. Atheists, however, do not quite agree with the idea of morality and religion going hand in hand. Let’s take our pick!
All persons ought to endeavor to follow what is right, and not what is established.
Morality is an inner compass that helps us distinguish between the good and the bad. It enables us to choose the appropriate path among the numerous ones which may lie before us. Interestingly, rather than telling us which path to take, the concept of morality provides us with choices, so that we can choose the path that seems to be the best. Taken to be synonymous to ‘goodness’ or ‘rightness’, morality is a human virtue that gives us those values and principles which help shape our lives in the long run.
A lot of things are being said and done about human morality these days. A lot of actions performed by people are being judged on the so-called ‘scale of morality’, as to whether they are moral or immoral. Various parameters are applied in order to determine this. One of the most important amongst these is, without any doubt, religion. Religion is, more often than not, defined as a set of values and beliefs, which form the very foundation of one’s life. Owing to this, morality is assumed to be an important aspect of religion. The question, however, is whether or not human morality can still exist in the absence of religion.
Relationship Between Morality and Religion
Religion was practiced by humans in one form or the other, even before the dawn of civilization. Even the prehistoric people had certain beliefs and codes of conduct, pertaining to things such as birth, death, afterlife, and so on. Even they had figured out the constructive and destructive powers of the forces of nature, and came up with ways to appease such powers by means of worship, etc. Even at that time, they framed a set of ideals – rights and wrongs – which they would follow or not follow, in order to lead a good life. And, these ideals were placed within the pretexts of religion, so that the ‘god-fearing’ people would do what, according to religion, was (and is) the ‘will of God’.
The concepts of religion and morality are very closely intertwined with each other. As one delves deeper and deeper within the tenets of religion, their interconnection goes on becoming so apparent that they are seldom thought to possess an ability to stand alone, and separate from one another. However, this is not always the case. While morality, as mentioned above, provides us with choices and leaves the final decision to us, religion points specifically towards the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ and tells us, rather orders us, to follow a certain path. In other words, religion is a system that decides for us, what is good and what is bad, and we humans, are left with no option but to follow what has been told. These ‘right’ or ‘good’ things, which we are supposed to follow, form the morals/ethics, and the one who takes the religious path prescribed through them, becomes a virtuous individual, who would go to Heaven after death or would attain salvation.
Religion, irrespective of its nature (monotheistic, polytheistic, henotheistic, etc.), is believed to be the mouthpiece of God himself. Owing to this, it determines the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of a particular kind of deed/behavior, based on whether or not God and/or His close associates chose to take a particular stance. This association of ‘morals’ or ‘right and wrong’ with God, gives a certain amount of credibility to them, as it is believed that God can never be wrong/evil and thus, His path is ought to be the righteous one. This, essentially, is a very peculiar thing with respect to the interrelationship between morality and religion. We humans, cannot concentrate or make decisions in vacuum. We need a certain entity to focus our attention on, and religion provides us with just that. It gives us God, an entity – whether anthropomorphic or not – that is perfect. He is an omnipresent, all-pervasive, utopian being who never goes wrong, always speaks the truth, makes right decisions, never fails in any endeavor, solves each and every problem, and, at the same time, is intelligent, compassionate, kind, and helpful. With all these, and many more virtues, forming part of the personality of a single entity, it is but obvious for believers to become dedicated followers of His path.
On the Morality of Religion…
* The instances mentioned here are merely based on observations and are not intended to hurt anyone’s sentiments.
While analyzing the influence of religion on morality, it becomes extremely essential to do a pragmatic critique with respect to whether or not God is moral at all instances. This is due to a simple reason that if we base our definition of morality on God’s teachings/behavior, it is vital for us to listen to our inner voices to determine if everything that God said, did or got done was moral or immoral, human or inhuman.
In almost all religious scriptures across the world, God has been described as the source of all morality. It is from Him that the code of morality comes to humans, who are expected to practice it, come what may. After all, this is what God has done and has also commanded His believers to do. This is ‘His Will’. However, at various instances, a closer scrutiny of religious scriptures leads us to question the morality of God himself. More often than not, we come across certain actions performed and/or supported by God that may stand in opposition to the basic moral principles. And, this is where a major confusion arises. If God himself has indulged in immoral acts, how and why do we consider Him to be the source of morality and also its upholder.
Contrary to the claim of the theists that God is morally perfect, we have several instances in various world religions, which make Him and/or His prophets seem extremely immoral and hypocritical. Following are some of the examples pertaining to some major world religions:
- In the Holy Bible, it is mentioned in Genesis 6 and 7 that God was so annoyed with all the violence happening on Earth that he decided to put an end to it. And how would that be? He decided to kill each and every living thing that existed (of course, with a few exceptions). Also, in Joshua 6:21 of the Holy Bible, it is mentioned that the city of Jericho was invaded on the instructions given by God, and everything that breathed – men, women, children, elderly people, and cattle – was destroyed by sword.
- Islam commands believers to fight against the so-called infidels until the last breath. According to the Qur’an (8:39), believers should fight the non-believers until there is no more Fitnah, a chaotic situation wherein one’s faith is put to test. In other words, it talks of eradicating all the other religions, so that the world can be ruled by Allah (Islam) alone. The Hadiths, which form a large mass of Islamic canon, are essentially lectures in and commentaries on Islamic jurisprudence. One of them, the Hadith of Bukhari quotes a leader of one of the military campaigns that was sent by Prophet Muhammad to Yemen in order to destroy the local religion and convert the people to Islam. The military commander tells the people of Yemen to testify that no God other than Allah would henceforth be worshiped, and threatens to chop off their necks if he is disobeyed.
- Hinduism is also not behind as far as the connection between immorality and God is concerned. Hinduism is essentially a henotheistic faith, having a plethora of divinities, which may be worshiped, but the main aim remains to reach the ultimate reality. Nevertheless, the Hindu gods have displayed immoral and hypocritical behavior from time to time as the holy scriptures and the myths show. Lord Indra, the king of the Gods, is famous for his vices of jealousy, treachery, cheating, consuming intoxicants, womanizing, and adultery. Lord Rama, one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu (the sustainer of the Holy Trinity), despite being a king himself, abandoned his wife as he was more concerned about his social reputation, rather than his wife’s self-esteem. Lord Parshurama, another incarnation of Vishnu, went on a carnage, killing the entire race of the Kshatriyas (the warrior class) and vowed to wipe out the race from the face of the earth. He did this because he sought vengeance for his father’s death, who was apparently killed by a couple of Kshatriya princes. There are hundreds of other instances, like the ones mentioned above, in Hindu religious scriptures.
- Buddhism, considered to be one of the most righteous and peaceful religions of the world, is based on the teachings and experiences of Gautama Buddha, the Shakya prince, who attained enlightenment. The tale of the Buddha tells us that he left his palace one night, in quest of knowledge, without informing anybody around – not even his beloved wife. Many things have been said about how Gautama renounced his palatial pleasures and led a life of a hermit, and how he founded an entirely new faith, based on non-violence and peace. Very few, however, speak of the yearnings of the forsaken heart of his spouse, Yashodhara and of his son Rahul, who, as a child, may have longed for his father. Nothing much is said about what Yashodhara did while Gautama was away, how she lived or how she raised their son. It certainly might have been very difficult for her.
- How can we forget the ancient Greek religion, when we speak of Gods and their immoral behavior? The ancient Greek pantheon is full of nasty, adulterous, jealous, over-ambitious, lustful, and treacherous gods and goddesses. We can jot down numerous examples from ancient Greek mythology. The extra-marital affair of Aphrodite (the goddess of lustful love and wife of Hephaestus, the god of metallurgy) with Ares (the god of war, violence, and bloodshed) is a classic example of immoral behavior. Aphrodite and Ares were caught red-handed by Hephaestus, who then separated from Aphrodite. Shortly after this separation, he saw Athena (the goddess of warfare and strategic planning, and one of the virgin goddesses) and was so overwhelmed by her beauty that he attempted to rape her, though unsuccessfully. The nasty Eros (the god of love) shot one of his arrows in the heart of Hades (the god of the Underworld), who in turn fell in love with Persephone (the goddess of vegetation), abducted her and forcefully married her. Apart from these, there are numerous other instances, pointing towards the immoral behavior of Greek divinities.
Other religions, apart from the five mentioned above, also have a fair number of such instances and so, the fundamental question lies in such loopholes that all religions have. Are we taking our lessons of morality from the wrong source? Or, are we simply not capable enough to interpret the morals that lie beneath all the seemingly immoral acts of God(s)? The answer is indeed very complicated. What may be argued, however, is that though religion is very important in determining the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, it still depends on one’s own perceptions, as to which path he/she takes.
Interpretations of Morality in Religion
Morals and ethics differ from religion to religion, and owing to the fact that there are a large number of religions practiced across the world, we have an immensely huge number of ‘morals’. At this juncture, it is important to note that there may be varied versions of how morality in religious traditions may be interpreted or rather, misinterpreted. This depends, largely, on who is interpreting morality and under what circumstances, amongst various other factors. Furthermore, what may seem to be moral to one person, may seem to be absolutely immoral to the other, even though both of them may belong to the same religious faith. So, in a nutshell, morality is based mostly on personal interpretations, which may, more often than not, go haywire as different people think differently.
Throughout history, it has been witnessed that interpreting religion has been the domain of the priests who acted as ‘god-men’ or ‘mediators’ between God and the common masses. For several years (and even today to some extent), the words of these priests were regarded as the ultimate ‘words of God’, and as the ‘true’ teachings of a particular religion. Therefore, what the religions taught was often largely based on how the priests interpreted them.
One of the major aims of these priests was to expand the religion they belonged to, by making more and more people believe in its ideals. The best way to do this was to frame a certain set of morals and to assure people a good afterlife or a place in Heaven. That was, if the path was morality was followed with complete sincerity and dedication. These were then, accepted and followed by people because essentially, the human mind dwells on the idea of doing something in order to gain something in return. The only problem here, was that instead of focusing on the current life, more emphasis was put on the life after death. However, because most of us fear death, religion that promised minimum sufferings after it became the biggest upholder of human morality.
Nowadays, with more and more people becoming well-versed with religious scriptures, we have varied versions of the morals set forth by different religions. Interestingly, people have been reading between the lines of late, which has resulted in some entirely fresh interpretations of religious moralities than what they seemed on the surface. This critical outlook leads us to another fundamental question: if one set of morals can be interpreted in so many different ways, is there a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ way?
Is There Any ‘Right’ or ‘Wrong’?
The concepts of ‘right and wrong’, ‘good and bad’ are deeply rooted in human morality. Of course, these concepts exist. Everything has its equal opposite. The entire universe is based on this very concept of duality, which states that there always exists an opposite to everything. The light and the dark, the day and the night, the masculine and the feminine, the true and the false, the good and the evil, the right and the wrong are all aspects of this dual nature of the universe.
When we think of the concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, we, however, come to realize that both these are extremely subjective in nature. This means that their meaning and definition differs from person to person. What may be right for one individual may not be accepted in the same way by another. The other person, who may also aim to reach the same destination as the first one, might in fact have a completely opposite idea on how to go about his/her journey. Even if the thought processes of two given individuals may completely contrast each others, both may be equally successful in reaching the given destination, although they may take altogether different routes.
Quite often, the ‘right’ and what may seem like a ‘wrong’, may intersect at a certain point. At this point of intersection, both the concepts become one. Thus, what remains is only the ‘right’ path; the possibility of a ‘wrong’ way is completely negated. This means that because one individual thinks differently from another, he/she need not be essentially ‘wrong’. In fact, both of them may be ‘right’ in their own ways. So, ‘right and wrong’ is completely a matter of individual perception. This brings us to a conclusion that there are, in fact, numerous ‘rights’ and numerous ‘wrongs’, and people may thus, choose whichever best suits their circumstances.
Can Morality Stand Alone?
Having said a lot about morality and religion, and how they are interlinked (or at least seem to be), it is vital to understand that though morality can and does exist without the support of religion, religion cannot exist without morality. Religion presents us with a picture of a utopian society, which may be achieved if we follow a certain moral path. However, utopia neither has nor will exist. Morality, on the other hand, gives us those values, which we cultivate within ourselves, so that we can lead a good and a fruitful life.
Morality, as a concept, is greatly different when it is in black and white and when it comes to its practical usage. Morality, in real-life circumstances, does not remain a static concept, as the set of morals that a person may follow may differ from situation to situation. For instance, a certain moral can be extremely good in ‘A’ situation, but when applied to ‘B’ situation, it might not seem as good. So, an individual needs to choose cleverly between the various ‘rights’ that are there at his/her disposal, rather than sticking to the rigid morals prescribed by his/her religion.
All of us possess cognitive reasoning abilities that we need to use in deciding the ‘rights’ and the ‘wrongs’ for ourselves. In today’s world, which is very dynamic, we cannot stick to the static and stringent religious morals. We need to keep in mind that the scriptures from which religions derive moral values were written hundreds of years ago and so, the values that held good at that point in time, might not hold good now.
Recent statistics tell us that about 16% of the total population of the world does not follow any particular religion. This, however, does not mean that they go around killing or robbing people. Even if you do not follow a religion, you can still lead a moral and a respectful life. This is because morality cannot be given to you by an external entity such as religion; it lies deep within your own self. If you see an elderly person having trouble crossing the road, you do not need your religion to tell you what you should or should not do. Your morals display themselves from time to time in the way you act, behave, and regard or disregard things. More aptly put in the words of Albert Einstein,
“A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death.”