Morality & Religion
It is obvious that there is a very strong link between morality and religion because as ethics covers it as part of Religious Studies, yet some of the ethical theories that have been covered would be acceptable to an atheist. As ethics deals with decisions about what is Right and what is Wrong in life, there is a clear overlap with religion. Equally, ethical theories arise out of their Time and Culture and may well be influenced by Religion. Religion is concerned with all aspects of God’s creation, both the Natural World and Humanity, and formulates rules for their inter-relationship.
Relationship between Religion & Ethics
Morality existing independently of Religion. Its ideas are shaped by reason alone.
Morality shaped by Religious Belief. Its rules are taken directly from Religious Teachings.
The Principles and Values behind both Religious and Ethical Rules are the same.
The Euthyphro Dilemma
The connection between Religion and Ethics has long fascinated philosophers and goes back at least to Plato. In one of his works called Euthyphro, the character Socrates asks: ‘Is something Right because the Gods command it or do the Gods command it because it is right?’
Euthyphro’s Dilemma for Christians
On the one hand the argument is saying that whatever God commands is Good in itself and we cannot apply Reason or verify it in anyway. If God were to command a cruel or dishonest action, then it would be right simply because he commanded it.
The other argument is saying that there are a set of absolute rules which are separate from God but known to him. God has not made these rules right, he merely commanded humans to follow them.
The Divine Command Theory
This argument is that something is Good simply because God commands it and for no other Reason. Here you might recognise one side of Euthyphro’s argument.
Many Christian thinkers, including Aquinas and Luther, and more recently William Temple and Pope John Paul II, have rejected the Divine Command Theory because they say some things are innately Good or Bad. Temple said ‘In its nature, the moral judgement is quite wholly independent of Religion’.
The Humanists are a group of people who reject religion and believe that morality can exist separately from religion. A.J Ayer said: ‘Humanism is an Approach to life based on Reason and our common Humanity, recognising that Moral Values are properly founded on Human Nature and Experience alone. Humanists value ideas for which there is evidence and the things inside and around us that make Life worth living’.
Christians believe the Scriptures transmit the Word of God: The weight of Authority given to the Bible is dependent on what exactly a Christian Believed about these books.
Some Christians believe that Humans were inspired by God to write down the Scriptures which means the writings are related to the Time and Culture when they were recorded and may contain Human Errors.
Others believe the Bible contains God’s words handed down directly to Humans. This makes these writings Divine and makes them the Highest Authority – their rules and ethical codes are Absolute.
The New Testament has particular importance for Christians because it records the Teachings of Jesus, whom Christians’ regard as God’s Son sent to Earth to save Humanity. They also believe it is essential to follow Jesus’ teachings if they are to be saved.
The Authority of the Church comes from Several Sources. Christian Priests have a vocation and training that enables them to interpret and transmit the Word of God and the teachings of Jesus to others. Church Tradition, which is based on the Interpretation of the Bible, is important in Christian Ethical decision-making.
In the book of Acts, there is an account of the early Church being inspired directly by the Holy Spirit which Christians believe continues to inspire it today. This gives the Church Authority to Formulate Ethical Codes for Christians, based on the Scriptures.
The Holy Spirit -
Christians believe that after Jesus ascended, God continues to reveal himself to Humanity through the Holy Spirit. Individuals through Prayer, Groups of Christians through Worship or the Church as a whole, may receive Revelations from the Holy Spirit which help them Formulate an Ethical Code. Revelation gives an Ethical Code great Authority.
Christians regard their conscience as the ultimate guide for making Moral Decisions because it was given to them by God and represents the voice of the Holy Spirit within them. Prayer worship and the teachings of the Church also assist the Conscience, which Aquinas described as Reason-Making Moral Decisions.
Reason & Natural Law -
Christians believe there is a Natural Law, which is God-Given and as such has Authority in the Formulation of an Ethical Code. Humans have been given the Power of Reasoning by God in order to understand this Natural Law which provides a reliable guide to what is Good and what is Evil.
For some Christians the source of Authority for Moral Decisions-Making is simply Love. They base their argument on the idea that God is Love and Jesus’ words and actions showed that Love was the Primary Factor in any situation. Gospel stories show Jesus was prepared to set aside the Authority of Jewish Law if necessary when deciding on the most Loving action in a situation.
A Jewish Foundation
Christianity has its roots in Judaism because Jesus was born and brought up as a Jew. His moral code came from the religious tradition and this is reflected in the Christian scriptures because the largest section of the bible is the Old Testament also known as the Hebrew bible.
Many Jews believe the first five books of the bible contain the precise words God gave humanity in order that they could lead Good Lives. Jewish teachers over the centuries have applied reason to interpret these rules so they can be applied to daily life.
The Moral Principle behind Jewish ethics is that god is just and loving. This was summed up by the prophet Micah (Micah 6:8) who wrote: ‘the lord has told us what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in a humble fellowship with our god.’
For Christians the Old Testament contains important ethical rules, the most important being the Ten Commandments. For some Christians’ and Jews, these are a set of Deontological and Absolute Rules.
The Ethics of Jesus
Because Christians believe Jesus was the son of God; everything he did or said on Earth is given the same status as though it came directly from God. If any of his teachings conflict with Ethical Codes in the Old Testament, Jesus’ words take precedence.
The New Testament contains many examples where Jesus acted out of love or compassion and deliberately set aside Jewish rules. When challenged by a Jewish scholar about the most important of the rules, Jesus replied: ‘love the lord your god with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and most important commandment. The second is: ‘love you neighbour as you love yourself.’ Matthew (22:37-40) ‘The Whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the Prophets depend on these Two Commandments.’ This is often referred to as the Golden Rule.
The emphasis on putting Love into action is at the Heart of Christianity. Jesus developed his Teachings on this in the Sermon on the Mount, which appears in Matthew 5:3-11.
Following Jesus’ Teachings is what God wants and this will lead believers to the Kingdom of Heaven and Ultimate Union with God.
Jesus’ Teachings were interpreted in years following Jesus’ death by the Apostle Paul. Paul’s interpretation of Jesus’ ethics have had the most Profound influence on the development of Christianity. Paul maintained that followers of Jesus did not need a Legalistic Code because ‘Their conduct shows that what the Law commands is written in their Hearts. Their consciences also show that this is True, since their thoughts sometime accuse them and sometimes defend them’ (Romans 2:14-15).
Paul also developed Jesus’ emphasis on the Law of Love as the main Ethical Rule. All other Ethical Decisions arise naturally from this. The Love Paul refers to is Agape and his famous letter to the people of Corinth (I Corinthians 13) explains exactly how Paul sees Love in Action. Paul’s insistence of Love being the Principle Factor in an Ethical Decision is developed from Jesus’ Teaching that people should Love God first and then their fellow men.
Absolute or Relativist
Because Christianity is such a Large World Religion, it is not surprising that there is a wide spectrum of interpretations within it. There are many major sources of Authority Christians use when arriving at an Ethical Decision. Roman Catholic Christianity places great emphasis on the traditions of the Church in interpreting the Scriptures. This means the Catholic Church, led by the Pope, is the Principal source of Authority and Aquinas’ Natural Law is the main Ethical Theory that underpins it. Aquinas argued that some things are right in themselves and others wrong.
Within Protestant Christianity there is also a wide interpretation of Christian Ethics with some evangelical Christians taking an Absolute Approach to Biblical Codes of behaviour. This applies not only to ethical codes such as the Ten Commandments but also to other Old Testament laws against Homosexuality and Abortion. More Liberal Protestants base their Ethical Code around Jesus’ command to show Unconditional Love to God First and then to Others. This would be their Absolute Rule, but the application of this Rule could be considered Relativist.
Absolute or Relativist
One controversial Protestant Ethical Theory is Situation Ethics. Arising from Jesus’ approach to Love as the single most important factor in a Moral Decision, Joseph Fletcher developed his Theory in the 1960’s. He argues that when faced with a Moral Dilemma, the right course of action Is the most loving thing to do. The action might go against Biblical Teachings and indeed might go against the Laws of the Country, but according to Fletcher it is the correct Christian Ethic. This Ethical Theory considers every Situation separately and applies Reason to it.
Christianity and Other Ethical Codes
On the face of it, this ethical theory would seem to have a great deal in common with Christian ethics. The Philosopher Paley certainly thought so. He wrote that Virtue is ‘Doing Good to Mankind, in Obedience to the Will of God, and for the sake of Everlasting Happiness.’ Despite being Atheist himself, Bentham was sure Christians would support the Utilitarian argument because they regard God as Good and John Stuart Mill likened the Principle of Utility to Jesus’ Golden Rule. Utilitarianism and Christianity do have different targets. According to Jesus, his followers must put other people’s needs ahead of their own, which is not a Utilitarian Principle. Christianity does also have some Deontological Rules such as the Ten Commandments whereas Utilitarianism is Teleological. A key objection to Utilitarianism is its Lack of Rights.
Christianity and Other Ethical Codes
Kantian Ethics -
This Ethical Code also appears to have much in Common with Christianity because it places great emphasis on treating people as an end in themselves. Kant’s universality also seems to have echoes in Jesus’ Golden Rule but Kant’s universality requires rigid rules and actions determined by Reason alone. This is not the way most Christians make Ethical Judgements.
Natural Law -
The Philosophers involved in the creation of this philosophy were Christians and so the two Philosophies are extremely close. Indeed Natural Law forms the Basis of Roman Catholic Ethics. Protestant Ethics shares only parts of this Philosophy and in areas such as Situation Ethics can deviate a great deal.