Critiques of the relationship between religion and morality

The nature of the connection between religion and morality

The euthyphro dilemma and key episodes in biblical morality

The demands of religious morality

Richard dawkins and the virus of religion

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  • Created by: Liv1996
  • Created on: 09-04-14 08:43

Key questions

  • Is it possible to be religious but not moral?
  • Is it possible to be moral but not religious?
  • What is the relationship between God and goodness?
  • Does the existence of a moral law presuppose the existence of a supreme moral lawgiver?
  • If God does not exist, then is everything permissible?
  • how far does the moral teaching of religions accurately reflect what may be thought to be the moral will and intentions of God?
  • Moral teaching based on scripyure is unreliable because sacred texts are culturally relative and era dependent. The moral teaching they offer is not intended to provide eternal moral values  and treating them as such leads to problems of interpretation.
  • If religious believers are morally good only in the hope of receiving divine reward and avoiding punishment, is this genuine goodness?
  • Religious moral teachings derive from secular moral values, not the other way round. They are given religious significance to increase their authority.
  • Too much pressure is put on religious believers to live up to unrealistic standards of goodness.
  • The demands of religious morality are sometimes counter intuitive.
  • Society onlyappeals to religious morality in times of crisis, not for guidance on daily moral living
  • Resisting moral change in the name of religion can prevent moral progress.
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The connection between religion and morality

Does morality demand the existence of God?

Aquinas argued that the gradation to be found in things pointed irrefutably to the existence of God: 'Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But "more" and "less" are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest...Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.'

Aquinas says that the goodness, virtue or truth found in humans and in the contingent world is a reflection of the supreme or perfect goodness of God.

The fourth way is a form of ontological argument as well as a moral argument saying that, God's moral perfection and authority were evidence for existence.

F.C. Copleston claims: 'I do think that all goodness reflects God in some way and proceeds from him, so that in a sense the man who loves whatt is truly good, loves God even if he does not advert to God'

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However, Aquinas's fourth way does not suggest how good can be defined, and can good only be measured by reference to the divine.

Colpsten argues that is necessary to refer to god to distinguish between good and evil, whilst Russel argued: 'I love the things that are good, and I hate the things that I think are bad. I don't say that these things are good because they participate in the Divine goodness'.

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The Euthyphro dilemma and key episodes in biblical

If at least part of what believeing in God means is to live in obedience to his will and his law, then the way in which God makes moral commands is crucial to understanding how man should respond to them.

R.B.Braithwaite says that to be religious and to make religious claims is to be committed to a set of moral values, and argues that religious language is the language of morality and that religious believers have committed themselves to particualr ways of behaving.

For a religious believer, one knows that even if you get away with crimes in this world you will be punished in the next, so it is not in your eschatological interest to do so. So without a threat of punishment or promise of reward, morality is meaningless. this is an existentialist view; if God doesn't exist everything is permitted.

Critiques can take many forms: Sociological- Marx or Durkheim; Psychological- Jung or Freud.

The moral critique observes that moral demands apparently made by God lead to absurd, pointless or dangerous outcomes. One of the well-known methods of putting forward this problem is Plato's famous Euthyphro dilemma.

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Does God command X because it is good?

In this case goodness exists seperate from god and which God needs to access in order to make moral commands. God is the means by which man receives moral knowledge, but that knowledge has not come directly from God's morally good nature, so he is not wholly good. here God is not the guarantor of moral goodness and in some way his nature is qualified. Therefore this is surely not the God of traditional theism.

Is X good because God command it?

Here God's commands establish what is good, and nothing can be good unless God commands it. What is good? God's commands. Why is God good? Because he obeys his own commands.

We still haven't learned a lot about God since he could effectively command anything he liked and it would, by virtue of his command, be good- and he would be good if he obeyed it. this view effectively argues that a moral law is made right by virtue of divine command. this has the advantage of placing God clearly above morality.

But is God's commanding something sufficent grounds to say that it is moral? Surely this makes it arbitrary.

If we say no (to killing people), because we know that God in his wisdom would not command such a thing, then we are saying that killing people is wrong in itsel, and so God would not make the command. But this means that God is not all powerful after all, because he recoginses and is subject to a natural law of reason which humans share.

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Other problems

How do we deal with situations in which God does not expressly give a command? Perhaps by extrapolating from information we do have.

Does it mean that anything God commands becomes a moral law? The book of the covenant in Exodus 23ff includes many commands concerning food laws, which arguably have no moral status.

There are many people who don't believe in God and still make judgments concerning right and wrong, they must be able to be moral without consciously deriving moral standards from God.

If moral behaviour is motivated by fear of punishment, this seems to be a rather questionable basis for morality. Surely it is better to obey him out of love than fear. This view also requires an after life and this in itself is impossible to verify.

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The view that God commands what is good also ammumes a link between morality and God. However, it suggests that moral values are not established by God's will but that he operates according to moral laws already in place in the universe. One problem here is that we must wait for God to reveal what is moral by his commands, he is the channel through which moral values are passed down to man.

The range of problems explored here may lead to the conclusion that morality is opposing religion.if belief in God requires man to accept and fulfil his will obediently, then man's freedom is fundamentally violated, if man is not free to make his own moral choices, then he cannot be moral, since a genuinely moral action cannot be coerced.

Is God's will sufficent grounds for obeying a command? Jean Porter:'If the only good argument against suicide consists in the claim that it usurps the authority of God, it follows that someone who is terminally ill and subject to extreme and untreatable suffering must be told to continue to endure her suffering for an indefinite future, only because it would usurp the authority of God for her to end her life. Suffering is part of life and we should be prepared to endure what we must…Yet there is something deeply disturbing about the argument that people ought to be prepared to accept suffering…which could be alleviated…for no other reason than that God has not given us the authority to act in the appropriate ways. Is the God of love so easily offended or is God’s authority so precarious?'


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Abraham and Isaac

'After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”' (Genesis 22: 1-2)

God had promised Abraham and Sarah a child in their old age, and yet God asks Abraham to sacrifice him. Even if it doesn't raise formidible moral questions, it is at least counter-intuitive. 

Abraham's willingness to kill Isaac is enough for God to know that the patriarch would not withhold his only son from him. A ram is conveniently found in a thicket and offered in Isaac's place.

Soren Kierkegaard asks, was it ever reasonable for a man to be asked to abandon what he understands to be intrinsically good in order to fulfil the demands of faith? He reachs the conclusion that it is since faith is the highest virtue. In this case, being bound to the moral law of society would have been a hindrance to his fulfilling God's will. 

John Habgood says that 'If morality is supposed to be universal, can it really be discounted, even under such extreme pressures from God?'

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Daphne Hampson suggests reading Sarah; 'What kind of God do you think you are dealing with? What kind of God would want you to kill your own son to prove how religious you are? … She’s trying to teach you something; that you must challenge even the highest authority on questions of right and wrong'

Philip Tyler speaks of abraham interpretting the horror of God's command as a joke- what else could it be?

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The demands of religious morality

R.A.Sharpe challenges what he claims to be a misconception that if more people believed in God there would be less immorality. 'We are predisposed to think of religion and morality as intimately connected, and are reluctant to condem as immoral even moral views which are confused, inconsistent and which cause human suffering'. he makes a particular case against the prohibition on contraception- 'Is it remotely concievable that God should be interested in whether people used a condom rather than the rhythm method of contraception?'

Traditional interpretations of Islamic law prescribe severe punishment for extramatital sex, punishable by up to 100 lashes, while adultery is punishable by stoning. Although honour killings are forbidden, in the UK alone 117 killings have been investigated as honour killings, leading to confusion as to whether those who carry them out believe they are acting according to the will of Allah.

  • Condomnation of certain medical services (abortion, embryonic stem cell research)
  • harassment of workrs and patients at the entrance of abortion clinics
  • Condemnation of certain types of sexual behaviour because god disapproves 
  • Discrimination against women based on the declaration of sacred scripture
  • Enviromental negligence based on the belief that the current condition of our planet is unimportant because the world will end soon anyway after which it will be restored to paradise
  • Blaming libertarians, feminists and homosexuals for incurring the wrath of God, who subsequently allowed 9/11 terrorist attacks to occur (Jerry Falwell publicly expressed this view days after the disaster)
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The power of the religious conscience to lead believers to perform actions which appear morally wrong to non believers is worrying to many secular thinkers.

Freud understood the conscience as a policeman. He believed that the Christian conscience frustrated the development of sound mental health, by imposing rules and taboos on the individual which had no basis in reality but in a universal neurosis.

Sociologists propose the view that the conscience is the product of upbringing, education, socialisation and circumstances. It is therefore not inherent in human beings and does not owe its origin to God.

Decisions made on the basis of conscience must therefore be understood as relative and situational, and cannot be universalised.

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Richard Dawkins and the 'virus of religion'

Dawkins describes religion as a maignant virus which infects human minds, and dismisses religious faith as; 'an indulgence of irrationality that is nourishing extremism division and terror'. he focuses on practices of fundamentalist Islam and evangelic Christianity which he believes are responsible for misleading education, prejudice and ignorance, inciting fear and child abuse. he also refers to 9/11 and 7/7 with religiously motivated terrorism.

Dawkins quotes Stephen Weinberg: 'Without religion you have good people doing good things; and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.'

Dawkins maintains that morality evolves- it is not given by God, nor are we dependant on religion to teach morality.

Nietzsche rejects christianity and a belief in God because it encourages a slave morality. He believed that the autonomous man will have developed his own, inndependent, long range will, which dares to make promises: he has a sense of power and freedom, of absolute acomplishment'. 

Maybe having one eye on the next life, when all injustice will be dealt with takes away the need to restore justice on earth. Charles Taylor observes: 'The moment one loses confidence in God or immortality, one becomes more self-reliant, more couragous, and more solicitous to aid wheer only human aid is possible'

The good samaritan of Luke 10 does not describe religious men assisting, and Jesus cites this as a flaw in religious morality. needless to say it did not lead him to reject it altogether, but to offer what may be thought of as the prototype of Situation Ethics.

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Although we live in a multi cultural world religion has not gone away, there seems that there is a use for it. John Habgood suggets that people need more than 'instinct, custom and social convention'.

However, A.C.Grayling suggests that modern society values freedom, acheivment, saving money, insuring against the future and being rewarded for success, whilst Christian morality in particular values the opposite. 'It tells people to take no thought for tomorrow, to give their possessions to the poor, and to be aware that a well off person will find heaven unwelcoming'.

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