A first step toward answering these questions is to identify the variety of relationships between religion and morality that are found in the world's moral and religious traditions (Little and Twiss). In general, religion is an authoritative source of moral norms and a primary motivation for conformity to moral requirements. Significant variations on this general idea do, however, exist. Is religion the only source of the moral norms, or may those norms, or some of them, be discovered or created in other ways? Is the authoritative source the will of a divine lawgiver, or an intrinsic goodness in the nature of things themselves? Is the motive for moral action a religious love of the good for its own sake, or the hope for an ultimate compensation for the hardships that moral behavior sometimes requires?
Answers to these questions differ, both among different religious traditions and among different schools of thought within a single tradition. The major monotheistic traditions— Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—often represent key moral norms as direct commands of God. In the religions that originated in India—Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism— by contrast, the central concept is karma, a cosmic moral order that fixes inescapable consequences for any action (Green). Protestant Christianity has often stressed the word of God, the direct divine command that is independent of any human knowledge or wisdom, while Roman Catholic moral theology has relied more on the concept of "natural law," a moral order established by God, but knowable by human reason and apparent in the workings of the natural order (Gustafson).
While it would be possible to explore the relationships between religion and morality by surveying major religious traditions individually, that approach would quickly become a volume unto itself, and it would still do scant justice to the nuances and variety within each tradition. For present purposes, we must limit consideration to a typology of relationships that can be observed in a number of traditions, especially as these traditions come into contact with one another and with the forces of modern technological change. Examples of each type can be identified in a variety of religious traditions, but readers who seek a comprehensive understanding of morality in, for instance, Buddhism or Islam will need to consult other sources, some of which are identified in the bibliography for this entry.
The wide variety of possible relationships between religion and morality may be organized in three prominent types that have received most serious attention from modern scholars: (1) cosmic unity, in which moral obligations derive from a natural or metaphysical order that is understood in religious terms; (2) logical independence, in which moral norms, despite their historical connections to religion, do not depend directly on religion for their validity, and in which religious values must be sharply distinguished from judgments of moral worth; and (3) cultural interdependence, in which neither religion nor morality can be understood apart from the communities in which they have developed and in which their practices have become intertwined.
This typology is derived from modern Western scholarship and reflects particularly the development of religion in modern, secular societies. Each of the types, however, has roots in earlier developments in Western theology and philosophy, and most have parallels in other, non-Western religious and cultural communities. While the emphasis in what follows will be on the modern West, much will be relevant to modern and modernizing cultures in other parts of the world, and analogies to the relationship between religion and morality in other cultural settings may illuminate both those settings and the West's.
COSMIC UNITY. Many cultures have conceived moral and natural orders as an undifferentiated unity. The rewards and punishments associated with moral action are as much a part of reality as the forces of wind and water or the patterns of growth and development observed in plants and animals. To put the matter another way, both the observable patterns of nature and the system of moral requirements are part of a larger order that encompasses all reality, seen and unseen. This unity, expressed both in myths and poetry and in speculative metaphysics, comes into question as science and philosophy develop, but it remains a powerful influence, even in modern, secular societies.
Sometimes, the power that requires moral conduct is thought of in impersonal terms, as a force to be reckoned with by humans and by more powerful beings as well. Early Greek philosophers and poets understood justice (dike) in these terms. Justice keeps gods and humans from exceeding their limits, and those who ignore justice risk disaster for the whole community (Adkins). In ancient China, dao was a pervasive force that both regulated the order of natural events and set the standard for human conduct (Girardot). Similar concepts appear in other traditions.
In the Hebrew scriptures, the ultimate power is a personal God who is not subject to higher forces, but who addresses human beings in terms of moral commandments (Deut. 5:1—21). This God is also the creator of the natural forces with which humans must reckon. A somewhat later strand of the tradition represents wisdom (hokmah) as the pervasive, unifying power by which God both shapes the material world and directs the conduct of good persons (Prov. 8:1-31).
These early conceptions of a moral order inherent in the order of things often gave way to an understanding of laws and obligations as purely human creations, having power only so far as they are enforced. The development of these skeptical ideas often coincided with the breakdown of traditional social patterns, or with the discovery of other peoples and cultures who lived by quite different rules. Both Greek and Roman philosophers, however, retained the notion that some requirements are not conventional, but natural. However much Greece and Persia otherwise may have differed, some moral requirements remained the same in both places (Aristotle).
This idea provided theologians with the basis for a concept of "natural law," through which God's commandments could be known by all rational persons. Thus, the same minimal requirements of morality apply to everyone, whether or not they share the same ideas about God. Both Judaism and Islam developed philosophical systems that transmitted the Hellenistic notion of natural law to the Christian West, and for a brief time in the Middle Ages, teachers in all three traditions could debate the relationship between God's will and the created order in a shared philosophical framework (Jacobs). In medieval Christian theology, natural law related all rational beings to God. Natural law was seen to be the way a finite, rational being participates in the eternal law by which God orders the universe.
The ever-present possibility of elevating a particular aspect of nature to the level of equality with God led, however, to widespread suspicion of natural law ideas among moral and religious reformers. The main line of development in Jewish ethics centered on observance of a code of law based on scripture and rabbinic interpretation, rather than on a rationalist moral philosophy (Lichtenstein). In Islam, the philosophical movement evolved in a more mystical direction, focused on the identity of the human spirit with the spiritual character of all reality, rather than on the moral requirements of a natural order (Rahman). In
Western Christianity, the Protestant Reformation challenged all forms of religious legalism, including the precepts of natural law.
During the seventeenth century, however, a new group of legal and political theorists seized upon the concept of natural law as the key to understanding the relationships between nations as well as persons. While the religious significance of the natural law was not necessarily rejected, it was the universality of the obligation, not its divine origin, that attracted these jurists to the idea. In both legal and theological treatments of natural law, however, these highly articulated systems of moral thought share with the earliest myths of cosmic unity the notion that some moral requirements are inescapable because they are part of the structure of reality itself. Since World War II, renewed interest in theories of natural law as a starting point for an international recognition of basic human rights testifies to the continuing significance of this way of relating moral requirements to religious beliefs about the origin and end of the world in which the moral life is lived (Maritain).
The idea of a comprehensive order that encompasses both moral and religious requirements thus appears both in the most ancient religious traditions and in modern Western theories of natural law. Although reformers in many theistic traditions have sought to restore religious morality to a direct dependence on the will of God, the underlying idea that what God wills is also supported by the natural order that God has created never entirely disappears, even when the human ability to know God's will through the natural order is contested.
LOGICAL INDEPENDENCE. The fact that religion and morality are closely related in the history of Western thought does not, of itself, establish that their connection is important for contemporary moral decisions. The historical relationships might be viewed as accidental or contingent, subject to change without altering the basic requirements of morality. The links between religion and morality might even be points of confusion that obscure important features of both religious and moral truths. For some thinkers, then, it is important to establish the distinction between religious and moral evaluations, even though these may be commonly confused in practice, or integrally related in some more comprehensive system of ideas. Failure to make the distinction between religion and morality runs the risk of subordinating both to prevailing cultural practices, which may themselves be morally questionable.
By the eighteenth century, European philosophers had begun to advance theories about the historical development of religion that were not based on the history presented in the Bible. Religion could thus be given a "natural history," as opposed to the sacred history revealed in scripture. David Hume's "The Natural History of Religion" postulated a primitive connection between fear of the awesome power of natural forces and dread of punishment for moral transgressions. Such fear may continue to serve as a useful inducement to moral conformity, but it leads only to confusion if the source of the moral imperatives is sought in a supernatural power. Against those who worried that a distinction between religion and morality would lead to a decline in moral standards, Hume argued that a sound logical connection between moral requirements and the public good was the only secure basis for morality. A utilitarian calculation of the line of conduct that will produce the largest social benefits is the final source of moral norms, and respect for that public good is the only secure ground of moral motivation.
In addition to the possibility that the connection between religion and morality is simply a residue of primitive superstitions, philosophers noted another point that seemed not only to distinguish religion from morality, but also to give a logical priority to morality. Religious traditions frequently praise a divine center and origin of moral goodness, or point to the lives of exemplary religious figures as examples to be followed. To recognize that goodness seems, however, to require a moral judgment that precedes the religious assent. We can only praise God or emulate the saints for moral goodness if we have an idea of what is morally good, by which we measure even these supreme examples. "Even the Holy One of the gospel," wrote Immanuel Kant, "must first be compared with our ideal of moral perfection before we can recognize him as such" (p. 76).
Clearly, whether one begins with Hume's "natural history" of religion or Kant's rational foundation for moral judgments, morality and religion cannot be simply identical. The Christian natural law tradition used reason to discern God's will in the order of the created world. In Kant and Hume, reason formulates its requirements independently, on the basis of social utility or of logical necessity. The resulting standard of morality is then applied to religion, which may or may not measure up.
This separation of moral requirements from religious belief does not, however, imply that religion has no connection to morality. Many who accepted a rational morality, the requirements of which did not depend on faith, continued to value religion as a motive for the moral life. Love of a God who is perfect in goodness, and reverence for saints who have upheld the requirements of morality in the face of severe temptations, provide powerful motives for people to live up to moral expectations in more ordinary circumstances. Indeed, Kant argued that some conception of God is ultimately required to make sense of the sacrifices that all moral action requires of us. The logical independence of morality from religion does not require that religion be abandoned, but it does require that moral actions be undertaken precisely because we are convinced that they are morally right, and not because we believe that God commands us to do them.
These philosophical developments coincided with important historical changes in European religious life. By the end of the seventeenth century, the normative requirement of religious conformity was rapidly being replaced by practices of religious toleration and, eventually, by a civic commitment to religious freedom. The logical separation of religion from morality became a sociological necessity as well, if citizens who were no longer united in their religious beliefs were to acknowledge moral obligations to one another. In the United States, especially, the idea developed that a variety of quite different religious beliefs could support a common moral consensus (Frost). Because morality and religion are independent, diversity of religious beliefs need not lead to moral conflict, and moral order does not require religious agreement.
In other cases, where the break with traditional forms of religious and social life was sharper, or where the conflict between religious groups was more intense, public moral expectations were reformulated in nonreligious terms. Where cooperation between religion and government proved difficult, or where the moral consensus between different religious groups was obviously lacking, the concept of a "secular state" provided the necessary basis for social unity. A secular state not only refuses to privilege one or another religious perspective among its people, it resolutely excludes religious considerations from the formation of policy and regulations. Religion and religious morality become private considerations, subject to regulation for the public good.
This understanding first emerges clearly in the French Revolution, but the idea of a secular state has also provided hope for civil unity for many twentieth-century leaders in countries deeply divided by religious strife or torn by controversy over modernizations that undermine traditional forms of religious life. In the United States, where the prevailing model has been the religious consensus on moral expectations, elements of the secular state concept have nonetheless been invoked to curb sectarian religious practices that differ sharply from those of the majority, or to exclude religious arguments from controversial questions of policy. Judicial limitation of a parent's power to withhold medical care from children on religious grounds and political arguments that Roman Catholic opposition to abortion violates the constitutional separation of church and state are two instances in which the apparent lack of religious consensus has prompted arguments for policies of a secular state.
The logical separation of morality from religion, then, provides an important intellectual starting point for the ordering of societies divided by religious differences or seeking to modernize in the face of opposition by traditional religious groups. The distinction between religion and morality does not, by itself, prescribe a role for religion in public life. Religion may be one element in a powerful moral consensus that differs from the religious morality of a traditional society, or it may be virtually excluded from influence by a secular state that defines public morality in terms of a utilitarian calculation of the public good.
CULTURAL INTERDEPENDENCE. Although the logical separation of morality from religion is a premise for much of Western European and North American thought in ethics, law, politics, and even theology, its relevance to other points in history and other parts of the world is less clear. The modern Western distinction between religion and morality is missing from many highly developed religious and cultural systems, which assign duties to persons on the basis of their position in society without obvious distinctions between what modern Westerners differentiate into moral requirements, common courtesy, religious obligations, and patriotic duties.
This is most clear in the traditional societies of India, China, and Japan. Hinduism recognizes few duties that correspond to the universal moral obligations of modern Western ethics. Specific persons owe duties to specific others, based on the place each occupies in a social, moral, and religious hierarchy, so that traditional Hinduism can hardly exist outside of the social system in which it originates. In China, a Confucian system of philosophical morality was tied to the details of the education and duties of an elite corps of governing intellectuals, while in Japan, the traditional religion of the people centered on the cults of specific ancestors and the spirits of specific places. Hinduism and, to a certain extent, Confucianism demonstrated in the nineteenth century that they could be reinterpreted in more universal philosophical terms, but the reconstruction of State Shinto in Japan during the same time period suggests that the unitary system of religion, state, and morals can also be adapted to the demands of modernizing societies (Hardacre).
While the interdependence of religion and culture is most clearly seen in these highly developed national traditions, the missionary religions that have moved across large parts of the world also illustrate this interdependence, precisely in their adaptability to very different cultural settings. Christianity presents very different appearances in Moscow and in Dallas. Buddhism in Tokyo is distinctively Japanese, as it is distinctively Thai in Bangkok. The same might be said for Islam in Cairo and in Kuala Lumpur. Nor are these variations simply the result of a constant teaching consciously applied to different situations. Religious traditions develop by interacting with the economic life and productive systems by which their adherents meet their material needs, as well as by the inner logic of their spiritual teachings. The modern sociological study of religion rests on this awareness of the nonreligious forces that operate on religious communities and the unintended consequences that religious beliefs have in the world of economic life (Weber).
Those who view religion from this perspective identify important changes that religions undergo in modern, technological societies. The institutions of religion no longer occupy the central positions of power and authority they once held. Wider knowledge of the world and more exposure to other cultures lead to an awareness of other religions beside one's own. These changes mark what sociologists call secularization, but the interactions of religion and culture are no less real in that context than they were when religion had a more dominant position.
Secularization may reduce the power of religions institutions and leaders, but it does not produce a neutral culture free of religious influences. A "secular" society is shaped in part by the historical interactions between the religion and culture that have shaped the particular place in which the society now exists. A modern economy influenced by a Confucian past differs significantly from one that has developed out of European Protestantism. The process of secularization, therefore, does not provide a neutral, universal standpoint from which to settle questions of morality and policy.
Since the 1970s, social scientists, philosophers, and theologians have widely accepted this contextualization of their work and have sought to explore its implications for their systematic thought (Stout). What was believed to be universal and rational is now widely seen to be particular. Notions of objectivity, tables of individual rights and duties— even, perhaps, the idea of rationality itself—are shaped by particular cultural starting points.
Where supposed neutrality and rational authority have been used to suppress religious conflict, the continuing influence of religion on culture sometimes results in violent rejection of the secular state and its institutions. Fundamentalist movements throughout the Islamic world and among Hindus in India reject modern secular culture as an alien Western imposition and reassert an identity of religion, morality, and culture. In the United States and elsewhere, renewed interest in the religions of indigenous peoples includes a rediscovery of their distinctive understandings of health and healing, which link religion, morality, and medicine in ways unfamiliar to modern medical science (Sullivan).
The implications of this reassertion of the cultural integrity of religion and morality are, however, variously construed by authors reflecting on modern pluralistic societies. One view suggests that the loss of community and the rise of social disorder is a direct result of the attempt to exclude from public discussion the religious values that are the only available foundation for morality. The social achievements that people in the United States most prize, including their individual rights and political freedoms, are simply the fruit of the Christian moral traditions that gave rise to them. If we hope to continue to enjoy them, we must restore those moral traditions in which they originate to a central role in shaping the life of society (Neuhaus).
Another point of view suggests, by contrast, that the public life of a pluralistic society can no longer provide a forum for genuine moral convictions, which always have a particular religious basis. If we seek to develop persons of moral character, we must do it within religious communities that have a distinctive identity. It may then be possible to translate some of these religious values into public policy through political action, but it will not be possible to offer a public argument for the values at stake. They can only be understood in a community where the way of life in which they originate is cherished and enacted (Hauerwas).
An understanding of the cultural interdependence of religion and morality thus calls into question both the cosmic order that sustains religion's requirements everywhere and the universal, rational morality that is characteristic of modern understandings of the independence of morality from religion. In this emphasis on cultural specificity that is sometimes called "postmodern," everything depends on the relationship between religion and morality in a particular place and time. Those who hold this view agree on the importance of the interaction of morality and religion. They differ over whether this interaction should take the form of cultural hegemony by a particular religious tradition, in order to provide the necessary foundation for public order, or should be practiced in small communities of shared faith, who venture into politics and public policy only for limited purposes and confine their virtues to their separated life.
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