Religion And Morality

In the minds of many people, religion and morality are closely connected. Even in secular discussions of ethics, law, and medicine, the presumption remains strong that religious beliefs are an important source of moral guidance, and that religious authorities have a significant influence in shaping attitudes toward biomedical research, new technologies, and medical interventions at the beginning and end of life. Both those who hold religious beliefs and those who do not expect that such beliefs will make a significant difference in the moral lives of their adherents.

When this commonplace assumption about the connection between religion and morality is subjected to examination, however, problems emerge. Although moral virtues and behaviors characteristic of Christian love or Buddhist compassion may be clearly associated with a specific religion, the human possibilities they describe are often familiar and admired, even among those who do not share the religious beliefs. Persons outside of a community of faith may display its characteristic virtues, and those who reject a particular religion may realize its moral ideals better than most of its adherents. For example, Christian writers often turn to Gandhi as the modern model of the love that Jesus preached, while Gandhi valued the life of Jesus as an example of the harmlessness he sought to encourage. This recognition of specific moral virtues in persons outside the community of belief in which those virtues are defined and taught is so common today as to be unremarkable, but it challenges the assumption that specific moral beliefs and practices can be tied to specific religious commitments.

The assumption that religion and morality are somehow related thus gives way to questions about exactly what forms this relationship may take and how it is understood. What claims are persons making when they relate a moral judgment to a religious belief, and how are we to understand the similar judgments that others make on nonreligious grounds? How will these different moral and religious orientations relate to the findings of the biomedical sciences? How should the providers of medical services relate to the diversity of these religious and moral orientations in a complex, pluralistic society?

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