Religion and Morality

It has always struck me as odd that those of a liberal political persuasion are frequently, if not always, averse to any talk about religion or morality — especially religion. I suspect it has something to do with the historical record of religions, especially Christianity, in which the Church, as the embodiment of the religion, has shown itself to be intolerant and authoritarian, not to mention responsible for thousands of deaths. The Church decides what is right and wrong and it has been throughout its history intolerant of those who would dispute its absolute authority on such matters as good and evil.

Dostoevsky had problems with this role the Church has played and pilloried it in his remarkable book The Brothers Karamazov. He was himself a deeply religious man but he was also distrustful and suspicious of the Church and insisted that its claim to absolute authority on matters of ethics has threatened, if not removed altogether, the freedom that makes human beings human. In any event, I share his distrust of the Church as an institution and would follow him in insisting that religion be separated from the institution in which it finds itself housed, to wit, the Church. The two are not the same, by any means. Christ preached love; the Church, historically preaches intolerance — as do so many of its followers.

And this brings us to the point I raised at the outset: why so many intellectuals have rejected the Church as well as the religion they often confound with the institution that houses it. I suspect it is all about tolerance, or the lack of same. As I have noted in past blogs, we hear again and again (and again) that we must not be “judgmental,” which is to say, we need to be more open-minded and tolerant of other ways of living and believing. But the notion of tolerance is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we should tolerate other points of view — not blindly, not always accepting, but after thinking our way through them, listening and questioning, but tolerant none the less. On the other hand we should not tolerate, say, views that promote violence, hatred, and fear. In a word, we need to be circumspect but not refuse to make judgments (be “judgmental”), acknowledging that we must remain open to the possibility that we do not have all the answers and that those very answers may come from the most unexpected sources — even from others whose opinions are diametrically opposed to our own.

There are certain things we come across in our lives that simply should not be tolerated. The insistence that we not be “judgmental” is simplistic nonsense  — because it ignores those very actions that we not only should not but must not tolerate, namely those actions that lead to the violations of another’s personhood or violate the universal principle of fairness that transcends all ethical systems. And these sorts of actions are precisely those that religions preach against. The tendency to turn away from religion and morality toward a relativism that would insist that all actions are somehow good simply because they are practiced by someone is wrong-headed, as I have noted in the past, because it makes impossible the judgment that some practices are quite simply wrong. Words like “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “evil” are not frightening. It is possible that in talking about these things we might become intolerant when we should remain open to other points of view. But that is a mistake and something we should avoid at all costs; it is not, however, a necessary concomitant of searching for answers to complex moral issues. We should not be afraid to talk about those things that we and others do that are simply not right. If I see a young woman being attacked on a dark night I should not tolerate such an action; I should instead intercede in her behalf. Intolerance may at times involve intervention, but it need not do so. The determination not to be intolerant or not to interfere with the actions of others should not blind us to the fact that we, as humans, should never fear the making of judgments and, at times, recall that intervention may be necessary. Good judgment is the key.

In any event, it is not religion and morality that we should be wary of, but the reluctance to acknowledge that at times it makes perfect sense to be intolerant. And it always makes good sense to exercise judgment; it’s what leads to informed action rather than impulsive behavior.

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9 thoughts on “Religion and Morality

  1. another very well thought out post. I enjoy your blog quite a bit and always look forward to reading.

  2. As re the first sentence in your post … guilty as charged! I learned early on, as the child of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, going to Catholic schools Monday thru Friday, then Hebrew school on Saturday … that based on religion, I fit nowhere. I was an outcast wherever I went. No matter … what is a few broken bones, after all? But later in life, I married a Protestant and I will never forget his uncle, two weeks after our marriage, telling me that I could seek forgiveness for being a Jew. That, I think, was the beginning of the end of my belief in religion. Not my belief in God, mind you … I firmly believe in God and think I have a fine relationship with Him. But as I have looked around at those who call themselves Christians, and observed their very un-Christian-like behaviours and attitudes, I have become jaded and eschew all religion. I respect those who ascribe to a religion, be it Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hindi, or Buddhism, but I personally have no use for the doctrines, the rules and rituals, and the close-mindedness I see in each. I will never forget one time that my mother-in-law (who was, by the way, one of the kindest souls I have ever known) said, in speaking of a friend of hers, “She’s a good person, but if only she went to the right church.” Another branch snapped in my mind on hearing that. What, precisely, is the “right” church? And where do people get the idea that theirs is the one and only right belief? So, my guiding beacon is my conscience. Before doing most things, I ask myself one question: “Is this the right thing to do?” Sometimes there are grey areas and the answer isn’t clear, but I always just try to follow my conscience, think it through, make sure that my actions will not harm another, and treat everybody fairly and with kindness. If I’m wrong, I will pay the price. Well … I did not intend to write a tome here, but I got started and my fingers just took over! Sorry, Hugh! Good, obviously thought-provoking post! I told you … late nights … 😀

    • We have to be careful we don’t confuse religion with those that profess to practice it or with the institution that historically has shown itself to be intolerant and prone to persecutions. The religion itself may well be the glue that holds this precarious political body together — so far. To the extent that religion grounds a morality that insists that there are things that are right and things that are wrong I would defend it. When folks embracing that religion claim to know what those things are — and refuse to admit they may be wrong — I turn away.

      • Ah, but really what is religion but a set of rites, rituals and rules, all contrived by man? In this, I tend to see it as Marx did, as the “opiate of the masses”. I will agree with you though, that most religions have some good points … and I shall leave it at that. 🙂

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