I am disturbed by the fact that, upon discovering my disbelief in things like sin and hell, people are compelled to ask what motivates me to do the right thing and strive to be moral. Contemporary American culture assumes a strict connection between religion and ethical conduct, but this connection is not always a healthy one, and it is worth exploring in a bit more detail.
Our title question is whether religion has a place in ethics. We are properly referring to what role, if any, our religious beliefs ought to have in our ethical decision-making. Possible replies are obvious. Either religion should have no role at all, or some role with varying significance that is to be determined. The first question to consider is whether religion ought to play any role in ethics whatsoever.
The simplest reply to this question is to say “no”, that religion ought not have any role in our moral decision-making. After all, religion has great power over some people, such that they might be influenced into making choices that are decidedly immoral, like killing abortion doctors or committing suicide bombings, in the name of religion. It would be false to claim that the connection between religion and ethics ought to be a strong one, and many examples lead us to the conclusion that there is not a necessary connection between these institutions.
However, we must also consider the fact that most people, especially here in America where I am writing, identify themselves as somewhat religious. For many individuals, their religion is a centrally defining characteristic of who they are, such that they would be nearly incapable of making ethical decisions independently of their religious beliefs. This cannot be disregarded on the grounds that it can be dysfunctional. The role of religion must be accounted for in some way.
Further, some of our most basic moral sentiments are directly connected to religious ideology. For example, most people agree that things like murder and adultery are always wrong, regardless of circumstances. Most major world religions echo these sentiments, and it can be argued that the ancient codes of conduct these traditions embody are actually the original source of our social intuitions. At a minimum, we do seem to regard religion as a good source of basic moral guidance, making it unwise to argue that there ought to be no connection between religion and ethics.
At this point, we have been able to eliminate one possible reply to the question of whether religion has a place in ethics. It seems clear that whatever the relationship between the two might properly be, there is certainly some relationship that exists. Pragmatism requires us to somewhat set aside the question of whether this ought to be the case, because this relationship does exist, and we must account for it in our own ethical choice making, as well as our theorizing about what kinds of choices are the right ones.
I fear this is as far as we can come in the space available. Our conclusion is significant, for it seems clear that the relationship between ethics and religion is historically and culturally relevant, and that many of our basic moral intuitions are connected to religious doctrines of right conduct. We have also discovered that religion is potentially harmful to ethical conduct, as it has the power to usurp our good moral sense in the name of some allegedly higher purpose. We are left to walk the line between “just enough” and “way too much” interaction between religious and ethical beliefs. However, our awareness of this connection is perhaps enough to allow us to draw from religion that which is useful, while disregarding that which leads to immoral actions.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.