Our monthly feature seeks to offer open-minded, clarifying, and meaningful responses to readers’ questions about spirituality. Send your questions to The Resident.
Q: Is it necessary to be religious in order to be moral?
This question is sometimes posed as a dilemma. If the answer is “no”, then somehow my interlocutor is excused from any obligation of religion. If “yes”, the riposte is “Well, what about [insert names of philanthropic agnostics or atheists here] – aren’t they moral?”
But the question itself contains a number of assumptions that are … well … questionable – to wit: It is God who establishes moral rules. It is important to God that human beings should obey these rules. It is by means of religion that God makes the rules known. Human beings can and should know these rules through participation in religion. It is possible for humans through knowledge and effort to obey the rules, and God punishes those who disobey them. Finally, one of the foundational rules is, human beings must adhere to [a] religion. Any of these assumptions is worthy of both suspicion and deep exploration.
It’s certainly true that morality is a central concern of religion. Christians are familiar with the Ten Commandments, which are themselves but a small part of the Jewish Torah. Islam is keenly concerned with righteousness, justice, and forgiveness. The Bhagavad Gita is (among other things) a meditation on morality and the nature of duty. Buddhism includes “right action” as part of its eightfold path. Precepts against murder, stealing, and sexual misconduct (variously defined) appear across religious and spiritual traditions.
It seems to me, however, that thinking of religion only as a source of morality, on the one hand, and thinking of morals as having no other basis than religion, on the other, reflects too narrow a view of both religion and morality. Human beings have evolved as social creatures – we require modes of conduct that allow us to live together peaceably; but we cannot seem to agree on or perfect a singular moral code, even among small social groups much less universally. We are also creatures subject to need and fear, clever and prone to violence; hence we are incapable of adhering to our own expectations of our own individual conduct, and liable to frequent violations of laws and social codes. Religion is available to us as means of positing and reflecting on rules for our lives together; but not our only source. Morality is an important element of life, love, death, and ultimate meaning, but not our only goal or end.
The Rev. Reid Hamilton
St Vincent’s Church