Ethics and Religion
Updated January 2014
Editor's Note: Utah Valley University Professor of Philosophy David Keller died Saturday December 28, 2013. Dr. Keller was well known among the freethought community as a public debater and defender of science and reason. His father, Richard Keller, MD is a longtime member of Humanists of Utah. We offer Richard our most sincere condolences. To remember David here is a report of his presentation to our chapter in November 2005:
With the time constraint of a subject requiring an entire semester, oft awarded philosophy professor, critical thinker, and writer Dr. David Keller could only cover a few philosophers who have influenced him about religion and morality.
In the Western intellectual tradition, beginning with the Greeks and Hebrews and passed down by the Romans and Judeo-Christian traditions emerged the tight, overt, and seemingly necessary connection between religion and ethics. In other words, one cannot be ethical without religion, a belief espoused by philosopher John Locke who wrote, "The atheist is a moral outlaw."
In Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha, who is studying for the seminary, criticizes his brother, Ivan, for his beliefs in secular humanism, reason, and rationality, arguing that without God, everything is permitted and that without religion, there is no morality.
Similarly, in the Salt Lake Tribune letters are frequently published where this belief is expressed, one man writing that without religion, he would be a drunkard and a philanderer.
In one of his books The Gay Science, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche wrote about a madman who in the middle of the day runs into the town square saying that he sees God. Because many people did not believe in God, the madman caused a great amusement, and they ask if God has strayed or hidden. In reply, the madman says we have killed God.
Nietzsche's meaning is that after the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, people devoted to reason and rationality had killed God so that if God no longer exists to provide a moral compass, then either everything is permitted, or we need a new morality not based on God but on something else like reason or human creativity.
The counterclaim made by many Enlightenment thinkers of which secular humanism is an outgrowth, Scottish philosopher David Hume, French philosopher Francois Voltaire, and compatriot Jean Rousseau all opposed Locke, believing that no necessary connection exists between religion and morality. In fact, most Enlightenment philosophers believed religion was dying, and if they were alive today, Keller asserted that they would be aghast to find religion so prominent.
Thomas Jefferson was also an Enlightenment believer. However, many people believe, and this has recently been in the Tribune, that our founding fathers intended the US to be a Christian nation when in fact, Jefferson was an Enlightenment thinker, believing that religion was acceptable for the time being but would shortly disappear.
Benjamin Franklin, a deist, believed that if there was a God, God created the world or cosmos like he creates a watch and then allows it to operate on its own. Thus God could hardly be a personal God who cared about the individual.
Keller's thesis was that although religion and morality overlap, and both are codes of conduct, it is entirely possible to have morality without religion. In fact, in a pluralistic society like ours, it is more desirable to not connect public policy with religion.
Keller then discussed definitions of religion beginning with the popular US belief in a theistic being. But in belief systems like Buddhism and other agnostic or atheistic systems, many do not believe in a theistic being. Thus obviously, the theist definition is lacking.
Another definition by philosopher Paul Tillich defined religion as "an ultimate concern." However, patriotism, avarice, political power, national chauvinism, etc., where people have an ultimate concern, can hardly be defined as religion.
A third definition by UC Santa Barbara philosopher Ninian Smart, defines religion as "the belief in an unseen order behind the phenomenal or empirical world." To Keller, this is a good definition of religion which does justice to theism and belief systems like Buddhism.
As he was working on his book The Philosophy of Ecology: From Science to Synthesis, Keller realized that if you present two ecologists with, for example, the marsh ecosystems of the Jordan River or the Great Salt Lake, they could map out the food web and completely agree on the biota, food chain, and all the empirical data, such as this organism eats this organism, and this organism eats that organism, and so on.
Yet if you ask how did nature get to be this way, one ecologist who is a theist might say that God designed it. The ecologist who is agnostic or atheist might say that the world randomly turned out this way. Thus, one ecologist explains that an ecosystem or a world of order is created by a supernatural being based on his or her religion--the key point in intelligent design; otherwise we could not explain random mutation or natural selection.
It is also interesting to briefly think about different metaphysical views in the Western traditions as groundwork in investigating whether morality must have the foundation of religion. In the Western intellectual tradition, Keller continued, supernaturalism or the idea of a natural world and a supernatural realm is prevalent. At the same time, many philosophers who believe in supernaturalism do not necessarily believe morality and religion must be connected
Aristotle, for example, argued that God is "a prime mover or the unmoved mover." He believed the natural world was characterized by motion but as a logician, he could not fathom having an infinite regress where one moving thing was caused by another moving thing caused by another moving thing, as this would merely return to infinity. Consequently, he deemed the prime mover of the universe to be a perfect being and called this unmoved mover God. However, his metaphysical conceptualization of God had no connection to ethics or morality. This unmoved mover merely got the natural world started; there was no evidence that this unmoved mover cared about human beings, human suffering, or the destiny of one's soul. Thus, an impersonal concept of God.
Rene Descartes, like Franklin, held a similar view of God--a deistic view where God made the world and wound it up like a watch, and then departed. In short, this group of thinkers believed that God exists but He is not the foundation for morality.
Other thinkers, like Locke, believed that God exists and is the foundation for morality.
Keller then referred back to the twin pillars of the Hebrews and Greeks from where most of our beliefs and the Western intellectual tradition can be traced. The Hebrews epitomized faith, and the ancient Greeks epitomized adherence to reason. Interestingly, these two strands of beliefs exist comfortably together for philosophers like St. Thomas of Aquinas, St. Augustine, and other great Christian philosophers. Unlike Aristotle, the Hebrews believed in a personal, empathetic God concerned with the destiny of humans or at least chosen humans.
Plato, on the other hand, did not argue for a personal concept of God, but believed in some kind of connection between God or "the good" and ethics. In his allegory The Cave and the Republic, Socrates throws his chains off, goes to earth, sees the sun illuminating everything, experiences what can be called an awakening, and sees "the good" or what Christians later interpret as God. So with this knowledge of the sun, Socrates learns what is right and wrong, what good is and what morality is, and that the sun, the good, or God provides that ethical guidance. Plato famously held that once you know what is good or right, you are compelled to do the good or the right.
Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that people have weakness of will and therefore, even when we know what is right, we fail to do it whereas Plato held the belief that knowing the good and doing the good were intimately connected.
It is Plato who laid the groundwork for much of Christian thinking. Knowing the good and doing the good, and knowing God's will and doing God's will resulted in one of the most powerful ethical theories in the Western intellectual traditions: divine command theory. This theory holds that God wills or commands morality, the belief of the majority in Utah.
St Augustine, a philosopher of the Roman Empire living around 4th or 5th century AD, said there were two kinds of societies: citizens of the city of God who use as their principle of conduct in everyday life the love of God, turning to God will and God's commandments.
The other society were the citizens of the city of man whose principle of conduct was the love of self, saying this group has no morality because they do not follow God whereas the citizens of the city of God are moral. Thus, a tight connection exists between morality and God according to St. Augustine.
French philosopher Blaise Pascal also believed in this connection although it is less tight.
Keller then summarized the four possible situations. 1] If you're an atheist and God doesn't exist, you're safe. So you die, your body disintegrates, and nothing happens. 2] If you believe in God, and you're misguided and there isn't a God, you're safe. 3] If you're an atheist and God exists, you're in trouble. 4] If you're a theist and Gods does exist, you're safe.
For Immanuel Kant, the connection between God and morality was more subtle, arguing that for the moral life to have meaning, the cosmos must have meaning. In other words, there would be no motivation for people to be moral unless one believed the cosmos has some moral order or some moral. Said another way, it would be irrational to live a moral life and not believe in God. Kant's position was complex because he believed that morality was based on reason and rationality just like any other Enlightenment philosopher but he also added that none of this would make sense unless there is some afterlife or reward after death.
Naturalism is also a robust train of thought for Western intellectual tradition, represented by thinkers like English philosopher and political scientist Thomas Hobbes. An outspoken atheist, he maintained that the motivation for ethics is pure self-interest where people are willing to give up some freedoms and compromise for the good of all.
Another atheist, Karl Marx, believed that religion was an ideology used to maintain the power of the ruling class. A harsh critique of religion, he wrote about this belief in The Communist Manifesto saying essentially that God intends there to be a class hierarchy, and if you're low on the hierarchy, bear it patently as your reward would be in the after-life.
The great sociologist Max Weber in his book The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argues in a similar vein that Protestantism and capitalism are good for each other. What Weber may have been addressing was why there was not the revolution or uprising of the proletarian that Marx envisioned; Weber asserted it was religion that suppressed such an uprising.
Nietzsche believed moral systems or morality was nothing more than human constructs so there is no connection between a supernatural being and morality. Values and such systems come and go so they are not permanent; they can be created and can be destroyed such as the moral systems of the Romans when it was good to be strong, arrogant, and individualistic, and bad to be weak, meek, and humble. Then the early Christians and Christ appeared, and in Nietzsche's language, transvaluated the Roman value system and turned it around where it was good to be weak, meek, and humble and bad to be strong, arrogant, and individualistic.
As was illustrated in William Butler Yeat's poem, The Second Coming, he portrayed the death of Christianity and the birth of the anti-Christ, an example of what Nietzsche meant--the coming and going of moral systems, the disillusion of one, and the usurpation by another one.
Another great thinker, Freud, believed God was the projection of a protective father figure.
French philosopher Michel Foucault believed that truth or what is true is defined by whoever has the power--e.g. religion, military, and politics. The significance of this claim is that truth is not absolute but is changeable depending on who has the power.
With only a very sweeping overview, Keller asked what are the
philosophical problems of connecting religion and morality. In the divine command theory, a theory of ethics, X is right because God says X is right. Plato critiqued this theory 2500 years in the dialogue Euthyphro where he asked does God will something because it is good, or is something good because God wills it-very different claims. Is something intrinsically right or wrong in and of itself, and then God simply affirms or rejects what is right or wrong independently of his will, or is what is right or wrong completely contingent on what God wills?
What is wrong with divine command theory is that it pegs what is right or wrong solely on God's will. For example, torturing infants is not in of itself wrong but only wrong because God wills it. So in theory, if God changes its mind, what is wrong today could be right tomorrow.
So in conclusion, Keller argued along with Plato that moral standards are either independent of God's will so religion is not necessary for morality, or what appears to be morality is really the arbitrary worship of a brute power. And the divine theorists are forced to affirm the latter.
Philosophically, if people want to connect morality with religion, they have the problem of authority because to know right or wrong, the proper authority needs to be identified. Philosopher Bertrand Russell in his book, Why I Am Not a Christian, said there logically can only be one true religion since all religions claim they have the most correct belief systems. Therefore, connecting religion with morality creates the predicament of identifying the one true religion--logically impossible.
Unfortunately scriptures are vague, ambiguous, or silent on the subject. Empirically observable, people who grow up in a certain location will be a certain religion. Why are there more Mormons than Buddhists in SLC and more Buddhists in Taipei than Utah? Did people in Taipei pick the right religion, or those living in Utah chose the correct religion? Russell would say that either stance is unlikely.
When Matthew Shepherd was murdered, Keller was struck by signs saying "God hates fags," questioning how did those people know that? Is that what God really was thinking? In other words, these people identified their so-called authority.
The issue of motivation: when you hear religious people talk about the connection between religion and morality, often there is an undercurrent of egoism where they believe if you're not living a certain way, you're going to pay for it, which is what Pascal alluded to with his wager. In Dante's Inferno is the same message where the punishment matches the sin, or in other words, a person is motivated to do the right thing because of fear of punishment.
Keller cited an incident about a friend who believed that Goethe's Faust was the best piece of literature ever. He agreed although Keller told his friend that he was troubled by Faust being a mean person who mistreated Gertrude and stole the elderly couple's land but suddenly in the last moment after doing terrible things all his life, Faust is to be saved by God. Thus a person could live a horrible life but in the end, God would forgive him; this was also Luther's condemnation of Catholicism where a person could be forgiven simply by paying. So Keller asked, is this a strong basis for morality?
While it might be disturbing for many people to disconnect religion from morality, it is completely faithful to the political foundations of this country that government does not have the right or authority in public policy to tell us what religion to believe or what is right or wrong; we should be able to choose these for ourselves. Persons of faith, in Keller's view, should actually be arguing that it is absolutely essential to disconnect morality and public policy on one hand, and religion on the other. Otherwise we would have people with authority and power within the social structure defining morality for us and telling us what to do.
As Keller was growing up in Utah in the Olympus Hills area, the prevailing belief was that religion and morality were necessarily connected. When he moved to California at 18, he met people from all over the country of all religious backgrounds--agnostics, Catholics, Jews, atheists, etc. In time, it was empirically observable and clear that there were immoral theists or people who believed in God but were not very moral, or maybe moral one day in a week like his classmates at Skyline high where they conveyed a pious image but did mean nasty things to other people. On the other hand, he met people who claimed they did not believe in any higher supernatural being but appeared to him as being empathetic, compassionate people. So there are moral atheists and immoral theists in the world, and the only conclusion is religion cannot be connected with morality.
Many people like Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov worry if we disconnect religion from morality, there would be a moral relativism where everything is permitted. If God is dead, as Nietzsche claimed, and we have killed God with our science and our reason, we need a new moral horizon to guide us. Otherwise we would be cast into the pit of ethical moral relativism without any moral guidance as to what is right and wrong.
As an answer to moral relativism, Keller proposed that we ground ethics in universal human rights, or biology. Because each of us, independent of religion, culture, belief systems, upbringing, and so on, are organic beings, and we either flourish or we do not. Thus it is possible to develop an ethics on universal human rights where to compromise the bodily integrity or to injure another person is wrong, and to help people flourish is right. So here we have a non-relativistic ethic that is true for all people at all times in all places but is not morally relative. Consequently it is possible to overcome the problem of moral relativism without God.