Religious Morality


hy be nice to other people?

Let’s examine how religionists answer this question.

Generally speaking, religious morality is rule based. The rules are grounded in traditions and ancient texts. Religionists believe their rules were given to them by their deity via a human (or human-esque) prophet. They probably allow a priest class to help them interpret the rules.

And generally speaking, religious morality is also punishment based. If you fail to obey the deity’s commandments you’re bound to face unpleasantness in the afterlife.

Underlying most religious morality, then, though it may be dressed up in the language of spirituality and divine love, is an ominous threat from an all-powerful being: DO WHAT I WANT OR SUFFER.

In the Abrahamic traditions, God is a holy tyrant, ruling by ultimatums. In most Eastern traditions the deity is less person-like (if there is a deity at all). The universe is ruled by spiritual laws rather than by a supernatural personality. There are still rules and punishments, though. Eastern religious morality may be dressed up in the language of harmony and inner peace, but underlying it is still a threat: DO WHAT THE UNIVERSE WANTS OR SUFFER.

When we distill religious morality to its essentials, there is not much difference between the various traditions. They seem to have these elements in common:

  • A distrust of human nature.
  • Utterly terrifying threats for rule-breaking, like reincarnating as a cockroach or languishing in fire for eternity.
  • Incentives for rule-following that appeal to selfishness and materialism (though these rewards probably don’t come until after death).

So when you peel back the surface layer, religious morality is actually quite ugly. But to religionists it is the highest form of morality imaginable.  Even those religionists who might wish to tolerate atheists have great difficulty conceiving of how society could be civil without religion. Without supernatural threats and rewards, and without a holy tyrant, why would you ever be nice to other people?

This is an important question. Even if you believe in God, you should see that answering this question would be advantagous. You will like yourself (and your deity) better if you can ground your moral behavior on something better than fear.

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 Posted by on February 23, 2012
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