Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Is It Necessary to Be Religious to Be Moral?

Today is Wednesday, July 24, 2013.

"You don't need religion to have morals.  If you can't determine right from wrong, then you lack empathy, not religion."  – Unknown

A while back I wrote about a lady who was going to be denied the right to apply for U.S. Citizenship because she stated that she was an atheist, even though she also stated that she had a belief in ethics.  The government later allowed her to become a citizen.  The other day I saw this graphic and quote on Facebook, and began to think about that whole issue once again.  

A lot of people equate religion with morality, but a great many of these same people believe that only their own religion provides a sense of morality.  They don't necessarily think that followers of other religions are capable of being moral.  

Some people say that when followers of a religion behave morally out of fear not going to heaven or fear of having to come back into physical incarnation, it isn't really a true sense of morality.  They point out that we should do the right thing because it is right, not simply to avoid punishment.

What is morality, anyway?  Morals are beliefs regarding how people conduct themselves in personal relationships and in society.  In other words, it has to do with how we treat other people or how we act in relation to others.  There's always a distinction made between "good" and "bad" behavior.  One of the problems is that what is considered moral behavior differs from culture to culture, and from religion to religion, or even from sect to sect within one religion.  

Samuel Butler wrote, "Morality is the custom of one's country and the current feeling of one's peers.  Cannibalism is moral in a cannibal country." In Brazil, there is no legal ban on incest: an uncle may have sex with his niece or an aunt with her nephew, as long as they are both over 14 and have a health check first.  I don't really know if they consider it "moral" or not, but most countries tend to establish legal consequences for acts that are considered immoral.

In certain sects of the Mormon religion, it is considered moral for a man to marry more than one woman.  In Amish communities, it is considered immoral to serve in the armed forces, or to marry outside their religion.  In some sects of Christianity, drinking alcohol is considered immoral, while in others drinking occasionally, and always in moderation, is OK.  In societies where strict forms of Islam are enforced, it is immoral for even a husband and wife to walk down the street holding hands in public.  In places where Buddhism is practiced, the intentions of the person are always considered when deciding if an act is moral or immoral.  In India, where Hinduism is practiced, it turns out that there are different moral codes for people in different castes.  And since a number of religions are practiced in India, there are separate divorce laws for Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Zoroastrians (Parsees).

Christopher Hitchens wrote, "We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid."   Researcher Gregory S. Paul wrote about this issue in an article for the Journal of Religion and Society.  He cited studies that indicated high rates of religiosity were correlated with "higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies."  In fact, the studies that have been done don't seem to indicate any consistent correlation between religion and morality, at least where "morality" is tied to the rate of crime, something that can actually be measured. 

OK, so what is empathy?  Empathy is defined as the ability to put ourselves in another person's shoes in such a way that we can understand and the other person's feelings, desires, ideas and actions.  Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D. has described three separate types of empathy.  The first type is "perspective-taking," essentially the definition of empathy that I wrote at the beginning of this paragraph.  Riggio seems to think that we can do this without actually experiencing the other person's feelings, but merely cognitively understanding the other's feelings, or maybe simply understanding their point of view.

The second type is "personal distress" – actually feeling the emotions of the other person.  Riggio seems to limit this type of empathy to negative emotions, but I believe people can also be extremely happy for others, as well, so I'm not sure I buy the "distress" label.  It's true, though, that we generally speak of empathy more often in terms of understanding and identifying with negative emotions rather than positive ones.

Riggio's third type is "empathic concern," where you can recognize the other's emotional state but don't necessarily participate in it.  He says this is the sense in which former President Clinton once said, "I feel your pain," when talking to a constituent.

If morality deals with our interactions with other people and empathy is our ability to understand how people feel, then it stands to reason that you would need empathy in order to be moral.  In other words, you would know right from wrong in terms of whether or not you have hurt someone - either physically or emotionally.  It is conceivable, then, that if a person followed a practice of "do no harm," his or her behavior would be considered moral by most people, regardless of whether he is religious, atheist, or agnostic.   My only concern with that, having lived in a "foreign" culture for a decade, is that our being able to put ourselves in another person's shoes is heavily influenced by the culture we grew up in.  It's one thing to put yourself in the place of another whose culture you share.  It's a little harder to understand how a person from another culture will feel.

If a person lived his or her life with the aim of being helpful to others (over and above doing no harm), then his or her behavior would be considered moral, too, wouldn't it?   I'm not so sure.  It depends on what you mean by being helpful.  Are people who shoot doctors at abortion clinics committing a moral act?  Are people in Muslim countries who stone an adulteress to death or put her in prison for reporting that she was raped behaving morally?   Are people who take land from others by force because they believe it is their destiny to live there being moral?  (I'm not only thinking of European settlers taking land away from American Indians, but also Jewish settlers taking land away from Palestinians.) 

I'm not saying that religious people are all immoral, but I am saying that not all religious people are automatically moral.  There's a difference.  If you're talking about crime rates, the statistics certainly seem to bear this out.  It may be that prisons have a lot of inmates with no particular religion, but it's also true that there are lots of people who profess one religion or another in our jails.   

I would submit a sense of empathy, or the ability to put oneself into another's position, is probably a key ingredient in any system of morality, irrespective of religion.  But I also think that it's not enough to be able to understand the feelings of others.  We have to be able to act on those feelings.  :-)

No comments: