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Ethics and Religion: A Philosophical Contribution to the Debate

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Any debate on ethical issues, whether practical or theoretical, inevitably leads to a discussion on the relationship between ethics and religion. This interest on the topic is far from being a characteristic of our age, of course; but somehow the alleged decline of religion today, or at least of its more organized forms, has prompted the question as to whether there is a consequent leveling-off in morality. Not a few have expressed the fear that if people do not believe in God then they cannot be expected to be moral. According to them, religion is the only adequate bulwark in our attempts to lead moral lives. The same belief is articulated, in a more sophisticated way, by thinkers who assert that without religion, there can be no objective foundation for our moral principles. On the other hand, one also hears of the devastating effects that religion (or to be more accurate, adherents of a particular religion) has had and continues to have on morality. The crimes committed in the name of religion are too many to be ignored but too obvious to be mentioned. Hence, the counterclaim is sometimes made that not only can one be moral without religion, but that one should even give up religious beliefs to be truly righteous.

This debate is far from being a merely academic one for there are practical conclusions that can be drawn from whichever standpoint one adopts. For instance, if it is true that morality can only be grounded in religion, then all moral education, especially of the young, must take the form of religious instruction. Again, if the above position is correct, then the state, insofar as it is expected to champion the common good, should necessarily uphold religion and promote religious beliefs. The state cannot fulfill this particular task unless it advocates some kind of religion. In contrast to this viewpoint, one can say that, if there is indeed a strict separation between religion and morality, we do not have to be over-anxious about the present decline of traditional religion for it can only mean a change in the content of morality and not necessarily the complete disappearance of moral values. Furthermore, assuming that it is true that religion as practised by some has had a negative influence on people's morality, then it may not be altogether wrong to welcome the demise of the more extreme forms of religion. Clearly, there are significant implications.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2010

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