Rational Religious Ethics

Introduction:

Within the field of ethics, religious ethics (commonly referred to as Divine Command Theory) are often dismissed as an irrational concept of a bygone era of ignorance; an artifact of a failed project – no different than witch-burning to ward off the flu. However, religious ethics matter, a lot. Not only do they give us a historical sense of social and philosophical development (given that nearly all philosophers and societies around the world were religious up until some 300 years ago), they still represent the ethically normative position of the vast majority of all people.[1] Moreover, actual religious ethics seem to exhibit few if any of the irrational features attributed to them in the course of their dismissal.

In the following analysis, I will consider the objections to religious ethics, and demonstrate that the philosophical dismissal is generally without merit.

Philosophical Problem:

Divine command theory, or rather the philosophical dismissal thereof, rests on the idea that religious ethics are ultimately irrational, because they are never, and cannot ever be, anything more than the demands of old bearded man in the sky. His will may be known, but the thought process cannot be known, understood, or rationally comprehended. The old man rules by fiat, and that’s the end of the discussion. For philosophical analysis of ethics, the process must be known, understood, and rationally comprehended, in order to be analyzed and used. Thus, the very idea of religious ethics is contrary to the idea of the philosophical approach, because religion must, ipso facto, reject the use of reason.

However, such a reading of religious ethics is badly skewed ethically, historically, theologically, and legally. To suppose this standard philosophical position to be true, one would have to assume that the religion in question claims one of the following positions:

  1. The text claims to prescriptively answer all possible ethical questions, in all contexts, directly and ahead of time.
  2. All adherents of the faith have a direct line of reciprocal communication with the divine and get all their ethical questions answered that way – obviating the need for a book to do so.
  3. All adherents have access to a 3rd party (a prophet) who answers all ethical questions by their connection to the divine – and this is the only way to resolve ethical questions.
  4. The text prescriptively covers all possible ethical questions, because the rules are set in stone, and no difference in context can matter

The reality of the situation is that no book can prescriptively answer all questions in advance – nor purports to do so – because the text is, by definition, finite, but human actions, contexts, etc. are infinite. Thus, the first option is gone. Second, no religion requires all its adherents to be prophets and speak to the divine – nor does any purport to do so. Thus, the second option is gone. Third, as noted by Al Ghazali over 900 years ago, no form of authoritative human-based instruction (i.e. prophets) can adequately function to address all the ethical questions and choices of the religious populace.[2] For one thing, there would need to be as many prophets as there are people, and they would have to follow them around all day – to be available to offer guidance. Thus, the reliance on prophetic contact with the divine for every issue is untenable. Some questions, for example, are of a time-sensitive nature, and thus trekking to meet with the person who “knows” the answer is impossible – yet a decision must be made, and ethically. Thus, the third option is gone.

The last option is that the religious ethics come in a single variety, the “set in stone” kind, and have nothing else to add (which bypasses the need for infinite answers, the need for direct communication, or the option of prophetic access). However, that would only work for religions that required that the society and adherents be static, and the context of decision-making never change. No major religion makes this claim either.

Thus, the underlying claims about religious ethics are generally incoherent. The dismissal of religious ethics relies on the idea that religious ethics abandon reason, but uses an understanding of religion that does not match any known religions. If the argument is correct, then it is irrelevant – because it applies to nothing. If the argument is incorrect, it deserves no further study.

However, this does not ipso facto make religious ethics a proper subject for philosophical study. That claim, as will be presently made, would require that the system of religious ethics is open to rational thought, that it is internally and externally coherent, and that it contains a degree of functional flexibility (ethical or logical) necessary to address the infinitely changing context of human experience.

Before we start down that road, there is one more objection to be considered. An argument can be made that, if the belief in God is not rational, then any consequences of that belief cannot be rational either. That is, if the belief in the Christian notion of God are false, then we cannot continue to hold onto the ideas of heaven and hell (at least not the kinds of heaven and hell described on the authority of Christian God). While a more complete version of this argument will be considered below, we can give a preliminary answer here. Belief in God (or some sort of divine power) is not inherently irrational. That is, reasonable people can reasonably disagree about the existence of God and the truth of religious claims. So long as the divine is possible – and it is, because it is not logically impossible (evidenced by our ability to imagine it) – then religion as a whole cannot be dismissed out of hand. Therefore, there is, at least the possibility of meaningful religious ethics.

Religion and Reason:

Does religion permit the use of reason? That would seem to depend on religion – though traditionally, the answer is a resounding “yes.” In fact, that affirmation is the basis of religious thought – according to religion. Surveying the core texts of just the “big 6” religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), the necessity of reliance on reason is readily apparent.

  • Hinduism requires the rational understanding of the ephemeral nature of the universe, and the study of the natural world, in order to reach the point of reunification with Atman. A great example of this need to rationally comprehend is found throughout the entirety of the text of the Baghavad Gita – which is an intellectual argument posited by God to man.
  • Buddhism is literally founded and adhered to on the rational conception of the ephemeral nature of human life, its necessity and sources of suffering, and a path of circumventing that suffering.
  • Daoism is the study of the harmonious nature of the universe (through the study of nature, among other things), in order to rationally arrive at a personal and social harmony for the benefit of self and society.
  • Judaism, and by extension of the Hebrew Bible, Christianity takes as its primary text a collection of stories with a repeating plot-line that goes something like this:
    • A society goes bad by engaging in corrupt practices,
    • A prophet is sent, who asks “hey people, why are you screwing up?”
    • The people reply, “we are following in the footsteps of our forefathers” (i.e. blindly following, without using reason)
    • The prophet gives arguments, incentives, threats, which are rejected by the people who prefer their blind following to use of reason (miracles are, by definition, arguments by demonstration)
    • The society is destroyed, except for those who used their reason.

It should be noted that Biblical miracles are a form of argument. When the guy who claims to speak on behalf of the Almighty splits the sea, that’s a form of argument that he really does represent the Almighty. Similarly, when the supposed prophet brings the dead back to life, and does so on schedule, that’s an argument as to the force that backs his claims.

  • Finally, while Islam also has many of the same Hebrew Bible stories, covering the use of reason as noted, its primary text – the Qur’an – also has a few additional features:
    • The unique nature of humanity is derived from the possession of intellect, not the soul.
    • The Qur’an references the necessity for the use of reason to believe, and the failure of doing so as disbelief, over 850 times in a 604-page text.
      • This includes exhortations such as “why don’t you/they think?” or references to humanity as “O you endowed with reason,” or references to believers as “this is advice for those who think.”
    • The text structure and argument requires that the reader be intellectually engaged (not that the Jewish/Christian Bible does not require thinking, but their structure follows the far more common format of complete stories, while the Qur’an quite often fragments the stories, and nests the pertinent parts within larger narrative and argument structures; not to mention the rather common breaking of the 4th wall – as the text makes an aside for the reader).

However, more proof is needed, as one could be accused with anachronistically reading reason and intellect use into these traditions. This objection, however, does not stand in light of the historically orthodox interpretations of these traditions, which are perfectly in line with the noted ideas. Yet, to make the point clearer, let’s look at a few examples.

Ibn Masarra, a 10th century Andalusian thinker, argued that the basis for religious belief must be reason. He argued that human beings generally lack the epistemological basis for certainty in religion. That is, we lack the absolute knowledge necessary to know, in a truly absolute way, that there is a God, or which religion best represents Him. This becomes a problem when the consequences for disbelief or incorrect belief are severe.

While prophets may enjoy the kind of certainty of knowledge by beholding God, the rest of us lack that experience, and cannot have that certainty. Moreover, people lie or are confused, and so we cannot simply proceed on the basis of someone’s word. Since we can’t peer inside their head to determine the validity of their claims, we must have access to a different resource that would allow us, all of us, to make the right decision. This resource is reason. The point made by Ibn Masarra is that humanity the world over, has access to reason. Reason is not a cultural artifact, nor does it differ based on race, geography, gender, ethnicity, culture, etc. The universal tool, available to all, is the only method by which human beings can be universally accountable for their choice in religion – and thus ethics.[3]

Al Ghazali, an 11th century theologian and philosopher par excellence made a similar point. He argued that the notion of simply following someone or something (blind following is known as taqleed) is both religiously unacceptable and irrational. It is unacceptable because each human being is endowed with reason, by which they are to make their decisions. If the decision is made by something other than reason (i.e. blind following), the act is actually mindless. This makes it ethically and religiously unacceptable, because even if it were to hit upon a truth, it would do so by accident (and there is a far greater chance that it would hit upon a false idea). It is irrational, because even in blind following, we are forced to make the choice to do so. That is, there is no way of not making a choice, and there is no basis for making a choice, other than reason. Thus, reason is always in play – even if we’re choosing to be irrational.

Finally, the idea of religion being contingent on a lack of reason is untenable. Even in cases where the religious system has a strict hierarchy, and where the head of that hierarchy is God-like in the ability to make pronouncements, reason outranks him. For example, Papal authority is, essentially absolute. However, even the Pope is bound by the rules of text and dogma, and any pronouncement made in direct contradiction of either would be rejected. The path to such rejection could not come by any means other than reason – because all other paths are fully under the control of Papal authority. However, no matter the authority, a claim that, for example, Jesus was a woman, would be rejected by argument of reference to the textual pronoun, rules of Hebrew and Aramaic grammar, etc. – i.e. by the use of reason.

Therefore, we can conclude that the use of reason, of rational thought, of coherence of that thought, are religious requirements – whether for choosing a religion or adhering to its rules. The fact that some religious adherents seem to fail miserably at that task and spout the kind of nonsense that makes us question the functionality of their reason as individuals, is a separate and unrelated issue. Plenty of people are horrifically bad at math. Their mistakes (e.g. 2+2=22) do not undermine the functionality of math itself, but only call into question the competence of the user.

Sources of Religion:

Locke famously noted that, since we cannot prove (as per mathematical proof) that our choice of religion is correct, we cannot force our religion onto others. That is, since we do not have direct access to God, we cannot have proof. Arguably, what we can prove is human-based thought. Thus, we get the argument for dismissing religious texts, because – unlike human thought – they cannot be proven. However, this approach is badly flawed.

From a religious perspective, one (or perhaps few) religions are right, while all others are wrong.[4] That means that the origin of the primary texts falls under: true/used to be true but is out of date (divine author/human corruption), or false (human author). Clearly, for the religious adherents, the source of religious ethics matters quite a bit, because one/few come from an infallible source, while others come from fallible sources.

However, from a non-religious standpoint, all sources of ethics have been penned by human authors. There is no real source difference between Kant and the Bible – both are works of human authors, presenting an argument for a particular normative concept of ethics. To be sure, there is plenty of difference between the claims, but the source itself is always human reason. This also holds true between secular ethical theories, so that Kantian ethics and Utilitarian ones are products of human reason. The way we make personal and social decisions on which to follow are based on our own use of reason – which is the same process used by religion – as noted above.

The idea that all texts are human-made, brings us back to the use of reason in our exploration of their ideas, in our criticism of their functionality, etc. Yet, the same process is embedded in the religious perspective, and uses reason in the same way. Thus, there is no functional difference between secular and religious ethics, qua systems of establishing and maintaining normative personal and social standards. In both cases, we’re forced to use reason to explore the claims made, to understand the process in question, to use reason to extrapolate the implications of core rules, in order to adapt and apply them to the ever-changing contextual situations. If this is the case, and it seems to be, then there is no reason for dismissing religious ethics from a legitimate field of philosophical study.

Assumptions:

Philosophically, we seem to find it distasteful to make certain assumptions generally embraced by religious ethical positions. The notion of post-mortem judgment and eternal reward and punishment, for example, tend to be a particular sticking point.  

Yet, all ethical systems – and indeed, all thought – is premised on a set of assumptions. These assumptions cannot be challenged, because they are at the very root of the very idea of ethics in the system. These assumptions are embedded in a paradigm weltanschauung of interpretation, order, relations, meaning and values taken by each system to be axiomatically true. Such assumptions include ethical systems (e.g. Deontological ethics, Utilitarian ethics, etc.), general ethical values (e.g. human life has value), and even the shared underlying prerequisites for ethical thought (e.g. free will).

As an example, Kantian/Deontological ethics uses universalization of maxims as an axiom, which it supposes an ethical theory simply cannot do without. This idea then creates a notion of universal human rights, which have no exceptions and are never subject to contextual adaptation.  Utilitarian ethics, on the other hand, use quantification of consequences (in terms of pleasure/happiness and pain/sadness) as an axiom, which it supposes an ethical theory simply cannot do without. This idea then negates the notion of human rights, because the context requires continuous adaptation of the kind of calculus used to derive ethical positions.

Clearly, the two secular ethical positions are at absolute odds with each other (as Bentham once noted, the idea of human rights is “nonsense on stilts”). However, the cause of the insurmountable differences comes from wildly differing axiomatic assumptions that form the paradigm weltanschauung of Deontic and Utilitarian ethics. While we may be tempted to argue for the reasons of such assumptions on one side or another, that misses the point entirely. One cannot have “reasons” for axiomatic assumptions, else the point would be an argument, not an assumption. The fact that axioms are unassailable is evident in mathematics – when is the last time you heard someone try to disagree with the idea that all right angles are equal to each other?

More importantly for ethics, the axiomatic starting points of Deontic and Utilitarian positions are contradictory. This means that we do not have a rational basis for committing ourselves to either one – because at the very core of the two positions lie irreconcilable differences regarding the nature of the world and the role of ethics. These foundational differences result in radical difference in their ethical superstructures. Because the differences are axiomatic, we cannot use reason to decide on one over the other – not directly, at least. At best, we can look after the internal and external coherence of the systems, and see if the system presents with self-contradictory implications or anomalous results – and then try to use this indirect evidence to argue against the system as a whole, not against the axioms per se. This approach is in line with the Kuhnian notion of paradigm crisis and replacement.

Theologically, such assumptions are generally termed Articles of Faith, and are the basis for admittance into the religious orthodoxy. Such articles usually include things like affirming the existence and nature of the divine, source of rules (affirming the truth of a text), affirming core rituals, and affirming the value standards which tend to include an afterlife – with reward and punishment. The thing to note is that, in terms of assumptions at play, the Articles of Faith are functionally the same as any other axiomatic paradigm weltanschauung. They are functionally the same because they act the same, because they serve the same function, and because they are subject to the same kinds of rules. That the Utilitarian position is “secular” while the Catholic position is “religious” is generally irrelevant to the nature of the claim. In fact, sorting through axiomatic claims on the basis of the presence/absence of a divine being carries far less functional value in terms of ethics, than sorting on the basis of admitting/denying human rights.

When push comes to shove, all ethical theories devolve into assumption-based claims. Rape is wrong, but ultimately we cannot give an objective reason for that evaluation, when it comes to a rapist who can act with impunity (and for those thinking that psychological damage to the rapist is harm enough to justify the “no rape” position, I would point out that plenty of fairly common pathologies will leave the rapist without a shred of additional psychological damage). Instead, we must resort to the assumed value – “it’s wrong because we say so” – to defend our “no rape” stance. In fact, if we push for an explanation, the person defending the value will generally run out of arguments and fall back on assumptions by the fifth time we ask “why is that wrong?”

When a religious position uses the notion of an afterlife to build ethics, it is doing nothing different than any secular ethical system. It is taking an assumption as an axiomatic claim and using it to construct an ethical superstructure by reason and implication. That is, from the perspective of assumptions, there is nothing functionally different between the core methods of religious, Deontic, and Utilitarian ethical structure. This is not to say that Kant and Catholicism are one and the same, but rather to demonstrate that, by any objective standard, the process of religious derivation of ethics is no different than secular derivation of ethics. Thus, there is no basis for dismissing religious ethics from the field of legitimate philosophical study of ethics.

Secular vs. Religious Approach:

It could be argued that, despite the starting similarities in the underlying structure of ethical systems (i.e. axiomatic bases), secular systems differ from the religious ones because they’re developed by reason, while the religious ones are developed by divine fiat. While we’ve already addressed this point a bit in the opening salvo, it bears closer inspection, because the format of religious texts actually seems to be rather advanced – more advanced than a number of modern takes on ethics.

The purpose of ethics is to guide the behavior of individuals and groups, by establishing a hierarchy of normative values. Therefore, the adherent ability to derive infinite range of rules from a finite revelation is crucial. Religious texts do so in two general ways:

  1. Introduction of core rules (e.g. the Decalogue) which serve as ethical guidance, and allow for extrapolation of principles by implication of core rules and their interactions.
  2. Presentation of stories, whose morals are intended to show the correct type of rule interpretation and application under the most extreme circumstances. This is a tool for habituating the reader to correct understanding and interpretation of rules (whether in spirit or in letter), and correct action under pressure.

For example, the Hebrew Bible/Qur’an story of Noah has several such lessons, including the idea that one is to do “good,” even if alone in the pursuit, even at the cost of one’s family. A very Deontic position, but it plays out in the context of how to be righteous in a corrupt society – and that such righteousness will inherently mean suffering of the righteous. The story of Abraham includes the idea that, in the face of absolute horror, the authority of God must remain paramount – i.e. that one’s preferences are always infinitesimal in comparison to the ethical rules of action. The story of Joseph includes a number of critical ideas, including maintenance of the ties of kinship (even if your siblings try to bump you on eBay); forgiveness (though not weakness) even in the face of malevolence; suffering physical harm and destruction of reputation is preferable to breaking a trust – because the trust is ultimately with God/ethical principles, not with people (thus is Joseph jailed on false charges of attempted rape, rather than engaging in fornication with the wife of a man who treated him well – even though the same man had bought him as a slave).

The core rules are axiomatic postulates. A well-disciplined mind can then take these postulates and extrapolate an infinite series of rules, covering every human context. This approach requires strong and coherent interpretive models for unpacking the various implications of the postulates, and fitting them together in a way that preserves the spirit and letter of the law. However, humans are generally bad at this activity.

Thus, the stories provide practical case studies of the kinds of interpretations that are considered religiously acceptable and unacceptable. The story of Cain, for example, is a great example of what kinds of ethics interpretations are unacceptable: namely that the underperforming, victimhood mentality that seeks to revenge itself on those who strive with all their being and succeed, is an unacceptable interpretation and has dire consequences. The same stories also help to underscore several other general points – such as the idea that the rules apply particularly when the adherence to them comes with a high cost. The prohibition on lying (Decalogue commandment 9), is generally irrelevant when our actions have been in line with the ethical and social standards, because we have no incentive to lie. However, when faced with a bad action – and facing a bad outcome – people tend to resort to, “I know what it says, but you don’t understand… my case is different – the rule doesn’t apply to me.” The stories make the point that, no, your case is not only not different, it is inherently less problematic than the case study made by the story. The prohibition on fornication is so strong that the correct response is going to jail – possibly forever – rather than engaging in it. After that, your case can’t ever be exceptional enough to justify that action.

What religious texts do, is provide the core rules, and then engage with in a long series of case studies in order to demonstrate the acceptable range of interpretation models. Moreover, the same stories are used to demonstrate the practical problems for individuals and societies that fail to integrate into the kind of ethical order proposed – giving additional incentive for rule-following. These stories have, for the most part, outlasted all other written texts in the world. The stories themselves have become integrated into the social core, and act as guiding principles, even when the religion itself is abandoned. The reliance on these stories, and their role in shaping society, is so strong that we have continued to explore them in every new medium. The story of Superman, for example, is the story of Moses (the same is true in Kung-Fu Panda 2). Any number of popular culture films are based on the notion of the sacrifice of the savior (see: The Matrix).

This is a far more advanced and thorough approach to ethical theories than any of the secular attempts have managed. This may be a function of time, but one can scarcely imagine a summer blockbuster film premised on the Categorical Imperative. Finally, the coherence of these ethical texts is independent of one’s belief in the truth of their divine origin. This is true for religious ethics the same way that Utilitarians can rationally comprehend Kantians, without needing to be Kantians. What is necessary is that one intellectually accepts the premises of the theory, for the purpose of philosophical examination. All this serves to demonstrate that the ideas embodied in that field are serious contenders in the ethical realm, and should not be dismissed out of hand, as somehow less “intellectual.”

Reason inherently plays a core role in religious ethics. This is true not only in the choice of religion, but in the implementation of ethical ideas. Since all ethical theories are grounded in a set of core ideas, the only way to make use of ethics is through interpretation of the core ideas within the context of operations. This is properly the role of reason, regardless of whether the source of ethics is secular or religious. Secular and religious ethical theories both struggle to constantly adapt to the changing nature of human context and update their definitions when new ideas spring forth. For example, the traditional notion of theft is based on exclusive possession of a limited material entity, along with right to ownership. However, in the digital age, the question of “theft” has forced us to redefine the act of theft, so that the exclusive possession is no longer a necessary factor – given that a digital copy does not rob the original owner of possession. This is equally true in secular and religious ethics.

The Question of Contradictions:

Perhaps one of the most persistent “issues” with religious ethics is the claim that the core texts suffer from internal contradictions – that is, it becomes impossible to reconcile between various axiomatic points, and thus impossible to create an internally-coherent system of rules to be philosophically addressed. Questions of theological definitions of God aside (as they are not relevant to the question at hand), this argument stems from the general ignorance about religion, and the unwillingness to use some reason when reading the texts – in terms of ethical structures. A modicum of chartable reading, if only for the sake of attempting to make sense of the text, is generally enough to do away with most concerns regarding the structural integrity of the ethical claims.

There are several things to consider, when reading a religious text – especially those of the “Western” or rather Abrahamic traditions. The first is that the text must be read contextually (which is true for all texts of any genera). That is, cherry-picking a quote here and there is an incoherent strategy. Second, a distinction must be made between rule and exception – the same way that this difference is noted in all other ethics work, and in the way that legal systems function. Third, a distinction must be made between moral and legal categories – not all moral rules translate into legal ones, since a great deal of morality depends on intent, and we have yet to discover a way of physically seeing intent manifest in most cases. Fourth, the actions of humans and those of the divine do not follow the same rules, nor should they be expected to. Human reason is limited in its comprehension, while the divine is omniscient. Human judgment is limited by our access to knowledge, while the divine is unlimited. Human capacity to pass judgment is limited by our ability to condemn, forgive, reward, and punish – which is precisely the role of the divine.

Without properly grasping these distinctions, many authors have sought to dismiss religious ethics, on the grounds that they merely operate by divine fiat. Case in point, the Biblical order that the Jews should wipe out the Amalekites is taken as proof that the Hebrew Bible cannot offer ethics guidance on the ethics of war. After all, the Hebrew war ethics was apparently based on simply wiping out the peoples around them.

However, actually paying attention to the story, we note several key ingredients philosophers like to omit or gloss over. Israel had an army and used it to go to war – much like its neighbors. That same army had to be specifically told that they were to wipe out the Amalekites, and that the order was divine in origin, and that claim had to come from a man the state and the people (and the religious hierarchy) had already accepted as a prophet – i.e. a human being who /is in direct communication with the divine, and whose purpose is to convey the will of the divine to the people.

In order for a specific command, like that of wiping out the Amalekites, to be issued, several things must be true:

  1. The state of Israel already knows how to go to war – since the reference to military action is neither new, nor the focus of the story.
  2. The same military must have rules and regulations, regarding conduct, because that is a basic requirement for a military.
  3. The order being given is not part of the standard operating procedure for Jewish war – else there would be no point in issuing the order, nor would that action be the point of the story.

All that is to say that the divine intervention into the kinds of war the Jews were to wage against these particular people, means that the particular goal of this war was the exception, not the rule, of warfare ethics. The fact that the Jews did not see the annihilation of peoples as part of standard operating procedures of war is also demonstrated by the story of David – where, even having gained the upper hand by killing Goliath and demoralizing the enemy troops, the Jews did not march on the Philistines to eradicate them.

It could be argued that, even with this exception, what’s to stop religious groups from doing more of the same now? For one thing, it should be noted that the exception required divine intervention. For another, the expression of this intervention had to come at the hands of an already accepted prophet. Unless one presumes that prophets abound like weeds after a rain, the “worry” is unfounded – since just about all traditional religions have ended the cycle of prophecy – with the possible exception of a “final” prophetic figure. However, such a figure would need to fulfil such a list of requirements to be affirmed, not to mention ushering in the end of the world, as to be irrelevant to the ethical theory of war.

Similarly, the Qur’anic injunction to “kill them wherever you find them” – a point treated as a license to freely kill whoever one defines as “them” – looses all potency when read in the context of the order. In one case, the pronoun very specifically refers to those who start the fight against the Muslim community militarily, and in the context of expelling the aggressors from the places they have occupied. In the second case, the context is limited to the hostile pagan Arabs fighting the Islamic prophet, even after the unification of Arabia has otherwise concluded. Moreover, the same group is first allowed four months to rethink their opposition, or to leave, before the question of “killing” enters the picture. Not to mention the fact that, once the Islamic prophet died, the exception can no longer be invoked – as it applied to the context of that particular individual, only.

Skipping the context and reading the “them” as simply all people not in line with your own way of thinking, is a move made only by terrorist recruiters and western media/academics. The former are using all means to drum up support for their political aims, while the latter are either maliciously spreading falsehoods or are deeply ignorant. In either case, the failure to contextualize the issue produces incoherent readings of the text – and unsurprisingly contradictory results.

However, once context and noted distinctions are taken into account, the apparent “contradictions” sort themselves out, and leave us with a coherent ethical system.

On the Idea of Religions:

As a final point, the use of the term “religion” is a bit muddled to begin with, and must be used with caution. To use a single term implies that all the systems are monolithically structured so as to eschew any meaningful differentiation between them. The simplest way to see the problem of this reading is to consider the fact that such a uselessly broad definition includes Jains, ISIS members, Pope Francis, and your 80-year-old neighbor tottering to church on Sunday. Unless we want to equate these groups and individuals, we need a far more effective linguistic toolset in our considerations.

As a decent starting point, we should stop extrapolating the ideas of one religious group to all religious groups, because they often do not agree on some rather core ideas. Thus, one may be able to speak about the problems of considering Jewish or Daoist ethics, but not religious ethics as such. A second point should be the distinction between actions of religious adherent and the religious theory. People fall short of many ideals in many ways. A mathematician who makes a mistake does not negatively reflect on mathematics. A driver who gets into an accident does not discredit the idea of mechanized transportation. Third, non-expert commentary should be shunned – because the “opinion” of a non-expert is akin to starting a statement with “I don’t know anything about this topic, but will give some random opinions anyway…”

Conclusion:

In examining the religious notion of ethics, we are confronted with its structured, reasoned, and otherwise philosophical-like nature. There is nothing about religious ethics that would inherently disqualify them from serious consideration within philosophy. The arguments made against religious ethics are generally based on ignorance and unwillingness to actually engage with texts.

Given that some 83% of the world population self-identifies as religious, the idea that we can simply disregard their ethical systems is silly, but also dangerous. By insisting that only secular systems are worthy of studies, we’re not bringing the majority of people in line with our secular claims, we’re merely alienating them from participation – and thus making unavailable the kind of deep analysis that allows for meaningful contextual adaptation of ethical systems (a staple of philosophy) to the majority of moral agents.

If, instead, we were to treat religious ethics as all other ethical systems, we would be far more capable of working within those systems to produce the kinds of ethical behavior we desire – regardless of our own ethical positions. Thus, for example, instead of Kantian or Utilitarian arguments for the preservation of nature (arguments that primarily affect the 16% or rather 1.1 billion of non-religious population), we would be able to move towards that goal by also working within the ethical structure of, say, Christianity and Islam – an additional 4 billion people.

Again, there is no serious reason to dismiss the religious ethics on any philosophical grounds. They generally have all the hallmarks of philosophical ethical systems, and come with an average of 1000+ years of trial and error in implementation – and the successes and failures of any system can be used to inform our own approach to the problem, and either find a functional solution, or at least avoid a known pitfall.

 

[1] http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/

[2] Al Ghazali. Deliverance from Error. Tr. R. J. McCarthy SJ. Pp. 42-50.

[3] Ibn Masarra (883-931) Kitab al-i’tibar (On Reflection), ed. M.K. Ja’far, Min al-turath al-falsafi li-ibn Masarrah: 1. Risalat al-i’tibar, 2. Khawass al-huruf, Cairo, 1982

[4] Branches of Hinduism consider Buddhism to be an extension of Hindu thought; Christianity considers Judaism to have been true; Islam consider Judaism and Christianity to have been true; Daoism has no problems with integrating Buddhism into itself; etc.

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