The Correlation between Worship and Moral Behavior
One of the most controversial and longstanding debate is whether morality can indeed exist without religion. Many people with religious background, upbringing and belief do not see the existence of morality without religion. For such people, religion is, in fact, the compass for morality; that it is through religion that morality finds its grounding (McKay and Harvey 447). So strong is this belief among religious conservatives that most claim that the declining moral standards are largely attributable to increased secularism and deterioration of organized religion (McKay and Harvey 447). Atheists and behavioral scientists, however, tend to refute this claim stating it is possible to have morality without religion; they also advocate for the idea that morality is inherent in humans and ideally deeply ingrained in human behavior (Norenzayan 366). Each side of the divide presents evidence to support the specific claims on religion and moral behavior. The most important question in this case, therefore, is whether morality comes from religion, or is it possible to act morally without necessarily being religious.
In relating religion to morality, and evidently in absolving religion from morality, it is important to define these two concepts (religion and morality) in their own accord. Obioha argues that like many other concepts known to man, there is no absolute definition of religion. Defining religion today is even more difficult given the emergence of a diverse range of cults, sects and movements, all holding claim of recognition as religions (28). Further, a universal definition of religion is even more elusive given the different disciplines in scholarly circles, each of which has its own definition of the term. However, even in the absence of an absolute definition of these concept, it is possible that there is one that captures fundamental elements of the term. Gilbert’s take defines religion as “any system of values, beliefs, norms and related
symbols and rituals, arising from the attempt by individuals and social groups to effect certain ends, whether in this world or any future world, by means wholly or partly supernatural” (Obioha 28). While this definition is not devoid of complexities and objections, it still provides a wholesome assessment of religion as a concept.
Like religion, morality is obviously fraught with conceptual complexities. For this reason, a universal definition of morality is also elusive. Despite the elusiveness, there is agreement among scholars that each definition of morality has to have foundations on the determinateness of the rightness or wrongness of deliberate human action (Obioha 28). In essence, morality refers to proper human behavior, particularly one that does not contravene behavior considered right within a particular society.
With clarity on the two terms, it is then possible to look at the correlation between worship (religion) and moral behavior. Religious conservatives see worship through religion as the foundation of moral behavior in the society. Conservatives rightly argue that humans have a meta-representational ability to mislead, lie and betray (Atran and Ara 725). These characteristics are inherently human, and without checks and balances, can grow to become the very basis of human action. Thanks to religion, however, it is possible to control and manage these negative human characteristics (Atran and Ara 725). The essence of religion, in this case, is that through the communicative exhibitions of fervent commitment to the omniscient supernatural agent (God), who in contrast to humans does not yield to the inherent human weaknesses, therefore, acts as a guarantor for in-group cooperation (Atran and Ara 725). Through religious teaching individuals show and perform signals and establish cognitive and emotional commitment seeking convergence in right actions – the basis of morality.
Religion and its prescriptions are in the belief and faith that the individuals practicing the religion have in the teachings expressed by the religious teachers. The faith and commitment of followers of a particular religion are evidenced through a display of rituals (Atran and Ara 725). The idea of the display is to perpetuate a stable society based on individual sacrifice for the sake of the group, but in the long run, benefit from the group. Christians specifically follow this display of ritual by leading moral lives following the example set by Jesus Christ. As a person of unquestionable moral integrity, who sacrificed his life for the sake of his followers, Jesus Christ provides the yardstick of morality for Christians who look up to him for guidance, following his teaching – the hallmark of morality.
Studies into the role of religion in moral behavior have found that believers are more likely than non-believers to act morally. One such study found that believers are more likely to act nicely towards strangers in comparison to non-believers (Norenzayan 372). Christians, in this case, largely relate to Christ’s teaching of the Good Samaritan, using the moral lesson from the story to extend a helping hand or a kind gesture to strangers. Additionally, it is the same teaching that Christians find it easy giving out charity. Giving charity is, however, not a preserve of Christian teachings, as Muslims too have the same in their teachings. Among the five pillars of Islam is Zakat, which refers to paying alms for the benefit of the less fortunate in the society. Christian and Islamic religious teachings largely provide pro-sociality lessons with passages from the Bible and Quran as the reference giving relevant examples of the rewards for pro-social behavior (Norenzayan 372).
In conducting studies into the role of religion in moral behavior, researchers have argued that most religious people only present the morally acceptable behavior as a means of presenting a positive image to the researcher (McKay and Harvey 447; Norenzayan 373; Stingl and John 752). Regardless of the need to present a positive image, religion plays an important role in shaping the moral perspective and aspects of an individual. Reportedly, an exposure and belief in religion makes individuals susceptible to socially desirable behavior (McKay and Harvey 500). Therefore, the role of religion, in this case, is to change the individual’s perception of morality, in such a way that he/she becomes susceptible to only socially desirable behavior as projected, taught and inculcated by religion.
While many assume that morality has its roots in religion, there are cases where societies exist without necessarily relying on religion for moral guidance. Moreover, some of the world’s worst wars and conflicts have religion to blame, for a large part. Small-scale societies stand apart from the modern societies, where in lieu of relying on religion for moral guidance, such societies have intricate sets of local moral norms, which guide the entire existence of the people in the society (Norenzayan 373). The society’s moral norms guide a large part of the people’s lives in domains such as food sharing, kinship relations, marriage, risk leveling, mutual defense and caring for their progeny (Norenzayan 373). Such societies perform these moral obligations without necessarily looking to religion for guidance.
Perhaps, the argument that there is no morality without religion may find it even harder to hold its end given the many wars fought instigated by religious hatred. To hold the claim that religion is the foundation of morality, each religion should have sound moral principles able to enhance human advancement, at not only the individual but also the societal level as well (Obioha 31). Atheists would especially want to hold believers to account in their (believers) claim of religion as the basis of morality. However, such atheist would gladly indict religion given that it breeds conflicts, most of which have caused the loss of life in addition wars. Many regions across the world including the Middle East, Asia and Africa in places such as Nigeria have had a history of wars (Obioha 31). Apart from the destruction of property, loss of life and displacement of people, the wars have been a major cause of rising terror in the world as well as the growing refugee crises. Obioha contends that it is impossible to divorce the crises and conflicts from religious leader’s activities, particularly in places such as Nigeria, where Christianity and Islam are the two major religions (31).
Religious leaders in such conflict areas fuel the conflicts by stirring and manipulating adherents’ emotions to serve the leaders’ selfish ends. With the realization of the trust the adherents have in them, the religious leaders set one religion against another through claims of the superiority of their religion. Such claims are enough to instigate full-blown religious wars (Obioha 31). What remains to be desired in this case is the moral underpinning of such action by the religious leaders. Are such leaders in any way a reflection of religion as the custodian of moral uprightness as claimed by believers, or is religion just a charade for the manipulation of blind followers for the religious leaders’ personal gain?
The absence of shared moral principles by all religions deals a great blow to the claim of religion as the custodian of morality. Aside from instigating conflicts, some religions have outright controversial principles, some of which go against fundamental human rights (Obioha 31). By allowing and encouraging the murder of non-believers with a claim of reward in paradise, Islam indeed goes against the fundamental human rights principle of the right to life, in addition to the Christian commandment prohibiting the taking of life. While it is possible that the intention of Islamic jihad was not to take innocent lives, religious leaders have the tendency of using the very moral teachings in the holy books to indoctrinate adherents and lead them into performing immoral acts (Obioha 31).
Religion has a role to play in inculcating moral principles to its adherents and to the society as a whole. However, religion is not the only moral authority in any society. Different societies have different ways of inculcating, teaching and passing moral behavior from one generation to another. While religion has many followers, and therefore an obligation to provide moral lessons to the society, it is not the only source of morality; moreover, religions have been at the center of many conflicts putting to question its claim as the universal moral authority. Although there is a relation between religion and morality, and given that religion plays an important role in providing moral guidance in the society, there are indeed other avenues including culture, education and personal experiences that are equally instrumental in inculcating morality within a society.
Atran, Scott, and Ara Norenzayan. “Religion’s Evolutionary Landscape: Counterintuition, Commitment, Compassion, Communion.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 27, pp. 713-70.
Mckay, Ryan, and Harvey Whitehouse. “Religion and Morality.” Psychological Bulletin, vol. 141, no. 2, 2015, pp. 447-73, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4345965/. Accessed 20 March 2017.
Norenzayan, Ara. “Does Religion Make People Moral?” Behavior, vol. 151, 2014, pp. 365-84.
Obioha, Uwaezuoke P. “Ethics, Religion and Humanity: Rethinking Religion in 21st Century Africa.” Global Journal of Humanities, vol. 8, no. 1, 2009, pp. 27-34, Research Library, search.proquest.com/docview/868724581?accountid=1611. Accessed 20 March 2017.
Stingl, Michael, and John Collier. “After the Fall: Religious Capacities and the Error Theory of Morality.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 27, no. 6, 2004, pp. 751-52, Research Library, search.proquest.com/docview/212290626?accountid=1611. Accessed 19 March 2017.
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