Ethics and Religion
Posted on November 30th, 2014

By Rohana R. Wasala

(This is the second in a series of five articles written on the subject of religion by the author, courtesy The Nation, where they were first published,  sometimes under different titles from those that will appear here. The first was ‘To contain religious fundamentalism’ [Lankaweb, 14.11.14])

Most ordinary people believe that there is no morality where there is no religion. Irreligious people are immoral, they think. This feeling is strong particularly among those who belong to god-based religions. Rational thinkers who are profoundly concerned with ethics hold that this is a wrong view. But we have evidence to believe that ‘irreligious’ people (here meaning people following no religion) are probably more conscientiously ethical than the average professors of religion. ‘Can’t we be moral without depending on a divine moral-lawgiver?’ is a good question to think about.

The belief in the existence of some divine authority or arbiter that supervises human ethics is based on a circular argument. Now the circular argument in support of divine arbitration in the moral world is clearly articulated in the book ‘Philosophy of Religion’ (Fourth Edition, July 1997) by Professor John H. Hick of Claremont Graduate School, California). As Hick explains, the argument is that good in a human being is in relation to God who created him in his image. A good human being is one who fulfills his  pristine nature and basic desires. The determining circumstance of humanity’s supreme good is identified with the existence of God and his activity. This belief presumes that God has fashioned human nature so as to ensure that human beings’ culminant satisfaction is to be secured in relation to God. Moral systems, however, are usually independent of religion; ethical principles can be formulated without reference to God. Ultimately, though, ethics and axiology (or value theory, here as relevant to the philosophy of ethics) hinge on the character of God who has invested human beings with attributes whose realization defines their good. We normally tend to reject a circular argument like that because it ‘begs the question’, that is, it assumes to be valid a proposition that is yet to be validated.

 Flee from the wrath to come” has long been the warning message of Christian preachers. Some of this preaching has assumed an anthropomorphic character. This is ironic because St Paul to whom we owe the Bible as it is never describes God as being wrathful; his writings of the standard New Testament are the source of texts concerning the ‘Wrath of God’.  In the words of Professor Hick, St Paul ….. always  speaks of the Wrath of God in a curiously impersonal way to refer to the inevitable reaction of the divinely appointed moral order of the Universe upon wrongdoing….”. He quotes from C.H. Dodd’s ‘The Meaning of Paul for today’, 1920 (New York): This disaster Paul calls, in traditional language, ‘The Wrath’, or much more rarely, ‘The Wrath of God’…. ‘The Wrath’, then, is revealed before our eyes as the increasing horror of sin working out its hideous law of cause and effect.”

Now this is ‘sin’ as conceived in Christianity, where sin involves committing an offence against god by disobeying his commandments. In Buddhism there is no concept of sin in the Christian sense. Instead there are wholesome actions and unwholesome actions according as they lead to good results and bad results respectively in terms of the law of kamma, the law of cause and effect. Could the  ‘law of cause and effect’ in the above quote be identical with  Buddhism’s kamma, then? German theologian Holger Kersten’s book (1994) about the story of Jesus Christ before and after the Crucifixion,  written after many years of painstaking research in support of his startling, unorthodox conclusions about Christianity could provide an answer.

It is not logical to argue that biological evolution is a blind phenomenon caused by natural selection and random mutations. God believers claim that evolution is guided by an outside power. That is a self-contradictory argument. Eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has scientifically demonstrated that biological evolution is by no means a purely blind phenomenon caused by natural selection and random mutations”; there are natural laws that guide it; no divine intervention is needed.

The majority of scientists have found that the world (meaning the universe) is more mysterious, majestic, and magical than any religious teacher of ancient times was able to imagine; but they have still found no evidence that points towards a creator being or that suggests the need for one. The apparently miraculous fine-tuning of natural laws can also be scientifically explained. We need not attribute to an imaginary God something which we are still unable to account for scientifically.

According to modern physics, it is not a universe, but a multiverse. Explaining the multiverse idea, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow write towards the end of their book ‘The Grand Design’ (2010):

The multiverse idea is not a notion invented to account for the miracle of fine-tuning. It is a consequence of the no-boundary condition as well as many other theories of modern cosmology.…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………Many people through the ages have attributed to God the beauty and complexity of nature that in their time seemed to have no scientific explanation. But just as Darwin and Wallace explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept can explain the fine-tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit.

Sam Harris, neuroscientist, says that since human morality concerns problems of human happiness and suffering, there need only be better and worse ways to secure the first and eliminate the second. A better scientific understanding of human morality than there is at present is possible. A scientific knowledge of psychological laws that determine human wellbeing should form an enduring basis for human morality. This requires no divine authority.  

Concluded

One Response to “Ethics and Religion”

  1. AnuD Says:

    Ethics comes in western philosophy after the Christian influence. Ethics is a christian word.

    In Islam, it is total submission to the god.

    In buddhism, there is no ethics or values and IT IS SEELA (vinaya).

    Seela is also different for different groups. for example, for lay people, it is the pancha seela, then ata-sil and dasa sil. For sangha it is the vinaya pitakaya completely.

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