Goodness and Religion

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A few weeks ago a friend was talking to me about leaving her religion. She said she’d spoken with her family and they’d asked her how she thought she could still be a good person without her faith. They’d said that morality came from her religion and that she couldn’t pick and choose the bits she liked. I’m not convinced at any religion can really be considered the de facto source of morality  but I think there are many examples of religious teachings that try to define what is right and wrong. Some of these teachings tap into moral properties that are common to all people. Other teachings may have more to do with the values held by specific groups.

There are a range of behavioural predispositions we could call good or bad that are part of our biology rather than learnt. These have to do with social behaviours and are instrumental in persisting the human species. Where people differ from other animals is that we also have culture. Good and bad behaviours depend to some extent on the context and who is judging the behaviour. Even if a person wanted to do only good there will be someone, somewhere who considers their behaviour bad. We all know for example that breaking into a person’s house is bad. We also all know that breaking into your elderly neighbour’s house to help them because they have fallen is good. So if a person can’t literally be all good or bad, why do we talk about “good” and “bad” people? I think it is likely we have these categories as a way of summarising complex observations, thoughts and feelings about people into a simple shorthand to guide our behaviour and to help us communicate our views to others.

We tend to label people as good or bad depending on what we think of their actions, behaviour and intentions. I might call someone a good person because I know that they volunteer at a homeless shelter. Here I’d be focusing on a specific behaviour over time and assuming that they intend to make others’ lives better. If I see on the news that someone has committed a murder I might describe the perpetrator of that crime as a bad person because of the intellectual and emotional weight of that one action. Someone might view themselves as a bad person because they have been repeatedly told it or taught that there’s something wrong with them. Conversely, a person might believe wholeheartedly in the righteousness of their evil actions. Their intent is good but based on faulty reasoning, misunderstanding or illness. The question of who gets to say what is good and bad is an important one.

So where does religion fit into all of this? Broadly speaking religion can contribute to our values and offer some guidance about how to order our lives. Of course there are many religions, each making mutually exclusive claims about existence. They have some members who behave well and others who misbehave. There do appear to be areas of moral commonality between religions, such as the suggestion that we treat others as we would like to be treated. Since this isn’t the property of any one religion, it supports the idea that our morality is much more than a set of specific religious teachings. Our values change over time and between places, which can cause problems for religions that are not sufficiently dynamic. The Anglican Church for example has encountered considerable difficulty in modernising its stance on sexuality. It’s an interesting issue since it seems to have a lot to do with the role of culture and politics in the interpretation of scripture. This is a problem not just because of the effect it has on how people treat each other, but also for the institutions since people will increasingly ask “what relevance does a religion have if it’s at odds with the values of the society it exists in?”

My view is that religion can influence morals but the final word on morality doesn’t belong to religion. Our values change over time and hopefully for the better. Goodness finds expression in the actions of the religious and non-religious alike. It might be true that my friend was raised in a religious environment and learnt something about goodness from that experience. I don’t think that means you have to take the bad with the good. She had the courage to question some of teachings she felt uncomfortable with and I’d say that’s the hallmark of a good person.

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