In an interesting piece about the independence of morality and religion, my fellow Psychology Today blogger Gad Saad rightly reports that many religious people believe that morality is an example of an issue that lies outside of the realm of science. As a particular kind of religious person myself, I think that this view about the limits of science with respect to morality is partially correct. There are elements of morality beyond the purview of science. For example, I’m not sure what an empirical science could tell us about many of the central questions in metaethics. However, as someone who thinks that some form of virtue ethics is probably the best normative theory of ethics, I believe that science does have important contributions to make. In fact, The Character Project at Wake Forest University, funded by the Templeton Foundation, includes several grants to psychologists who are exploring different aspects of the nature of character.
Moving on, I’d like to respond to the main points raised by Professor Saad. First, he notes the numerous contradictions among the positions taken by different religions on important moral issues, and asks “Which God/religion should one use to guide his/her moral system?” I would say that one should employ the moral standards of the religion that one takes to be true, but that one should not base this merely on the claim that “my holy book” says my religion is true. I believe that part of what it means to be human, made in the image of God, is that we have been endowed with rational capacities. To determine whether or not a particular religion, if any, is true, one should consider the reasons available for accepting or rejecting its claims. Moreover, one might believe that her religion is true, but that others also have truth in them. For instance, as a Christian theist, one should take compassion to be a key virtue, and in this the Buddhist will agree. It is true that religions have competing truth claims, but many of them also have important areas of agreement.
As an aside, issues like slavery in the Bible are much more complex than the manner in which they are often represented by critics of biblical morality. I would suggest that those interested in this issue, as well as other morally problematic sections of the Bible, check out two books: Is God a Moral Monster?, and Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals. Both are interesting and thought-provoking and reveal important flaws in how some of the new atheists (such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins) deal with them.
Next, it is of course true that atheists, theists, deists, agnostics, and people of all different schools of thought commit moral, compassionate, and kind acts. But this doesn’t show that morality is independent of religion in its metaethical or normative aspects. As a philosopher, when I consider why compassion is a virtue, for instance, who does or does not have and practice this trait is irrelevant. And as a Christian theist, I would argue that it is of course true that you don’t need to believe in or follow God to be compassionate; but on Christian theism this is the case because human beings are thought to be made in the image of God. Given this, we have many capacities for doing and being good, regardless of whether or not we are also believers in and followers of God.
Finally, evolutionary accounts of the origin of morality are interesting (and controversial), but they are also incomplete. One might be able to explain how compassionate behavior is evolutionarily advantageous, and why we came to praise and practice such behavior, but this does nothing to justify the truth-claim that compassion is a virtue. For this, we must go beyond science to philosophy.