Course notes on Religion and Morality for students of the Edexcel syllabus – Part One

From the syllabus for Religion and Ethics (Paper 2):

4.2 The relationship between religion and morality

a) Dependence, independence, autonomy, theonomy, heteronomy, divine command ethics, challenges from atheist and anti-theist perspectives, moral arguments for the existence and nonexistence of God.

b) Contemporary focuses, including the Westboro Baptist Church, religion and terror, conservative movements, including Quiverfull, biblical parenting.  

With reference to the ideas of R Dawkins and R A Sharpe.

NOTE: this post only deals with the highlighted section above. However, some of the sections below overlap with the topics of Religion and Equality, Religious Experience, Secularisation in relation to paper 4B (Christianity) – see especially the section on Christopher Hitchens, and Critiques of Religious Belief in connection to Paper 1 (Philosophy of Religion).


The main point here is that there are different ways to imagine the relationship between religion and morality. Here are the main ones:

  • The term ‘Heteronomy‘ describes a state of affairs where morality is defined by and derived from some kind of external force or power. It is imposed on people from outside. That power might be the law of the land as decided by a government, the pressure exerted by cultural norms (the manner in which most people are expected to behave morally within a given society or culture), or a religious faith/denomination. This latter example shows that there can be a dependent relationship between religion and morality in a heteronomous sense.
  • Then there is Autonomy. This is where morality exists independently of religion. For example, this might happen when human beings use reason alone to decide what is right or wrong.
  • Thirdly there is Theonomy. This is the more explicitly religious view that morality comes from God rather than any other external force or power. Divine Command Ethics – the idea that people are only genuinely moral when they follow God’s rules – is an example. So this is a more limited version of heteronomy. A good example of a theonomous envisaging of the relationship between religion and morality is that found in Saudi Arabia, which is the only country in the world to use the the Qur’an as its constitution (though Afghanistan may be about to follow suit at the time in 2021 when this blog entry was updated).

From these 3 basic perspectives, some interesting variations, combinations and other ‘moves’ can be made that somewhat blur the boundaries between them. Here are a few examples:

  • The Euthyphro dilemma is concerned with the idea of where God is getting His morality from. Is he making up the rules Himself or is he getting his standards of right and wrong from somewhere else? If the second half of this question is considered, it could be that reason is where everyone gets their standards from, including God. For example, it’s reasonable not to steal so God tells us not to. Here. reason itself could be said to have been elevated to the status of an external force or power. For more on this see below.
  • Moral decisions that are autonomous are freely chosen, while those that are heteronomous are ones that we are compelled to make by some kind of external power. From a certain point of view, Kantian Ethics could be said to be autonomous because moral decisions are freely chosen and arrived at purely through the deployment of reason, while Divine Command Ethics suggests that we will go to Hell if we do not follow God’s laws, and is therefore heteronomous in this sense.
  • On the other hand, God still serves as a sort of guarantor of Kant’s system (which implies theonomy) and to act according to the Hypothetical Imperative is to surrender to the dictates of ‘the moral law’, which sounds suspiciously heteronomous.
  • Classical utilitarianism is autonomous because it is not based on religion but if we have been hard-wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain then our actions are still heteronomous in a sense because we are all dancing to the tune of nature.
  • Then there is Natural Law to consider. According to Aquinas, reason is something given to us by God. So Natural Law is a system of ethics that is only partly autonomous.
  • As far as Theonomy is concerned, you could have atheists who just happen to believe that doing the most loving thing is the best way to live. In other words, they might believe in Situation Ethics and agape without believing in God. Or they might think that some of the 10 commandments are worth following because they make a lot of sense in terms of how to run a society morally.
  • It is possible to see the whole of a religion itself as being nothing more than a system of morality. According to this view, Christians might go on about God being ‘omnipresent’ and ‘judging’ but in fact what is really going on here something quite different. Human beings can’t face up to the fact that morality is something invented by themselves and so dream up ideas about, say,  an omnipotent, omniscient God who then tells them what to do. An example of a philosopher who argues this is R.B. Braithwaite who thinks that religious statements are actually moral statements in disguise. So, for example, when a Christian says that ‘God is love’ all they are really doing is declaring their intention to follow an agapeistic lifestyle.

However, the ethics of a faith is arguably not always always conceptualised in this way. In Theravada Buddhism, for example, the aim is to achieve Nirvana and stop reincarnating altogether rather than to earn a better rebirth by being non-violent with everyone (and animals). So ethics could be argued to be less important in this religion.

But what about Christianity?

Well, as Bishop John Robinson once said, ‘There is no one ethical system that can claim to be Christian’. By this he was thinking of the kinds of Christian ethical systems you are studying: Divine Command Theory, Kant and the Moral Law, Aquinas and Natural Law, and Situation Ethics.

As your syllabus also implicitly requires you to consider how far religious ethics in Christianity may be seen as absolutist or relativist I am going to kill two birds with one stone here by mentioning this (in bold type) along the way.

Taking them in order, it would seem that with Divine Command theory, the ethics and the religion are closely linked. The moral commands in the Bible are the Word of God and must be followed. Divine Command Theory is therefore an absolutist system of ethics.

With both Kant and Aquinas, there is still a close connection between Christianity and the ethics involved. This is because both philosophers see reason as something God-given, and for Aquinas, Natural Law is based on seeing the world as having been designed by a rational, purposeful God. His primary precepts and correctly applied reason would also be seen as consistent with God’s message as revealed through the Bible. Both Kant and Aquinas’s ethical systems are therefore also generally seen as absolutist, as Kant’s maxims do not change according to the situation, while in the case of Aquinas moral decisions are steered by the Primary Precepts (though there is some flexibility when it comes to how the Secondary Precepts are formed).

Moving on to Situation Ethics, the ethics are closely linked to Jesus’ teaching of agape, so there is still an intimate connection between the religion (which involves faith in Jesus) and the morality (which involves being loving in the way Jesus was), though it should be noted that doing the most loving thing may involve actions which go against other Biblical teachings.  And since one does the most loving thing depending on the circumstances there is both an absolutist and relativist aspect to this system of Christian ethics.

In conclusion then, it could be argued that in the case of Christianity there is always some kind of link between religion and ethics. However, the Euthyphro dilemma casts a shadow over this connection because of its concern with where God’s moral instructions come from in the first place. This dilemma, and its implications, will be discussed in more detail below.

Divine Command Ethics and the Euthyphro Dilemma

You could memorise this billboard and refer to it in an examination answer as it essentially sums up what Divine Command Ethics is.

The Euthyphro Dilemma

This philosophical issue surrounding morality and the will of God was first highlighted by Plato (428-348 BCE) in his dialogue Euthyphro. In this dialogue, a protagonist named Euthyphro is preparing to turn his own father over to the authorities for mistreating and causing the death of a slave. In ancient Greece, children unconditional loyalty to their parents was expected of children, and so Euthyphro’s act would be perceived as one of betrayal and a violation of the Greek moral code of the time. In spite of this, Euthyphro firmly believes that he is following the will of the gods and therefore must be doing what is right. On his way to the courthouse, Euthyphro encounters Socrates, and the two begin to discuss the relationship between morality and religious obedience. Socrates then puts this famous question to Euthyphro: “Are good things good because the gods approve of them, or do the gods approve of them because they are good?”

In the Euthyphro puzzle, Socrates presents Euthyphro with two alternatives when it comes to the connection between the gods and morality. The first possibility is that something becomes good when the gods will that it is good. For example, the gods might will that children should exhibit unconditional fidelity to their parents, and, by so willing this, it is thereby morally good and obligatory that all children should do so when their loyalty is tested. In this view, the gods invent morality and, in a sense, create morality completely from scratch. If the gods therefore deem that something is morally good, then it automatically becomes morally good.

The second possibility identified by Socrates is that good things are already objectively good, and the gods merely recognize this. For example, it may be objectively good and mandatory for children to display unconditional loyalty to their parents, and the gods simply rubber-stamp this moral standard. In this view, morality is fundamentally based on a pre-existing standard of moral goodness, which the gods themselves have not invented themselves, control over and must adhere to. The genius of Plato’s dilemma is that — assuming that God or the gods have any concerns about morality — these are the only two options available that can possibly account for the relationship between God and morality: God either invents morality from scratch or abides by a pre-existing standard. Moreover, since both of these options cannot be supported simultaneously, one really must be chosen over the other. Plato himself subscribed to the view that morality is grounded in external and pre-existing standards, and so he went with option two. Many philosophers after Plato followed his lead (including Aquinas) and held that there exists an external and independent standard of morality. But, as we shall see below, taking this course also leads to difficulties.

  • In summary, the Euthyphro dilemma can be put like this: are God’s commands good because they come from God? Or are they good because they conform to some other, independent standard of goodness?
  • If whatever God says is automatically good then an issue arises because God might command us to do things which we might see as being cruel or unjust. And we would have to do them because if God is the source of goodness then, however strange it may seem, we would have to do them because they are, by definition, morally right.
  • And in the Bible, God does seem to behave in a way that is cruel and unjust. For example, in 1 Samuel 15 He instructs the first king of Israel, Saul, via the medium of the prophet Samuel, to wipe out an entire race of people called the Amalekites. This includes women, children and even cattle. This is clearly an act of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
  • William of Ockham (1285-1349) – who famously formulated Ockham’s Razor – actually went along with this view. He argued that God could do whatever he liked morally, even commanding us to hate Him rather than love Him if he so willed it. We would then be obliged to hate God as this would be the morally right thing to do. Ockham’s view seems to be outlandish and contributed to his excommunication from the Church.
  • However, what is preserved and emphasised is the notion of divine power, God’s omnipotence.
  • It is possible to respond to the claim that God’s commands are arbitrary by stating that – as God is typically believed to be omnibenevolent – that He would never command anything that does not reflect His essentially loving nature.
  • The notion that moral principles are not independent rational principles but instead are creations of God’s will (in Latin, voluntas) is known as Voluntarism.
  • A criticism of voluntarism is that if God does create moral goodness, then we can’t meaningfully say about God himself that he is morally good. According to voluntarism, moral goodness simply resides with that which God commands. This isn’t a problem when it comes to human beings. To say that David or Jim are morally good simply means that they do what God tells them to. However, when we apply this definition of moral goodness to God, we end up saying simply that ‘God commands whatever He commands’, and the notion of divine moral goodness, of God himself being morally good, therefore seems to have been lost.
  • The other possibility, represented in the Euthyphro Dilemma, is to argue that God’s commands conform to an independent standard of goodness.
  • This view has been defended by Aquinas and is known as intellectualism.
  • According to Aquinas, God is an inherently rational being, and so his commands must therefore conform to any reasonable, independent standard of rationality (as opposed to goodness).
  • A criticism of intellectualism is that if God is not setting the standards of goodness then we might feel entitled to bypass God completely, as he is no longer worthy of worship. After all, why should we worship a God who is bound by the same moral rules as the rest of us?
  • A possible solution to the Euthyphro dilemma might be represented by Situation Ethics. According to this view, goodness is not about following a set of clearly defined rules that may or may not have their source in God. Instead, Situation Ethics is all about behaving in a generally loving way which may vary from situation to situation. This was hinted at above when it was suggested that God’s commands would inevitably reflect his omnibenevolence.
  • However, this solution could be criticised on the grounds that we can, once again, abandon God and just go around doing things that we consider to be agapeistic. So again, we no longer need God.
  • A strength of Divine Command Ethics is that it can provide certainty for the person who believes in it. All they have to do is find out the divine rule that applies to the particular moral issue they are trying to resolve and apply it.
  • Unfortunately, this certainty is often supplied by a spiritual teacher whose status as an authority figure might be questioned.
  • Or the relevant command may turn out, on closer examination, to be ambiguous or capable of being interpreted in more than one way e.g. see your notes on Sexual Ethics and the Biblical passages to do with homosexuality.
  • The French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, once commented in Existentialism as a Humanism that mental hospitals were full of people who claimed to be hearing the voice of God telling them to do things.
  • Within Christianity, there have also been examples of prophets and messiah figures who have claimed to speak in God’s name with terrible results for their followers. Examples include Jim Jones (pictured below), the leader of the People’s Temple, an American organisation that ended up in Guyana where, in 1978, virtually every one of his followers all died after they followed his instruction to drink Kool-Aid that had been poisoned with cyanide. Jones had claimed to be a reincarnation of Jesus, Gautama Buddha, Gandhi and Lenin.
Jim Jones - Wikipedia
  •  David Koresh is another Christian prophet/Messiah figure who was the leader of an American organisation called the Branch Davidians. He believed that he was a prophet of God and that God was commanding him to father children with various young brides who were his followers. In 1993 around 80 members of his group (including Koresh) burned to death in their communal home in Waco, Texas, following a shoot-out with the FBI.
  • The examples of Jones and Koresh demonstrate that Divine Commands are not just to be found in scripture. The statements of people considered to be Prophets, Messiah-figures, mystics and gurus are often believed to be the equivalent of God’s word by their followers.
  • More recently, the role of radical Islamic clerics and online jihadists in encouraging young Muslims to join terrorist organisations has been an issue.
  • As far as moral decision-making is concerned, these examples show the dangers that might result from allowing someone else who you have put on a pedestal to make the decisions for you.
  • One central issue here concerns how to distinguish genuine spiritual teachers from dangerous charlatans (assuming that there is such a thing as a genuine spiritual teacher). Perhaps the excesses described above suggest that it might, in the circumstances, be better to adopt Aquinas’s rationalist view of Divine Command Ethics.
  • The social psychology experiments of Milgram have shown that people are more susceptible to the influence of authority figures than they might care to admit. For example, Milgram found that around two-thirds of his experimental subjects would give dangerous electric shocks to a stranger after being prompted to do so by an authority figure.  So this is an additional concern.
  • However, one way to combat religious extremism is to promote and encourage the role played by mainstream religious figures from the relevant established denominations and traditions within a particular faith, who have a more moderate (and rational) message. This could be especially important within UK Muslim communities.
  • One major weakness of Divine Command Ethics is that there are limits to its appeal. God’s alleged commands are not going to be binding for nonbelievers who question the existence of God, especially when God is condemning homosexuality, or seems to want men to be in charge of women. For nonbelievers, such commands are a way to disguise bigotry.
  • Lastly, interpretations of scripture change and religious organisations redefine their teachings. For example, the Roman Catholic Church used to approve of slavery as it reflected what was once considered to a natural hierarchy amongst different groups of humans. But more recently the Catholic Church has harshly condemned slavery. Similarly, many Protestant denominations condemned the use of contraceptive devices when they first became widely available in the early twentieth century. Within 50 years, though, most of these denominations have changed their views. Set against this ever-changing backdrop, Divine Command Ethics is shown to be less rigid, absolutist, consistent and binding than many of its supporters would probably like to admit.
  • Overall, you could argue that if you are presented with a large enough corpus of Divine Commands in sacred texts, then this makes it possible for someone to find a passage that justifies the beliefs that they already hold e.g. that God really does ‘hate fags’ (as the Westboro Baptist Church claim), or that terrorist acts are justified in the name of Islam (as argued for theologically by Salafi-Jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS).

Challenges from Atheist and Anti-theist Perspectives

NOTE: this challenge has already been extensively explored in several other posts that can be found HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE. So only the moral aspect of this challenge will be recapped and briefly assessed in this post.

A challenge might thus arise in the case of atheism in the sense that in the most secular countries, like those of Northern Europe, whose populations include many who no longer believe in God, there has been no collapse of social cohesion. The moral fabric of these societies remains intact. And so the fear of a descent into the abyss of moral relativism anticipated by those who believe that an ‘anything goes’ state of moral anarchy would eventually result from the severance of the connection between God and morality has not been realized.

With anti-theism, however, the claim is made that we would be better off if morality was no longer grounded in belief in God. This is the view maintained by prominent advocates of the New Atheism, and has already been dealt with extensively in several previous posts. To recap this perspective very briefly, the claim is made by authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens that religion has encouraged and continues to encourage some of the worst moral behaviour e.g. genocide, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and so on. In one of his documentary films, Dawkins has approvingly quoted Nobel Prize Winning physicist Steven Weinberg.

However, there is obviously a major issue here to do with selection of evidence. In assessing the moral output of faith, anti-theists like Dawkins and Hitchens do not consider evidence suggesting that religion can be beneficial? One might, for example, look at the role of religion in the American civil rights movement (see the next section for more on this), or the work of Christian Aid, Tear Fund and CAFOD. One might note that Christians were motivated significantly by their faith to finally make slavery illegal in Britain and elsewhere. In other words, one simply cannot bite off a chunk of a phenomenon like religion, and say ‘bad’.

Additionally, Dawkins is renowned for his championing of evidence and reason in contrast to faith. But what might Dawkins think of a medic who wrote an article designed to be read as widely as possible which suggested that a virus was spreading through a hospital or town, when there was no medical consensus about this at all? Would Dawkins regard that as responsible medical journalism? Probably not. So for Dawkins to liken a religion to a virus (or a ‘carnivorous gene complex’ in the case of Islam) would seem to involve a setting aside of that aforementioned appeal to evidence.

In Reason, Faith and Revolution (2009), Terry Eagleton additionally argues that violent and terrorist forms of radical Islam are not primarily a religious phenomenon. The dynamic has rather more to do with the development of post-colonial identities in Iran, Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere. The Israel/Palestine conflict also perpetuates a smouldering sense of injustice that is political, territorial and economic as much as it is religious. Yet this crucial perspective gets lost against the kind of generalised moral condemnation of religion that anti-theists like Dawkins and Hitchens make.

Christopher Hitchens and the American Civil Rights Movement

At this point, reference needs to be made to an argument advanced by the late but still influential New Atheist or anti-theist Christopher Hitchens. In the above publication, Hitchens attempts to demonstrate that Christianity did not contribute significantly to the success of the above movement. He does so in three ways:

  1. As Martin Luther King never invoked the warnings about hellfire found in Judaism and the teachings of John the Baptist and Jesus, ‘in no real, as opposed to a nominal sense, was [King] a Christian.
  2. Many within King’s inner circle were actually communists and socialists, so too much credit has been given to Christianity for the success of the movement .
  3. Historically, the Christian churches had previously been very much involved in the slave trade, and appear in the 1950’s and 1960’s to still have been more for than against racial segregation.
Judging Religion. A Dialogue for Our Time, by John… | by Julian Bond |  Medium

In his book Judging Religion: A Dialogue for Our Time, John Holroyd has responded to the points made by Hitchens. Firstly, he draws attention to the fact that there are many Biblical scholars (John Hick is an example) who either do not believe in Hell or do not believe that it is eternal. He further suggests that Hitchens’ lack of awareness of this stems from his unfamiliarity with both Biblical criticism and Christian theology, and so he proceeds from the misguided assumption that all Christians take a literalist view of the Bible.

Holroyd continues as follows:

 “Second, if Hitchens had read the Gospels at all closely , he would see that forgiveness features rather more than hell as a teaching.  King who, I dare say, knew the Bible rather better than Hitchens, was conscious of this.  King is being utterly consistent with the Sermon on the Mount – to turn the other cheek, to repay evil with good; and with the Parable of the Good Samaritan – to treat those who may most hate you with love and kindness.    His views are  consistent with Jesus’s alleged utterance during crucifixion, ‘Father forgive them, they know not what they do,’ and with I Corinthians 13, that love ‘keeps no score of wrongs’.  Unlike Hitchens, King knew his Koine Greek and Hebrew, and unlike Hitchens, King did not keep to literalist interpretations of the Bible. I doubt there is anyone who knew King who thought he wasn’t a Christian. What this first point of Hitchens demonstrates is his desperation , when faced with Christianity seeming to do good, to force the facts to say the opposite.

King also famously once prayed for help when he was alone because he needed the courage to stand up against racism after he had received a phone call from someone threatening to kill him and blow up his house. He thought that if others could see how scared he was that he could not be an effective leader and a non-violent role model for others.

His prayer was answered and he felt the presence of God inspiring him in what he later referred to as his ‘vision in the kitchen’ .

 ‘At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before.  It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.”  Almost at once my fears began to go.  My uncertainty disappeared.  I was ready to face anything.’

Shortly afterwards his house was bombed but he remained calm and told an angry mob not to retaliate because of the strength that he felt that God had given him. A crowd of about a thousand gathered outside, keen to find and deal with the culprits. King told them, ‘We must love our white brothers no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them.  Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.”  This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.  Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because God is with the movement.  Go home with this glowing faith and this radiant assurance.’

As Holroyd points out:

‘From the outset, it is clear that without his Christian context and experience King would not have been the person he was, to do what he did. At crucial points his Christian faith was at the heart of his motivation, inspiration, courage and mission.’

He then continues:

‘What of Hitchens’s second point, that the civil rights movement was significantly inspired and supported by communists and other primarily political elements, and that the contribution of Christianity has therefore been much exaggerated? It would have been odd if such communist elements had been absent from the movement, because it stood in opposition to establishment capitalist concerns and structures that entrenched poverty, as well as racism.  It should be clear though that King spoke out specifically against communism, and pointed out its incompatibility with Christianity in his eyes – not the kind of thing to do if you had been trying to maintain good relations with a significant element of your power base .  Rather like in many protest marches in the U.K. and elsewhere, the communists and their acolytes were hangers-on. ‘

Holroyd conclusion is that Hitchens’ assertion therefore lacks any kind of traction.

Lastly, Holroyd does concede that Hitchens’ third claim is his strongest, as much of US Christianity was quite opposed to the civil rights movement during the 1950’s and 60’s. However, that opposition has not persisted, and the fact that it hasn’t accords with the overall Christian belief that good will finally triumph over evil.


Sam Harris: Morality is not dependent on Religion

The Moral Landscape | Sam Harris

In his book The Moral Landscape, the philosopher Sam Harris has argued that we can use science to help us decide what is right and wrong. Harris can therefore be said to be in the Autonomy camp when it comes to exploring the relationship between religion and morality, in the sense that he is attempting to demonstrate that morality does not necessarily have to grounded in religion. Science can provide an alternative foundation for morality.

In particular, he has suggested that we can use neuroscience to identify which societies promote behaviour that leads to human well-being. This is because brain scans of happy, well-adjusted people look different from those that aren’t. Harris is very critical of ethical relativism and thinks that his method will help us to objectively prove which ethical theories really work. For ethical relativists, morality is relative to specific times, places and situations. So right and wrong is usually decided by working out which action will have the best consequences relative to the situation at hand. Nothing is decided in advance.

In response, Harris contends that his method will help us to objectively prove which ethical theories really work. On this basis, it could, for example, be predicted that the brains of members of the Taliban will show more activity in areas of the brain that are active when we are angry or afraid (because the Taliban tend to be intolerant and are afraid of Allah’s judgement). For this reason, Harris does not agree with Hume’s view (see your notes on Meta-Ethics) that we can never work out what we ought or should do from the facts of human existence.

If Harris’s argument that a form of ethics based on science is possible, then this would mean that morality is not dependent on religion. Note that this morality could also be flexible: there may be more than one approach to morality that could be scientifically proven to result in human well-being.

However, Harris’s argument has been criticised by the philosopher Julian Baggini (who also happens to be an atheist). Baggini points out that Harris is essentially making the claim that ‘morality = well-being.’ However, this claim is not a scientific one. As Baggini puts it, ‘You cannot establish that ‘morality = well-being’ is true in the same way that you can establish that force = mass x acceleration’. It is therefore an assumption. But if the fundamental assumption that ‘morality = well-being’ cannot be determined by science, then neither can morality as a whole.

Here Baggini is exploiting the Is/Ought gap to criticise Harris. The Is/Ought gap basically affirms that you cannot make the leap from description (which is the job of science) to prescription (telling us what we ought to do on the basis of those descriptions). From the fact that certain conditions in a given society seem to produce neurological well-being in people does not mean that we ought to base morality on the cultivation of those conditions with the aim of producing even more happy people. Put bluntly, happiness and morality may not be the same thing.

R.A. Sharpe The Moral Case Against Religious Belief

Moral Case Against Religious Belief by  R. A Sharpe - Paperback - 2012 - from Fireside Bookshop (SKU: 302792)

At the outset of this book, Sharpe explains that ‘religious belief does not necessarily make its possessor an authority on matters moral and that spokesmen and spokeswomen for religion are often badly wrong about moral questions as a result of their religious commitment. But, more strongly still, I shall be arguing that in some ways, morality is corrupted by religion.’ One example of the manner in which morality gets corrupted by religion cited by Sharpe is infant male circumcision without anaesthetic, which he considers to be self-evidently cruel. He also condemns Pope Innocent’s IV’s historical authorization of the use of torture (issued in 1252) as a means of interrogation by the medieval inquisition, as such a method leads those who inflict in on others to ‘set aside such ordinary reactions as compassion for the suffering.’ Still another religiously grounded moral teaching that Sharpe refers to as an illustration of his point is the Catholic prohibition of the use of artificial forms of contraception. For Sharpe, if the proper purpose of intercourse is procreation (as affirmed by Aquinas’s theory of Natural Moral Law that informs Papal teaching on this issue), then the more acceptable rhythm method still frustrates it, so Catholic doctrine on this matter is inconsistent. Furthermore, it undermines the bond of love that exists between a couple because they are unable to express that love through sex whenever they desire to without risking the possibility of acquiring an undesirably large family. He concludes that, ‘If I were a Christian I would regard contraception, like antibiotics, as one of the great blessings science and technology has brought to mankind.’

For Sharpe, charitable acts performed for religious motivations can also produce distortions of morality. For instance, missionaries undertaking medical work in order to evangelize can be criticized on the grounds that, ‘suffering is a sufficient motive in itself…Nothing else is needed…Even if the believer says, as he might, that we have two good motives for reducing suffering, one moral and one religious, the fact remains that the moral motive ought to be sufficient. The religious motive is then either redundant or diminishing.’

Additionally, what God apparently demands of religionists themselves in terms of worship is morally dubious. For example, the requirement to have trust and faith in God is something that Sharpe considers to infantilize those who do so, as it prevents them from developing a reflectively critical outlook that is surely required in order to make mature moral judgements. Furthermore, the notion that worshippers flourish when they glorify God is also suspect. For Sharpe this makes God seem like Shakespeare’s Lear, an abdicating King who, in order to decide how his realm is to be divided among his daughters, requires that they make effusive declarations of their love for him. As Sharpe observes, ‘If God is as good as he is made out to be, I cannot think that he would take any satisfaction in being worshipped or adored.’

In Chapter 6 of the book, Sharpe advances one final argument that is more philosophical than ethical but which – keeping in mind the evaluative examination questions that Edexcel specify must contain a synoptic element – can be related to the Paper 1 topics 6.1 and 6.2 covering ‘views about life and death’ and especially, the possible existence of and immortality of the soul. The chapter is especially reliant on the thinking of the philosopher Bernard Williams (whose ideas are briefly summarised in this blog entry), and the gist of is that if the point of observing religious ethical teaching is to secure eternal life, then that life must necessarily eventually become both tedious and meaningless because of its endless character, and is therefore undesirable even if it is possible.

Overall then, and in spite of the fact that Sharpe ‘does not dissent from the pattern of moral life set down in the Beatitudes’ which he regards as providing an admirable pattern for what he calls ‘everyday morality‘, thus demonstrating that he is not entirely unsympathetic to religiously infused ethical guidance, Sharpe takes the line that religious belief on the whole distorts and corrupts it, and because of this, as the back cover of his book declares, ‘he firmly believes in the autonomy of morality.’

This is fair enough. But it also seems fair to ask what this autonomy should be based on? Already we have seen that Harris’s attempts to ground morality in science leads to problems of its own, and it fair to say that basing morality on utility, virtue, rationality, intuition, and so on, can also be deeply problematic. So the task of providing a firm foundation for secular morality is still a work-in-progress.

Furthermore, Sharpe’s ‘everyday morality’ itself provides no guarantees against ethical corruption. For instance, at one point in his book, Sharpe discusses what might motivate someone to help a beggar with ‘undressed sores’ on the streets of London. One passer-by dresses his wounds ‘because she is moved by his needs and suffering.’ But suppose that she had simply given him money out of a sense of compassion? It goes without saying that this might then be spent on on drugs or alcohol. So the virtue of compassion alone does not ensure that the right moral decision is made and demonstrates that someone in possession of a straightforward ‘everyday morality’ does not make them any more of an ‘authority on matters moral.’ This example may seem cliched and rather obvious, but it does, once again, serve as an illustration of the problems one immediately confronts when trying to create a bedrock for moral behaviour on something other than religion, even when one accepts Sharpe’s critique of religious belief.

And additionally…

It would be a mistake to assume that all atheists are anti-theists. Some are sympathetic. For example, in his book The Dawkins Delusion, Alister McGrath points out that what he refers to as ‘atheist fundamentalists’ like Richard Dawkins are in danger of alienating their atheist fellow-travellers who are not overtly hostile to religious faith.

Additionally, in his seminal biography of Muhammad, the self-confessed atheist Maxime Rodinson has this to say:

‘ Founders of ideologies have given men reasons for living and personal or social tasks to fulfil. When the ideologies are religious they have declared (and generally believed) that their message came from beyond our world, and that what they, themselves represented was something more than merely human. The atheist can only say that this extra-human origin remains unproved. But that gives him no reason for denigrating the message itself; indeed he may even place a higher value on it, as being an admirable effort to surpass the human condition.’

Moral arguments for the existence and nonexistence of God

The most well-known moral argument for the existence of God is one proposed by Kant. In actual fact, Kant did not believe that it was possible to prove the existence of God theoretically because He is utterly transcendent and therefore a being that cannot be grasped by the intellect. For this reason he devoted considerable energy in his writing to attacking traditional proofs for the existence of God like, for example, the ontological argument.

Nevertheless, in his Critique of Practical Reason he wrote that, ‘it is morally necessary to assume the existence of God’. What Kant meant by this was that his duty-based system of ethics only truly works if God exists. In other words, there are practical rather than theoretical reasons for believing in God.

What seems to have concerned him is that is was possible to spend your life doing your duty and striving for what he called the summum bonum, the highest good, and yet still be unhappy or find oneself in unfavourable circumstances. Meanwhile, there are others who seem to flourish and enjoy happiness without being moral. Put somewhat crudely, it is bit like someone saying to themselves, ‘Why should I bother to do the right thing when other people are getting away with murder?’.

Kant’s response to this question is that the summum bonum must still be achievable, given that that ‘ought implies can’, and so if being virtuous doesn’t seem to be rewarded with happiness in this life then it will in the next one. So there must then be a heaven presided over by an God where this can happen. Therefore it is worth acting morally.

However, there are some obvious problems with this argument. First of all, Kant’s system is meant to be deontological. It is supposed to be about doing your duty for duty’s sake rather than because a consequence of doing so is that this will eventually lead to happiness. So Kant seems to have had to smuggle in a consequentialist, almost Benthamite motive for being moral into his ethical system in order to make it work, which would appear to undermine the deontological foundation on which it is based.

Secondly, Kant’s argument does not necessarily presuppose that the God of classical theism exists, namely, a being that is all-powerful, all-loving, and so on. All it suggests is that there must be an afterlife presided over by a being or beings who are powerful enough to create and oversee a system that will ultimately make us happy in the next world if we do our duty in this one.

In summary, Kant’s practical moral argument for God’s existence seems to be hardly any more convincing than the theoretical arguments that he was so critical of.

Moving on to moral arguments for the nonexistence of God, the evidential problem of evil (discussed HERE) has a moral dimension that can serve this purpose. So the following is just a cut and paste of what can be found by following the link:

  • The evidential problem of evil has been summarised by the philosopher Stephen Evans as follows:
  • If God exists, he would not allow any pointless evil.
  • Probably, there is pointless evil.
  • Therefore, probably, God does not exist.
  • According to the evidential problem of evil, the amount and type of evil now becomes relevant. If examples of evil with no obvious purpose can be found, then this serves to undermine, perhaps decisively, the probability of God’s existence.
  • As John Holroyd has observed in his book Judging Religion: A Dialogue For Our Time, ‘The strength of this argument as a challenge to belief in God, compared with the argument from the logical problem of evil, is that the burden of proof is lower here and the conclusion therefore more easily reached. it only has to seem likely that some instance of evil is pointless for belief in God to be less than reasonable.’
  • And when we start to consider the enormous amount of suffering in the world – including the millions of years of animal suffering caused by natural events that occurred before humans even made an appearance – it becomes overwhelmingly unlikely that every last bit of suffering can be accounted for as having some kind of point to it.
  • Another example of pointless evil, one that has a profound impact on human beings, is that of disease. For example, some babies are born with epidermolysis bullosa, a genetic skin disease that causes blistering all over the body, so that the baby cannot be held, or even lie on its back without pain. It seems odd to think that there is some kind of point to this illness.
  • This example and that of animal suffering can be seen as responses to those who believe that if nothing bad ever happened, we would not be in a position to know and appreciate good things. Although this may explain why God might allow some evil to exist, it does not explain why there is such a superabundance of evil in the world. As James Rachels has pointed out in his book Problems from Philosophy, “The problem is that the world contains vastly more evil than is necessary for an appreciation of the good. If, say, only half the number of people died every year of cancer, that would be plenty to motivate the appreciation of health. And because we already have cancer to contend with, we don’t really need epidermolysis bullosa, much less AIDS, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, diphtheria, Ebola, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and bubonic plague,”
  • The evidence around us therefore points to the fact that there is an abundance of pointless evil, which in turn serves to undermine, perhaps decisively, the possibility of God’s existence.
  • Re-stated in moral terms, the implication is that as an all-powerful, all-loving God would not create a world with so much gratuitous evil, such a God does not exist.
  • Probably, the only response to the conclusion of this argument for those who would seek to challenge it would be to venture justifications for every example of seemingly pointless evil that the evidentialist refers to.