It seems to me that a great many debates I have witnessed are subverted and tainted by a general lack of understanding of the nature of Morality and how it interacts with its sibling, Religion. There are two great offenders in this blunder that pain me most. Some have said, “We have discovered morality through our religion and embraced it. Anyone who has not taken our views as their own is without morals, wholly corrupt, and unable to see any truth.” Others will say that Religion is bereft of Morality and that it does more harm in the world than it has ever done good. I want to address both of these extremes, in time. But first I think we need to delve into Morality itself, free of the slants of opposing perspectives.
First, it is important to note that Morality consists of a more basic and integral nature to the human experience than Religion. Religion cannot sustain itself and persist without the foundation of Morality in some form. Conversely, it is entirely possible for Morality to continue on without ever intersecting with Religion. From this we can infer that Morality is a more definitive, enveloping construct. Second, we must acknowledge that Morality is a construct of sentient life. The world around us only subscribes to the notions of existence and survival, to the maintaining of balance. If a lion is hungry he will eat the wildebeest with no regard for how much the others might suffer due to its absence. A scavenger in winter will take another’s stash of food, and colonies of ants will wipe each other out over territory. There is no right and wrong in this. It is just the natural flow of energy. Morality is the product of self-awareness and, even more importantly, the development of empathy. It is not only a result of being able to analyze and consider the reality of one’s own existence, but the ability to relate this to the potential experience of another individual.
Morality at its basest level breaks down to ‘do no harm’. I refer to this natural sense of right and wrong in the interaction of people as ‘Intrinsic Morality’. Within this simple frame much is taken into account. We must not murder, for it engenders pain and great sadness. We must not steal, for it detracts from what another has gained. We must not torture, rape, destroy, or starve others. This is all comes easily to the human spirit, though it does not prevent us from doing so anyway. But we innately feel that if we commit such an act a like response would be justifiable or even expected.
There is, however, another level of Morality which I refer to as ‘Adopted Morality’. This new sense of right and wrong is not foundational to the moral experience, but accrued through time and the expansion of perspective. Whereas Intrinsic Morality might merely require that we spare the wanderer in our territory and let him be on his way through the cold winter, this new adopted morality might well require of us that we provide him shelter and food for a night. Such Morality grows and adapts to our hearts and minds as we move through life and gain understanding. This is the stage of Morality in which Religion exists.
So then, to say that the man lacking religion has no reliable moral basis is not only disrespectful, but ignorant. This is also faulty logic. One is not born into religion. If then there is no morality without religion, then by what moral compass did you come by the enlightened realization of your religion? Your religion might well be worthless! For you had no way of rightly determining your own path, and this is a terrible violation of the self and free will. In essence: if there is no moral basis before coming to know God, then how in the world could you possibly determine that He is Good and the alternative is Bad? No. You might just as easily identify Lucifer as Good. The idea that we could choose a Savior independent of a preexisting sense of morality is a terrifying one. All humanity has a connection to our Intrinsic Morality on some level. To deny this always reeks of Pharisee to me.
Equally, it is unfair to blame Religion for the atrocities mankind is capable of unleashing against itself. The problem is that all too often corrupt people and those they can deceive use Religion as a tool. It’s the same as a knife, a gun, an atom bomb. It merely attacks the mind rather than the body, and they seek to supplant the Intrinsic Morality through this subversive methodology. Some use it as a shroud to hide themselves away from and deny what they know is right. But Religion when properly employed is a valuable and worthy extension of Morality. It provides an open door and a sense of guidance for those who seek to further their Adopted Morality to another plane. How is this not noble?
The danger of Religion in Morality is that it can draw people too much into the rules, laws, and regulations of the order they’ve adopted. They lose sight of the core of Morality and allow their focus to become too narrow, they lock in on “dos and don’ts” instead of “rights and wrongs”. And they forget that this Adopted Morality is personal, not universal.
I think this is why Jesus was so intent to oppose the Pharisees and establish the new covenant, and why He preached ‘love thy neighbor’ above all else. He wanted the law written on our hearts, where we communicate with the Holy Spirit. He wanted us to always remain in touch with our basic, Intrinsic Morality, seek Him, and allow ourselves to grow in Morality and Love. Religion is a strong support and useful tool in the journey. But it is not the base building block, our foundation with the Savior. We always have an open avenue to Him regardless of anything else.
Christians should be seeking to love and embrace all of our brethren in the world, and share with others the joy found in this new Adopted Morality. We should not be antagonizing them for adhering to the only Adopted Morality they have thus far embraced for themselves. Help them along the path instead of berating them for what you perceive to be missteps. Hopefully they will join you at the journey’s end. Perhaps they won’t. But we can all live life correctly and in love in the meantime.