by Ervin Taylor


This is Part 7 of the summary of Dr. Wilbur’s book. It should be emphasized that all of the text in this series of blogs in bold font in the body of the text of the chapter summary has been kindly provided by Dr. Wilbur. If there are any of my own comments, they will follow in regular type. 

Summary for Chapter 6: Religion and Ethics

The Common Belief

Religious groups regularly teach that morality flows from religious belief. This view seems to be accepted by most of their members. The failure of atheists to believe in the supernatural (God) is cited as evidence that they can’t be trusted. In John Stuart Mill’s day, an atheist couldn’t testify in a British courtroom. Personal ethics was not a major feature of most religion in antiquity, but the religious innovations of the Axial age (800 to 200 BCE) made it more significant.

The Observed Difficulties

Religion has been used to justify slavery, war, terrorism and even murder. The victims just need to be appropriately labeled as either enemies of the God involved or at least not adequate devotees of this Deity. Religion has also been widely used to justify exploitation of the weak by the strong. There is no reliable evidence that religious believers hold to a higher standard of personal morality than unbelievers.

Religion’s particular ethical innovation may be to excuse the believer from normal human morality so that he can in good conscience do evil for the sake of his religion or his religious leaders.

Exclusivity Problems

Any religion that goes out to proselytize the world must justify this by claiming that its knowledge of the mind of God is superior to that of all other faiths. When people reject this new way of life and faith, they are readily seen by those extolling it as less honest and good than those accepting. This easily moves on to thinking of the rejecters as less human and less loved by God—and finally as a subspecies not deserving of full human rights.

Some have suggested that human brains are preprogrammed from our hunter-gatherer days to divide those we meet into friends (like us) and enemies to be feared and distrusted. Religion seems to play into this dichotomization of the human world, especially for those leaders who find this useful.

The Euthyphro (Authority) Problem

In his dialogue The Euthyphro, Plato has Socrates ask if actions are good because God commands them or if God commands actions because they are good. The former creates a “command” form of morality with the source presumably a God while the latter says that morality might be a function of the world we live in and study might allow us to understand it better. One weakness of “command” morality is that we are dependent on men to tell us what God wants—God doesn’t suddenly appear to answer our questions. The possibilities for delusion and corruption are obvious and often realized.

Non-religious Sources for Understanding Morality

The oldest attempt to ground morality outside a specific culture or religion is the natural law tradition. This goes back to classical Greece and Rome. It found common rules occurring in a variety of societies and considered these as possible universal rules or laws for all human society. The Roman Catholic Church still appeals to this strand, as did those who managed the Nuremberg Trials after WWII.

For over two-thousand years, philosophers have sought to understand the basis for human morality. Those of the Scottish Enlightenment found it in our ability to identify with each other—similar to the teachings of the Confucian philosopher Mencius. Emanuel Kant offered his categorical imperative and Bentham and Mill gave us utilitarian theory. Other philosophers, starting with Thomas Hobbes, have given us a contractarian or contact- oriented approach to social justice. Though no one approach has come to dominate, they have immensely enriched our understanding of the complexities of a moral life.

Humans (and even social animal species) seem to have some built-in morality—already present in the very young. The selection of genes over millions of years to support a social way of life appears to have placed genes for responsibility and altruism in most members of the species. Of course they are forever in conflict with the selfish genes also selected for and present. Studies in “evolutionary psychology” are expanding our knowledge in this area.

Religion and the Development of Written Law

The Jewish Torah, Roman Catholic Cannon Law and Muslim Sharia law are all examples of written sets of rules governing the responsibilities of humans to each other and to some Deity. The rules for human-human interaction seem appropriate for the age and cultures in which they originated and may sometimes have something to say to the modern world. On the other hand, each assumes it applies only to adherents to its specific religious system and this can’t be readily universalized.
Religion seeks to maintain the illusion that it is the only reliable source of morality. From this illusion flows some of its power, sometimes some good and also great risk for corruption.