Religion and Morality

Dostoevsky famously had a character of his claim, in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, that if there is no god then all is permitted. I have actually argued, that if there is a god then all is permitted. More on that another time. Is Dostoevsky right? Are religion and morality that closely tied together?

According to Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, groupishness (the 10% bee in us compared to the 90% chimp in us) is what has allowed humans to go from selfishness to civilization. Relying on Emile Durkheim, Haidt says that “what is moral is everything that is a source of solidarity, everything that forces man to…regulate his actions by something other than…his own egoism.”

I find this very interesting because this is more or less what I have always said religion is. Religion or morality, on this view, is what connects us to others or to the world.

Haidt also offered an interesting definition of moral systems. He said,

“Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.”

That is a mouthful and I am not sure what I think of it. It’s a functional definition so it’s a bit outside my comfort zone. I just think that Haidt had some very interesting things to say about religion and morality, and he made me think. That’s a good thing.

Haidt does not say whether supernatural beings exist or not. He believes such ideas may have evolved with humans as they evolved. He does say however, that those groups who believed in such agents and used such beliefs in building moral and cohesive societies lasted and prospered. They used such ideas to elicit sacrifices and commitment from their members and that helped them to suppress cheating and increase trustworthiness and that helped them in their projects. Groups that had gods who promoted cooperation responded to those gods and were helped to rise to the challenges they faced.

In that sense Haidt says religion is a team sport. As he said:

“We humans have an extraordinary ability to care about things beyond ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves into teams that can pursue larger projects. That’s what religion is all about.”

That is also what morality is all about. Religion has not always been about those things. Often religion has been an instrument of division not cooperation. Then religion is shorn of what makes it sacred. It is no longer religion at all.

Finally, this is what politics should be about as well. Clearly, currently that is not the case in much of the world. Politics is riven by partisanship instead. Everywhere you look people are driven apart by politics. That’s a pity. Together we could accomplish so much. Much more than we could on our own. As every coach knows, it’s teams that succeed, not individuals.


2 thoughts on “Religion and Morality

  1. morality is modernity, at least relative to the evolution of patriarchy, agriculture, and eventually monotheism, beginning 10,000 years ago. there is nothing intrinsically human about this ideology, these ideologies.
    the species lived for tens of thousands of years before “morality” became something necessary to combat egoism. individuality, subjectivity, consciousness seem necessary for the hypostatization of ego/narcissism and the need for regulation.
    which, btw, is not to say that hunting and gathering cultures were groovy woovy. survival of the fittest, and all that.

    so that it is seemingly intrinsic to monotheism, at least, seems clear.

    given that intrinsic quality it raises the question of what to do with secular society. can it be moral? some suggest that the “law” is the answer. and there are a whole host of discussions about the relationship of law to morals, both historically and contemporaneously.

    regardless, both the law and morality would appear to be as “violent” as they are regulative.
    in that sense it is not obvious what is so unequivocally “good” or functional about religion and/or morality, or for that matter the law.
    however “necessary” they may appear to be at this moment for “teams.”

    even a cursory perusal of the last 500 years of white, male, european, and CHRISTIAN rule of the planet ought to make clear that there is nothing all that salutary about monotheistic morality.
    for centuries, the europeans fought endless religious wars, just among themselves, never mind the wars of colonialism and imperialism.

    mind you, the anabaptist position would be that the whole lot of them, protestants and catholics, were never true religion anyhow. so there you go. true religion. you just have to have the right interpretation of the holy book; but only one of the holy books though. the torah and the koran don’t really count. you have to have standards.

    1. I certainly agree that there is much about the history of religion especially in the past 500 years that has marked it as morally bad. That is part of the problem. Too many religions have got away with what was good about them. As someone said the main problem with Christianity is Christians. The same could be said about the other monotheistic religions and perhaps even others. Morality also has a checkered past. Really everything human has a checkered past. Pure goodness is rather hard to find. Yet there have been some improvements. The rights revolution of the last half century or more is a good example. I am astonished at how LBGTQ. rights have exploded in a few decades. It is a remarkable achievement. There are others. See Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment now. That is not to say progress is unmixed or inevitable of course.

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