A Sunday kind of crook

800px-aig_protester_on_pine_streetIt doesn’t matter whether you are a Methodist, a Reform Jew, or a Roman Catholic. When somebody in your denomination is convicted of a crime, or behaves in a scandalous manner, it seems that the question often arises: what’s the point of belief if it doesn’t keep a John Edwards or an (ex-Catholic priest) Alberto Cutié * from betraying their vows or a Bernie Madoff from cheating people out of millions of dollars?

And sometimes the faithful ask each other: what’s the point of belief if it doesn’t make you a more ethical person?

The ethical and religious dimensions of morality are addressed in a sometimes frustrating but practical article by Helen Gray of McClatchy Newspapers. While it’s wonderful that Gray examines issues that affect ordinary people in the workplace as well as Wall Street pirates, the story doesn’t dig hard enough below the surface to analyze why some congregants (and non believers) are ethical giants and some are cockroaches.

The first part of the article seems to work better than the second, possibly because thosed quoted address the morality question directly — according to DePaul University professor Scott Paeth, we shouldn’t assume that being religion makes one moral.

“After all, Ken Lay (the late Enron chairman convicted of fraud and conspiracy) was very proud of his involvement with his church, while (convicted Enron CFO) Andy Fastow’s rabbi called him a ‘mensch,’” Yiddish for a person having admirable qualities.

Mere affiliation with and even regular attendance at church or synagogue or mosque does not guarantee a commitment to ethics, said Robert Audi, business ethics professor of the Mendoza College of Business, University of Notre Dame.

“But internalizing, say, the ethics of ‘Love thy neighbor’ and the ethics of the Ten Commandments will yield strong motivation to be moral,” he said.

Audi goes on to assert that “there is some evidence” certain religion commitments impel ethical actions. What is that evidence? I wish the author had gone into some detail — and perhaps found a theologian or ethicist to talk about the moral implications of loving God as well as loving neighbor.

I do like the large canvas Gray works with here, viewing workplace misbehavior in the context of a lack of ethical moorings, and her willingness to take a look at workplace ethics in from a nonreligious as well as from a religious perspective — and quote those who identify deficits in the way secular organizations present ethical values as well as the way that religious organizations may embody them.

The best “application quote” comes from the life of Abrahama Lincoln, apparently an inexhaustable source of quotable stories.

Green, of Dartmouth, told a story of President Abraham Lincoln being visited by the wives of two Confederate soldiers who were Union POWs and who had supported slavery.

“The wives asked for their husbands’ release and added, ‘They are religious men.’ Lincoln replied, ‘I don’t see how someone who thinks one man should earn his bread by other man’s forced labor can be called religious.’

Although I have no idea of whether its true or not, it’s a great story. I’d like to see more stories on how congregations or denominations are finding ways to address the issues around workplace behavior and how it connects to faith. Let’s not cede this territory to “The Ethicist” column in the New York Times.

* Yes, we are aware that Cutié has been received into the Episcopal Church — all part of its attempt to bolster its membership by reaching out to the Hispanic community in Miami and bidding for a spot on the late night comedy shows.

Picture of AIG protester from Wikimedia Commons

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  • michael

    Couple of quick thoughts that apply at least indirectly to the assumptions inherent in the journalism:

    1. To ask or to insinuate ‘what’s the point of belief unless….x’ is already to instrumentalize belief, and thus already to assume a functionalist understanding of religion which reduces it, in its best most benigh cases, to morality and maybe, by extension, to a principle of social cohsion. There are of course other, more malign forms of functionalism: religion as answering to in-built psychological pathos, religion as tool of social control, etc. But surely one possible answer is that belief has no point. Presumably, people believe things because they think they are true, which has no point beyond itself. By contrast to believe something true for some other reason, because it is useful for instance, is to have already stopped believing.

    2. The quote by Audi strikes me as less than thoughtless (sorry, I can think of no kinder way of putting it) and a perfect example of the deeply truncated and compartmentalized (not to mention false) understanding of religion I criticized below in the thread on NPR. It evidences a complete failure to understand religion and what it has been in the development of the culture we take for granted. It exhibits, in other words, a deep want of education. It never occurs to Audi that, the existence of institutions in our culture whose very purpose is ‘ethical’–hospitals, for example–simply cannot be abstracted from the role that religion has played in giving birth to this culture in the first place, however much modernity might be self-consciously opposed to its Christian past. Perhaps he should begin by simply looking here for ‘some evidence’.

    By the way, I reccomend David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions as an antedote to this sort of ignorance.

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  • Jerry

    The best “application quote” comes from the life of Abrahama Lincoln, apparently an inexhaustable source of quotable stories.

    I’ve recently been paying attention to Lincoln’s religion. There’s the famous quote about our being on God’s side versus God being on our side. But this one also resonates with me:

    “I have never united myself with any church because I have found difficulty in giving my assent to the long, complicated and questionable statements of Christian doctrine which characterize their Articles of Belief. . . . When any church will inscribe over its altar as its sole qualification for membership the Master’s condensed statement of the substance of both the law and the Gospel: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind and strength and thy neighbor as thyself, that church will I join with all my heart.”


  • stoo

    Presumably, people believe things because they think they are true

    Okay this complaint again…

    Thing is, we have no way of reliably determining whether these beliefs are true or not. You complain about functionalist approach but at least that way we can try and build a rigorous working explanation.

  • michael


    I don’t know what you mean by a rigorous working explanation, but it strikes me as sheer nonsense.

    Since you seem so adamant about this position, I doubt I can convince you otherwise. But if all religion is basically as arbitrary and irrational as your position implies, then there is absolutely no point in believing, much less committing one’s life, to one religion rather than another except that one better expresses one’s own ‘personal preferences’ or ‘wish fulfillment’. In this case ‘religious belief’ is really just belief in one’s own subjectivty. I have no doubt that this describes a lot of modern boutique spirituality and ersatz religion, but too many people from too many traditions have witnessed to their faith at the cost of their lives to believe that this true in principle. Because if your position is correct, then belief itself is impossible and what looks like belief is really just some more basic pathology, transparent to a functionalist approach and those who believe they believe are merely deluded. Of course such behavior then becomes unintelligible, as does ultimately everything else.

    Of course, the truth claims of religion cannot be ‘proved’ in the restricted sense implied by modern science. God is not a ‘thing’ who submits to experimental analysis; if he were, he would be an item within the universe and therefore a creature, and the whole notion of God would become incoherent. But I do not at all concede that reason is reducible to science and that empirical and experimenal criteria of scientific ‘proof’ set the bounds for what can admit of being true and false. Which means that I–along with most of the Western religious and philosophical tradition–think it is possible to give reasonable arguments for why one metaphysical and religious position is better and truer another, why,. eg., a coherent understanding of God as distinct from the world impels you toward a certain postion, and so why it is rational to entrust one’s life to it in faith, why e.g., the Christian conception of God is intelligible and makes sense of God (to the extent this is possible) and the world while the contemporary revival of a ‘paganism’ which doesn’t even understand paganism might fall into the category noted above.

  • stoo

    I don’t think that scientificempirical means can sort out all truths for us. Their answers are provisional and not equipped to handle stuff outside the physical universe. They’re just currently the best we have for explaining what we see, and a god beyond them becomes ill-defined and incohereht.

    So I’m really skeptical that it’s possible to rationally argue for a religious position being true. At best you can try arguing for some sort of vague “first cause” but there’s a long way from that to the anthropomorphic, personal gods of theism.

    So yeah, you may as well just believe in whatever works – preferably without imposing that belief on everyone else. If you believe, what does it matter if someone provides a emprical explanation of that belief? It doesn’t mean the belief is wrong.

  • Elizabeth

    Stoo and Michael: I’m curious. Do you two debate on other people’s posts or is it something about mine that elicits this discussion? Should I be flattered? (grin)

  • michael


    You should be flattered. If it wasn’t for us,where would your posts be? :-)


    I was just going to say before Elizabeth chimed in, that we’ve spared a few times and you seem like a pretty good guy. But I can tell from the carelessness with which you talk about ‘proving the truth’ and equate a ‘personal God’ with antroporphism that you really don’t understand what you’re criticizing. This medium is inherently limited, more limited even, than conventional journalism. It simply does not lend itself to a real and protracted theological discussion, and I don’t have time for it anyway. So all I can do is urge you to go off and read some real books, many of them, spend a long time trying to understand what you’ve been criticizing, and then, maybe after a few years, ask yourself whether your original criticisms make sense or hold water. I say this in the most charitable spirit that I can.

    Best of luck to you.

  • stoo

    E3: your posts are our favourites!

    ok I admit I’ve largely been posting in reaction towards michael.

    Anyway I’m glad that i seem like a pretty good guy as I’m sure i’m being a jerk sometimes. :p

  • dalea

    Michael says:

    …while the contemporary revival of a ‘paganism’ which doesn’t even understand paganism might fall into the category noted above.

    Which category noted above? And why this swipe at NeoPaganism?