How Moral Is Religion?

How Moral Is Religion? February 4, 2014

How moral is religion? Not very—to put it lightly, if one’s perspective parallels Christopher Hitchens’ stance in God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Organized religion has certainly received its fair or unfair share of criticisms since the Enlightenment period. Some Enlightenment thinkers wrote of the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages filled with superstition and oppression, themes brought home in the movie, The Name of the Rose. While the church and state’s alignment in the Holy Roman Empire was certainly not always holy or well-reasoned (just think of the Crusades, Inquisition, Wars of Religion, etc.), there were astounding moral figures and movements such as St. Francis of Assisi and his Franciscans as well as such intellectual luminaries like St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Nicholas of Cusa. Moreover, the absence and vehement rejection of religion under Stalinist and Maoist Socialism by no means led to widespread freedom and tolerance, but just the opposite. Blood is on everyone’s hands—the religious and non-religious alike.

How might one proceed with framing religion in ways that are deemed universally moral, and not just to the devotees of this or that religious community? Whether or not one agrees with every aspect of his thought, Immanuel Kant offered an account of religion that provided safeguards against enthusiasts of the religious and irreligious varieties. For Kant, religion played an important regulative function (and not theoretical function, as in pertaining to doctrinal truth) in supporting the moral order. Ideas such as belief in God, the immortality of the soul and what is often deemed Christ’s exemplary role (not vicarious sacrifice) in adhering fully to the overarching principle of moral rightness offer an account of religion that promotes a moral vision of reality that treats people as moral ends rather than as means to this or that particular religion’s ends. Moral rightness, which Christ exemplifies, resonates with what Kant calls the categorical imperative.  This imperative has been framed in different ways: it addresses universality, human dignity and equity.

What would a Kantian view of religion as moral entail for the Genesis account of God’s imperative for Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac? And what about the New Testament claim that God sacrificed his Son to bring about our deliverance? (John 3:16) How does the biblical account of the scandal of particularity revealed in Jesus Christ bear upon the universal claims of moral reason in a Kantian universe? Are they compatible with one another, or are they mutually exclusive? And more generally, what about morality and religion on your view—are they compatible with one another, or are they mutually exclusive?

This piece is cross-posted at The Christian Post.

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