Is religion needed to support ethics and morality?
Martin Luther King saw that ‘the richer we have become materially the poorer we have become morally and spiritually.’ We live, he said, in two realms:
“The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live.”
And he further warned that racial injustice, poverty and war would only be alleviated if we balance our moral progress with our scientific progress and learn the practical art of living in harmony in a ‘worldwide fellowship that lifts neighbourly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation.’(1)
There is a three-fold morality that comes from all the great Holy teachers, from Jesus, the Buddha, from the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament, from the Upanishads, and the 8 limbs of Yoga,(2) for example. They all call for a behavioural code grounded in right conduct in thought and speech and deed. Mehta sees this three- fold morality as the “foundation for living as an integrated human being,” extolling values that distinguish the human from the sub human. If we abide by these rules there will be no inner or outer conflict in living our lives.(3)
Mehta tells the Buddhist Parable of the Saw, where the Buddha teaches his monks how to behave in the face of all the bad things that people can do to them: “Neither shall our minds be affected by this, nor for this matter shall we give vent to evil words, but we shall remain full of concern and pity, with a mind of love, and we shall not give in to hatred. On the contrary, we shall live projecting thoughts of universal love to that very person, making him as well as the whole world the object of our thoughts of universal love — thoughts that have grown great, exalted and measureless. We shall dwell radiating these thoughts which are void of hostility and ill will.” (4)
This simple morality, with nurturing, flowers into virtue, or what Mehta describes as “the transcendental ethic by which the true human lives.” (3)
I think a great fallacy within the criticisms of so many vociferous atheists and humanists is that they are fond of portraying religions in the worst light: and such comments are nowhere more adamant than around the question of ethics and morals. The critics are fond of quoting stories of awful deeds done in the name of religion, the Inquisitions and some terrorist attacks, for example. We cannot deny these. But causes are to be found in religious fanaticism and in civilizations less advanced than our own. We in Britain committed dreadful atrocities in our past history to robbers and Kings alike. Our justice system may not be perfect but it is at least now much more civilized in its treatment of wrongdoers. But a word of warning: Gandhi, on being asked what he thought of Western Civilization reputedly retorted: “It would be a good idea.”
There has to be a good reason why our “faith schools” are so very popular amongst parents for the values that they are said to teach. Our local Anglican Church school has been turning children away for lack of space and is now busy finding that extra space to accommodate two further classes. Soon there will not be enough room in church to accommodate all the children and their parents and guardians at the regular services held for them. The evidence is strong. Are so many parents likely to be very far wrong? Or are we dangerously brainwashing impressionable young children? That rather depends on how the children are taught. It is important to teach them from an early age about the world’s different religions, but emphasis should be placed on the many features common to them all, so that these can be appreciated and celebrated whilst helping the children to understand and respect the smaller number of differences. But most important of all is the need to nurture the spirituality within these children so that they grow in spiritual as well as religious literacy.
So do we need religions to support moral behaviour? In a sense the question does not matter, it is even the wrong question. The Dalai Lama writes: “whether a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good human being.” Although he has observed that religion and ethics were once closely intertwined and warns that since the influence of religion has declined in so many lives there is ‘mounting confusion with respect to the problem of how best we are to conduct ourselves in life…morality becomes a matter of individual preference.’ (5)
Whatever the differences between us relating to spirituality, religion and faith, we simply do not have time to iron them all out. We need to put them to one side, curb the bickering. Instead we should be celebrating what we have in common, understanding and respecting our differences, and seeking ways to work together as human beings, with all our individual frailties, for the mutual benefit of the one beautiful and finite planet earth we all have to share.
We have a fine inheritance in our many different faiths, religions, spiritualities and ancient philosophies. They are a part of life’s rich pattern, providing a splendid tapestry of experience, wisdom and sacred texts, with so many common features to celebrate and differences to learn from. I shall consider these in future posts.
1. Martin Luther King, Nobel Peace Prize Lecture December 11 1964
2. Morality, religious observance, posture, control of Life Energy (or breath-control), withdrawal of senses from worldly objects (detachment), collectedness of mind, meditation, mental union of meditated with meditator from P.Mehta, The Heart of Religion p. 256. Morality is further defined in the Sandilya Upanishad 1.13 as harmlessness, truth, non-covetousness, continence, kindliness, equanimity, patient endurance, steadiness of mind in gain and loss, abstemiousness (especially with food and drink) and cleanliness of body and mind.
3. Mehta P. 258, 259
4. several translations are available on Internet see for example http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.021x.budd.html or http://wisdomquarterly.blogspot.com/2009/10/saw-and-other-parables.html
5. HH The Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium, (New York, 1999), p. 19. cited in Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life The Bodley Head, (London, 2011), p. 20.
© Eleanor Stoneham 2011
My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.
"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden