Bangladesh, Cultural, Human Rights, International, Literary, Political, Religious

Religion and Morality

Religious scholars and even some philosophers lay claims that religion and morality are intricately intertwined; without morality religion would be baseless and without religion morality would be without foundation. The main purpose of religion is to impart moral values to mankind. When religion instils morality, humanity sees the true value of life, unbridled beauty of life and the majestic creation; without morality humans would lead a life in depravity.  

All these high-sounding, mouthful preaching of the religious scholars may appear to have deep inner meaning; but one must appreciate that religion has no unique claim on morality. In fact, most of the religions embody in practice just the reverse – sectarian, antagonistic and insular codes for the followers of a particular religion. These basic traits of a religion are against the very grains of morality. To appreciate the inner discord between religion and morality, let us look at the meaning and essence of morality.

Morality fundamentally embodies the ‘corporate rule’ – the rule embracing cooperation among the people of the community, the society, the country and beyond. The corporate rule that brings benefits to all in a cooperative way – for all, not for just the few – is a moral imperative. In the terminology of the game theory, it can be stated that morality inherently offers more than zero sum. If an attribute brings benefit to some people at the cost of others, then that attribute may be called zero sum issue and that has no moral underpinning. For example, when government taxes the rich to help the poor, that may be considered a good political decision, but not a moral issue. On the other hand, if an attribute brings benefit to everybody, equally or proportionately, without harming any particular section, that can be viewed as a moral decision. For example, giving free education to all within a country or free medical care at the point of need may be considered moral undertaking. Morality brings benefit to everybody and hence it is viewed as offering more than zero sum.

Morality maybe considered to have seven basic strands and these are: Family, Group, Reciprocity, Heroism, Deference, Fairness and Property. Human beings being social animals tend to live together in the family and the inherent desire of fair, equitable and cooperative distribution of benefits drawn collectively among the small bubble of Family members constitutes the first strand of morality. The morality of the Group is an extension of that of Family issue. What can be shared and sacrificed within the wider circle of the group, beyond the family, is the Group morality. The morality of Reciprocity is that if one person helps another person at the time of need, it is a moral imperative on the recipient to reciprocate the initial help at the right occasion. It helps both the initial giver and the recipient when it is needed most. Heroism is that strand of morality when one carries out a task to help others even at the risk to himself. The morality of Heroism is not to earn the plaudit of heroism, but an impartial attempt to help others. An example of it can be given as, recently when a Chinese man fell into a river in Shanghai and was struggling to save his life, a British diplomat (aged well over 60) instinctively jumped into the river and pulled the man to the shore and saved his life. This is the morality of Heroism – without any expectation for any reward or plaudit – pure desire to help others in need. Deference implies submission or yielding to judgement of recognised superiors or higher officials and thereby maintain harmonious relationship in the society. This is an important part of morality by maintaining corporate culture. Fairness comes as an essential element of morality as without it the whole corporate rule would breakdown to chaos. What is right, what is true, what is wrong etc should be established with Fairness as part of morality. And finally, Property offers the morality of maintaining one’s right to own and maintain property and possession. As a proverb says, An Englishman’s home is his castle. It is morally right that he should be allowed to live in his own home in a safe and dignified way and that is part of morality.

All of these strands, singly or collectively, offer the spirit and essence of morality. Morality is not only ethically justifiable but also beneficial from evolutionary point of view. Individual genes may exhibit selfish behaviour, but when it comes to the welfare of the whole survival machine (the whole body), morality encompassing corporate rule plays a dominant role. A moral society encourages a code of conduct where all the people may live comfortably, equitably and in dignified ways.

Now the big question is what role does religion play in maintaining morality or corporate rule? To answer this question, one has to trace back what role religion plays traditionally. The basic premise is that a religion inherently wants to establish its superiority and supremacy over other religions – as religions are competing against one another. This very basic competitive strand goes against the grain of morality of corporate rule. One religion does not accept or tolerate another religion’s theological stand and that is evident by their mutual antagonism and centuries of fighting. So, there cannot be a universal morality applicable to the whole society comprising various religions. The morality of cooperation, reciprocity, fairness, property etc may be applicable to people within a particular religion, but they may not be extended to people of other religions.  

So, in a theocratic state having people of many religious affiliations cannot get morally justifiable rule. Morality becomes subservient to theocracy or may even be abandoned in favour of theocratic dogma, as in many Islamic states and even in India at the moment. The claims by the religious scholars and leaders that religion is the custodian of morality and without religion morality would disappear are absurdly ludicrous and without any basis. Religion is detrimental to morality, as religion is sectarian whereas morality requires corporate rule. Therefore, one can say religion is amoral, not immoral.  

Almost all philosophers, psychologists, evolutionary biologists, writers, thinkers, scientists and so forth have expressed views that morality is not a good bedfellow to religion, in fact just the opposite. Their dislike to associate religion with morality had been expressed in many different ways and one particular area where their abhorrence was expressed firmly against religions when assessed against the perceived punishment and reward as depicted in religious books.

The British philosopher and polymath, Bertrand Russell, Nobel Laureate in literature in 1950, expressed his revulsion against religion when he said, “Religion is based mainly upon fear, fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand.”

Albert Einstein, Nobel Laureate in Physics in 1921, said, “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed”.

Christopher Hitchens, a British intellectual, said, “Human decency is not derived from religion; it precedes it.” 

Thus, religion and morality do not go hand in hand in the modern society. The Secularism within the Constitution may provide the rightful place for morality overriding communalism and sectarianism of various religions.

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

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