Description of the Relationship Between Ethics and Religious Beliefs

by Magda Healey, studioD

Ethics, or moral philosophy, asks fundamental questions of how human beings should live: what goals and values should we strive for, what is right and what is wrong, what is virtuous and what is wicked. Religion can be understood as a belief system that gives meaning to people's lives and professes the existence, and ultimate supremacy, of a spiritual, supernatural, scared or divine realm that transcends the material reality of the day-to-day life. The realms of ethics and religious belief overlap but are not identical. Most -- though not all -- religions provide their faithful with guidance as to ethical conduct. Much -- but by no means all -- moral philosophy has roots in or connections to religious belief.

Ethics Revealed

Many religious systems adopt a super-naturalist, or God-based, ethics. The deity is the only source of moral rules, and people must do what God wants to lead a good life. God speaks directly to people through the prophets and recorded texts. This approach is notable in the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. God's rules are passed directly to the people and recorded in the holy scriptures. The Ten Commandments of Moses, much of Christ's preaching in the Gospels and many of the Quran's suras are such direct teachings concerning ethical conduct. Hindu Vedas are another example of a words of the deity revealed directly.

Ethics Interpreted

Direct communication from the deity is only one way religions teach about ethics. The best ways to live one's life and solve moral dilemmas are explored indirectly in many sacred books and texts of religious significance, from the Hindu epic Ramayana to the whole tradition of Christian apologetics to the Taoist Tao Te Ching. Besides the written word, the priests, monks and teachers of most religions, from the Zen Buddhist gurus to Judaistic rabbis are considered to be moral authorities, able to provide ethical guidance through their deep understanding of the spiritual realm.

Why Be Good

Most people would agree that one should lead a good life, whatever the definition of the good life their particular belief systems proposes. There is less agreement on actually why this is desirable. A supernaturalist approach dominates the Abrahamic religions and refers to God's will as the ultimate moral authority: people should do what God desires, and what God desires is good. This still leaves the problem of finding out what God wants, which is usually approached through a combination of routes, from sacred texts to spiritual authorities and individual's direct communication with God. Such rules of conduct are usually quite specific and absolute and transgressions carry a punishment, often in the afterlife. Other religious systems, for example Taoism, Zen Buddhist or Shinto, concentrate on the general principles that help one attain spiritual balance. The ethical rules are seen less as absolute prescriptions and more as an expression of the best way to progress on the spiritual journey.

Ethics Without Religion

Although much moral philosophy is rooted in religious belief, secular ethics have a tradition going back to the ancient times. Many thinkers who subscribed to some form of a religious belief system recognize that it is possible to live a good life without recourse to religion. That includes the Apostle Paul in the New Testament and the current Dalai Lama, who called for promotion of universal “human values” with “no relationship with any particular religion.” Although it is clear that atheists can live ethical existence, the difficulty they grapple with is a justification for ethics, the question of where the morality ultimately comes from. The most common answers point to shared social convention and contract or to universal human nature with its evolutionary roots.

About the Author

Magda Healey has a Master of Science in psychology from the University of Gdansk. She has taught social psychology, information technology and questionnaire design. Healey has also written extensively on travel.

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