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Can a Guide for Proper Moral Behavior Come From the Established Religions?

Traditionally the Western Religions (at least the Jewish and Christian religions) have offered a formal guide to proper conduct, usually called the Ten Commandments. For the most part, these are simple rules of what not to do, like not killing. The words of the Old Testament have been interpreted in several different ways since several books mentioned these apparent rules from God so not all of the Western Religions agree on the same list of ten.

Historically Christianity has also suggested another guide for proper conduct. This alternate guide evolved over time and currently consists of what has been called the seven sins and the seven virtues. The two lists have been aligned so that one set has the opposites of the other. Here is one presentation.

Seven sins (vices)

Seven virtues



Lust (undesired love)

Chastity (purity)

Gluttony (overindulgence)

Moderation (self-restraint)

Greed (avarice)

Generosity (vigilance)

Sloth (laziness)

Zeal (integrity)

Wrath (anger)

Meekness (composure)

Envy (jealousy)

Charity (giving)

Pride (vanity)

Humility (humbleness)

This combination of vices and virtues seems a simple, rational presentation for defining a guide for moral behavior. The goal of this list is obviously an effective integration into human society.

The first list of virtues actually arose among the classical Greek philosophers such as Plato and his contemporaries and was apparently not based on teachings from any particular religion. These Greek philosophers apparently spent quite a bit of time and effort seeking an understanding of moral character (vrtues, ethics, moral character). None of them were influenced by the subsequent major religious movements such as Christianity and Islam, having lived hundreds of years before such disturbances.

There is a natural friction between philosophy and religion. A religion is based on concepts that its adherents must follow whereas the philosopher can reach conclusions unhindered by such beliefs. The philosopher is seeking truth whereas the religious believer is typically seeking confirmation for dogma.

An established religion, such as the Roman Catholic Church, is always competing with other religions to increase the number of its followers - who of course contribute funds and resources to sustain the organization. Each religious leader, whether at the level of a local pastor or a regional bishop, is tasked with growing his membership. No matter how much that religious leader is interested in teaching about moral values, that is not his primary function within that organized religion. Any informal meeting of people seeking a frank discussion of philosophy and religion should be undisturbed by such allegiances to a larger association.

Most believers are committed to leading moral lives but are less convinced by the oration of the religious leaders that are attempting to affect political debates, especially those involving personal decisions like birth control and gay marriage. The political standing of Christian leaders has been reduced by recent revelations that question long held beliefs of Christians, such as Jesus being married to Mary Magdalen or that Judas willingly conspired with Jesus to fulfill a prophecy. These findings raise doubt on the historical foundation of the Christian religions. In recent years, some of the Christian leaders are reacting to their diminished stature by an increase in belligerence and fear mongering since their view is not respected just on the basis of their position.

The competition among religions can lead to the excesses seen by some of the contemporary religious leaders. To convince those not yet aligned with the leader that this is the correct religion, the opposing religions and their followers will be maligned. If an opposing religion has a different set of ancient writings then some variation of the argument that 'my god is better than your god' can be used, even to the extent that perhaps 'my god has blessed me but not you' is suggested. Wayward believers will be scolded by drawing on certain ancient passages.

The justification for this preaching will come from their interpretations of ancient writings, since it is of course impossible for a Supernatural God to actually appear to everyone to settle once and for all any disagreements about anything. Therefore religion based teachings on moral behavior are typically biased on furthering the goals of the religion rather than truly seeking rational support.

Christian leaders are now stymied by another daunting challenge, Islam. According to an article in Christianity Today, "Islam is the world's second great missionary faith, behind Christianity." According to this web page on missionaries, "often less ethical, conversion-inducing methods [are] based on force, employing trade, economic and military methods including religious war, (see Christian Crusades and the Islamic Jihad for examples), or via socio-economic stimuli by the dominant religion (such as reserving offices and privileges, and/or lower taxation for adherents)." Both religions have as a goal the conversion of non-believers in the world. In this context when Christianity and Islam approach parity in the world, the battle for believers has recently moved from a rational discourse to extremism, where 'extremist' Christian leaders talk of the battle of civilizations between Christianity and Islam and where 'extremist' Islamic leaders talk of repelling Western intervention in their countries. These major religions that claim non-violence is part of their doctrines are finding violence is pushed by some of their radical believers. Many thousands of innocent people have been killed and hurt due to the inability of the religious and political leaders on both sides to rationally work toward a peaceful resolution to these political problems. Invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon have accomplished little other than much bloodshed and an escalation in the level of violence. Teaching proper moral behavior is not a priority for religious leaders in this time of such religious hatred.

The Western religions suffer from another bias that detracts from the foundation to support their views. The stated goal of these religions is not to seek happiness in life but to seek happiness in an after life. The judgment on what types of behavior are correct is based on an interpretation of the supposed rules by which a person will be judged upon their death, whether they will go to heavenly bliss or eternal torture in hell. Rather than rationally understanding human behavior in the context of human social structures and influences, the discussion will be distracted by however the religious person believes the suggested interpretations of the wishes of this unseen supernatural being who will pass judgment.

Also, since the religious person's goal is not happiness during life but instead happiness after death, this person's basis for any such discussion of moral behavior will be different from someone not so inclined to worry about life after death, an oxymoron that seems to be pass by without notice (What is death if not the end of life? What is life if it begins at birth but never ends at death?). This predilection toward a belief that is at odds with a biological understanding of life (that an inanimate entity, having been associated with a person in an unknown manner, somehow continues to exist after the death of the person) will lessen the importance of human existence. That affects the debate on proper human behavior in this life, which does not have to consider a belief in an after life.

I am not so familiar with the Islamic rules for moral behavior, having been raised in a Catholic family. The Islamic framework is similar to the Christian list of vices and virtues since it serves to define a reference list for proper behavior. However there is some intrusion by the religion, such as "To do what one does for Allah's sake -- not for the desire for reward or the fear of punishment." Such a guideline is odd in that the phrase 'what one does for Allah's sake' could be replaced by 'what is right' (where 'right' is determined by natural law not by a religion) and the concept is much the same but without a reliance on an interpretation of what is expected by a supernatural being.

The proper guide to moral behavior will come from an understanding of our human nature not from the interpretations of ancient writings that were presumed to be inspired by a supernatural being.

created - Oct. 2006
last change - 10/08/2006
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