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Discussion 3 to Reflections on Ethics 76
Religion does not teach morality

by: JT

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I am troubled by the idea that lingers, even among non-believers, that religion is useful for teaching morality. It does not. If anything, it teaches blind obedience.

PsiCop has pointed out a long history of linking the law to religion. But this is law, not morality. It is about the Law as laid down by the deity. Lose faith in the god, and what reason is there to go on following the Law?

And while there is a history of a relationship between law and some varieties of religion, this is certainly not true of most human religions. Rather the practice of most religions has historically involved appeasing the gods. What followers try to achieve is to ensure the gods are on their side rather than that of their enemies. That is the purpose of all the rituals, sacrifice, and prayer.[1] Morality is irrelevant.

What about the Christian religion?

In Meditation 588, I quoted a passage from a sermon in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which clearly demonstrates the idea of God's morality as preached by Catholic priests. Among other things, a moment of wilful sloth is regarded as foul and hideous sin.

Is that really teaching morality?

Coincidently this week I just finished reading Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana in which we encounter a similar passage; another sermon on morality (p 391-392) by a priest at a Catholic school.[2]

One evening the spiritual director stood in front of the altar balustrade, illuminated - like all of us, like the entire chapel - by that single candle that haloed him in light, leaving his face in darkness. Before dismissing us, he told us a story. One night in a convent school, a girl died, a young, pious, beautiful girl. The next morning, she was stretched out on a catafalque in the nave of the church, and the mourners were reciting their prayers for the deceased, when all of a sudden the corpse sat up, eyes wide and finger pointing at the celebrant, and said in a cavernous voice, "Father, do not pray for me! Last night I had an impure thought, a single thought - and now I am damned."

A shudder travels through the audience and spreads to the pews and vaults, seeming almost to make the candle flame flicker. The director exhorts us to go to bed, but no one moves. A long line forms in front of the confessional, everyone intent on giving in to sleep only after the merest hint of sin has been confessed.

Is that really teaching morality?

While other Christian denominations may exhibit more subtlety than do the Catholics in railing about sin, essentially they all teach their views on morality in the same way; through the fear of God. And many of the supposed sins preached by Christianity have nothing to do with morality, but are based on a wilfully perverse view[3] of human nature and human sexuality.

If you want to teach your children morality the last thing to do is to turn them over to teachers of religion.

In my view, the teaching of morality is ultimately the responsibility of the parents. Initially, you might get away with teaching them on your own personal authority. But children do eventually learn to ask the favorite question of all children - the dreaded "Why?" And you, as a parent, have to have a good answer. That answer probably rests (as Richard suggests) in the idea that morality is necessary to coexist successfully with our neighbors.



  1. And the purpose of most of the rituals, sacrifice, and prayer in today's monotheistic religions
  2. It can be argued that both passages are fiction, but both Joyce and Eco had the "benefit" of a Catholic upbringing and were quite familiar with this type of sermon. These fictional passages are based on reality.
  3. I'm currently reading Augustine's pathetic and thoroughly nauseating Confessions (which I may write further upon sometime in the next couple of weeks), and am thoroughly jaundiced about the Christian view of morality.