Religion and morality are two distinct notions which shed light on one and other, but which function independently. Religion is an organized set of rules that may or may not have actual application in the real world of daily life. Morality is a set of rules that controls one’s conduct. Character is therefore the melding of religion and morality. In order to better understand the relationship between religion and morality, two seminal articles will be used to further this understanding: Edward Ames’ 1928 article, Religion and Morality, and Johns Smith’s 1949 article, Religion and Morality. These two articles illuminate themes in philosophical thought regarding the relationship. This author concludes that the relationship between religion and morality is found in the evolution of character. Character is defined herein as the ability to correlate one’s behavior and conduct, i.e., morality, with one’s religious belief system.
Philosophical Themes in the Relationship between Religion and Morality
Edward Ames’ definitions of the relationship between religion and morality. In 1928, Ames published an article which helped further the discussion regarding the relationship between religion and morality. In this article, two important differences are described between the two. Mainly, the fundamental difference is that religion is a posteriori to morality. What this means is that: “Religion takes up the moral attitudes and embodies them in its forms and rites” (Smith, 1928, p. 296). Therefore, according to Ames, religion is morality in a codified form that has customized rituals.
Morality, according to Ames, is a priori to religion. Morality is also separate from ethics, which is a study and criticism of morality: “Morality will be considered in this way as the active, practical, enlightened form of human living, while ethics is the science concerned with the process…” (Ames, 1928, p. 295). With this definition, it makes sense that morality is the way that people actually behave, while religion is the form of this behavior which takes place in ceremonies and rituals.
John Smith’s definitions of the relationship between religion and morality. John Smith’s discussion of the relationship is one that focuses on the difference between the attitudes needed for either religions or morality. Religion, Smith argues, is based on an attitude of trust and of contemplation; morality, on the other hand, deals with the principles of governing relationships between people in actual society (Smith, 1949). The relationship between the two is one that challenges autonomy in morality, which Smith argues is a necessity for moral behavior. Smith argues that morality needs to be autonomous based upon Kantian ethics and the notion that morality should not be coerced. However, religions are coercive in nature due to their rewards and punishments (Smith, 1949). Morality, Smith argues, is a scientific incarnation of beliefs about good conduct, whereas religions is an incarnation of these beliefs. Therefore, Smith finds that religion is a posteriori to morality.
This author finds that both Smith and Ames have valid arguments about the relationship between religion and morality. However, neither are able to assess the relationship between the two without trying to decide whether morality or religion is the foundation for the other. In this way, the discussion becomes one that is similar to the chicken and the egg, for it is never clear which came first. I do not feel that morality is a posteriori to religion, as Ames argues. My reasoning for this is that I think that there is an underlying sense in all humans about what makes us feel good and what makes us feel badly; I side closer to Smith’s argument that religions is a posteriori to morality because it codifies those underlying beliefs.
John Smith argues that the Kantian notion of non-coercion is a critical and defining element of morality. Religion is an imposition on one’s moral compass because it influences one’s ability to make decisions autonomously. For this reason, religion is nothing like morality because it is not an internal compass but rather, it is an external compass. This author finds that morality is exclusive of religion because it is possible to behave morally without being religious, however it is not possible to be religious without being moral. Therefore, I argue that morality exists a priori to religion based on the fact that religions is not needed for there to be moral behavior.
Exploration of previous philosophical thought on the topic reveals that traditional thought finds that religion and morality are exclusive. This author finds that this theme of exclusiveness is impractical. One can behave morally without religion; however, one cannot have religion without morality. There is an intersection between these rulesets. That intersection is the development of character. This author believes that the relationship between religion and morality is dyadic and that one affects the other, and vice-verse. However, importantly, morality can exist independently of religion.
This makes the dyadic relationship one in which morality is impacted by religions insomuch as religions are like a branch of ethics—they are a criticism of morality by nature of their definitions and codifying of morality. Religion is more similar to ethics in this author’s opinion, and morality is more similar to conduct. In conclusion, this author finds that the notion of character should be considered as the ability to act morally in accordance with one’s beliefs. Therefore, this author concludes that the relationship between morality and religions is that morality is religion in action; furthermore, that religion is morality in code. The product of this relationship is one’s character.