Does Ethics Require Religion?

By James A. Donahue | March 1, 2006 | 0 comments

There is a spectrum of views about how religion and ethics are related—from the view that religion is the absolute bedrock of ethics to one that holds that ethics is based on humanistic assumptions justified mainly, and sometimes only, by appeals to reason. These two extremes tend to be argued in a way that offers little room for compromise or pragmatic solutions to real issues we face everyday.

The relationship between religion and ethics is about the relationship between revelation and reason. Religion is based in some measure on the idea that God (or some deity) reveals insights about life and its true meaning. These insights are collected in texts (the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, etc.) and presented as “revelation.” Ethics, from a strictly humanistic perspective, is based on the tenets of reason: Anything that is not rationally verifiable cannot be considered justifiable. From this perspective, ethical principles need not derive their authority from religious doctrine. Instead, these principles are upheld for their value in promoting independent and responsible individuals—people who are capable of making decisions that maximize their own well-being while respecting the well-being of others.

Even though religious and secular ethics don’t derive their authority from the same source, we still must find a way to establish common ground between them; otherwise we’re condemning ourselves to live amidst social discord and division.

I believe we can accommodate the requirements of reason and religion by developing certain qualities that we would bring to our everyday ethical discussions. Aristotle said that cultivating qualities (he called them “virtues”) like prudence, reason, accommodation, compromise, moderation, wisdom, honesty, and truthfulness, among others, would enable us all to enter the discussions and conflicts between religion and ethics—where differences exist—with a measure of moderation and agreement. When ethics and religion collide, nobody wins; when religion and ethics find room for robust discussion and agreement, we maximize the prospects for constructive choices in our society.

Tracker Pixel for Entry
 
 
 
About The Author

James A. Donahue, Ph.D., is the president and a professor of ethics at the Graduate Theological Union.

  

Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

Donate
 
  
 
blog comments powered by Disqus
 

Most...

  
  • Four Great Gratitude Strategies

    June 30, 2015

    Here are the key research-based principles for turning gratitude into a lasting habit, drawing from the GGSC’s new website, Greater Good in Action.

  • How the GGSC Helped Turn Pixar “Inside Out”

    June 19, 2015

    Greater Good Science Center director Dacher Keltner provided scientific advice to Pixar's new family film.

  • Racism is Not a Mental Illness

    June 22, 2015

    Many people argue that the white man who killed nine black people in Charleston must be mentally ill. What does the science suggest?

  

Greater Good Events

Mindfulness, Connection, and Compassion
International House, UC Berkeley
October 2, 2015


Mindfulness, Connection, and Compassion

A special day-long event with Shauna Shapiro, Ph.D., and Dan Siegel, M.D.


» ALL EVENTS
 
 

Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!

» TAKE A QUIZ
 

Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.

Watch
 

Greater Good Resources

 
 
» MORE STUDIES
 
 
» MORE ORGS
 

Book of the Week

The Path to Purpose By William Damon Looks at how children are hampered in their search for meaning, and how concerned adults can help them find it.

» READ MORE
 
Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement