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