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Religion and morality

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K081-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 25, 2024, from

Article Summary

The relationship between religion and morality has been of special and long-standing concern to philosophers. Not only is there much overlap between the two areas, but how to understand their proper relationship is a question that has stimulated much debate. Of special interest in philosophical discussions has been the question of divine authority and the moral life. If there is a God, how are we to understand the moral status of his commands? Are there moral standards that even God must acknowledge? Or does God’s commanding something make it morally binding? Secular thinkers have insisted that these questions pose a serious dilemma for any religiously based ethic: either the moral standards are independent of God’s will, with the result that God’s authority is not supreme, or God’s will is arbitrary, which means that what appears to be a morality is really a worship of brute power. Many religious ethicists have refused to acknowledge the dilemma, arguing for an understanding of divine moral directives as expressions of the complexities and excellences of God’s abiding attributes.

The impact of religion on moral selfhood has also been much disputed. Secularists of various stripes have insisted that religion is not conducive to moral maturity. Religious thinkers have responded by exploring the ways in which one’s notion of moral maturity is shaped by one’s larger worldview. If we believe that there is a God who has provided us with important moral information, then this will influence the ways we understand what is to count as a ‘mature’ and ‘rational’ approach to moral decision making.

Religious ethicists have had a special interest in the ways in which worldviews shape our understandings of moral questions. This interest has been necessitated by the fact of diversity within religious communities. Different moral traditions coexist in Christianity, for example, corresponding to the rich diversity of theological perspectives and the plurality of cultural settings in which Christian beliefs have taken shape. This complexity has provided some resources for dealing with the ‘postmodern’ fascination with moral relativism and moral scepticism.

The relationship between religion and morality is also important for questions of practical moral decision. Religious ethical systems have often been developed with an eye to their ‘preachability’, which means that religious ethicists have a long record of attempting to relate theory to practice in moral discussion. The ability of a moral system to provide practical guidance is especially important during times of extensive moral confusion.

Citing this article:
Mouw, Richard J.. Religion and morality, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K081-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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