Does religion define morality?

I’ve covered this subject a few times, Why religious people can’t be objective, Good without God, Philosophical morality, and other articles have referenced religion and morality, but after researching world religions for a previous article, I have more opinions on the subject matter. First of all, let’s define what morality is.

Morality, put simply is a system of values which determine a person’s conduct, or put less simply, it’s a code of ethics that directs a person, and defines their mode of action and behaviour, and allows a person to define the difference between wrong or right, good and bad, and to be moral is about the greater good, in which your aim is to maximise happiness, and minimise suffering. Stanford has two definitions for morality, and they are as follows:

  1. descriptively to refer to certain codes of conduct put forward by a society or a group (such as a religion), or accepted by an individual for her own behavior, or
  2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

As you can see, a society or group, like a religion, has codes of conduct, but morality isn’t exclusive to religion, and isn’t exclusive to certain groups or societies, and also what you have to decide is which religion is the most moral, as many of them differ greatly as to what’s morally acceptable. Take Hinduism as an example, they value all sentient life, so to them being a vegetarian is often their lifestyle choice, as they believe they have no right to take a life, but Christians are of the mindset that God placed all the animals of the Earth for our consumption, and many American Christians support the second amendment and go hunting. A Christian believes they are morally superior to Muslims, as Muslims execute animals using the Halal method, which involves a sharp blade to the jugular artery, and the animal is left to bleed out, as opposed to being stunned or sedated before execution. This is just one example of how three of the world’s biggest religions value life differently, yet all believe their holy book gives them moral guidance.

Instead of focusing on all religions here, I will deal with Christianity verses atheism. As I’ve covered in a previous article, geographical indoctrination, a person’s faith is often defined by their family’s influence, and the society they live in. If you’re living in the Bible Belt of America, there’s an extremely high possibility that you’re going to be a fundamental Christian, as opposed to a Taoist, or Confucianist, as they tend to be more Asian focused religions and philosophies. So bearing this in mind, a Christian is left with the Bible, whichever version they prefer, but when I quote the Bible I tend to use the King James for consistency.

The Bible is a collection of books that were written thousands of years ago, and interpretations have changed through language, translations and generations. No one can take all of the Bible literally, and different branches of Christianity take certain things, and leave others behind, and some of the subjects in the Bible don’t reach the modern interpretations of morality, and this is where the term cherry picking comes into play, as often what a Christian defines as moral matches their personal feelings on the matter. In other words, they take from the Bible what they see themselves as being moral, and attempt to justify the more horrific acts, like slaughtering of babies, or a global flood as God’s will, and who can question that? Looking at it this way, a Christians morality is based on emotion, and elements of what they believe is correct in the Bible, and just like atheists a large part of their morality is subjective, and/or based on what society expects from people.

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been asked why, as an atheist, I can categorically state why rape is wrong, as I’ve no God to guide me. Most people grow up from a child being taught what ethical behaviour is from their parents, schools, society and through experience. If a child hurts another child, and feels remorse, then their compassion and empathy have come into play, and it’ll make them sad, and hopefully this will teach them a life lesson that’s it wrong to hurt someone, as walk in their shoes and see if it’s enjoyable. As children get older, they learn that it’s not acceptable to steal, hurt people, insult their parents etc, and they learn to respect others. By the time a child reaches adulthood they should know that it’s unacceptable to infringe on another person’s rights, especially physically harming someone like an act of violence, rape or murder.

In the modern world, especially in the west, people tend to pick and choose as they reach adulthood as to what religion suits them best. They may have been raised a Christian, but encountered a Buddhist, and that way of life suits them more and they convert. They choose Buddhism because of its ethics and lifestyle, and if it’s morally suitable then great, but it doesn’t define the moral compass they already have within them.

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