Religionless Morality? On the Folly of Global Ethics

“And God spake unto Moses saying: This will you say unto the children of Israel: Be Good! And Moses went down from Sinai, and the children of Israel said: What hath the Lord said unto you? What is his plan and purpose? And Moses lifted up the tablet of the law, whereon was writ: Be Good! And they laughed and said unto Moses. What is this ‘good’? We need more.” (Exodus, The New Last Chapter)

I’ve touched this topic before, but it may be time for a summertime lite version of my comments. Especially as Scipio has just read a monstrously bad piece on the subject.

In a previous post, I argued the familiar theme that not only is religion not necessary for morality but that dogmatic religions are antithetical to the development of an ethical program. They interfere with two things that make a genuine morality–a program that results in the cultivation of virtue and the avoidance of injury–possible: conscience and choice. Before ethicists became classifiers, taxonomists, and quantifiers, in fact, these two ingredients were linked to the idea of practice. Following Mill and his wretched spawn, the do-gooding ethics of utilitarians, consequentialists, pragmatists, situationalists and others tended to obscure the fact that ethics has more to do with the examined life than with mathematics.


A moral life in the modern world has to be lived without religion. It does not need to be anti-religion. It has to be lived without religion because the idea of a law-giving god has become preposterous to most people, even to people who cannot acknowledge that the world we inhabit is post-Christian (and by extension, post- every other religion). By that I simply mean that the world we live in would be incomprehensible if we adopted the cosmology of the ancient world, the world of the Bible and its literary cousins. And to the extent we don’t or cannot, it’s foolish for us to imagine that it has intellectual or moral authority over us and over the decisions we face.

It has been a long time since Bultmann, the titanic biblical scholar of his generation, reminded his profession that the biblical world is based on a myth that has ceased to have a purchase not only on the mind but on the imagination of the modern world. And while it is possible to wish otherwise and therefore to think otherwise, “wishful ethics,” in my view, does not have much of a future.

So there is no reason to consider the God of the Bible as a source of virtue or standard of right conduct in the twenty-first century, and in fact, a little study of biblical history would show that he was not so regarded by the shapers of Jewish tradition either: it’s only when Christianity (and elements of Judaism) become saturated with Greek ideas that biblical precepts and customary law acquire the force of “ethics” and get themselves philosophized into religion.

As part-time philosophers, it was part of a theologian’s job description to make room for “ethics,” but whether we are glancing back at Augustine, or (later) Aquinas or Abelard, we are looking at men who were making the recipes up as they went along: One stick Plato, melted, three parts commandments, a dash of Epicurus, and a cup of Aristotle; cover and let simmer for one thousand years; remove from heat and sprinkle with beatitudes.

Abelard teaching: The first Naturalist?

“Jesus,” as a former archbishop of Canterbury once said to me, “was a very nice man, but he wasn’t an ethicist.” We can be grateful for that. Neither was Moses, and neither was Job. So to continue to think of the suzrerainal Yahweh as anything more than a heavenly king enforcing tribal customs on a wayward people (the tougher the better, lest Israel go astray), or Jesus as much more than the condensed version of what many Jews wanted to hear in the graeco-Judaism of first century Palestine, would really be to miss the point. It is important to let the Bible be a book of its own time. That’s not how it loses but how it acquires relevance.

You can’t get to ethics, however, simply by (a) tossing religious ethics out the window and (b) keeping the good bits–using slogans like “being good without God,” perhaps the most irksome, historically challenged and simplistic phrase ever coined in the name of secular morality.

You certainly cannot get there if you assume that there are universal and trans-historical norms that were as true in ancient civilization as today. For example, there was no prohibition against lying in Hebrew law (“bearing false witness” is a juridical sanction). If there had been, the Abraham who tries to pass his wife off as his sister and the God who commands Abraham to use his son as a sacrificial goat would not have speaking parts in Genesis. But just as significant, a thousand things we regard as repugnant–blood-hunters, infanticide, the execution of disobedient sons and the selling of family members into slavery–were widely practiced in ancient society. A little history and anthropology teaches us that religion, law, and morality were not three strands but a knot, the ends of which are sometimes difficult to untangle.

Being good was not the goal for Aristotle, was it? Habituating yourself to virtue through the practice of reason was. You can habituate yourself to other things of course, but you will always fall short of the “defining virtue,” which can only be the exercise of the one essential thing that makes you human. Some of us share with garden slugs a love for lettuce. But we can’t stop there. Some of us are good with wood. So are termites and beavers. I think my point is clear: the right use of reason, which is always painfully hard work and always requires judgment about things like the relationship between action and reflection (the classical mode assigns this to the “soul”) is the only source of ethics. And to be ethical is never therefore to be good. It is to be the sort of person who does the right sort of thing.

A little meditation will convince us that this excludes the possibility of God–not as a philosophical postulate but as a practical matter. God the father wants what is best for his children; but the biblical god at least leaves them in no doubt about what that is and what the consequences are for not acquiring it. He is the worst father ever: the kind who would let his own son die for crimes he caused to happen himself.

Thy will be done.

This concept, which most people would identify as the heart of religious ethics, is personally and morally insidious. It is fine for the eternally stupid Adam, whom God endows with the reasoning powers of a three year old, and fine for other heroes who beat their chests and whack their heads trying to figure out God’s justice. Of course, the moral thing to do would be to run away from home, away from the abusive father who makes unreasonable demands for unreasoning obedience to his arbitrary dictates.

Curse God and die.

Ethical responsibility requires at least that–to be, as H. R. Niebuhr strikingly phrased it a “responsible self.”

But there comes a time when the ethical framework invites the incorporation of lessons learned through religion as the story of our moral background, our infancy.

If letting go of God is part of that story, in the same way that coming to adulthood requires us to understand the pains and tremors of infancy, we should be prepared to answer to other tribunals, identify other sources of value, specify the norms we regard as relevant for leading a good life.

Is moral life always culturally specific? If we cannot identify trans-historical and universal norms from the past, why do we suppose we will be able to construct a global ethic for the future–or is the desire to do so simply another case of the totalizing conceit that we thought we abandoned when we left religion behind us?

These are the sorts of questions we need to be asking about an ethical program for the future, and I suggest that religion has a lot to teach us about where to look for answers.

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