Religious and Scientific Contributions to Moral Values

The Relationship between Religion and Morality

 

The experiences of the 20th century have demonstrated that scientific, technological, and economic developments alone do not guarantee harmony and true happiness. People need a solid base of values in order to find fulfillment as individuals and establish good families and healthy societies. Such a foundation integrates the best of spiritual and material values, traditional and contemporary values, and Eastern and Western values. Indeed, the well-being of nations and the entire world requires some common framework of values.

 

The greatest impetus behind morals and ethics is ultimately religious, and religion has traditionally shaped moral education. In many parts of the world, religious voices have been excluded from public forums because of their tendency towards exclusivism, divisiveness, and conflict. The challenge facing religious people is to find areas where it is possible to speak with a similar voice. The greatest area of commonality and the best hope for interreligious cooperation concerns values. This section focuses on common religious concerns in the hopes of revitalizing the link between religion and moral education. For millions of the world's people, religious faith provides a central motive for leading a moral life.

 

The positive contribution that religion makes to individuals and society is receiving increased recognition. Research has revealed links between religious faith and individual health, happiness, and longevity.[i]  More importantly, religion satisfies a yearning for meaning, orientation, and understanding of our place in the universe. Consider the observations of two noted historians of religions, Mircea Eliade and Huston Smith.

 

Throughout the ages, religion has given people a spiritual centering, according to Mircea Eliade.[ii]  Primitive peoples often identified a sacred mountain or some other place near their home as the center of the universe, through which the axis of the world passed and reached directly to the heavens. This was the spiritual center of their world and the place through which they found access to the divine. According to Huston Smith, this craving for orientation is perhaps the most fundamental of all human desires.[iii]

 

In traditional societies, the physical center of the universe is often linked to the spiritual center. As people became more mobile, they developed the conviction that no matter where they are in the physical universe, they can find the spiritual center if they hold the right beliefs -- beliefs that hold true for all persons at all times. Just as people considered their mountain the physical center of the universe, they considered their beliefs the true beliefs and their gods the true gods.

 

Such approaches to the spiritual center have been challenged by scientific discoveries, secularism, and competing religious worldviews. For example, Copernicus' announcement that the earth was not at the center of the universe rocked European civilization. This reaction was natural, since the physical center of the universe and their nearness to it represented their spiritual center and their nearness to it. The loss of one seemed a loss of the other.

 

Traditionally, this spiritual center has been anchored in the divine and energized by the words and examples of those who represent ultimate reality. People might turn to a sacred book, a prophet, a religious group, or a wise person and take their words as absolute. The age of technology provides a wealth of information but little sense of orientation. The widely varying religious voices, each claiming to represent the divine point of view, are like different broadcasting stations, each competing for an audience. Furthermore, secularization interferes with receiving any of the signals, casting suspicion on sacred books, prophets, and organized religion of all kinds.

 

The convergence of scientific discoveries, secularization, and religious pluralism has been eroding the spiritual center of people and societies. Moral certainty has been challenged, and religion has been relegated to the periphery of life. In the absence of traditional authority, many people have no firm basis for making decisions, setting priorities, or choosing role models. They follow each passing fad. Young and old, people from all walks of life experience a crisis of identity. Witnessing the effects of this inner vacuum, educators and concerned citizens are awakening to the need to revitalize moral education.

 

If we consider education in the broadest sense, there are three major arenas in which moral education takes place: the family, the school and the community. Of these three arenas, the family is most fundamental. Filial piety and related virtues can be cultivated within the family and then extended to the society. Within the family we learn to how to exercise loving authority and how to play a supporting role, how to integrate the spiritual and material dimensions, and how to balance private ownership and public domain. The goal of education in this family school of love is to become a person of mature character who lives for the sake of others. Moral education needs extend from the family to play a major role in our schools; it is in fact the foundation on which an effective education is built.

 

Religion is intimately connected with family life, and the significant phases of life such as birth, marriage and death are often accompanied by religious rituals. If the family is the “school of love” and the arena in which we develop our moral values, then it is imperative to consider all influences that nourish and sustain families.

 

Religious conviction and involvement can have profound positive impact on the family and contribute significantly to the health of our communities and of our society. In addition to providing clarity of purpose and orientation, shared religious values can form a powerful framework for people of different faiths to understand and respect each other. Values and beliefs that are in apparent conflict can provoke bitter enmity. Much attention has been given to the troubled history of conflict among different religions and to the rivalries among factions of the same religion. Instead, this section focuses on the potential of religion to give us a common orientation and sense of interconnectedness.

 

Religions have always played a significant role as moral guides, instructing their adherents in the norms of right and wrong. A familiar expression of this role is seen in the great codes of conduct set forth by many of the historic religious traditions, ranging from the Ten Commandments in the Jewish and Christian scriptures to the Five Precepts of Buddhism. The fact that the teachings of widely separated traditions contain so many similar principles testifies to an underlying commonality of religious understanding.

 

Prescribing rules of conduct is only one aspect of the guidance offered by religion. Underlying any rules of conduct is a center and touchstone of moral reasoning. Fundamentally, religions teach unselfishness. Through means that range from religious narratives to the examples of saintly personalities, religions encourage people to set the interests of their fellow human beings on a par with their own.

 

The question of the precise relationship between religion and morality arises in a variety of contexts -- ancient and modern, theoretical and practical. Socrates asked in Plato's Euthyphro: “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy?” Thomas Aquinas maintains that certain kinds of action are divinely prohibited because they are wrong, rather than the reverse. William of Ockham, on the other hand, has been interpreted to say that rightness is equivalent to, “commanded by God.” Two trends have challenged the link between religion and morality: the discrediting of faith and religious pluralism.

 

Thoughtful people have expressed concern about the impact of the loss of religious belief on morality. In the extreme, chaos and nihilism result. In the Brothers Karamazov, a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one character proclaims: “Without God, everything is lawful.” Philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus created an existentialist morality for those who view the universe as alien and uncaring. Some humanists propose an ethic of equal regard, treating each human being as having equal value and deserving equal consideration.

 

Concerns about the basis of moral values impact public policy. For example, can democratic values and institutions be sustained without the presupposition of a supreme being? Should moral education in public schools refer to religious beliefs, or would that be considered indoctrination? Religious pluralism within a society presents challenges. Liberal democratic states depend on a basic consensus about values while at the same time respecting the autonomy of the individual. Their constitution’s guarantee respect and protection for basic human rights, such as freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. Within such freedom, social stability depends on citizens who adhere to some ultimate values.

However, governments cannot legislate ultimate values without abandoning the liberal principles that guarantee basic freedoms.

 

No modern democracy can function without the foundation of human dignity, but laws cannot force people to respect the value of their fellow human beings. There is general agreement that only a basic consensus on values, norms and attitudes enables people to live together in a way that promotes dignity. How should society instill values, norms and attitudes? In traditional societies and throughout most of history, religious instruction at home, in places of worship, and at school have constituted the basic moral education. Religious literature, folk tales, and selected secular literature communicate the desired values. Instructors exhort and guide the young people; correcting mistakes and seeking to instill good habits. Motivations range from fear of punishment to loving guidance by example.

 

-A Case Study: Christianity in Western Europe
 

Religions generally use a combination of methods for cultivating moral behavior. The challenge is to find a balance between loving guidance and fear of punishment, between nurturing an innate moral capacity and imposing strict external constraints. As an example of the shifting balance between offering moral guidance through personal example, encouragement and love and imposing rules through rigorous discipline, we examine the views of key thinkers who influenced the development of Western Christianity. Many other religions have experienced similar tensions, at times emphasizing moral education through love and encouragement and at other times through strict rules and discipline.

 

Some of the wisest advice on moral education in the early Christian church is found in the writings of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430). In his theory of education he emphasized people's “indwelling” capacity to learn with encouragement and love. He counseled teachers to begin their instructions with an awareness of the concrete situation of each child. For Augustine, learning derived from the students' response to the teacher's confidence in their capacity to respond correctly.

 

Augustine presented a strikingly modern approach to moral reasoning in his emphasis on internal dynamics, introspection, and induction. Religion has always played an important role in encouraging reflection. Many people find contemplation, prayer, and meditation to be invaluable sources of rejuvenation and inspiration in the effort to lead a moral life.

 

In the Middle Ages, Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) was a strong voice for kind treatment of the young. He opposed beatings as a way to correct children. Education in morality was also a concern of theologians at the great medieval universities. As theological study became systematized, summaries of Christian thought were compiled which gave explicit attention to the moral life.

 

In the view of the Franciscan priest, Bonaventure (1217- 1274), the purpose of theological education was to make persons holy by encouraging them to use the power of their wills to decide and choose to lead a moral life. Bonaventure followed the tradition of Augustine in emphasizing the power of God working within people.

 

The greatest medieval treatise on moral education was written by the Dominican theologian, Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274). The primary thrust in the Aquinas' ethical system is the emphasis on human reason and intellect. He argued that knowledge of what is good must precede the doing of what is good. Following in the Augustinian tradition, Aquinas argued that the living principle of knowledge and education is within the pupil. The teacher has a secondary role in helping the student develop judgment, intellectual skills, and understanding.

 

With its goal of developing the whole person who could be competent in many spheres of life, the Renaissance impacted moral education in a number of ways. Educators called for a marriage between the claims of faith and the rediscovered Classical focus on the potential of the human being. The Renaissance ideal was that of the universal man -- a soldier and a person of action, a many-sided individual, noble in bearing, courtly in speech, a connoisseur of the fine arts, and a loyal subject of the Church.

 

While the Middle Ages witnessed little speculation on education, the Renaissance ushered in a period of intense discussion of all aspects of education, with a special interest in moral education. Parents were advised to be aware of the innate potentialities of their children and to educate them toward wholeness. Stress was placed on physical, literary, - and religious education.

 

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) discussed the elements of a complete education: Christian piety, scholarship, moral conduct, and preparation for civic life. Erasmus was one of the most influential voices in the call for a balance of heart and norm. He believed in the innate capacity of the child to learn moral values. Like all humanists, he placed great stress on parental example, direct moral and religious instruction, and the natural associations between old and young. He advocated an intimate personal religion that included dependence upon the Creator. Erasmus criticized punishment and fear as the principal ways to motivate moral behavior.

 

The ideals of Renaissance humanism continued to influence educational theory and the response from the Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation. All of the reformers made education a central concern in their efforts to revitalize the Christian faith. They saw education as a way to correct abuses and superstition in the medieval church.

 

Martin Luther (1483-1546), the German monk who became a religious reformer, continued the tradition of Renaissance humanism in his insistence on fostering moral and spiritual growth through classical learning. Luther recommended combining punishment with gentle admonition and positive examples, but he was a strong believer in trying to impose moral behavior from without. Children were to be taught the Scriptural warnings about God's judgment on sinful lives in such a way that the fear would last throughout their entire lives. The central contribution of the Reformation was its emphasis on individual relationships with God, without the need for an intermediary. When God is seen as an unconditional source of love, a personal relationship with God is a powerful impetus for leading a moral life.

 

Tradition and authority in education (especially religious tradition and authority) were rejected during the Enlightenment, when educators placed much more emphasis on the natural capacities of individuals.

 

The leading critic of education based on punishment and fear was Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). In Emile he proposed a “natural education,” based on the spontaneous development of the child's capacities. Rousseau asserted that in the ordinary course of living, especially in play, the child learns by observing the environment, responding to it, and using things spontaneously. Instead of basing education on obedience to persons and their commands, Rousseau argued for obedience to things of the natural order. In Rousseau's view, if persons are not led into vice by others, they will adapt naturally to the social world, and to virtue.

 

The Enlightenment views reshaped moral education in the twentieth century in the United States and in Europe. In the 1960s, educators began to adopt a “values-neutral” perspective, claiming that they had no right to “impose” their value system on their students. Everyone's viewpoint was to be respected no matter what it was, and standards of right and wrong became suspect. Three decades later, the character education movement in the United States began promoting basic moral values that resonate with people of diverse religions as well as non-religious people, Children thrive when they are taught basic moral values at home, at school, and in their religious community.

 

Considering some of the extreme tendencies in moral education, it is wise to seek a balance between heart and norms, or between love and obedience to rules. Moral education that emphasizes rules and fear of punishment can be harsh and formal. People raised in this way may be disciplined and reliable but lacking in compassion and sensitivity. On the other hand, moral education that emphasizes emotion and free choice at the expense of principles and standards can produce people who are undisciplined and irresponsible.

 

Limitations of the Scientific View

 

After the Protestant Reformation and bitter religious wars in Europe, people increasingly turned to science and humanism for guidance. Moral education lost its grounding as religion diminished in influence. For many people, a scientific or humanistic worldview replaced the spiritual centering traditionally provided by religion. Despite its current ascendancy, however, the scientific worldview offers little sense of orientation or purpose. It has a limited ability to answer life's most profound questions.

 

Scientists can advance theories about the origins of life and guess at the nature of the universe itself, but these are impersonal speculations. They tell us nothing of the human condition. Science can tell us how forces act and how organisms function, but these are largely descriptions, not explanations of meaning. They offer little to satisfy the human spirit.

 

In the words of sociologist Emile Durkheim, “Science is fragmentary and incomplete; it advances but slowly and is never finished; but life cannot wait. The theories which are destined to make men live and act are therefore obliged to pass science and complete it prematurely.” The questions that transcend the scope of science enter the realm of religion. People sense that there must be a meaning to existence, and millions of people find that meaning in a relationship with an absolute. For many people this absolute is known by a name such as Yahweh, God, or Allah.

 

It is a mistake to think that science and religion are mutually exclusive or that one discipline's claim to truth outweighs the claim of the other. To find meaning in religion does not mean rejecting science. Some may think that if one follows a scientific discipline, belief in an Absolute Being is not an intellectually valid option. At the same time, some devout people reject scientific assertions that they believe to be in conflict with their faith.

Throughout history, however, religious people have tried to reconcile their faith with the leading philosophical views and scientific theories. For example, early Christian thinkers showed how Greek philosophy was supported and completed by Christianity. Augustine developed his perspectives based on Plato's philosophy, while Thomas Aquinas did the same based on Aristotle's philosophy.

 

Muslim philosophers and naturalists, such as Averroes (lbn-Rushd) and Avicenna (Ibn Sina), followed Muhammad's instruction to “seek knowledge even if it be in China.” Averroes (1126-1198) was the greatest Arab philosopher who expounded the Koran according to Aristotle. The medical system of the Arab philosopher and physician Avicenna (980-1037) provided a foundation for Western medicine. He developed a treatment for smallpox and an anesthetic for operations. Their achievements laid the foundations for modern science.

 

Throughout the Renaissance and rise of humanism, the Church celebrated scientists along with the leading artists. Members of the Benedictine, Dominican, Franciscan, and Jesuit monastic orders led the research into the natural world. Many of the most eminent scientists have been believers in God, including Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein. They found no contradiction between their scientific views and adherence to a faith.

 

In a discussion of science, it is helpful to distinguish between experimental studies and their interpretations. Those who appreciate the scientific method recognize that properly conducted research produces objective data. However, the larger meaning of the data can be expressed in either secular or religious terms. Many of the greatest scientists have realized this. Albert Einstein eloquently voiced a religious view:

 

“The most beautiful thing that we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who cans no longer pause to wonder, and stand, wrapped in awe, is as good as dead; his mind and his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend . . . this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense I belong in the ranks of the devoutly religious men.”[iv]

 

Unity and Diversity

 

Modern opinion is prejudiced against viewing religions from the standpoint of their unity, and religious conflict is more noticeable than religious harmony. Elizabeth Nottingham pointed out both the best and worst sides of religion: “Religion is associated with man's attempts to plumb the depths of meaning in both himself and the universe. It has given rise to the most spacious products of his imagination, and it has been used to justify the most extreme cruelty of man to man. It can conjure up moods of sublime exaltation, and also images of dread and terror.”[v]  

 

Nevertheless, in the face of those “images of dread and terror,” religious leaders often respond with declarations of solidarity. In January 2002, for example, Pope John Paul II convened an ecumenical gathering in Assisi, Italy, in response to the terrorist attacks on the United States four months earlier. Addressing an audience that included leaders of a dozen religions, the Pope sought affirmation that “whoever uses religion to foment violence contradicts religion's deepest and truest inspiration.”[vi]

 

Most textbooks on world religions treat each as a distinct entity and emphasize its uniqueness. The relativism that pervades Western education distrusts universal patterns, and scholars focus on the expressions of truth that are unique to each religion. Yet, there are points of convergence, especially in values. Certain themes characterize the common ground which religions share.

 

In World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, passages from the sacred writings of the various world religions are arranged by theme, providing an endless source of comparative material, with introductory overviews and comments to illuminate the meaning of difficult passages.[vii] World Scripture creates a common ground of religious understanding which people from each religion can recognize for themselves and on their own terms. Editor Andrew Wilson observes a remarkable amount of convergence. He calls these commonalties Ten Points of Unity.

 

  • There exists an Ultimate Reality, or transcendent God, which defines the purpose and meaning of life, and to which human beings are related.

  • The universe is moral and purposeful, human beings are subject to spiritual laws, and each person reaps the fruit of his or her deeds.

  • Each person has an eternal destiny, a life hereafter; the cosmos includes various spiritual realms.

  • There is a highest goal (salvation, enlightenment, liberation, wholeness) which is potentially within the reach of every person.

  • Human beings are tarnished by an evil condition that prevents people from reaching the highest goal unaided.

  • Each person is free and responsible for his or her personal growth, yet can never fully realize that freedom unless the aforementioned condition of evil is dealt with.

  • Each person has ethical obligations in the contexts of family, society, and the natural world.

  • To become a moral person, one should train oneself to control the body and practice self-denial.

  • The way of goodness includes an ethic of love and self-sacrifice. The fullness of spiritual truth goes beyond this common ground and includes the teachings of the historical religions.

  • Knowledge of Ultimate Reality and the path to salvation comes to us through the unique founders of religion, who were given insights and revelations transcending ordinary knowledge attainable through reason alone.[viii]

 

 

It is notable that these points of unity focus on personal morality, especially self-denial, goodness, love, ethical obligations, purposeful living and obedience to spiritual laws. For thousands of years, the moral exhortations of the world's religions have been clearly and prominently proclaimed. The following selections from sacred writings illustrate the continuity of that call to personal morality and goodness:

Not to do any evil, to cultivate good, to purify one's mind—this is the teaching of the Buddhas.

Buddhism. Dhammapada 183

 

Train yourself in Godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, Godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.

Christianity. 1 Timothy 4.7-8

 

A watery hole at the foot of a mountain amidst uncultivated growth. The superior man by determined good conduct nourishes his virtue.

Confucianism. I Ching 4: Immaturity

 

This Atman, resplendent and pure, whom the sinless disciples behold residing within the body, is attained by unceasing practice of truthfulness, austerity, right knowledge, and continence.

Hinduism. Mundaka Upanishad 3.1.5                                       

 

By the ... soul, and Him who perfected it and inspired it with conscience of what is wrong for it and right for it: He is indeed successful who causes it to grow, and he is indeed a failure who stunts it.  Islam. Qur'an 91.7-10

 

And what does the Lord require of you But to do justice, and to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?

Judaism and Christianity. Micah 6.8

 

A strong case can be made for linking religion and morality. However, does one depend on the other? Can only religious people lead a moral life? The answer is obviously no. People who are only nominally religious or even non-religious may be just as moral as believers, and sometimes they show greater moral sensitivity. Many secular people respect the dignity of every human being. Guarantees of human rights are based on such respect for human dignity.

 

Can people be religious without being good? Religious belief does not always result in moral behavior. Religions teach moral codes, inspire people to be good, and specify consequences for violations. However, religions sometimes hinder or even prevent progress, closing the doors to enlightenment and reform. The histories of the great world religions illuminate both the heights of human achievement as well as the depths of degeneration.

 

Only prejudice could blind people to the huge contribution of the great religions to the spiritual and moral progress of the peoples of this world. All communities depend on the willingness of their members to care for others and to share responsibility. Research confirms the valuable impact that religious individuals and groups have on the moral health of societies.

 

In “Key Factors Influencing Caring, Involvement, and Community,” Virginia A Hodgkinson, author and executive director of the (U.S.) National Center of Charitable Statistics, concluded that, “Findings from the giving and volunteering surveys have consistently shown that membership in religious institutions, and particularly frequency of attendance at religious services, is a strong predictor of giving and volunteering.”[ix]   The findings held true for all age groups, including young people. Teens who reported attending religious services nearly every week volunteered at more than three times the rate of those who never attended. Adults who attended religious services volunteered at four times the rate of those who never attended.

Hodgkinson found that people who are members of a religious group share common traditions, devote time and resources to supporting each other, and participate with the group in meeting the needs of the larger society. “Thus,” she concludes, “congregations provide primary and long-term experience for a majority of Americans in learning to care and to share responsibility within a community.” Her research also indicated that members of religious organizations are more likely to join other voluntary, service and professional organizations.

 

Moral behavior is not only an ideal promoted by religions but also the fruit of religious practice.

 

-Ultimate Reality

 

The existence and nature of an Ultimate Reality or Absolute Being is perhaps the greatest of human questions. Since the dawn of history, people have been pursuing this “ultimate question” through religion and philosophy. People have arrived at many answers. This Ultimate Reality -- known variously as God, Allah, Yahweh, the Absolute, etc., or by no name -- is considered knowable by some and mysterious to others. Ultimate Reality may be transcendent or immanent, disinterested or passionate. Some people experience God as a personal being, while others perceive an impersonal force or a Truth that is neither being nor non-being. In spite of such differences in understanding, the great majority of people throughout history have believed in some transcendent reality. This phenomenon strongly suggests that human beings have an innate religious sense that causes them to seek that reality. Some claim that this in itself is evidence that God does exist: in our inner being we are seeking to return to our origins.

 

Our understanding of this reality shapes our view of the world and our place in it. Most significantly, the existence or non-existence of an Ultimate Reality has profound implications for morality. Some have argued that if there is no God then everything is permitted. If that is so, a godless world is a world without moral standards. It is a world where the strongest and most selfish ones rule. On the other hand, if we not only believe in an Ultimate Reality but see in it the source of all that is good and true, we naturally feel that life has purpose and meaning. We have a motivation to develop our character and pursue a life of goodness. We believe that in the end virtue will be rewarded.

 

Of particular interest is how this Ultimate Reality is sometimes portrayed as a personal God and even as a good and loving parent. The experience of unconditional love within the family has a significant impact on moral behavior. While the understanding of God as a benevolent and loving being is most prevalent in the Biblical faiths, it is also present in other faiths.

 

“I am the Tathagata,

The Most Honored among men;

I appear in the world

Like unto this great cloud

To pour enrichment on all

Parched living beings,

To free them from their misery

To attain the joy of peace,

Joy of the present world,

And joy of Nirvana....”

Buddhism. Lotus Sutra 5: Parable of the Rain Cloud

 

The Master said, “Is Goodness indeed so far away? If we really want Goodness, we should find that it was at our very side.”

Confucianism. Analects 7.29

 

To love is to know Me, My innermost nature, the truth that I am.

Hinduism. Bhagavad Gita 1 8.55

 

It is He who sends down to you out of heaven water of which you may drink, and by which (grow) trees, for you to pasture your herds, and thereby He brings forth for you crops, and olives, and palms, and vines, and all manner of fruit. Surely in that is a sign for people who reflect.... If you count God's blessing, you can never number it; surely God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate.

Islam. Qur'an 16.10,18

 

The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.

Judaism & Christianity. Psalm 145:89

 

It is the Way of Heaven to show no favoritism. It is forever on the side of the good man.

Taoism. Tao Te Ching 79

 

A relationship with a just, good and loving God has profound implications for our understanding of the world and our role in it.

 

  • For the individual believer, it can create order out of chaos by providing a context for understanding one's self  within the larger scheme of things. Some widespread religious concepts, such as the idea of the omnipresent judge who watches us when no one sees us, provide believers with a clear moral horizon.

  • Belief in God and in our potential to reflect our “Creator” provides a model for moral development. The current confusion over the goals of moral education reflects a confusion about the purpose of education and the nature of the person who is to be educated. Without a clear idea of the self who is to be educated or an understanding of the purpose of human life, the methodology and objectives for education have no destination. From the viewpoint of some of the major religions, the fundamental assumption about the education of the individual is that humankind is created by God to fulfill a purpose, an original ideal of creation.

  • God's existence provides a moral authority that strengthens moral resolve. Humanistic conceptions of the moral life carry little moral authority. According to Immanuel Kant, the good life is guided by what rational thinking defines as one's duty. The utilitarian prescription is to exercise impartial benevolence, or show equal regard. When challenged, these ethical principles cannot be defended without referring to an Ultimate Reality. Why should I act in accordance with what reason shows to be my duty? The answer is: you just should. Why should I adopt an impartial attitude and regard my own happiness as no more important than anyone else's? The answer is: you just should. For many, the way out of this circular reasoning lies in the authoritative will of God.

  • A relationship with a loving God can be a vital source of strength in adversity. It has been well documented that love can offer powerful sustenance under seemingly unbearable suffering. For example, in Man's Search for Meaning, psychologist Victor Frank wrote about his experiences in the Nazi concentration camp where he spent several years. Amidst the horrors and hopelessness of his surroundings, he was still able to find fulfillment:

 

 

“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth -- that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart; the salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in the world may still know bliss, be it only for a brief moment in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when a man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring sufferings in the right way -- in an honorable way -- in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life, I was able to understand the words, 'The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.’”[x]

 

The most important aspect of a relationship with a personal God is the experience of an unconditional source of love. We reach our full humanity through relationships of love. True love is the source of joy and energy of life. The family has the unique mission to educate the heart through the experiences of love. The core of the family experience is parental love, which creates the realm of heart within which children can fully mature and blossom.

 

One significant factor in determining the strength and happiness of family bonds is religious conviction. When parents have a close relationship with a loving God, then the family is strengthened. Nicholas Stinnett has noted that research over the past 40 plus years has consistently shown a positive correlation between religion and fulfilling family relationships. Stinnett emphasized that in the families that he studied, this religious involvement went beyond mere ritual:

 

“There are indications that this religious quality went deeper than going to church or participating in religious activities together. It could most appropriately be called a commitment to a spiritual life style. Words are inadequate to communicate this, but what many of these families said was that they had an awareness of God or a higher power that gave them a sense of purpose and gave their family a sense of support and strength. The awareness of this higher power in their lives helped them to be more patient with each other, more forgiving, quicker to get over anger, more positive, and more supportive in their relationships.”[xi]

 

Commenting on these observations, James Henslin wrote:

 

“If Stinnett's findings are generalizable, as they appear to be, to encourage the religious involvement of families would not only strengthen families, but also the communities in which they live.”[xii]

 

If the family is the school of love, then we can describe God as the source of love. Some would say, “God is love.”  Often it is within the experience of love that we are most moral. Love in its truest sense is inherently moral. It requires altruistic action: giving, serving and sacrificing ourselves for the sake of our beloved. When God is placed at the center of family life, people have a powerful and consistent experience of love. Contact with this loving force energizes and strengthens families. As Henslin suggests, this may offer the hope of stronger, more moral communities.

 

What exactly does religion offer families? A personal strengthening and reaffirmation through prayer and reflection, and an experience of a religious community. According to Dartmouth College professor of religion Ronald Green, the genuine experience of community represents “an experiential vivification of the moral point of view.” Religion helps people see beyond social distinctions and perceive the essential equality of humanity; it infuses moral principles into the social order. Green points out that ritual moments “embody and reflect the key elements of the moral point of view, and they impart the information and skills needed for its successful application.” When religious rituals are voluntarily undertaken, they “symbolize and enact the essential relinquishment of possession, comfort, or advantage that marks adoption of the moral point of view.”[xiii] In other words, rituals help translate moral commitment into social commitment. Religion helps communities flourish.

 

Religion undergirds morality with the power of conviction that comes from our having seen “the Word made flesh.” Philosophers may discuss great moral principles and prophets may proclaim the commandments of God, but only when we see the human embodiment of these abstract principles and commandments are we able to believe and become empowered to act. Unlike systems of philosophy and law, all the great religions present to us a person or persons who incarnate moral law. This may be a prophet like Moses or Mohammed, a series of avatars as in Hinduism, or a unique and superlative revelator as in Gautama the Buddha or Jesus the Christ. Then our challenge is to measure up to the potential revealed by the incarnation of moral law.

 

 

-Belief in the Afterlife

 

Belief in a life after death in which we experience the consequences of our earthly life is shared by all cultures. For those who believe in a personal God of love, goodness and justice, it is inconceivable that God's beloved should not share in God's eternity. If God is eternal and we are God's beloved, then we too must be eternal.

 

Of course, it is sometimes argued that a belief in the afterlife diminishes the need for full commitment to the here and now, but this is not necessarily the case. As historian Arnold Toynbee has stated, there are three alternatives:

 

  • belief in the reality of only this world,

  • belief in the reality of only the next world, and

  • a vision of this world as only one province of a Kingdom of God which also includes another world.[xiv]

 

A belief in the reality of only this world tends to promote the ethics of pleasure and power. On the other hand, those who take seriously only the next world tend to hold the responsibilities and institutions of this world in contempt. When religion promotes such a teaching, it indeed functions as an opiate.

 

The Hebrew-Christian-Islamic traditions envision a larger setting for human affairs than scientific analysis provides. This vision casts an arc beyond the limitations of space and of time. The life-to-come is coherent with this life, although a dialectical tension is sometimes evident. What is done here has its fulfillment there; what is done now has its consummation then.

 

While conceptions of the afterlife vary from faith to faith, most assume that there are direct consequences in the next life of our actions on earth and that a heaven or paradise awaits the good while punishment awaits the bad. “Heaven” is described variously as a place of endless love, joy and fellowship with God and others. On the other hand, “hell” is characterized by the absence of love and a dominion of selfishness, pettiness, guilt and vengeance. Both the promise and the threat of the afterlife can provide significant motivation toward a moral life.

 

Belief in an afterlife can enhance moral development since it conveys a sense of the long-term consequences of our actions. It influences our orientation. Those who anticipate a continued existence after physical death tend to be less attached to the body and to material things. Instead of focusing on external accomplishments, they place priority on loving relationships and service to humanity.

 

Regardless of how rewards or punishments will be meted out, a belief in the afterlife gives moral significance to our actions. This point is made in the scriptures of most of the world's religions. As Sikh literature asserts, “Heaven is not attained without good deeds.”[xv] The Bhagavad Gita declares, “No one who does good deeds will ever come to a bad end, either here or in the world to come.”[xvi] Therefore, there is encouragement for the believer to live a moral life.

 

Of course, the impact of belief on moral behavior depends on the depth and intensity of that belief. When people come face to face with their mortality, their instinctive reaction is to cherish their loved ones and the simple joys of earthly life. Contemplating the afterlife brings the meaning of earthly life into high relief. There is conclusive evidence of this point in the studies of those who report near-death experiences.

 

Substantial numbers of people have reported curiously similar “near-death” experiences. A report in the British medical journal Lancet concludes that such accounts are valid. Researchers studied 344 patients in the in ten hospitals in the Netherlands who were successfully resuscitated after suffering cardiac arrest. About 12 percent of these patients reported “near-death” experiences, such as seeing lights at the end of tunnels or being able to speak to dead relatives or friends. Most had excellent recall of the events, discounting theories that such memories are false.

 

Lead researcher Pim van Lommel said the study suggests that researchers investigating consciousness should look beyond cells and molecules. Even when the brain is not showing signs of electrical activity, it is possible that a person can still be conscious. Many people describe seeing their own bodies from a distance, as though watching a movie. Others say they felt themselves rushing toward a brilliant light.

 

The idea that consciousness may somehow exist independently of matter is significant. Traditionally, one of the strongest arguments against life after death has been the observation that spirit is at the mercy of matter. Mental functions appear to cease when the brain dies. The body and its nervous system seem to be the fuel or cause; and consciousness as a non-material function seems to be the effect. If the cause is removed, the effect goes away. However, the Netherlands study concluded that consciousness can continue even after brain death; so consciousness rather than matter appears to be the cause. Some of the remarkable testimonies of patients with near-death experiences (such as the following account) were validated by the research team.

 

The British medical journal Lancet reported the following out-of-body experience of a resuscitated patient:

 

During the night an ambulance brought to the hospital coronary care unit a 44-year-old man who had been found by passersby in a meadow about an hour before. He was in a coma and his skin had turned blue. Initially he was given artificial respiration, a heart massage, and treated with a defibrillator. He did not respond, so a breathing tube was inserted. A coronary care nurse reported what happened next:

 

“When we want to intubate the patient, he turns out to have dentures in his mouth. I removed these upper dentures and put them onto the 'crash car.' Meanwhile, we continued extensive CPR. After about an hour and a half the patient has sufficient heart rhythm and blood pressure, but he is still ventilated and intubated, and he is still comatose. He is transferred to the intensive care unit to continue the necessary artificial respiration.”

 

After more than a week, the same nurse was distributing medication on the cardiac ward, where she met the patient, who was recovering. The moment he saw her he said, “That nurse knows where my dentures are.” To her surprise he stated: “Yes, you were there when I was brought into hospital and you took my dentures out of my mouth and put them onto that car, it had all these bottles on it and there was this sliding drawer underneath and there you put my teeth.”

 

The nurse was amazed, remembering that this had happened while the man was in a deep coma. She investigated and reported: “It appeared the man had seen himself lying in bed, that he had perceived from above how nurses and doctors had been busy describe correctly and in detail the small room in which he had been resuscitated as well as the appearance of those present like myself. At the time that he observed the situation he had been very much afraid that we would stop CPR and that he would die. And it is true that we had been very negative about the patient's prognosis due to his very poor medical condition when admitted. The patient tells me that he desperately and unsuccessfully tried to make it clear to us that he was still alive and that we should continue CPR. He is deeply impressed by his experience and says he is no longer afraid of death. Four weeks later he left the hospital as a healthy man.”[xvii]

 

Whether or not we believe in the validity of near-death experiences, it is interesting to note that a strengthened belief in the afterlife has significant implications for the subsequent priorities and behavior of those who had the experience. The Dutch researchers found that people who had such experiences reported marked changes in their personalities compared with those who had come near death, but had not had those experiences. They seemed to have lost their fear of death and become more compassionate, loving people. In the words of the report, people with near-death experiences “had become more emotionally vulnerable and empathic, and often there was evidence of increased intuitive feelings. Most of this group did not show any fear of death and strongly believed in an afterlife.”[xviii]

 

Beliefs that are held in common by all of the world's religions are significant influences on moral behavior, and the moral behavior of individuals and communities in turn makes a vital contribution to the well-being of society as a whole. But perhaps the greatest contribution of religion is in the way it expands our sense of connectedness to the larger world.

 

 

 

[i] For example, see Gregg Easterbrook, “Faith Healers,” New Republic, July 19 & 26,1999.

 

[ii] Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1959.

 

[iii] Smith, Huston, Why Religion Matters: The. Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2000, p. 26.

 

[iv] Untermeyer, Louis, Makers of the Western World, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955, p. 54.

 

[v] Nottingham, Elizabeth K., Religion and Society, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1954.

 

[vi] New York Times, January 25, 2002, p. 5.

 

[vii] Wilson, Andrew, Ed., World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, New York: Paragon House, 1991.

 

[viii] Wilson, Andrew , “World Scripture and Education for Peace.” Paper presented at a conference sponsored by the New Ecumenical Research Association at Chateau de Bellinglise, Elincourt Ste-Marguerite, France, May 7-12, 1992 (New York: International Religious Foundation, 1992).

 

[ix] Hodgkinson, Virginia A., “Key Factors Influencing Caring, Involvement, and Community.” In Paul G. Shervish, et al., Care and Community in Modern Society: Passing on the Tradition of Service to future Generations, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995.

 

[x]  Frankl, Viktor, Man's Search for Meaning, (60th anniversary edition) p. 57; (2006 paperback edition) p. 37.

 

[xi] Stinnett, Nicholas,  “Strong Families.” In Henslin, James M. Ed., Marriage and Family in a Changing Society, New York: Free Press, 1992, p. 185.

 

[xii] Henslin, James M. Ed., Marriage and Family in a Changing Society, New York: Free Press, 1992, p. 302.

 

[xiii] Green, Ronald M. , “Religious Ritual: A Kantian Perspective,” Journal of Religious Ethics, 7:2, 1979, pp. 41-53; and Ronald M. Green, Religion and Moral Reason: A New Method for Comparative Study, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

 

[xiv] Toynbee, Arnold , “The Meaning of History for the Soul,” Civilization on Trial. Ch. XIII, New York: Oxford University Press, 1948.

 

[xv] Adi Granth, Ramkali-ki-Var, M.1, p. 952.

 

[xvi] Bhagavad Gita 6.40-41.

 

[xvii] van Lommel, P., van Wees, R., Meyers, V., & Elfferich, I., “Near-death Experience in Survivors of Cardiac Arrest: A Prospective Study in the Netherlands.” Lancet Vol. 358, No 9298, December 2001.

 

[xviii] Ibid.