Is Religion Necessary for Morality?

Therapists hear many opinions from their patients. Such beliefs are not always the focus treatment or what the client came to work on. They simply “appear” in the course of conversation. One of those ideas, quite common, has to do with religion. On numerous occasions my clients mentioned, unprompted, that a religious upbringing was essential to raising “moral” children. Without the guidance of a perfect, all-good, all-powerful being, the successful raising of an upright person was hard for them to imagine.

Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th century German philosopher, disagreed. So did moral theorists like Immanuel Kant.

Schopenhauer thought religion clouds our capacity for rationality. According to him, early religious training creates an intellectual blind spot persisting throughout life. We then become susceptible to accepting ideas “on faith” instead of reason. Our dispassionate, analytic abilities are crippled, in Schopenhauer’s view. Childhood religious indoctrination requires us to “believe” (lest God punish us either now or in the hereafter) rather than search for truth with whatever logical tools and evidence we can muster.

Early acceptance of miracles and supernatural beings were, to Schopenhauer, the beginning of a path to intellectual and behavioral ruin. He feared religious education would hamper our ability to separate truth from falsehood. Bad behavior, excused by our confused thought process, was considered another potential consequence of a religion-created blindness.

Schopenhauer offered ancient Athens, the city-state of Plato and Aristotle, as a counter example: a moral community not produced by religion and one he thought functioned better because of its absence.

Athens was a genuine democracy: all the citizens voted on every important issue (as opposed to representative governments in which individuals are elected to do the actual voting in legislative bodies like the U.S. Congress). Schopenhauer argued that religion did not exist in Athens in the period to which he refers. Yes, there were gods and some people made sacrifices to them; but no organized, regular religious services were observed with a formal priestly hierarchy and a carefully prescribed method of worship. Nor did religious documents exist (like the Bible or Koran) or any “inspired” list of good and bad behavior similar to The Ten Commandments. Yet, Schopenhauer reminds us that laws were respected, justice was important, civility was maintained, and philosophical schools like Plato’s extraordinary Academy flourished. The question of the good life and how best to lead it was discussed among educated citizens.

At this point you might complain about the lack of rights for women in ancient Athens or the slavery prevalent there. Do remember, however, equality of the sexes is a relatively new issue despite over 2000 years of Christianity. Moreover, the Confederacy during the U.S Civil War justified the hideous institution of slavery by reference to its presence in the Bible. Nor is slavery condemned in that book.

Schopenhauer believed compassion, not religion, contributed to moral conduct, and such compassion was in man’s nature (making religion unnecessary). Indeed, the ability to identify with our fellow-man seems in short supply these days, whatever the cause. The more closely we identify with the superiority of our national, racial, or religious group, the more we are at risk of excluding feelings of sympathy for those who don’t share our nationality, skin color, or faith.

Immanuel Kant, an earlier German philosopher, argued for a different (but still secular) foundation for morality: the categorical imperative. Kant recommended we each ask a question when evaluating our behavior: should my personal moral standards be made into a universal law — a requirement and duty for everyone without exception, or, as he called it, a categorical imperative. Additionally, in considering our answer, he would remind us to respect the dignity of our fellow-man simply because he is human. “Using” others is therefore immoral.

For example, if sexual fidelity and honesty are deemed proper, they must be required of everyone in all circumstances. Adultery, by contrast, however much you believe it would be in your self-interest, would be of no moral value; because proper action is not a matter of how much you might profit from it, but rather, a duty to what is good in itself.

Let’s say you are unfaithful, steal, lie, and break promises. Are you prepared to give permission for everyone to act the same way against you and everyone else? If not, he would argue you have exposed the moral failing of your own behavior.

These thinkers make demands on us to consider whether what we do is justifiable by a process of reason: to look in the mirror at who we are, beyond any religious rule we follow.

Clearly, whether religion is essential to implant the seed of a life-long moral rootedness, one can argue it provides many other things, including a sense of comfort, order, and hopefulness in the most fraught moments of life, as well as a supportive and congenial community of fellow-believers.

The question remains, however, whether there is something Schopenhauer and Kant are missing in their quest for moral grounding, beyond these potential benefits of faith. Do you believe religion provides some necessary ethical guidance for our children that these men miss?

I look forward to your thoughts on the subject.

The top image is Man Praying at a Japanese Shinto Shrine. It is the work of Kalandrakas and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Question Mark is sourced from the Monroeville Community Website.

Can You Sleep At Night? Being Ashamed and Feeling Guilty

There is an important distinction between being ashamed and feeling guilty. Both are connected to wrong doing, errors, mistakes, or failures. Both involve emotions. Feeling guilty, however, unlike being ashamed, doesn’t require an audience.

A person typically feels guilty almost automatically when he believes that he has done wrong. It matters not whether anyone else knows or finds out. Often, it doesn’t even matter that others might forgive the transgression. Thus, a sense of guilt is an internal state connected directly to an act thought to be wrong.

Shame, on the other hand, requires an audience, or at least, others’ knowledge of the inappropriate behavior or failure, even if they did not directly witness it.

By these definitions it is possible to feel guilty without being ashamed. One need only believe that one has done wrong. But someone who has been shamed (in other words, found out and condemned) might only come to feel bad if his behavior is widely known.

You might think that this always happens, but it doesn’t. Take the recently removed Governor of Illinois, Rod Blogojevich, who has yet to admit any guilt and who certainly doesn’t act ashamed; indeed, who appears quite shameless. Shamelessness is never a compliment, but rather a statement about someone who has no “shadow,” no sense of ever doing anything inappropriate.

To cite a couple of other examples, one a therapist and one a minister, neither felt guilty even after having their iniquity publicly exposed. In both cases the misbehavior was of a sexual nature that involved infidelity, as well as a violation of the code of ethics of their professions.

In the former case, the therapist had sex with ex-patients; in the latter example, the clergyman had sex with parishioners. Both were married (not to each other) at the time of these acts. The public exposure of their actions and ensuing humiliation mortified each of them and, indeed, each one contemplated suicide. But neither really believed what had happened was terribly wrong, and rationalized the transgressions in defense of his own self-image. In both cases the rationale involved holding the sexual partners largely responsible for the romantic encounters.

The connection between shame and suicidal depression is interesting and can be found even in the epics of Greek mythology. When Achilles died in battle, the Greeks held a vote to decide who among them should be awarded the splendid armor of Achilles, which had been fashioned by the god Hephaistos. Ajax (Aias) the Greater, the best warrior after Achilles, lost this competition to the cleverest of the Greeks, Odysseus, who had designed the Trojan Horse strategy that won the war. In his humiliation, Ajax went mad and eventually killed himself. Such is the devastating effect of a “loss of face.”

It should be said that the therapist and the minister I have referred to were quite narcissistic people who saw themselves through a very forgiving lens. Both terminated contact with old friends following their public embarrassment, in order to avoid facing them. In a sense, the self-love and lack of a well-developed conscience of the two people in question set the stage for their wrong doing — they believed that they were without moral flaws and therefore that anything they thought to do would automatically be a morally acceptable behavior.

Beware of those who say that they can sleep easily at night and use this standard as their primary method of judging or evaluating their own behavior. I doubt that the worst of the totalitarian rulers and despots of history would have failed this test of moral correctness, despite the murder, unhappiness, and genocide they created.

In the USA, on the political front, we have seen lots of people who don’t admit wrong, who rationalize what they do, and who serve themselves while claiming to be acting “on behalf of the American People.” I’m sure some of them come to believe their own story, their own rationale — shameless, as I said before; indeed, almost a kind of self-delusion.

In my experience, people who come to psychotherapy because they feel ashamed (but not particularly guilty) don’t usually take responsibility for their actions in the course of treatment. Rather, if the process follows the typical course, they will recover from the injury to their ego and be able to go on with life, still guarded against significant self-awareness. Moral self-reflection doesn’t seem to come easily or naturally to them.

By contrast, individuals who experience guilt that causes them to enter counseling often can learn to forgive themselves and recover from the depression that usually accompanies their guilt. For them, however, the risk is in taking too much responsibility and being too severe in their self-judgment, exactly the opposite of the person who is only ashamed.

It is useful to be capable of feeling guilt, to admit wrong doing, and to feel ashamed; that is, if one is to lead a moral life. On the other hand, it might be argued that those who are shameless and who rarely feel guilt probably have more fun in life and are less troubled — the mirror reflects their image back to them in the way that they want to see it, and not in the way it actually looks. They live in a state of ethical blindness. Whether that permits a satisfying life is another story.

You be the judge.

The above image is Shame by Libertinus Yomango, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.