For quite a while, I've held an almost nagging belief that religion (in part) is the result of an objective ethical reality, and not the other way around. That is to say, I think when most people think of their own personal ethical code, they generally believe it is derived from their religious beliefs. And, for what it's worth, in many ways I believe this is true for any given individual. There is certainly a stage in life, particularly when we are young, where moral boundaries are much more ambiguous to us. And it's fairly obvious that, for many of us, the religious beliefs handed down by our parents and our culture have helped solidify our moral convictions. But what are the true origins of these second-hand belief systems? The answer may be more complicated than most of us would think...and being able to parse some of the more subtle nuances regarding the differences between religion and an objective ethos has some interesting implications.
When we consider the origin of religious morality, most people are simply inclined to believe that THEIR beliefs were divinely inspired or derived. That is to say, that members of most religions would point to God, the supernatural, or the esoteric as the source of their moral beliefs. And so you'll have, "It is wrong to murder because Jesus gave us the Golden Rule" or "It is wrong to murder because Adonai gave us the sixth commandment" and so forth. But when you begin to step outside of the sphere of your religious convictions, this explanation begins to make less sense. Sure, it's true that, if your religion pans out to be objectively true, then you can rest your dispositions against that reality. But even if that is the case, then the objective truth of your religion by definition excludes many, if not all, other religious beliefs from the realm of reality. So let us say that you belong to some particular Christian sect who turns out to have nailed everything, religiously speaking. If you were somehow to objectively conclude that Jesus, the Son of God, walked the earth and died for the sins of all mankind and He alone, in union with Father and Spirit, was THE divine source, then you could conclude that the words your ancestors brought to bear were objectively true, and that their beliefs as well as yours, in context, were truly divinely inspired. You could then rest assure that the moral tenets of your religion were simply predicated upon the wishes of your divine creator.
But what of all the other religions in the world? Even if one religion is exactly correct in their understanding, then that means there are thousands of sects that are "off" or just completely wrong. If their supernatural beliefs about the nature of the universe turn out not to be divine, then what is the source of the fabrication regarding their explanation of our nature and, more importantly, the source of its accompanying ethos? And prodding even further, why does it seem as though, even with very different views regarding the nature of the universe, so many of these religious sects have arrived at very similar ethical beliefs? For instance, you will have to look fairly hard to find any religions that endorse unwarranted murder, theft, or fraud. Sure, the one sect who MAY have their religion nailed correctly can simply point to the divine to explain their beliefs, but who do the rest of us point to ultimately? We could, enraged, claim that we've all been had by our ancestors. But this only pushes the question further back. If these other religious stories are indeed false, then why isn't there as much variation in their views on ethics as there is in their fabrications regarding the divine?
These questions are why I'm inclined to believe that there is an objective reality underlying morality. It's a point that I have a hard time explaining, as I'm certainly not as eloquent or learned as a philosopher or a psychologist. But it's hard to ignore the fact that while there is certainly a wide variance in the framework of different religions and cultures, we all seem to be inclined to believe that it's not OK to steal from, or break your word with, another person. These moral tendencies are recognized by some political persuasions as "Natural Law." It's what we use to codify what we perceive to be objective morality; man is to be set free from force and coercion. Given this, it is still understood that there can be great variance in ethical beliefs between various religions. They all seem to make exceptions to their own rules in unique ways, and those exceptions may evolve over time. But, nevertheless, it's not outlandish to recognize the uniquely similar ethical tendencies of these various faith-based frameworks.
Knowing this, is it ridiculous to believe that, even in the realm of ethics, that religion may simply be the prism through which we accept universal realities that we don't truly understand yet? The Judeo-Christian belief very openly tries to explain the nature of our universe. The book of Genesis tells us how God created all we know in six days; that he spoke light and the earth into being...that he made man from clay and woman from man. It's true that the understanding of these passages has grown more passive over time. Many Christians and Jews now perceive this written word as metaphor. But was this always the case? Or do we view our religious beliefs in the context of our own scientific understanding?
In other words, to the extent that any given religion is fabricated, does it not exist, in part, to give dimension to the nature of phenomena that is simply not understood yet? Until the classical astronomers came about, what reason did Judeo-Christians have for NOT believing the earth was the center of the universe? Until modern-day geology and astro-physics, what reason did they have to NOT believe that the earth was created in a day? Until Darwin, what reason did they have to NOT believe that man was simply molded from clay? I would contend that they had no reason not to believe such things because they had no alternative understandings regarding them. We are living breathing conscious beings on a small planet next to a star in a vast universe. Trying to comprehend that without some apriori knowledge of basic physics and biology is like trying to build a skyscraper in the fashion of a mud-hut; good luck with that.
And so most religions ascribe some supernatural force or intent, often personified, to the origins of what we recognize as reality, I believe, to give a context of order and sense to things we can't yet explain. Why would our ethical nature be any different? It seems very ethereal and subjective to us at this point in time. Psychologists, philosophers, biologists, and sociologists all have their own ideas but we seem to have no unified understanding of ethics. Ah, but this is where religion's treads sink deepest. A Christan 1,000 years ago would have told you that that the earth was created in a day. Is it unbelievable to think, given our current lack of understanding regarding the biological and psychological nature of ethical development, that simply pointing to Jesus' Golden Rule may be looked upon in the same way at some future point?
Some people may find such a conjecture damning, but I believe it exonerates religion in some ways. Man recognizes and celebrates the earth, and concludes that benevolent forces vastly more powerful than himself created it. Man recognizes and celebrates himself, and concludes that benevolent forces vastly more powerful than himself created him. Man recognizes and celebrates the virtue of the absence of coercion, and concludes that benevolent forces vastly more powerful than himself ordered man to respect one another. We all tend to focus on the conclusion that man has drawn, which may be in err, but in defense of many religious beliefs, they must have had to have taken the step of acknowledging objective reality first. So could it be that morality really does have some objective basis which various religions have long recognized but for which science has not yet been able to cut off at the pass yet?
I'd like to believe this may be the case. As someone who is Agnostic, I feel like I have no real dog in the fight. Instead, I sit back as the quiet observer, watching Theists and Atheists in their existential tug of war. The Theists are dragged slowly through the proverbial mud over time, seemingly having to give concession after concession to the scientific community as their conclusions fail to play out. Meanwhile, Atheists in their attempt to drag the Theists kicking and screaming seem to adhere to science to the point of rigidity. They make nothing little of laying their opponents' conclusions to waste and yet they often stubbornly refuse to recognize the reality of things they can't yet explain. They would be the first to discredit the paradoxical nature of a God without origin but would often be the last to question the paradoxical nature of a universe without origin. In fact, they play so loose and fast with fact and theory that they believe that simply discrediting their opponents' views supposes the answers to the questions their opponents raised in the first place. For instance, Atheists will expound on the intellectual heresy that is "Creationism." Yet when they counter-factually proffer evolution, they cannot explain exactly how a living being becomes conscious. In the same way, they cannot explain how something non-living becomes living. Or even more to the point, in their ultimate refutation of "Creationism" they push the origins of the universe back to the "big bang", and yet fail to explain where such a singularity of matter and energy was derived from.
In this way, Atheists can most certainly, with the help of science, offer a better vision of "how" certain things happen as they do, completely destroying the conclusions of their counterparts. But very rarely, if ever, do we understand "why" something happens. It's because such a question proposes intention. It supposes purpose. Science will always come along explaining how something plays out in the manner it does...but I don't suppose it will ever be able to explain why. And that is the reason, in my belief, that religion naturally arises in human society. It gives us a way to personify reality, to make it more palatable to us. And that's something we do all the time. Psychologists have found that we tend to try to see human faces and features in inanimate objects. For instance, we have a tendency to, when viewing a car from the front, see the headlights as eyes and the grill as a mouth. It may be subconscious, but from the legend of Narcissus to our fascination with Cydonia (the face on Mars), we have a predisposition to see ourselves whenever possible. Likewise, we seem to want to explain reality within the context of our own humanity.
And so, maybe religion is not so much about the conclusions that we draw regarding how the universe unravels, but rather about acknowledging the objective and sometimes paradoxical nature of reality and putting it in a context that we're comfortable with. If this is the case, then maybe our ethical nature is just another phenomenon which religion has a temporary monopoly over. Eventually scientists may come busting down the doors of religious institutions, once again, revealing that the nature of of such behavioral preferences and inclinations are not divine or mystic at all, but instead simply a natural facet of our evolution as conscious beings. But will that acknowledgement make the implications of morality any more real, or even more to the point, will it make the nature of its existence, or our existence for that matter, really any less wonderful or mysterious? No, I don't think it will. I can look around me and revel in the fact that humans all around the world have somehow become predisposed to believe that aggression is not acceptable behavior. And no fabrication in the strata of religious conclusions, or the subsequent refutation of it could ever take the incredible nature of its existence away from me.