Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Religion and Morality: What's the Difference?

Are religion and morality mutually bonded? Can someone be a “good person” with strong moral character if he or she is not religious in a traditional sense? According to the 2007 results of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, a worldwide survey of opinions on social, political, and moral issues done by the PewResearchCenter with over 45,000 interviewees, the majority of people worldwide would argue that a person cannot have good values and be moral without being
God-revering. The worldwide responses to the question, “Which one of these comes closest to your opinion? ‘Number 1 – It is not necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values,’ OR, ‘Number 2 – It is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values,’” show a divided worldview on what the role of religion on morality constitutes, specifically and noticeably between Europe and the majority of the rest of the world. In that majority, the results of the survey show a firm stance in the mindsets of most South American, African, Middle Eastern, and Asian peoples that belief in a deity is needed by the human mind in order to value life and humankind, with countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Indonesia containing zero to one percent of their population that would argue one could have right conduct or distinguish between right and wrong without an internally-deified compass (see graphic on the left). To glean information from these results, questions must first be asked of the wording and definitions implicit in this portion of the interview: do the religions of the world all have similar structures when it comes to coded morality implicit in their faiths? Furthermore, what universal basis can there be for right conduct or good values?

At a time when atheists in England are using their resources to advertise the idea of no God – while religious groups counter by doing the same thing with slightly altered language – and humanist groups in the United States similarly trying to spread the idea of goodness and kindness sans religious faith, the makeup of the world’s perception of what “being moral” means becomes striking. The idea of a universal baseline for good conduct at this point in human history seems impossible. Taking the example of an advertisement created by the American Humanist Association (AHA) this past holiday season, which read: “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake,” the public responses in the United States show how wide the range of perception towards the human ability to decide what is right and what is wrong happens to be. The AHA defines its group philosophy as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism, affirms our responsibility to lead ethical lives of value to self and humanity.” The holiday advertisements seem simple and straightforward enough: try to be good to people, because it will create a happier society, they argue; in this message, it is the hope of the AHA that the absence of a reigning deity goes unnoticed. The response of certain religious voices in America dashes those hopes using language that could not be more different from that of the humanist perception. Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association (AFA), an organization representative of the more conservative and traditional Christian worldviews in America, replies to the argument, “It's a stupid ad. How do we define 'good' if we don't believe in God? God in his word, the Bible, tells us what's good and bad and right and wrong. If we are each ourselves defining what's good, it's going to be a crazy world.” The concluding sentence of Wildmon’s response strikes at the core of the religion-morality issue: are human beings as individuals responsible enough, on a moral and spiritual level, to create their own parameters and boundaries concerning good action versus evil action?

“If we are each ourselves defining what’s good, it’s going to be a crazy world.” Going back to the Pew survey, the strength of Mr. Wildmon’s statement may be called into question. Analyzing which countries tend to believe that individuals can discern between right and wrong without the guidance of God leads to important realizations and understandings about why different countries have different levels of religiosity; for instance, the PewResearchCenter’s data shows a link between the Per Capita Gross Domestic Product of a country – the level of wealth – and that country’s “Religiosity Score,” which is, according to the survey, “a three-item index, with 3 representing the most religious position. Respondents were given a 1 if they believe faith in God is necessary for morality; a 1 if they say religion is very important in their lives; and a 1 if they pray at least once a day.” The graph on the right shows that, “consistently, poor countries receive higher scores on the scale… On the other hand, wealthy countries tend to receive lower scores.” The reason the statements of the American Family Association – regarding the need for theism in moral divination – may be lacking in a solid perception of the worldwide human condition is that religiosity, on a nation-by-nation, cultural scale, is outside the control of individuals and largely a result of socioeconomic, philosophical, and historical circumstances; different populations are meant to tend more towards individual morality or towards utilizing morality that is conceptualized in a group setting, at any point in history.

Although no absolute terms can be created for good values, it is obviously plausible for a kind, warm-hearted person to not be directly informed by religious canon or ideals. However, the current period of human history has shown institutionalized religion to be the driving force behind the idea of “being moral,” and so to say that this form of religion need not have any role in informing populations on the difference between right and wrong is too, at this point of humanity, misguided in a way that does not recognize the millennia of circumstances leading to current perceptions of how humans can possibly be good to each other. Humans will probably never have a universal morality, but both mindsets of how to arrive at Goodness can share the same space, with only a difference of religious faith separating them.

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