Can You Be Moral With Religion?
Agency is a term used in ethics to signify the central premise that makes ethical decisions possible. It is a term that basically means that a person makes their own decisions and that those decisions have consequences that have to be evaluated according to a standard before the actual decision is made. As a kid I was told, "You made you bed. Now you have to lay in it." This is a perfect example of what it means to possess agency.
So the argument that I want to consider is primarily focused on the phenomenon of agency, and to consider the dynamics that come into effect when we add religion to our set of beliefs. I would like to think of this argument as a sort of rejoinder to the Moral Argument used in apologetics to convince unbelievers that God exists. It is my personal conclusion that even if this argument is successful then I think we would have more of a reason to reject religion, because God as a moral standard would not ever expect us to compromise our potential for moral activity. Here is the formal representation of my argument:
1. All moral acts require agency in order to exist.
2. Some forms of religious devotion diminish human agency.
2a. Those forms of religious devotion that do not diminish human agency are not significantly different from other non-religious counterparts making them irrelevant.
3. Thus, the significant forms of religious devotion cannot be moral.
4. A God who is a Moral Standard would want humanity to be moral.
5. Man cannot be moral with religious devotion.
6. Thus, man should not be devoted to a religion.
The Premises that I am going to be defending are 2 and 2a. I am going to simply assert premise 1 as true. If this premise is false then I would not be interested in a morality that did not involve agency, and as a protest to this "true" morality I would simply feel compelled of my own agency to revolt and form my own moral system as evidence of how agency does in fact create moral virtue. Premise 5 is simply a reiteration of premise 3, which is derived from 2 and 2a. So I will be covering 3 and 5 by giving a defense for 2 and 2a. I will accept that premise 4 is a weak premise, though I will maintain that it does possess a prima facie intuition for truth. However, I will not be defending premise 4, except to say that I see no reason to think that any other analog or correction of this premise would somehow eliminate the flaw that exists within it.
Premise 2a: The Irrelevancy of Some Forms of Religious Devotion
If my argument holds then we have to accept that religious devotion falls into two categories that we will be examining. The first is religious devotion that does not diminish human agency, and the second form would be religious devotion that does diminish human agency. We will also be limiting the scope of religious devotion to those forms of devotion that direct themselves toward a monotheistic deity that would expect or desire religious devotion from humanity. There are many ways to practice religion and many forms of religion that may or may not apply to this argument, so for the sake of the argument it is prudent to accept that not all forms of religious devotion will apply.
So we could say that iff religion is going to be incapable of morality then those forms of religious devotion that diminish human agency can only be of a certain type that involve a monotheistic deity that would expect or desire religious devotion from human beings. Thus, Premise 2 and 2a can only speak to those forms of religious devotion directed toward such a deity.
The primary consideration for premise 2a is whether or not one needs religion in order to be moral. If one does not need religion in order to be a good person then religious devotion can do nothing to add to your moral virtue as a person. Secularists would possess the same potential to stay committed to their spouses, refrain from theft, and be honest just as much as a devotee would possess. Thus, those forms of religious devotion that do not diminish human agency would be incapable of effecting moral virtues, and so would be irrelevant to the argument.
The counter to this argument would be to say that one does need religion in order to be a good person. If this is true then we are refuting our first premise that all moral acts require agency in order to exist. If we need religion in order to be moral then the value of morality no longer rests in our ability to weigh the consequences of our choices, but in our ability to do what someone else is telling us to do. We stop being agents and become subjects. And my reasoning for refuting any refutation of premise 1 comes into effect.
If religion possesses the exclusive content for moral virtues then morality becomes an esoteric and tribal phenomenon. Virtue is gained not through personal effort or discovery, but through conformity and secrecy. This is simply not a paradigm I am willing to entertain. If this is in fact the true form of religion then I reject it outright. However, many apologists and defenders of religious practice admit that religion is not necessary for moral virtue, and so the secularist and the devotee stand on an equal playing ground when it comes to moral virtue, which would mean that neither's agency is effected from the practice or abstinence or religious devotion.
Premise 2: Is Religious Devotion that Diminishes Agency Significant?
The logic for ascribing significance to the forms of devotion that diminish human agency comes from attributing irrelevancy to forms of religion that do not diminish human agency, and in recognizing that some people are devoted to a religion because of a significant reason. If there is no difference in religious devotion from secular moralism then why be religious?
Now one can escape the logic of this premise by simply admitting that there is not a significant reason to be religious, and religion can be seen as an irrelevant practice. But one cannot hold to the belief that religion is significant and that God is the standard of moral values at the same time in a coherent fashion, and that is because the significance of religion necessitates the diminishing of human agency, and the reason for this is presented to us in many ways.
First, one must consider the nature of monotheistic religious practice. God's will always trumps human will. If God wants your son to be sacrificed then there is no moral wrong in Him asking Abraham to do it. If God wants Christians to discriminate against homosexuals then there is no moral wrong-doing in the adherence to God's will. If God wants infidels to be punished in jihad then no there can be no moral stain created for such a act. Because human will is believed to be eliminated in the service to religious commandments. One is not acting of their own volition, they are acting in the name of their God, and God is higher than human limitations. When a man acts in another man's name he is still responsible, because service to a human institution is still flawed by human understanding, but God is all-powerful and all-knowing. If God wants us to do something then that will is absolute, which is why most religious practitioners believe that once you start your religious devotion that you can no longer do what you want with your life.
Second, the whole point of a monotheistic religion is to put humanity in relationship with God in some way. Christianity does it through salvation through Jesus Christ. Judaism, through the Torah, and Islam through Muhammad. This relational component to religion must mean that at some point either in the past and in some way in the present, God's will must be present in human affairs. God intervenes in human life. Given the first observation of religion this next one requires that human agency be diminished, as John the Baptist confessed, "I must become less so He can become greater."
Third, we see this dynamic played out in common religious practice. Devotees are admonished to "fear God", and to submit their will to Him on a regular basis. Natural curiosity and intellectual skepticism are often chastised as rebellious, and those who end up lacking authentic beliefs are typically threatened with some kind of supernatural disaster.
So there seems to be a number of good reasons to think that significant religious devotion requires the diminishing of human agency, which makes the second premise a good premise, and if it is a good premise then 2a is also a good premise.
Conclusion: Is There a Possibility For a Significant Religion that Does Not Diminish Human Agency?
Yes. One might be wondering if the argument I have presented is unfairly biased against religion. But the unfortunately this is not the case, because the reality is that religion need not be diminishing toward human agency in order for it to be significant. There is no need to blindly follow God's will through religious devotion when God could easily share his will in a clear and direct sense. The basic reason why religious devotion diminishes human agency in the here and now is because believers have to follow these orders from on high in faith, and not in a normal conventional sense where one person can discuss and understand something in his own way.
Consider a child who has to complete a complicated task given to her by her parent. This child can question their mother in person, ask for reasons why this task was given to them, question the underlying logic of why this task must be preformed, and even challenge other methods that might produce better outcomes. This process is the normal activity for human interaction when it comes to following each others direction. We engage with each other.
But faith hides all this activity under a cloak of darkness. God could easily appear before us as Jesus sit with us, and have some coffee explaining to us why things like tithing and abstaining from premarital sex is important to Him, but he does not. Because it is expected of us to obey without reservation, if this was not ever the expectation then why would God not eliminate this possibility by simply making religion easier to follow through direct contact with humans who serve Him?