Morality and religion – what is the relation between these two notions? Are they interconnected or mutually exclusive? Can religion exist without morality and, vice versa, can morality exist without religion? These are difficult questions to answer but we are going to make an attempt to do it in this essay.
The issue of the co-existence of morality and religion has always troubled mankind. Prominent scientists, theologians, and philosophers tried to resolve the problem of how to keep to religious principles and not to violate moral ones and how to be a morally adequate person without conflicts with religion. There were a great many opinions about the problem in the history of human thought, sometimes they coincided with each other, sometimes – contradicted strongly in the most serious points. Morality and religion were thought to be an integral part of a single whole called human life by some philosophers, and at the same time, other thinkers considered them to be mutually exclusive notions that can not exist together and will not let a person who tries to combine them live peacefully.
Iris Murdoch, the famous Irish writer, and philosopher of the 20th century can be referred to as the first group as her views reflect the position that morality and religion are equally important for a person, and life without one of these components can not be called right. The opinions of the second group can be perfectly illustrated by the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche, a worldwide famous German philosopher known for his radical views and ideas about the most important problems of mankind. In this essay we will resort to the help of these prominent authors in order to answer the following question – can morality be reached without religion, or are they so intertwined that they must co-exist with one another? And firstly, let us examine the views of the above-mentioned philosophers concerning the problem of morality and religion.
Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous German philosopher of the 19th century, was widely known for his anti-religious publications, criticism of contemporary culture and morality. His works are so controversial that they resulted in plenty of critiques and researches dedicated to the work of this German author. One of the works by Nietzsche concerned with the problem of religion and morality and their influence upon human nature is called “Morality as Anti-Nature”. In this piece of writing, Nietzsche explains his point of view in regard to religion and states that religion and “the practice of the church is hostile to life…” (Nietzsche, 1990). The German author says that the Christian religion is anti-human and anti-natural because it fights the simple instincts and passions of a human being.
Nietzsche points out that the Christian God who, as priests claim, says no when the question touches the matter of human nature thus restraining a person’s feelings and needs, is evil and has nothing to do with morality. And if this is morality that Christian priests teach then morality is anti-natural (Jacobus, 2005). Friedrich Nietzsche speculates also on the point of hostility in the human life which is natural but contradicts the moral basis of social life and Christian morality: “Another triumph is our spiritualization of hostility. It consists in a profound appreciation of the value of having enemies: in short, it means acting and thinking in the opposite way from that which has been the rule.” (Nietzsche, 1990). Nietzsche demonstrates the complete absurdity and naivety of attempts of the Christian church to tell a human being what he or she shall be or shall not, he operates with t5he opinion that a life instinct is what dominates all thoughts and actions of a creature, so no moral and any other rules will change the nature of a human. If they do try to do it, they try to break the personality which can not be called a humane approach to the people, and allows the author to call the religion on the whole, and Christianity in particular, the anti-human and anti-natural phenomenon (Jacobus, 2005).
The views of Iris Murdoch about this problem have some common points with Nietzsche’s position but the plot of this theory is the opposite. The Irish writer and famous philosopher was known as a person with controversial biography and views of the same kind, connects morality and religion in a single whole, and makes each other cause and reason (Jacobus, 2005). Murdoch says in her work called “Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals” that morality is part of religion but one can not subordinate one to the other. She states that morality can not exist without evil in the world because it is morality and its principles define good and evil (Murdoch, 1994).
Iris Murdoch acknowledges that it is impossible to win the evil altogether like it is impossible to eliminate terrorism with no consequences, but people must do their best in order to reduce evil as much as possible (Jacobus, 2005). The author of this work is sure of the necessity of the existence of morality together with religion as these two phenomena support a person in difficult situations in life and help to make the right choice between good and evil. But here Iris Murdoch means not the church but the religion itself meaning that some priests of Christian or any other church can distort what is accepted as morality and in this case, people do not need the religion to live morally correct. Morality is closely intertwined with the true religion, i. e. with the beliefs of a person, with what helps a human being to survive when nothing else helps (Murdoch, 1994).
Both points of view have reasonable facts and arguments in them so they both can be considered correct and reliable depending o9nly on the personal preferences of this or that human being. Nietzsche’s position seems rather reasonable if we look at it through the prism of the natural development of mankind. A human is only one of the species of animals that live on Earth and all instincts and passions are typical of this species the same as all others. The absurdity of what every religion tries to do with people seems evident to the author and he does not acknowledge the connection or any relation of religion and morality towards the nature of human beings.
Iris Murdoch’s point of view is not so radical, she does not deny the mutual dependence and connection between religion and morality. Murdoch shows that the morality of a human society is the reason why evil appears and says that “If there is to be morality, there cannot altogether be an end to evil” (Murdoch, 725).
My personal point of view as to the positions of the two world-famous philosophers is rather dual but I prefer the point of view expressed by Iris Murdoch. In Nietzsche’s theory, there are, of course, reasonable points, for example, his criticism of the church as an institution, his appeal to the natural factors of human behavior, but this approach, on the whole, is too radical. Iris Murdoch expresses somewhat more flexible views as she does not neglect the role of religion, meaning the religion itself but not the opinions of certain priests, and sees a close connection between morality and religion in the lives of people. From my personal experience, I can conclude that morality does not really depend on the stable Christian church traditions and customs which often contradict the principles of human morality. Among atheists, people who do not believe in God, there are lots of people whose lives can be estimated highly from the point of view of morality. Religious people also do not base their actions on the church dogmas, they prefer to harmonize their deeds with what they personally believe in and this is, to my mind, the highest level of moral development of a personality.
Jacobus, Lee. A World of Ideas. Seventh Edition edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005, p. 697.
Jacobus, Lee. A World of Ideas. Seventh Edition edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005, p. 713.
Murdoch, Iris. Metaphysics as Guide to Morals.USA: Penguin Group, 1994.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols,Or How One Philosophizes With a Hammer. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.