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Last Updated: 2011/04/20
Summary of question
What does it mean for ethics to be based upon religion?
question
In your opinion, what does it mean for ethics to be based upon religion? Can you elaborate the beliefs of those who believe in ethics based on religion?
Concise answer

In the discussion regarding the relationship between religion and ethics, there are two general views about the benefits of the morals and ethics.

1.     Ethics is a matter independent of religion and has no connection to it.

2.     Ethics cannot find any reality without linkage to religion, faith and belief in God.

In Western societies, this topic is extensively discussed and history records indicate that it originated due to the changes after the Renaissance.   Before the Renaissance, the religion that was ubiquitous was Christianity and was influential in all the spheres of life including: knowledge, culture, society, ethics and other issues. After the collapse of the church in different areas, the people felt no need for religion and became disinclined to religious tendencies. Instead of inclining towards God, they inclined toward humanism and slowly arrived at the conclusion that it is possible for ethics to be separate from religion. These ideas began to gain momentum and till the last century, ethics were discussed as separate from religion. Opposed to these beliefs, there was a group who emphasized religion as the basis of ethics and believed that ethics cannot find any reality without religion.

The explanation of ethics based on religion requires attention to an important point, which is that in order to have an ethical system, one must have a worldview that says that the perfection of humans is in reaching God and proximity towards Him. Based on this, actions will be morals which assist humans in reaching their goal. After accepting this premise, we must assess whether humans traversing the path of perfection even if it is the beginning of the path, are fully aware of the path and how it is to be travelled?  Can they propose an independent path and a set of morals that reaches this goal without any type of guidance? It is natural that if the goal of humans is to reach God, then their morals should be divine in both principles and particulars and should be derived from sources of revelation and divinely ordained.

However, it is important to note here that morals based on religion does not mean that determining the essential goodness or ugliness of things, or their being moral or anti-moral emanates from divine commandment or forbiddance. It is meant that in recognizing something as being good or bad, there must be a law and it is not possible for the intellect to independently know the state of each and every particular.

Detailed Answer

Ethics is a word common in all languages of the world. But in reality, ethics is one of the most difficult and ambiguous terms to define and scholars and academics vastly differ on this issue. This is due to the fact that every belief about philosophy, religion, and society has its own worldview perspective and accordingly defines ethics and morals. In this article it will be appropriate to explain two perspectives about morals and its sources and the relationship between religion and morals.

1.     Ethics is a matter independent of religion and has no link to religion.

2.     Ethics without a link to religion, faith and belief to God cannot find a reality.

Background of the Issue

The issue of ethics and religion being independent of one another has not been researched to a very large extent. Perhaps the reason for this is the prevalence of religion in an Islamic society so dedicating oneself to this topic of the relationship between religion and ethics and which of the two was the foremost and was not a doubtful issue or even a question.

Contrary to Islamic societies, in Western ones, this is a widely discussed issue and is rooted in historical changes of the Renaissance. Before the Renaissance, the religion that was ubiquitous was Christianity and was influential in all the spheres of life including: knowledge, culture, society, ethics and other issues. After the collapse of the church in different areas, the people felt no need for religion and became disinclined to religious tendencies. Instead of inclining towards God, they inclined toward humanism and slowly arrived at the conclusion that it is possible for religion to be separate from religion. These ideas began to gain momentum and till the last century, ethics were discussed as separate from religion. Opposed to these beliefs, there was a group who emphasized religion as the basis of ethics and believed that ethics cannot find any reality without religion.[1]

Ethics based on religion

The explanation of ethics based on religion requires attention to an important point that the belief in an ethic system is based on the specific worldview that system encompasses. Each and every ideology defines the perfection of humans in its own specific way. Moral acts are those actions which bring humans closer to perfection. According to the worldview of religion, the perfection of humans is in reaching God, so moral acts would be those actions assisting man in arriving at his goal. Based on this, actions will be morals which assist humans in reaching their goal. After accepting this premise, we must assess whether humans traversing the path of perfection even if it is the beginning of the path, are fully aware of the path and how it is to be travelled. How is possible to propose an independent path and a set of morals that reaches this goal without any type of guidance?

It is natural that if the goal of humans is to reach God, then their morals should be divine in both in principles and particulars and should be derived from sources of revelation and divinely ordained.  In this perspective of morals without God and based on humans alone, it is not known whether it will deliver one to God or one’s own desires. So, the claim of the independence of the intellect in the establishment of a true system of ethics, based on the worldview that man’s perfection lies in proximity to God, is not accepted.

However, if one were to believe that perfection has nothing to do with God and His proximity, there will no longer by any need for religion and furthermore many of the precepts of religious morality will lose all meaning.

Therefore, those who claim for ethics independent of God have actually, intentionally or unintentionally, made the material-inclined self and ego has been the source of ethics, and not the transcendent and God-centered self and not the higher intellect; such an intellect is always enhanced by divine revelation and enlightened by it. This is opposed to the intellect which is attracted to material desires and is materialistic which has reached total emptiness in itself and will also end up like this in establishing an ethical system independent of God.

This is the view held by Dostoievski that “If God is not there, then everything is permissible.”[2] This illustrates that humans without a divine being will have no motive for morals. The criterion for ethics in behavior is itself emphasizing the divine being which exists in humans and cannot be achieved without a connection with God.

Therefore, morals based on religion conflicts with the view of human independence in reference to a system of ethics and maintains that ethics without religion is not conceivable and cannot be achieved, both in principles and particulars; it must be derived from divine revelation.

However, it must be noted that what is meant by morals being based on religion isn't that the goodness or badness of a thing, or its morality an immorality, emanates from divine commands and prohibitions. It means that in order to recognize the essential goodness or badness of an action, we have no choice but to refer to revelation. If God says it must be done, that shows that there is a goodness in its essence that has driven God to order us to do it, and if He prohibits it, is shows that the action has something bad in its essence. The intellect cannot process and identify all the particulars, leading to the divine revelation to certify such cases.[3]

Related topics:

Religion and Man, 226 (website: 2128).

Religion and Culture, 250 (website: 1974).

The Role of Religious Sources in Ethics, 562 (website: 615).



[1] Misbah, Muhammad Taqi, Duruse Falsafeye Akhlaq, pg. 195, Ettela’at Publications, Tehran, 1376.

[2] Motahhari, Morteza, Falsafeye Akhlaq, pg. 195, Sadra Publications, Tehran, 1381.

[3] Duruse Falsafeye Akhlaq, pg. 170.

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