Do we need religion-sanctioned morality?

Hurmat Ali Shah explores the relevance of morality imposed upon people by the presence of religion, in modern times.

Staring at the immensity of the cosmos and the insignificance of the human in its contrast, caused a sense of helplessness in the human creed. The cave life and the early rudiments of community living, could be molded by human instincts. As the community grew and later shaped into an early form of civilization, mere instincts were not sufficient for the smooth functioning of life and the society, anymore.

Gazing at the disorderly universe and the unpredictability of nature’s forces, and noting that only humans are sentient of making sense of what is happening to them, nothing else but a superhuman force which was able to wreak havoc was the answer that the uninitiated instrument of human reason could conjure. This force was blessed with the powers that the human fascination could attribute to the causes of natural disasters, or to the disorder of the world as they saw it. Tributes and rituals which humans believed could tame those forces, were offered. This is how the concept of gods was born.

 What’s noteworthy here is that it was the fear and the lack of understanding that gave birth to the notion of gods rather than the need for seeking what was good. Goodness was required for the survival of the group, and behavior that improved the welfare of the group was discernable and negotiable given the limited size of the group and the community of groups.

With the expansion of the human community and the birth of civilization, the question of what constituted goodness and the constituents of righteousness grew more complex and the crude instincts that were a result of dwelling in pre-civilization were not competent enough to answer these questions. A code of behavior that was binding on all the people belonging to the same civilization was developed that furthered the group’s solidarity and common welfare. The forces of nature could still not be deciphered, and were still attributed to the capriciousness and whims of various gods.

Pre-Socrates Greek philosophers, in their quest for finding the reasons for the universe’s existence, opened the floodgates of human reason. If the universe is the result of the combination of immaterial forces and if human existence is a result of such a combination, then why can goodness and righteousness not be discerned without recourse to the whims and caprices of gods?

With increasing understanding of the universe and the maturity of the instrument of reason and thinking, the concept of gods also evolved. The capricious and whimsical gods metamorphosed into a reasonable and unified deity. When humans understood themselves as whimsical creatures, they extended these characteristics to the super-human forces; the ethics that were a result of these deities’ sanctions were also whimsical and emotional. With humans understanding nature and their own selves through reason, the superhuman forces also started to command in a language that was more accessible to reason. This ethics sanctioned by the deity were always a reflection of human beings’ understanding of themselves and thus codified behavior accordingly, which extended the well-being of the society or, perhaps more accurately, that of the ruling class.

The ethical code of each era represents the social and moral characteristics of the people of that era. When human knowledge was limited to understanding scriptures and the concepts of freedom and equality were alien, morality then was also devoid of such concepts. It was not the other way around that freedom and equality was always codified but not acted upon. When humanity understood and thrived for such concepts, ultimately these concepts were codified into morality.

Moral relativism is an unfathomable concept today. Absolving people of centuries old moral standards and still revering them is contradictory in itself. People at that time did what was right but not everything. Moral progress is a continuous line, in which every point represents an improvement from the point preceding it. We should not judge people of centuries before by moral standards of today, and imposing their moral standards on today’s humanity is retrogressive. Morality of that time was necessary or required to ensure social cohesion and political stability, but most of that code violates the concepts of freedom, equality, compassion, empathy, fairness, righteousness and progress of today’s humanity.

Religion and morality sanctioned by religion are a part of humanity’s culture and are humanity’s answers to understanding nature and maintaining a social order. They are a part of human creation. Despising them is despising human creativity or human logic, but they should be kept at the place where they belong, to literature and to history.

Human kind of today has progressed and their reason and rationality has matured to answer all questions of human existence: humanity’s place in the cosmos, humanity’s welfare, and the definitions of right and wrong. These are good enough to steer out humanity of all moral dilemmas. Ethics based on compassion, empathy, mutual understanding, appreciating diversity, tolerance, mutual cooperation, freedom, equality and fraternity can be and is formed totally on the sanction of reason. Religious freedom is of course a fundamental right of all human beings and this right should be enshrined in any moral code – but a code sanctioned by religion is neither progressive nor required.

Hurmat Ali Shah is a freelance writer interested in intersection of culture, politics and society. He can be reached at Follow him on Facebook