Morality, Ethics and Religion

The link between faith and ethics or morals – I don't make a distinction between these words because it's complicated, including questions like whether religion is essential to or appropriate for ethics, and whether ethics is one of the necessary features or requirements for defining a group of activities as "religion." Regarding the first instance, in certain parts of the world, being outside the majority faith or outside the Abrahamic, “God-fearing” sects altogether can easily be considered hypocritical or ethically suspect; declaring yourself an atheist or a practitioner of animism, for example, can easily lead to skepticism.

The mission of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment intelligentsia in Europe has been to build and legitimize ethics on nontheological grounds; this is unquestionably one of Kant's accomplishments and a continuing project in ethics in the analytic tradition. Concerning the second issue, late-nineteenth-century evolutionists used ethics as a standard to differentiate between so-called "magic" and "religion," and it was one of the accomplishments of later twentieth-century anthropology, through the study of people like Mary Douglas, to explain the ethical in such unusual positions as food taboos and hygienic procedures. One of the most important aspects of this research is that ethics may be implied, as well as overt, in ways of practice.

The entire debate is framed by two major historical cycles. The first is the curtailment or retrenchment of faith in Europe, especially Christianity and Judaism, by movements or innovations that may be categorized as "secularist," particularly in law, research, and philosophy. Attempts to undermine or abolish faith within communist regimes may be added to this general image. The second historical phase tends to be a worldwide effort to defeat animism or polytheism, especially by the two major rival monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, which are thereby put in more conflict with one another and claim their respective roles in part on moral grounds.

This is a kind of moral rationalization, but it's not the same as Weber's disenchantment. Many of these past processes include "counter-reformations," through which purificatory "fundamentalism," in answer to the first, but also animism, if not polytheism, and theological pluralism, in response to both, return, resurge, or merely perdure. While the former response is sometimes identified with an ethos, if not a politics, of social change that begins with the home, the latter is often associated with an ethics of personal self-fashioning. Scholars in religion and ethics, like anthropologists, are not necessarily impartial participants of all of these vast historical systems, which are partially constituted by argument. They are authors, whose use of terms and perspective has consequences. We engage in these systems either explicitly or indirectly. The analytic ground is complicated, as these remarks indicate, by the lack of consensus about what constitutes either "religion" or "ethics," and by the fact that the different meanings proposed for one sometimes have clear consequences for discerning or describing the other, leading to circular debates regarding their "relationship."

Furthermore, it is far from obvious that essentially secular and analytical modes of thought such as philosophy or anthropology will avoid their philosophical heritage from particular religious practices and instead function indirectly within their parameters. In what follows, I would not pretend to have the authority to decide which meanings are valid in any objectivist context, assuming that some are correct. I'll try to mix a realistic account built on an anthropological tradition of abstraction, analogy, and deduction with a practical, inductive, geographical, and ethnographic understanding of how things turn out in real life, in human history, and over time. This necessitates approaching cultural difference with rigor and generosity, as well as coming to terms with the fundamental conflict between relativism and universalism. Finally, this article will only examine some of the claims that arise from reasoning about the relationship between religion and ethics.


One issue with the answer to Frazer that ethics can be found in the most surprising ways is that it may leave the relationship between ethics and faith unquestioned, simply extending the scope of both. However, faith – in the form of the ideas and, most importantly, the practices that go by the word – has little more claim of being ethical than all other human endeavors. Indeed, ethics, defined as the repeated establishment of standards for assessing practice as good, just, right, etc., as well as subsequent behavior adopted in light of such criteria, may be argued to be intrinsic to all human behavior. Even when ethics is clearly described as good conduct or the profession, explanation, advocacy, or cultivation of such behavior, or the knowledge of its limits, it is debatable whether it is more widespread in religion than elsewhere, considering assertions to the contrary by certain religious authority. Robert Orsi, for example, shows the cruelty as well as the benefit that faith can incite in his admirable and brave account of mid-twentieth-century North American Roman Catholicism. Although faith is often thought to include ethical certainty and self-formation, Orsi's is only one of the academic accounts that demonstrate how a religious practice can be riven with internal ethical debate and unequal implications.

Thus, the Muslim piety movement, for example, will be unable to substantiate the arguments that its followers are inherently superior to other Muslims or that they often behave ethically. Furthermore, being ethical or behaving ethically, as well as the related rewards and punishments, as well as the risks and delusions, are not to be equated with acting ethically. Ethics must inevitably involve self-questioning, not only about one's own arguments or actions, but also about the boundaries of what is possible in areas like human well-being, understanding pain, and delivering justice. Indeed, a central argument in Geertz's popular essay on faith is that it does not only have a theodicy, but also take responsibility for recognizing its limitations. To this, one might add the conflict that exists in all religious hierarchies between ethical people, practice, or insight and the authority or influence to render or enact ethical judgments or lay claim to the ethical high ground. This isn't to say that religion doesn't provoke or motivate people to do good things at times, and often religious leaders, such as "saints," can be used as ethical role models, as can everyday people who use "religious" tools to expand their ethical scope.

Religion, on the other hand, will seek and execute demons, heretics, and immodest people in ways that outsiders might find hypocritical, and it often honors ethically ambiguous characters such as roaming ascetics, holy fools, trickster figures, and the like. Indeed, myth has been criticized for its ethical complexity, and this ambiguity can be seen in different aspects of mythopraxis, particularly in the variety of traditions and figures synonymous with "liminality," carnival, and other similar events. Finally, common people's ethical actions and insights may be "religiously" told while remaining beyond and sometimes contradicting the precepts of "official" faith, as in popular attempts in Vietnam to satisfy and liberate the dead's ghosts. Anthropological definitions of “religion” have shifted over time, from relatively narrow objectivist accounts in which belief in God or other “supernatural” beings was simply asserted as a definition, to broader accounts characteristic of symbolic and structural anthropology, and more recently, to narrower genealogical and skeptical ones based on the emergence into public discourse of the word “religion.”

One of the reasons why some anthropologists painted the field so widely was to demonstrate that rituals outside of Abrahamic beliefs or "axial sects" were not outside the ethical pale, and thus deserved the same academic and functional respect as those within them. Such rituals may be interpreted as substantive and ethically aware as those within Abrahamic traditions thanks to the structural–symbolic convergence of the s and s. Indeed, the popularity of this work provided anthropologists with the resources and confidence to take on the Abrahamic rituals themselves, which had previously been left to scholars beyond those traditions.

Not just that, but the Abrahamic sects were distinguished by systems, relationships, and stereotypes that could be seen in popular culture as well as within their respective gatekeepers' established boundaries. “Sacrifice” in all of its forms, from headhunting to Hindu temple offerings, rules for butchering and consuming animals, alms and charity, or Faustian bargains made with innocent victims, is a prime example of an analytical, not “natural” category that allows for fruitful comparison across cultural, religious, and institutional lines and encourages anthropological work within the Old Testament. Sacrifice connects to the philosophical side of the gift literature, raising and debating different concerns regarding the relative and absolute principles and virtues of sharing and receiving, reciprocity, and altruism. The notion of "grace" can underpin claims concerning the "pure blessing" in philosophical responses to Mauss, which are often marked by a Christian bias. In the work and lives of missionaries and religious martyrs, as well as activists in philanthropy, international development, and humanitarian aid, similar ideals of ostensibly selfless giving recur, repeating Weber's formulation of the calling.

However, we know that one-sided ethical formulations of pure donation or entirely disinterested actions can be viewed with caution, at the very least tempered by Mauss' sense of balance, which he derived from both Aristotle on virtuous conduct and Kant and Durkheim on duty. The combination of desire and disinterest, independence and duty in the gift has been well explained by Parry, who draws the appeal of the pure gift from a kind of idealized dialectical contrast to the notion of the capitalist pure product, rather than from the Christian idea of grace. Furthermore, according to Mauss and Lévi-Strauss, circulation, like reciprocity, is generally regarded as a social good in and of itself; moreover, these are known as the forms in which precapitalist communities "naturally" operate, rather than as heroic actions or explicit religious values difficult to attain in this universe by ordinary mortals. Finally, Mauss regarded acts of generosity and sacrifice as "absolute social facts," rather than abstracting them as "religion" or "ethics," far less addressing them in terms of the "relationship" between those reified abstractions. This implies, in fact, that the topic of this essay is historically specific, only possible to formulate and discuss in this way in a secular modern epoch. Human sacrifice has provided a major theological source for ethical contemplation in a particular kind of abstraction. For centuries of scholars, the Akedah, the account of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, has done so, not just for religious believers but also for historians and anthropologists interested sacrifice. The interpretation of this religious occurrence or story can ultimately lead to a distinction between religious and ethical considerations.

The Akedah reveals for Kierkegaard that religion is a teleological suspension of the ethical. Having divine beliefs and demonstrating it goes far above the ethical – a father willing to sacrifice his son – or, at the very least, beyond ordinary ethics. This desire to destroy his children, to make a human sacrifice, is not selfish or ethically utilitarian, as the Greek sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father, Agamemnon, as portrayed by Euripides, may be, but it is supra-ethical; it serves no calculable ends. And it's true that much of what falls under the banner of religion pushes people to violent extremes that aren't ethical in the ordinary sense: headhunting in Southeast Asia, slicing off the foreskins of Muslim and Jewish babies or children, penitential flagellation in Roman Catholicism and Shi'ism, the Hindu widow who jumps onto the funeral pyre, the Buddhist protester who throws herself on the ground.

Religion, in the very least, provides an idea of a hero or martyr who sacrifices the mundane for something greater or above. Victor Turner argued, more generally and less dramatically, that the liminal period of ritual is a moment where social norms and distinctions are dismantled, making everything and anything possible, and thereby beyond ethics in any respects but the existential one of pure liberation. To summarize, religion may also contextualize or circumscribe ethics, but religion may often be contextualized or circumscribed by ethical considerations, whether by a silent "descent into the usual" Das or a drastic overturning. To summarize, religion and ethics are not completely isomorphic and cannot be fully associated with one another from an anthropological standpoint. Yet, to ostensibly liberate the spiritual from the supernatural, an account of faith and ethics must consider the historical repercussions of abstracting them from the rest of social and cultural life as distinct contemporary regimes.

And of the most intriguing steps here will undoubtedly be to replace a plain binary pair with the triangulation that is common in today's culture of faith, ethics, and law. For example, the statute should be formulated as legal as it comes to delivering justice; but what happens when it is seen as breaching fundamental ethical values from a moral standpoint, such as admitting or banning capital punishment, abortion, blood transfusion, or same-sex marriage? What does it mean to transform a secular legal language of freedom into a religious language of duty, loyalty, respect, obedience, and so on, and vice versa? Where does “ethics” fit into this discussion, and how does or does it help to mediate or intensify conflict? An ethnocentric account of ostensibly dis-embedded institutions, on the other hand, must be wary of the ethnocentric assumption that our context, whether we call it “modernity” or “postmodernity” or the neoliberal state, is a special case, unique in its radical difference from all the other cultural and historical differences that preceded it and that continue to be found more or less hidden alongside it or that the neoliberal state is a special case, unique in

Aren't there conflicts between faith, ethics, and the law all over the place? Isn't it true that Igbo mothers of polluting twins who were doomed for imminent death were among the first to convert to Christianity because of ethical concerns in the face of divine injunction? Tensions between Rujia Confucian ethical ritualism and Legalism have existed in China since ancient times. Finally, rather than take the institutionalization of faith and ethics in a historical sense literally in a way that assumes their mutual incommensurability, it would be more interesting to think of "religion" and "ethics" as separate, incommensurable approaches to analyze the social whole or the human experience. In anthropological accounts of the relationship between faith and ethics, there are roughly two main streams or themes that can bypass any of the aporias I've mentioned. I refer to these streams as Durkheimian and Weberian, after their respective metaphysical forefathers Kant and Aristotle, while noting that there is a lot of overlap and diversity between them in practice. The Durkheimian stream stresses submission to a particular social or liturgical order, while the Weberian stream is concerned with the realistic juxtaposition of alternate living styles.