The Ethics of Religion

The Sower by Van Gogh

Religion is an experiment performed on human subjects. The Belmont Report set ethical standards for conducting experiments on human subjects in response to some dreadful and possibly harmful studies (see this informative summary from SciShow). The report proposed three fundamental ethical principles to guide such research (taken from

  1. Respect for persons: protecting the autonomy of all people and treating them with courtesy and respect and allowing for informed consent. Researchers must be truthful and conduct no deception;
  2. Beneficence: The philosophy of “Do no harm” while maximizing benefits for the research project and minimizing risks to the research subjects; and
  3. Justice: ensuring reasonable, non-exploitative, and well-considered procedures are administered fairly — the fair distribution of costs and benefits to potential research participants — and equally.

While many religious adherents experience salutary effects, there are also many who have suffered trauma, sometimes lasting for decades after abandoning their religious faith. In order to protect its adherents, religion should adopt the above ethical standards and build on a foundation consistent with the values and practices of the creator.

To various degrees and in several ways, religion violates the above ethical standards. For example, millions of people have been killed in the name of religion. One reddit user estimated the death toll at 195 million. I consider that number grossly underestimated, but I don’t want to refute or defend the number itself; my point is that it’s significant enough to be a horror and a disgrace. In addition to the death toll, many others have been injured, enslaved, or oppressed for religious reasons, all to defend beliefs which differ from those of another sect or religion. Faith is not violence!

Monotheism is a defining feature of the three major Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They recognize a single, living god who holds power over his creation: the heavens, the earth, and all living things. Since God supposedly stands at the head of these religions, let us make some fundamental observations regarding his government:

  1. Great Capacity: Despite our many scientific advancements, we are woefully short of understanding the mysteries of the universe or of describing its marvelous beauty. Its magnitude is staggering and it all belongs to the heavenly sovereign.
  2. Unconditional Blessing: God gives freely of his abundance. For instance, the sun dawns on every person, every morning, regardless of status or conduct. There is no lease on the air we breathe. The rain falls and the earth produces sufficient to feed every nation.
  3. Non-Interference: God does not meddle; he does not obstruct nor does he promote. He does not even reveal his own existence. He leaves us entirely to do as we wish without so much as a frown or a nod.

These fundamental observations are apparent to all who honestly consider them. They are consistent with the facts and with our experiences. They do not rely on scripture, dogma, or special revelation. Furthermore, they are harmonious with the ethical standards of the Belmont Report. Unfortunately, religion contradicts these observations pervasively. No religion should controvert God, but there’s this nasty little notion which seems to be prevalent among religious practitioners, namely that, “We are God’s emissaries so we can violate his principles.” That’s not how any thriving organization is operated. For example, business leaders seek to hire people who bring their unique gifts and talents to the task of implementing the vision, mission, and values of the company, not of undermining them.

Science and technology are making it harder to teach hatred and impose oppression. For any religion to be relevant in modern times, it must perform a massive overhaul of its doctrines, tenets, and creeds to be more aligned with these ethical standards and fundamental observations. Jesus commenced a major overhaul in his day. He quickly discarded venerated doctrines which violated God’s principles. Unfortunately, he was crucified for his beliefs and his followers rapidly fell back into their old ways. For example, Jesus taught inclusion, but the primitive church quickly adopted an exclusionary policy. A doctrine that leads to poverty violates the first observation; let it go. Cronyism and selfishness violate the second. Coercion and intimidation violate the third. God is actually pretty cool. Consider the sun. He sends a daily revelation to the entire world greater than the words of any prophet. Take notice; it inspires us to emulate every good thing and abandon all evil. Religion should be more like the sun.

Image: The Sower by Van Gogh (here)

3 thoughts on “The Ethics of Religion

  1. The Belmont protocol reminds me of the Wiccan Rede (yes the scary Witch religion). The Wiccan Rede /ˈriːd/ is a statement that provides the key moral system in the Neopagan religion of Wicca and certain other related Witchcraft-based faiths. A common form of the Rede is An it harm none, do what ye will. (Wiki).

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