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Ethics and Religion

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2024

Santiago Sia*
Milltown Institute, Dublin 6, Ireland


Recent debate on the relationship between morality and religious belief has tended to cast the role of religion in a negative light. While there are certain facts that may support this view, a philosophical investigation of the link between ethics and religion can contribute to the debate by focusing on certain fundamental issues. Noting the importance of the debate and showing the implications of whichever side one takes, this article argues that the claims for a purely humanistic ethics can be supported by an empirical observation, a philosophical argument and even on theological grounds. At the same time, however, it defends the view that religious belief in a personal God can have a positive contribution to morality by way of vision and motivation.

Original Articles
Copyright © The author 2008. Journal compilation © The Dominican Council/Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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1 This would seem to be the position of Prof Richard Dawkins in his documentary “The Root of All Evil?” aired by Channel 4 (Britain) on January 9 and 16, 2006. He argues that religion is the source of much suffering and evil in the world and that much immorality is being perpetuated by the various religions.

2 These reflections have been prompted and informed by Prof. Dawkins's documentary and by Kai Nielsen's book, Ethics without God. This article is my response to their criticisms of religion in ethics.

3 It had been pointed out to me that a certain understanding of the Koran would not accept this point. I acknowledge this. It seems to me, however, that Asghar Ali Engineer, an Islamic scholar, would actually agree with me. He argues that it is necessary to separate what is divine from what is the opinion of the medieval “ulana”, claiming that even the most eminent Islamic thinker cannot escape various human factors which influence one's understanding of the divine. He makes the distinction between laws and values, asserting that laws are merely temporal expressions of the values in the Qu’ran. Cf. A Modern Approach to Islam, Dharma Endowment Lectures No. 7 (Dharmaram Publications, 2003), 7Google Scholar.

4 I should like to believe that such a vision would contribute positively to the development of what is referred to as “moral sense”.

5 In his Lights of the World: Buddha and Christ, Dharma Endowment Lectures No.2 (Dharmaram Publications, 1997)Google Scholar, Ninian Smart shows how inter-religious dialogue between Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity is not only possible but also can bring about harmony to human civilization while preserving the distinctiveness of the religious traditions.

6 For an illustration of this point in Hinduism, cf. Sivaramkrishna, M., Hindu View of Life: a Contemporary Perspective, Dharma Endowment Lectures, No. 5 (Dharmaram Publications, 2001)Google Scholar

7 This point assumes, of course, the existence of a personal God, an issue which needs addressing in another context. My point here is that one's relationship with a personal God—and I would use the analogy of a loving relationship with someone—has a way of motivating us to act in such a way that it deepens that relationship. It may even lead us to do certain acts which we would not do otherwise.

8 For a development of this point, cf. Sia, Marian F. and Sia, Santiago, From Suffering to God: Exploring our Images of God in the Light of Suffering (Macmillan, 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.