Tuesday, November 24, 2015

What does faith have to do with morality?

“La foi n’a rien à voir avec la morale.”  Faith has nothing to do with morality.

graffiti scrawled on the back of a sign 

We came upon this piece of graffiti three years ago while in Tournon in southern France.  It could have been written yesterday in response to the Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 129 people and wounded scores of others.

When crimes like this one occur, it is tempting to demonize religion and believers. The Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam – come under particular scrutiny. Some argue that the Hebrew Bible, the foundational text of these religions, encourages violence and immoral acts.  They point to passages of scripture that command the stoning of adulteresses or the smiting of one’s enemies to the practice of slavery and to misogyny. 

These passages are clearly problematic from today's moral perspective, and I have no intention of defending them.  It would be dishonest to pretend that over the millennia religion has not played a part in man’s inhumanity to man. However, it is quite a leap to claim that religion has nothing to do with morality. Faith can be a strong influence on morality and can govern behavior, for better or for worse. Terrorist attacks committed in the name of religion illustrate the worst of that behaviour. 

No rational person, especially a deeply religious one, accepts violence as moral. Rational people (and most religious people fall into this category) share a universal understanding of morality. Boiled down to a basic principle, morality might be summed up as “do no harm” to others or yourself.   Violence as an exercise of faith is especially odious since love and compassion are inherent qualities of the world’s great religions.

We do not need to think very hard to find inspiring examples of faith filled moral individuals. Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jean Vanier and Jimmy Carter spring to mind.  I can think of examples from my own small town. Whether they are handing out food at local food banks or spearheading actions to reduce poverty or holding the hands of the dying, religious individuals are positively impacting my community. 

The Judeo-Christian tradition has shaped my understanding of morality as it has shaped that of much of the western world.  Its moral tradition, with which we struggle, precedes and goes beyond the “do no harm” principle.  For the prophets, three things were necessary: to love mercy, to act justly, and to walk humbly with God.  For Jesus of Nazareth, the great commandment was to love your neighbour as yourself. To love, to be merciful, to be concerned about others, to be humble are some of the ways that a person of faith honors the goodness of God and behaves in a moral way.

Islamic terrorists are not the only group of religious people who commit violence. One need only think of the Crusades, the burning of Protestant “heretics’ at the stake, or the bombing of abortion clinics to find other examples of religious zeal gone wrong.  In an unequivocal condemnation of the Paris attacks, Grand Mufti Shawki Allam of Egypt wrote, “We must remember that as recent attacks in many parts of the world indicate, violent extremism knows no particular faith. It is rather a perversion of the human condition, and must be dealt with as such.”

We cannot let this latest attack on humanity warp our collective moral sense and harden our hearts towards others.  Since the Paris attacks, there has been a backlash against Syrian refugees.  When I wrote this, 35,000 Canadians had signed a petition to stop the resettlement of Syrian refugees into Canada.  This is clearly irrational; many of the Syrian refugees are not even Muslim, and the terrorists carried French or Belgium passports. It is also wrong. Fear of those who are different can prevent us from doing the right thing, as much as it can motivate someone (like a terrorist) to do the wrong thing.

No one has a monopoly on morality. A person does not have to be religious to be good. And while one would hope or expect a religious person to be moral, we know this is not always the case.

Faith and morality are like two streams flowing into one river, shaping the river’s ability to sustain or destroy the life along its banks. For better or for worse, religion can shape behavior and influence moral decision-making.

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