We hear a lot in the media about the decline of religion and the rise of the “nones”—people who check the box next to “none” under “religion” in census forms. Despite this trend, a professor of religion recently made the argument at a Binghamton University lecture that science cannot replace religion, because religion provides humans with a moral framework which science cannot. We should consider if we need religion to be good people, or can we be good without it?
John Teehan, an associate professor of religion at Hofstra University, challenged the assumption that people can form close-knit communities founded on common principles without using religion as a moral anchor. “Religion can be a valuable social resource, as it gets harder to keep track of who you can trust,” he explained, saying that there is a correlation between those of the same religious group and those deemed trustworthy. He also cited a study which suggests people feel less empathy and show higher levels of pleasure in the brain if a person in pain is perceived as a cheater, or a non-trustworthy person outside one’s religious group. In effect, the implication is that religion creates a sort of moral filter guarding against the immoral and untrustworthy. Teehan plans to conduct further research to determine exactly what moral functions religion serves, and how its usefulness changes over time.
But is it really true that science, and perhaps reason, fail to provide a moral compass for human beings to live by? Popular “neo-atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens have argued that ethical reasoning is sufficient to give humans a moral purpose in life. Greg Epstein made precisely this argument in his book Good without God. Moreover, many arguments have been made accusing religion of great evil. It was an ecclesiastical court—the Spanish Inquisition—which for centuries sanctioned the torture of perceived heretics and non-believers, and the heretic stake-burnings of the sixteenth century were motivated largely by the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. More recently, the late Mother Theresa has come under scrutiny for neglecting the suffering of the poor and treating it as a form of redemption. As Universal Life Church ministers, can we really condone these types of behavior as morally sound?
Teehan’s implication that religion functions as a moral framework also called into question the role that spirituality plays, if any. One student said, “[w]e got to see how religion could be a set of values from a society that just needed rules for morality,” she said, suggesting that “[p]eople made it up because we needed it, not for spirituality.” In other words, humans invented religion to ensure moral conformity, not out of a fundamental spiritual yearning. What, then, do we make of the blossoming corpus of scientific research into spiritual phenomena such as near-death experiences? While religion is not the same thing as spirituality, for many ULC pastors religion points to a spiritual need, and not just a societal one.
Teehan’s hypothesis that religion serves the purpose of unifying people under a common moral
code begs the question, what is considered moral? Given that there exist non-religious people who are considered to have morals, it would seem Teehan is simply admitting that he personally cannot figure out how to act morally without religion. The Universal Life Church Monastery teaches that we are all children of the same universe, and this means showing empathy for every person, whether or not they subscribe to your same belief system.
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