Can Science Provide a Wholly Naturalistic Explanation for Moral and Religious Beliefs?
(how does morality relate to religion?)
Religion and Morality in the Semitic Traditions
The moral dimension, both individual and social, is so important to religion that some scholars see religions primarily as ways of life rather than sets of doctrines or vehicles for certain sorts of experiences. Most religions contain all these elements—morality, doctrine, and experience—but they are weighted differently. The oldest Semitic faith, the Hebraic precursor of rabbinic Judaism, is often seen as primarily a religion of Torah. This can be translated as "law," but, in English, that word may convey a misleading impression of just a set of rules to be evaded wherever possible. For a Jew, the written Torah is the whole biblical narrative from Genesis to Deuteronomy, and the oral Torah is found in the Babylonian Talmud, the main object of study for Jewish religious scholars.
The biblical narrative is an account of history, especially that of the children of Abraham who are believed to be inheritors of a covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It recounts that people were taken into slavery in Egypt, escaped by the help of God, and wandered forty years in the wilderness until they came to the borders of the promised land. The narrative defines the self-understanding of Jews as bound in a unique relationship to God, as saved from oppression by mighty acts of God, as wandering in the wilderness of the world, in a state of halfrebellion and half-obedience to God, and as heirs of a promise of justice and peace that seems to be indefinitely deferred.
The statutes and ordinances given to Moses by God—traditionally, but rather arbitrarily, numbered at 613—belong to this historical narrative. They define a way of life in relation to God, a way to true human fulfillment, in a society of justice, mercy, happiness, and well-being (shalom) in the worship and love of God, who is supreme goodness.
Torah is not a universal morality for the whole world. It sets Jews apart as a covenant people, and its ritual and food laws are quite distinctive. Even what may seem to be purely moral rules are seen as imitations of divine goodness or as recollections of a history of slavery, liberation, and hope. "Remember that you were slaves in Egypt" becomes a motivation for treating others with compassion, in recognition that God wills liberation for all creatures.
Because the rules belong to a historical narrative and define a way of relationship to God who wills human fulfillment, they cannot be lifted out of context and applied in a literalistic way, with no thought of the consequences of such application in very different circumstances. They need to be interpreted and applied by a judicial and scholarly process. This is living law, and its underlying principles must be sought and applied in historically appropriate ways.
There will always be a tension between conservative attitudes, which regard the preservation of a distinctive culture as important, and liberal attitudes, which are more inclined to revise ancient rules in the light of new scientific or moral insights. But for neither view is Torah just a set of unchangeable commands issued by an omnipotent tyrant who will ruthlessly punish all who disobey.
The law was given by God to a particular group of displaced and nomadic people in what we now call the late Bronze Age. The conditions of Jewish life have changed radically since then. With the destruction of the second Temple in 135 ce, all the sacrificial and ritual laws were rendered obsolete. Joshua ben Hananiah, around 100 ce, formally declared that the "seven nations" of Canaan are no longer identifiable, thus rendering all laws concerning the conquest of Canaan obsolete. Most of the punitive laws and some of the marital laws (concerning levirate marriage or the possession of concubines, for example) are also regarded as obsolete.
One reason for this is the eighth- to sixth-century bce teaching of the major prophets, who insisted that justice, mercy, and loving-kindness are the heart of the law. Jesus was stating widespread rabbinic opinion when he said that the two most important commands of the law were to love God (absolute beauty and goodness) and to love one's neighbor as oneself. Rabbis must seek to interpret the law in the light of these commands and after thinking out their implications.
This revision does not reduce the ancient laws to irrelevance, but it calls for discernment of underlying principles and for new ways of applying those principles in contemporary situations. The law exists as a way of binding a particular people to God in a deeply personal relationship and as a way to human fulfillment in relation to God. The specific biblical rules are like normative precedents that must be creatively interpreted in many situations by judicial and scholarly argument and discussion.
People sometimes miss the important role of argument and judicial disagreement in Judaism, though it is quite clear in the Talmud. The point about this being the law of God is not that its specific rules are unchangeable but that its principles preserve ways of life that encourage reverence and love for Supreme Objective Goodness (for God), an attitude of respect and care for all God has made, and a faith and hope that God's purpose for the flourishing of goodness on the earth will be realized.
Jewish religion gives morality a transcendent dimension, rooting it in love of a Supreme Objective Good and in a desire to make goodness known and effective in history. Like all human societies, Jewish society is in practice an ambiguous mixture of success and failure in this task and of insight and obtuseness about exactly what Supreme Goodness requires. But, in the Jewish prophetic tradition, religion is raised from being a commerce with spirits aimed at achieving greater personal success to being a submission of the heart to one supreme living and active moral Ideal.
Islam also sees God as setting out, through the Prophet, a way of justice and peace that will relate all human life to Supreme Goodness. It universalizes the idea of law (Shari'a), but bequeathes to its followers the same problems of interpretation and authority that make Judaism in practice a diverse set of communities united by the central thought of self-abandonment to God.
Christianity abandons the idea of a revealed written law, replacing it with the personal life of Jesus as the revelation of Divine Goodness—a revelation of the supremacy of suffering, selflessness, healing, and reconciling love. In all the Semitic traditions, then, morality is central to religious belief and entails respect and compassion for all personal life. But what gives morality its driving force is a vision of a God of supreme Goodness, whose nature is meant to be reflected in human society and whose final goal is the transfiguration of the cosmos by a fully realized personal unity with God.