An Exposition on James Rachels:
“Does Morality Depend on Religion?”
James Rachels argues that morality and religion are separate entities. He states that “morality is a matter of reason and conscience, not religious faith” and that “right and wrong are not defined in terms of God’s will.”i He uses the Divine Command Theory, the Theory of Natural Law, and the use of religious scripture and tradition to establish how and where the two subjects are separated.
Rachels believes that there is a societal presumption about the connection of morality and religion. He notes that in the US, when it comes to matters that involve moral questions it is members of the clergy that are called in as consultants. According to Rachels, it is the popular belief that morality and religion are inseparable and the members of the clergy have a “special moral insight.” This belief combined with the opinion that “morality can only be understood in the context of religion” is the source for the popular public opinion regarding the interconnectedness of morality and religion.
The Divine Command Theory is used to create the first chink in the armor surrounding the popular opinion regarding the interconnectedness of morality and religion. The Divine Command Theory is described to mean “that ‘morally right’ means ‘commanded by God’ and ‘morally wrong’ means “forbidden by God.’ ” One problem with this view is that it will be rejected by atheists, since they reject the existence of God. The second problem impacts believers as it renders God’s command arbitrary. Rachels uses Exodus 20:16; “God commands us to be truthful,” as evidence towards his claim. He states that “the reason we should be truthful is simply that God requires it,” and that by itself “truth telling is neither good nor bad.” If this is the case then God could have “given different commands just as easily.” If rightness could be decided on a whim, that makes God’s commandments indiscriminate and arbitrary. Rachels believes there is a separate view of the Divine Command theory that while removing the arbitrary nature of God’s commandments establishes that “a standard of right and wrong that is independent from God’s will.” This view is established by stating that “God commands us to be truthful because truthfulness is right.” Something isn’t right because God willed it to be so; rather there is something outside of God that makes truthfulness right. Since God’s command cannot be arbitrary, the alternative establishes a separation between morality and religious belief.
Rachels looks at the Theory of Natural Law as a source for the second chink of the armor of the related nature of religion and morality. In the Theory of Natural Law, “everything thing in nature has a purpose” and that “’the laws of nature’ not only describe how things are, they specify how things ought to be as well.” This is the source for considering “natural” things morally right and “unnatural” things morally wrong. For something to be “right” is should serve it’s “natural” purpose, anything that doesn’t serve its natural purpose is then unnatural and wrong. Rachels finds an easy error in this way of thinking as it related to the question of the purpose of sex. Following this line of thinking, any sexual act outside the intended purpose for sex, procreation, is considered “unnatural” and morally wrong. The reason that the Theory of Natural Law is rejected is due to the “confusion of ‘is’ and ‘ought.’” Rachels relies on David Hume to “point out that what is the case and what ought to be the case are logically different notions, and no conclusion about one follows from the other.” The Natural Law Theory combines these two concepts together and that is the one aspect of its downfall.
According to Rachels, under the Theory of Natural Law the “right thing to do is whatever course of conduct has the best reasons on its side.” This establishes that “moral judgments are ‘dictates of reason.’” According to Thomas Aquinas, to criticize the dictate of reason is equal to “condemning the command of God.” Rachels argues that because of this, the religious believer and nonbeliever have equal access to “moral truth.” The only difference lies in that the believer understands “that God is the author of the rational order” that both parties participate and that both of “their moral judgments express.” This establishes that one does not need to be involved in religion to access “moral truth,” since reason is a capacity held within an individual’s mind and separate from religion. Again Rachels establishes that religion is not a necessity for morality.
Rachels criticizes the use of religious scriptures to support their stance on moral issues. There are times that scriptures are taken out of context of their original meaning and molded to fit the purpose of the user. The issue of abortion in often refuted with a portion of a passage that is used by the opponents of abortion to mean that fetus was known to God before its presence in a womb, though when the same passage is read in full context the passage speaks of “Jeremiah asserting his authority as a prophet.” Since modern issues were not confronted by the individuals during the development of scripture, many current moral topics have no scriptural guidance or backing. In these cases, reasoning is used to establish as stance. Along with this reasoning, scripture “is reinterpreted by every generation to support its favored moral judgment.” Rachels asserts that “people’s moral convictions are not so much derived from their religion as superimposed on it.”
This further establishes the separation of religion and morality. All aspects of Rachels argument create a logical progression of reasoning that all establish morality as a separate entity from religion. Though they can become intertwined, they exist separately. To believe that God chooses morality implies that his command is arbitrary, which undermines the authority of God. To remove the arbitrary nature of God’s command relies in establishing that morality exists outside of God’s will. For Rachels, though religion discusses moral choices, it does not create morality. Morality exists not only outside the religious scripture but outside of God’s will.