In the last post, we discussed the objective nature of goodness in reality. In this post I want to consider how this objective feature of goodness isn’t per se “religious.”
Now, objective goodness is just as much a feature of reality as anything else is. For instance, it is true that I am here at this computer typing. Goodness is just like this, an objective feature of reality. The reason is that whether or not something fulfills its nature by realizing its ends is not a subjective quality but a true or false question. Since goodness is about conforming to the “perfect form” or idea, then it follows that if this idea is real, so is the conforming to it. If there are real ends of essences, then these ends can be realized or they can be frustrated. This is a question of fact and not opinion.
Even if it is hard to know whether or not something is good, it does not follow that there is in no way a principle for determining it. Even if it is impossible for us to know, it does not mean that the reality is not present. However, that is a side point, because it is my claim that we can know, at least in most cases, the objective truth by investigating the natures of things. Therefore, we can know objective goodness and strive to achieve it when we recognize its presence.
Now, many people use a “too religious” type objection to either legal or social ideas that attempt to develop a standard of morality to be followed by all. What I mean is that those who for instance oppose abortion attempt to discourage it or outlaw it, are often told “just because your religion prohibits it doesn’t mean everyone must follow your religion.” Or “not everyone is Catholic,” “how do you know the Bible is correct” etc. These objections are made to a whole host of issues, political, moral and social, in many different forms. The thrust of the argument however is that morality is a private concern and not to be imposed on others in any way, at least if that morality is somehow tied up to a religious argument.
I am going to make two main points about this objection. First, and probably the biggest point is that morality is not essentially religious in the sense that it does not rely on revelation from God. Morality is not essentially “Christian” or “Islamic” or “Deist.” Morality is just the study of how we reach our end as humans. Morality is about recognizing the objective goodness in the world and pursuing it. Morality is ultimately about happiness as we said in the previous post. Morality exists in the natural world and because of our reasoning power, we do not need the Bible, The Church, or God to directly tell us right from wrong. We can determine this on our own. Morality therefore is not specifically tied up to any religion by its own nature.
We have to be careful though not to go too extreme with this position. The fact that morality is not necessarily tied up to the revelation or specific religious practices does not entail that morality excludes God. In fact, God as our creator and last end, is central to morality. Our duties towards God transcend our duties towards our neighbor and obedience, love, and adoration to God are the foremost duties of the moral life. Even understanding the life of virtue that isn’t directly related to God is hard without at least having God as a reference point. This doesn’t mean that “God says so” is the only answer in morality, but it does mean God’s existence and relationship to man is foundational to ethics. It is futile to try to do morality excluding God.
Many people are under the impression that either morality is completely relative or there is some true ethical system that grounds objective morality but it certainly isn’t a religious one. There are some religious people who basically think this way because they act as though their religious moral beliefs are some private custom rather than part of an objective moral code. Other believers bite the bullet and admit that morality is real and objective but at the same time have a hard time explaining how arbitrary divine commands which are known to only some can bind all men. Because of these false views, society seems to be caught in this trap, in this dichotomy between religion and morality. The result is that anyone who wishes to make a moral argument on a controversial issue is accused of being a “religious bigot” who expects others to follow their own personal beliefs. As we said, the flaw in this is that it misses the point that morality is an objective and knowable feature of reality and therefore specific religious beliefs are irrelevant.
The second major objection I have to the “too religious” argument is “so what?” What if my argument against abortion or same sex marriage or another moral issue was specifically Catholic in flavor? On a practical level, it is unwise in my view to make this kind of argument (e.g. abortion is taking of a human life made in God’s image redeemed by the blood of Christ. Jesus said “let the children come to me” and this is a direct violation of this command) because many people don’t share the faith. But even so, I don’t think that this argument is unsound, it’s just not convincing to the general public. Nor do I think that it is sound for me but unsound for others as if I am convinced by my religion but to expect anyone else to be is just plain bigotry. The underlying problem is that people are under the impression that religion is a matter of personal preference or taste rather than of objective truth.
Catholics don’t hold that Jesus is a good spiritual figure whom you can regard as God if you wish, rather, the Church teaches that Christ is God and that we all must worship Him. I don’t need to be a Catholic to see that this is either true or false, I simply need to be somewhat conscious because it’s the law of excluded middles: The range of possibilities is covered by A and ~A. Jesus of Nazareth either possessed Divine nature in full or He did not. Since Catholics make a truth claim (He did) then religion is a question of objective truth, at least in most cases.
Moreover, it is not as though religion is a question of true false but it’s at best an educated guess at the truth. Reasonable people should realize that if something is inherently contradictory, contradicts evidence or reason, then it ought to be rejected. Further, truth claims require evidence. Catholics should realize that the Church doesn’t teach some inner voice tells us to believe but rather God proves revelation by external signs, as Vatican I teaches. It is true that we may lack absolute deductive certainty, but that’s not the point. The point is that religious truth is accessible to man through his ability to see God’s hand in the world. It is not wrong to make a religious argument because a religious argument is still a factual argument. The error lies in the fact that our culture sees faith as fideism, which in fact, at least to Catholics, is heresy, as taught by Vatican I. (side note: the Church’s teaching obviously isn’t sufficient to prove that the Catholic faith is the true faith, as this would be circular reasoning, but it does show that Catholics do not claim to have faith on fideistic grounds. Even if in fact the religion is false and many believers are fideists, the point stands that the Church recognizes this as wrongheaded).