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Religion and Morality

by N. D. Pancholi, 5 September 2015

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Some time back my friend Shastri Ramchandaran had circulated a quote attributed to Pope Francis in a post on his ‘facebook’ which reads :

“It is not necessary to believe in God to be a good person. In a way the traditional notion of God is outdated. One can be spiritual but not religious. It is not necessary to go to Church and give money – for many, nature can be a church. Some of the best people in history did not believe in God, while some of the worst deed were done in his name.”

Ramchandaran was surprised and thought it incredible coming from Pope. But Pope did make such a remark. I shared the post saying,

“Pope Francis must be appreciated for what he said. He is endorsing what we the atheists claim that it is not necessary to believe in God or to be religious to be moral.”

Divergent comments came. Some appreciated and some disagreed.

One commentator questioned, “ Where do atheists get their morality from?” Jay N Jayaram, another of my friends, replied, “From laws of the land, from notions such as ethics and decency.” Jayaram was again confronted with the retort: “ Why care about the law? Why not be clever and steal/rob and get away? How does an atheist know?”

This conversation made me to write this article.

At the first instance I would like to state that I belong to the group called ‘Royists’ who generally believe in the work and philosophy propounded by M.N.Roy (1887-1954). As a result of his vast experience in revolutionary movements within India and outside, and also having worked with Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky in the Communist International for several years, he, towards the end of his life, developed a philosophy called “The Radical Humanism:” it is summarized in 22 thesis. In this philosophy the basic values of human civilization i.e. freedom , rationalism and morality are traced to the man’s biological evolution and it is believed that ‘the quest for freedom and search for truth constitute the basic urge of human progress’. The source of morality is traced to man’s biological evolution. One of its theses says, “ Rising out of the background of the law-governed physical nature, the human being is essentially rational.” Reason is a biological property. One becomes ‘moral’ not because he is religious but because he is ‘rational’.

It is generally supposed that the morality of a people is grounded in their religion. The falsity of this view is, however, borne out by the frequent riots in which a large number of innocent people are mercilessly killed in the name of religion. The history of the world is full of religious wars- wars between Muslims and Christians, between Protestants and Catholics, between Hindus and Muslims, between Muslims and Jews. Large-scale deception and oppression of the people has also taken place in the name of religion. The religion being the source of morality is a myth exploded by history.

The research shows that rudiments of moral behavior can be found in several animal species . Survival being the basic urge of the entire biological world, co-operative living becomes essential for survival and growth and this generates moral sensitiveness in human beings. On the plane of human consciousness, the biological impulse of mutual sympathy, necessary for co-operative living, takes the form of moral values. That is the real source of morality.

Unable to understand the causes of various natural phenomena such as wind, storm and rain, human beings attributed them in olden days to a number of gods and goddesses. In course of time, the idea of one God emerged, a higher power which would protect and sustain the man.

Mirza Ghalib, the famous poet, is reported to have stated in poetic words in one of his poem written in Persian language meaning thereby that ‘man went out in search of truth and during his search, when he became tired, he set up temples, mosques and churches.’

“Freedom’ being the supreme value of ‘human existence’, V.M. Tarkunde, a well known ‘royist’, in his book “The Radical Humanism” asks “ whether man can be free and moral at the same time? Can an individual act morally when he is entirely free and subject to no form of compulsion? If an individual cannot act morally without compromising his freedom, then freedom and morality are mutually inconsistent. One form of coercion is exercised by the machinery of law and enforcement which punishes a person who acts contrary to the prevailing moral code in so far as it is embodied in law. Another form of coercion is exercised by religion which teaches that a person who acts contrary to moral norms will be punished after his death. The question is whether a person can be moral of his own volition, without the fear of either temporal or spiritual punishment. This question can be answered by raising a counter question. Can a person who acts in accordance with moral norms, not voluntarily but because of some form of compulsion, be regarded as a moral individual at all? Can conduct which is not impelled by moral sense, but which accords with the prevailing moral code, be described as moral conduct? Does for instance, a person acts morally when he desists from committing a theft because of the fear of detection and legal punishment or the fear of punishment in hell after death?” [1] Tarkunde says that the answer must be in negative. The conduct of a person cannot be regarded as moral unless he acts of his own volition and without any temporal or spiritual coercion. A person who acts under coercion does not act morally. Moral sense cannot be generated by force or pressure. Only a free individual is capable of moral conduct .

During the course of biological evolution man has realized that co-operative social living is necessary for human survival and instincts such as sympathy, compassion and sociability which are natural attributes of the mind are the source of moral sense of human beings. Kindness, truthfulness, honesty, sense of justice and equality are moral values because they promote cooperative social existence. The instincts of anger and self aggression are also developed during biological evolution but since these instincts are in conflict with social impulses, reason teaches the man to keep them under check for harmonious cooperative social existence. Thus morality becomes enlightened self interest.

I would end here quoting Epicurus: “ I want to be moral , not to please the gods, but to please myself.”

(Courtesy: The Radical Humanist.).


[1Chapter ‘Secular Morality’ in the book “The Radical Humanism” written by V.M.Tarkunde