I wasn’t, until rather recently, one to suggest / wonder if religion is the only way to decipher between what is moral and what is immoral. Though upon receiving inquiries as to whether I believed someone could be a moral person without religion my answer had consistently been yes, admittedly what I truly felt was far more complicated.
I was not, however, going to go around preaching such a thing. First of all, I don’t believe nonreligious people really give a damn whether or not I think they can be moral without religion, and I don’t believe they should give a damn. Also, telling someone they can’t understand morality without being religious is an unprecedented and super mean thing to say. And being mean is like, against my religion and stuff. Or something.
It took someone telling me first, in an equally unprecedented and totally serious manner, that religion is inherently a defective tool for justice, for me to write this post–because what the hell.
To begin, I’ve already written a couple of times about Islam’s moral structure and its intrinsic incorporation of two spheres of morality: the first being the most basic, in which all inalienable human rights must be observed, which is a requirement of both the religious and nonreligious*, and the second being the religious sphere, which is characterized by compassion and generosity, and is a requirement only of those who observe Islam.
For example, in a theoretical Islamic society, Muslim citizens must pay zakat: a percentage of their income which is given to the poor. This occupies the religious realm of generosity, which cannot be forced. Those who pay zakat are not receiving any (earthly) return, as is the definition of charity. In order to take something from someone, consent is required from them, and those who do not consent to practice Islam cannot be expected to give charity because of it.
Non-Muslims are thus exempt from zakat or any mandatory charity. Instead they pay jizya, a tax from which they do receive earthly benefits, including the protection of a Muslim army in which they are not obligated to serve, but who are religiously obligated to protect them. The consent to this exchange is derived from a social contract, not a religious one, because the latter (freedom of religion) occupies the realm of inalienable rights.
In more recognizable terms, these spheres are the two different types of rights: inalienable rights and civil rights.
The way the two spheres are distinguished is that the first does not require consent, and the second does. In other words, if you need consent to carry out an action, then that action is not an inalienable right. Whether or not you require the consent of another person is determined by whether you must involve them at all. If you wish to believe or not believe in a particular religion, that is an inalienable right, because it involves no one else. If you wish to practice a particular religion, that is not (always) an inalienable right. It often requires the consent of others whom you may affect with your practices.
Those who insist that they are practicing an inalienable right to religion when they refuse a woman contraceptives, for example, are by definition incorrect. They have the inalienable right to belief, not to practice, which is a civil right.
However, a civil right can never trump an inalienable right. If there were such a society–like in many instances, ours–in which men believe they are entitled to a woman’s autonomy via social (civil) agreement, and then can carry out actions that police women’s autonomy, that cannot possibly be a civil right, because it overturns an inalienable one: the woman’s inalienable right to bodily autonomy. Therefore, a religious practice that infers with a woman’s full control of her body (like denying her contraceptives) in the name of the civil agreement (whether derived from the right to practice religion, or simply derived from cultural consensus that men own women) in order to access that control against her will, is Morally Illegal. It violates the realm of inalienable rights in order to establish the realm of generosity, as the woman is required to generously forfeit her right against her consent so that it may serve the men–or women–who wish to control her.
When the realm of generosity is established by violating the realm of inalienable rights, systems like slavery become excusable: slavery is, after all, only forced generosity.
A nonreligious person can OF COURSE understand all this. In fact, a nonreligious person can understand all this better than a lot of religious people, who constantly violate inalienable rights in order to force-establish a sphere of generosity.
But the question of whether we need religion to be moral stems from this: how does a nonreligious person justify a belief in Inalienable Rights?
Where does the idea, the concept, of inalienable rights come from, if not from theories of a God Who Manifested them? What does a nonreligious person have that will support the argument that a woman cannot be raped because such a thing is a violation of her inalienable rights, or a violation of basic human decency, when there is nothing but the principle of compassion from which to derive that decency, and when that principle of compassion is logically unsupported? Is “don’t cause pain” enough when you cannot define what that really means? How do you logically tell someone that they are not entitled to rape a woman without depending on her Inalienable Right to bodily autonomy? From where can you get those alienable rights?
I am not saying that it is impossible to get them from anywhere but religion. But if it isn’t, if you can come up with something, I would be ecstatic and would love to hear it.
P.S. I know that by writing this post I am privileging my own model of morality as The Only One, so, if there are others, do they really work as well as this one in theory in governing a society? And how do you come to them without religion?
*The primary realm of morality, which all are required to observe, is composed of things like, “Don’t kill” or “Don’t steal” because these involve the consent of another.