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Religion and Morality


It is often claimed that morality became connected with religion only at a relatively late date. But H. Bergson has shown that ancient religions may be called amoral only "if religion such as it was at first is used for a comparison with morality in the form that it assumed later," and that, inversely, men have been able to claim success in constructing an independent morality only in milieux where religion continued to exercise an influence on consciences without their owners' being aware of the fact.

Group morality. In primitive civilizations the sacred and the profane, although they are distinguished, are never separated; but conscience seems entirely merged in the collective conscience. The sense of good and evil is completely socialized in this case, and social solidarity includes relations with the dead, the invisible powers, and the elements of the cosmos. As an example, incest is universally forbidden, but it is also deeply feared as inevitably entailing catastrophes in all nature. Actions that do not produce confusion or harm in the human and cosmic solidarity are not regarded as bad, and, conversely, any action that disturbs their order is blameworthy, even if it is involuntary. Thus, cosmic morality is completely identified with cosmic religion. Natural law in the modern sense does not seem to apply, because nature is thought of in a different manner.

Yet here it is necessary to make a slight qualification in this statement. It is more just to say that primitive man submits to the sanction demanded by the collectivity. He agrees with the collectivity if it declares that he is blameworthy or guilty, even if he has no knowledge of having committed the act charged. This, however, does not prevent protest on the part of the individual conscience. It is precisely at this moment that the idea of God as the supreme judge naturally reappears: "God sees me" or this is "God's business." But even that leads to a fatalistic submission to the verdict of the group. The latter, moreover, does not act to punish a guilty member, but to suppress a danger.

In primitive societies, the person is not a subject of rights and duties. He is rather a member of a whole, and his reason for existence is his function in the whole. The individual does not pass judgment on advantages or disadvantages; he fulfills his function and in that way gives full meaning to his existence. He is an individualist but not in the modern sense. He seeks to be distinguished from others, but this is accomplished by attracting attention through his conformity to the patterns of his society. A right such as that of property is thought of as legal only if it is put at the service of the community. And the feeling of existential solidarity is so strong through daily experience, that each accepts his function, even if it should be to serve as a victim in a human sacrifice. Protest expresses a kind of astonishment and a hope, but such protest does not lead to revolt.

Development of individual morality. The individual begins really to be distinguished from his function only in heterogeneous civilizations, where he can pass from one group to another within a complex collectivity, or dream of a different society because he has some vague knowledge of other existing civilizations. Then, however, in order to justify his protest and to orient his conduct and leave his group, he has to establish his existence upon an absolute norm, God, or even reason, if indeed reason is conceivable as a norm without God. In other words, reference to the All is no longer identified with the human group and its milieu but is situated beyond it.

A choice can be made between religion and reason. However, the apotheosis of Reason showed what it could do in the days of Robespierre, and again in the early 20th century, when supporters of reason thought that it could resume the antireligious battle "with greater spirit than Voltaire" (S. Reinach). There is no question, meanwhile, of the individual's returning to the morality of the group, race, party, or raison d'état. The protest of Antigone was representative of an advance in ethics, but it was not the first. On the other hand, morality itself needs a collective sanction that is none other than religion. One appeals from a collective order to another collective conscience and gets an inkling of what the universal religions offer to man, namely, a court that judges both individuals and collectivities. And the tension between the socialized collective conscience and a more profound collective conscience has made equilibrium in human societies possible and disposed humanity for its movement forward.

See Also: morality; religion, virtue of.

Bibliography: h. bergson, Les Deux sources de la morale et de la religion (Paris 1932). l. lÉvy-bruhl, L'Expérience mystique et les symboles chez les Primitifs (Paris 1938); Les Carnets (Paris 1949) 8085, 182184. p. radin, The World of Primitive Man (New York 1953; reprint 1960). b. hÄring, Das Heilige und das Gute (Freiburg 1950).

[j. goetz]

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