[This post is cross-posted on the blog of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.]
Understanding the relationship between morality and religion has preoccupied humanity’s best and brightest for millennia (think Plato, Aquinas, Kant, Nietzsche). Today, fascination with questions of morality and religiosity is no longer confined to philosophers, theologians and religion scholars. Research into the various ways that religion might influence moral identity is underway across a variety of subject disciplines in the human, natural and social sciences, capturing the interest of biologists, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists. Such research is highly necessary. The vast majority of the seven billion people on the planet identifies as religious. Most adopt at least some social and cultural norms and practices that reflect their religious identities. Across the globe, countless moral choices, great and small, are made on the basis of religious faith.
Multi-disciplinary and, increasingly, inter-disciplinary approaches to studying the ways in which religious affiliation affects values, beliefs and behaviours can supply new evidence, extend our knowledge-base and widen debate beyond the reductionist polemics of those who either regard religion as the source of all evil, or view only one religion as truly good. Contra such simplistic certitudes, humankind knows remarkably little about how religiosity is implicated in the formation of moral identity within the human personality, or the mechanisms by which religion can function as an intensifier of moral convictions and motivator of moral action: moving people to take a moral stance, to fight for a cause, even risk death for what they believe. Research in this area is complicated by the various ways religion is mediated through family, culture and the wider social environment, and the complexity of the human being – a biological organism responsive to its environment and comprised of multiple inter-active genetic, neurological and psychological components.
If religious belonging, in and of itself, could play a role in shaping a person’s moral make-up, how might a specific religious identity affect moral identity? Membership of a particular religious group tends to be associated with particular moral commitments. Certain behavioural norms (not necessarily the most central or important to a particular religion) may be regarded as non-negotiable and more defining of identity than others (e.g., Jain vegetarianism, Anabaptist pacifism, Roman Catholic opposition to artificial contraception etc.). Collectively, a religious group’s characteristic ‘package’ of moral commitments is often treated as constituting an ‘identikit’ pattern of beliefs. It is too simplistic to equate a person’s moral identity with their religious identity. However, these two aspects of the individual’s identity seldom co-exist within the human personality as if in hermetically sealed compartments, or as though in a state of total mutual antagonism.
If religious experience manifests in the world through its breadth and variety, religious identity is witnessed through its depth and intensity. In a world of identity politics, the challenge for multi-cultural and pluralistic democracies is to foster an inclusive polity that, as far as possible, allows for the co-existence of conscientiously held religious and moral commitments that are compatible with the common good, and that offers reasonable accommodation to those whose beliefs prevent them from participating in certain activities, or carrying out certain roles. That people of good will should not be disadvantaged on the grounds of religion or belief commands widespread agreement and, in keeping with article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that enshrines ‘the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’, legislative protections safeguard against citizens being required to act in ways that are contrary to their conscience.
Under the US healthcare reforms, for instance, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Actrequires most Americans to purchase a minimum level of health insurance, but exempts on the grounds of ‘religious conscience’ members of certain faith groups whose religious teachings forbid involvement with insurance schemes. In Britain, the Abortion Act (1967) provides an exemption from participation in abortions for health personnel who hold conscientious objections. When the European Values Study (1999) tested public opinion across Europe on the question ‘If a nurse were asked to help perform a legal abortion, she should be allowed to refuse on religious grounds’, 60% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement. In the UK, this figure was almost 70%. (Regrettably, there was no equivalent question in the most recent European Values Study (2008) to allow for a comparative perspective.)
However, religious groups are not always granted an exemption from laws on the basis of their moral commitments. The US Catholic Bishops failed to win an exemption within theAffordable Care Act to permit Catholic institutions to exclude contraception and sterilization services from the insurance cover they offer their employees, despite arguing that this breached rights to religious freedom and conscience. In the UK, as a result of laws enacted to guarantee human rights, equal treatment and non-discrimination, Catholic adoption agencies that had previously refused their services to same-sex couples had to choose between closure and compliance with the law. In its unsuccessful appeals for an amendment to the law, the Church effectively requested an exemption from anti-discrimination legislation that would have permitted one group to discriminate against another.
Where does this leave religiously based conscience claims? Firstly, the hard-won rights of religious groups to live according to their beliefs exist alongside, and must be balanced against the rights and beliefs of other groups in society – which sometimes requires the wisdom of a Solomon. Secondly, there is a compression and blurring of categories in the Universal Declaration’s proclamation of ‘the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ that makes public debate in this arena fraught. At the same time, the complex inter-relationship between morality and religion prevents any straightforward disaggregation of these terms. Thirdly, faith-based appeals to conscience-rights involve more than matters of moral principle and personal conscience. They also deal with concerns about the protection of group rights and preservation of religious identity. To invoke religious conscience is to make a statement about both moral and group identity; to speak of religious belonging as well as of personal belief. It concerns the communal moral identity of the religious group and the personal conviction of religiously inspired moral belief. Finally, conscience in the sense of a rights claim can be more properly evaluated from a legal perspective when it is viewed as pertaining to a religious individual rather than the collective possession of a religious group.
Julie Clague teaches Christian theology and ethics at the University of Glasgow and is currently International Visiting Fellow at Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, Washington DC. She is co-editor of the journal Political Theology and a contributing editor of the journal’s blog, There is Power in the Blog.