Religion's role in morality
Miguel Angel Alonso Rodriguez ∙ 10 min of lectura
What’s the role of religious moral nowadays? At first glance, most of society has apparently diverged from religion, developing a secularized moral system that supports beliefs. But religion still has a bigger role than we might expect in the shaping of our notion of good and evil.
For instance, the concept of evil directs our criticisms towards many celebrities, politicians, and millionaires. These three groups are what we most frequently and intently criticize, cancel, and despise. We judge their actions for being selfish and lacking consideration of the majority. On the other hand, our examples of heroes in literature and the figures we admire are usually altruistic, benevolent, and loving. These are christian values.
In this essay, we will analyze the importance of religion in the eyes of Thomas Aquinas, in contrast to Friedrich Nietzsche’s later critique and analysis of it. Then I hope to illustrate how we can derive great benefits from both visions to live a better life, and lastly why I think religion will not and should not cease influencing societies.
Although I hold that my claims in this essay about the role of religion in moral attitudes are just as valid for any other religion, here I refrain to Christianity in particular. Whether Nietzsche’s attacks to religion, or Aquinas’ arguments on it, are hinged on every Christian denomination or just on a few of them, is a topic I won’t delve into.
Christian values in Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas was a theologist concerned with linking Faith and Reason. His moral system consisted on explaining the relationship between the two and the essential character of God’s Benevolence in virtue and goodness.
Morality is a result of our own essence. Following Aristotle’s teachings, Aquinas argues everything that exists has a final goal. We are creations of God, and seek only to go back to His divine presence, to contemplate His greatness. Everything that contributes to our final goal is good and everything that keeps us from it is evil. This state of permanent harmony with God, is what Aquinas calls Beatitude, and it can only be completely attained in afterlife. Despite this, we ought to use reason and virtue to get as close as we can to that idyllic state in our actual lives.
Virtues are “developed habits of powers disposing agents to good actions” (McInerny R. & O’Callaghan J., “Thomas Aquinas”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) 2023) and they stem from the innate gifts God has imprinted on all our souls.
Prudence, Justice, Bravery, and Temperance are the cardinal moral virtues Aquinas sets forth and they were inspired and carefully modified from Aristotle’s work. Prudence is the disposition of character that adequately applies experience and wisdom to every particular case. Justice is the power of consistently giving everyone what they deserve. Bravery is the habit of controlling emotional impulses in favor of acting more adequately, and Temperance is the strength to resist and avoid sensual temptations. These virtues characterize what we must aspire to if we want to be good, that is, if we want to live in unity with God.
For Aquinas, good and evil are the opposite terms that define moral values. Good is everything that’s aligned with God’s plan, reflecting His most characteristic attributes: compassion, benevolence, justice, and love. Evil is whatever goes against God’s mandate: selfishness, lack of faith and hatred.
Friedrick Nietzsche and the flock’s revolt
About 5 centuries later, Friedrich Nietzsche, a philologist specialized in Ancient Greek philosophy, came in with one of the most aggressive and explicit critiques of Christianity. His ideas around life, suffer and the importance of the acquisition of power were deeply founded upon Ancient Greek’s culture, in which virtue was the exception and weakness the norm.
Nietzsche found out Christian conceptions of good and evil had a radically different meaning in the ancient occidental cultures. There are two different kinds of moralities, he thought: the first one characterized by privileged people in ancient cultures, and the second one being most practiced by the majority of the population in the modern era. He says: “in this first kind of morality the opposites "good" and "bad" mean no more than "noble" and "despicable" - the opposition between "good" and "evil" has another origin.” (Nietzsche, F., “Beyond Good and Evil Part IX, aphorism #260”, 1886). This second origin he refers to is what he calls the ‘slave morality’, and it originated solely to soothe people’s feelings of resentment in the face of their inability to shape their lives.
For Nietzsche, “good” used to represent nobility and their character, while “bad” was designed for the common people who this nobility despised. Then the oppressed people came up with a conversion of morality, a synchronized undermining of common thought. They revolted against their rulers by ideologically changing what was good and what was bad so that they were good and their oppressors evil. The origin of Christian morality had stemmed from resentment.
This is how he reached the conclusion that Christian values were not naturally imbued within human’s psychology -as many theologists like Aquinas had claimed-, but rather made up from frustrated people in an attempt for revenge. This belief in Christian values was a faulty one.
Furthermore, Nietzsche argued that Christianity hurt societies more than it helped them, pointing at all the destructive practices that had emerged from it, some of which I will talk about next. His motives to attack these practices respond to his prioritization of other values beyond pleasure and suffering: power, truthfulness, art, autonomy, life, and others.
Compassion is an example of a Christian attitude Nietzsche criticizes. It treats suffering as an intrinsically negative experience, and its goal is to suppress any of it or share it among more people to free the sufferer from it. This behavior supposes there’s no beneficial value found within suffering. But it fails to account for the opportunity to become better through suffering: “the ultimate value of any particular incidence of suffering could depend on the role it plays in the sufferer’s life overall and how it might contribute to those other values” (Anderson, R. Lanier, "Friedrich Nietzsche", SEP 2022). Not to mention that the compassionate might reveal a sense of subtle superiority in themselves.
Guilt was criticized by Nietzsche because its initial conception had involved a person that hurts another one and is to blame for that, but after the revaluation of Christianity, it became a constant blame the oppressed ones had thrown on to the nobles for their unfairness. This was intended to make them internalize the wrongdoing they represented. But the notion of guilt got out of control, and everyone in churches was to blame whenever they broke the rule, thus turning guilt towards the oppressed ones while nobody was being actually damaged.
Another instance of Christianity harming society is asceticism, especially the anti-sensualist one. Nuns, priests, and acolytes aren’t allowed any sexual activities, and these desires are condemned. Many churches have expunged members from their circles because of their sensual tendencies, and Nietzsche points out the role guilt has in this practice. Sexual impulses are rooted within ourselves, and Christianity punishes its members for having them. Therefore, Christianity punishes its members for a trait that’s essential to them, and they become guilty, going as far as to think of themselves deserving all that suffering. Nietzsche realizes this turns the person against herself, and she is born with guilt. The list of Christian values Nietzsche critiques is bigger, but these are the ones that he most frequently talks about and the most relevant for this work.
Though many of his claims about the violence and harmful attitudes of Christianity have their fundaments in some Christian churches, we must grant that these practices were not actually shared by every Christian denomination, which differed from one another in crucial ways that don’t fit Nietzsche’s criticism.
Learning from both
In this part I want to briefly show how both Nietzsche’s views and Aquinas’ offer beneficial insight into what a good life is.
Compassion is not to be regarded as a mere stagnation of the spirit in an unjustified spreading of suffering. There are cases where life’s misfortunes are so great that a person cannot recover from them alone, or at least not before a very long time. If the unfortunate one has the company of a well-intentioned peer, suffering is diminished by the sharing of its affect. At the same time, the helper does not go through the same level of pain the person in need is, simply because everyone is affected differently by any type of experience and for this reason being compassionate does not multiply pain, but rather helps people in need.
Anti-sensualist asceticism is indeed a harmful activity if taught to children who don’t have the same tools to question it. As Nietzsche showed, this belief that we’re intimately fraud because of having sexual urges severely damages ourselves while we are not even harming anyone else. Though currently sex has become a much more common topic of conversation, and sexual education has pushed generations to approach it in more healthy ways, many people are still being raised under Christian families and academic institutions where they are being taught to repress their sexual desires. This is a problem for the young person, and for this reason we ought to stop turning people against their essence.
Finally, self-guilt has accompanied many people under christian ideologies, making them think they are to blame for having sexual desires, for being selfish, for not sacrificing their goals and questioning the church’s mandates. They have been deceived into thinking they are evil, when the only thing they are doing is living under their own interests. This is the critique we should save from Nietzsche. Notwithstanding this, we must understand the essential role guilt played on the first place. If we detach guilt from religion, we find that it is just a feeling that tells us we did something wrong that we could have done differently. Guilt encourages hindsight learning, and we ought to appreciate this as an opportunity to grow.
Presence of both ideologies in today’s common thought
Various cultures around the globe have developed different religions which origins were not linked with suffering or differences of class, but rather out of people’s need to believe in something greater than them. What these cultures tell us is that we have always longed for a connection with our origin, a universal order, a reaffirmation that our efforts are significant. Mystical practices were the first way of achieving meaning. The fact that every culture has had its ancient mystical practices which then evolved into religion speaks a lot about the vital role it plays.
Religion’s grip on each individual varies greatly depending on context, but they are expressed in the values people hold. The average social group from a culture with a specific religion will value different things than one from another culture because of the origin of moral. These codes of behavior are passed from generation to generation, and with the passing they are also constantly transformed, but not so much as to break free from their beginning.
Despite all this, values such as individualism, power and the acquisition of capital have grown more and more influential lately, reflecting an embracement of Nietzsche’s values. While some consider millionaires evil because of their evident lack of consideration, tax avoidance and immoral labor enforcements, others still look up to them. But this way of thinking also reflects our religious tendencies: shops are built alike sanctuaries, marketing preaches salvation through consumption, and the tallest buildings which for long had been churches are now financial offices. This is putting in danger many people’s lives, as they are being taught to find freedom in capitalism, while they’re only given more and more hours of work for a lesser reward.
This is why religion will not end. We need something to make our lives significant, and religion does that especially well. People who know their life is meaningful live much better, happier, and fulfilled. This is the type of society we ought to cultivate. Not one that tries to abolish everyone under the same God, but one that respects people’s efforts to feel dignified through the pacific practices they wish.
Each religion has something to teach us about ourselves and the world. As we saw, religion is not just an invention to rebel against perpetrators, but much more. It is our essential curiosity, our desire for belonging that always pulls us towards religion, not as an institution, but as a personal belief in God, Nature or the Universe. Pretending to live without a connection with them is trying to go against ourselves. We must learn from different religions and find the values that truly represent what we think is right.
Nietzsche, F. (1886). Beyond Good and Evil Part IX, aphorism #260.
Graham, D. W. (2007) “Heraclitus”, Pg. 4-15 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.