The Ethical Harm of Religious Morality

A treatise on the redundancy of religious morality

Pooped On Pope Statue


Almost all religious organisations embody a moral code; A list of the actions that the organisation preaches as being right or wrong. Each religion has its own list and there is a degree of verity in acts considered to be morally good or evil. The Catholic Church preaches that all life is sacred and to take it away is wrong. The Islamic faith preaches against interest being paid on any and all loans of currency. The Jewish faith preaches against eating pork, shellfish or dairy with meat. Many more rules and regulations can be found in almost all major world religions each with varying degrees of impact on the religious followers life. Such moral standards are the product of divine proclamation. To go against it is a crime against the deity. Yet there are certain conflicts between what religion preaches as good and evil and what ethics asserts as right and wrong.

Secular Ethics

For the western world, it was up until the enlightenment that religious organisations had a monopoly on evaluating the morality of a certain act. There was no alternative to evaluating ethicality. The very definition of morality contained implicit religious notions that could not be separated. An act could be morally evaluated as good or evil. An act defined as ‘Evil’ was taking the faithful away from God, away from paradise and towards the fiery pit of hell. Religious authorities were the craftsmen of moral language. To speak of good was intrinsically linked to following God’s will and to speak of evil was similarly entangled with an affront to God.

The age of enlightenment brought about the beginnings of intellectual rebellion to the metaphysical doctrine then provided by religion. The doctrine of the divine would no longer be left without scrutiny. The foundations of divine morality was not in empirical reasoning but was instead based on a system of belief without question. As such, religious morality fell from prominence to be replaced by the ethical theories that relied on reasoning. The two central theories were Utilitarianism and Deontology. The former was based on the notion that bringing about the greatest amount of happiness dictated the right act and the later asserted that your actions should be aligned with a set of rational ethical rules. These two theories were the first ethical codes that rejected religious authority in favour of rational thought. The basic principle is prevalent in modern ethics; reason dictates right and wrong and not unjustified belief. In the modern world ethical issues are settled by committees of people with expertise in both act and consequential based ethics. Arguably, pluralism is the contemporary ethical theory; taking both act and consequential based ethics into consideration when making an ethical evaluation.

Irrelevance of Religious Morality

The narrative presented previously explains how we, as a collective western body, moved from religion dictating ethics to reason deciding ethics. This created a conflict between the two systems. There were certain acts that had conflicted ethical evaluations in religious and non-religious morals. Ultimately, religious morals lost this fight and proceeded into subservience to other ethical theories. Individuals still held religious values as morally upright and even used them to determine how to live a good life but where there was a conflict between religious morals and reasoned ethical morals, the latter prevailed.

This is not the end of the dialogue between ethics and religion. Once it was firmly established that ethical values were determined outside of religion, a shift began to occur inside many major religions. They began to adapt the morals of their religion to coincide with the dominant ethical approach. Whereas before religion dictated ethics now it was ethics dictating to religion. This change is incredibly fundamental to understanding the irrelevance of religious morality. If your chosen organised religion, that will preach to you on how to live a good life, is acquiring the value of ‘good’ from outside of itself, then what purpose does it service? None! Reasoned ethics is deciding the religious morality that you will hear at sermon and somehow claiming it to have divine inspiration. Your moral compass can become no more aligned though embracing religion that it can from embracing secular ethics.

Take the Catholic Church; with an estimated 1.2 billion followers, an operating budget estimated to be in excess of £100 billion and a moral code that has disreputable history. The following are some of the apologies made by Pope John Paul II: An apology in 1993 for the Catholics' involvement with the African slave trade, an apology in 1995 for the Church's involvement in burnings at the stake and the religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation, an apology in 1995 for the many injustices committed against women, the violation of women's rights and for the historical denigration of women and an apology in 2000 for violating the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and expressing contempt for their cultures and religious traditions. If your religion is apologising for being morally reprehensible then it is also admitting that the moral doctrine it once preached was wrong. These kinds of admissions are not simply the condemnation of a few rogue elements of the Catholic Church but a statement that the organisation’s morality was incorrect. If religious morals were truly correct then it would be impossible for a religious organisation, properly following such morals, to be immoral. This could only be possible if the deciding factor on what is right and wrong is beyond religious morals. Therefore, religious morals are entirely irrelevant.

The Harm of Religious Morality

Yet, there are still those who believe that religion is the basis for ethicality; individuals who believe that the cause of a dearth in morality aligns with a dearth of religious following, individuals who take religious morals to supersede those of reasoned ethics and those who believe that even having this discussion is blasphemous. Condemnation is not normally due to the individual. People who are devout to their religion are often so because they were brought up to believe in them. They have been indoctrinated in thinking a certain way and included in that is both an aversion to questioning the given and a corrupted moral code. The real cause of harm is the organisation that preaches such dogma. The resultant effects can range from ethically neutral to devastating.

If your religion dictates that it is wrong to consume certain foods, then the resultant ethical harm is negligible. This assumes that the reason for abstaining from particular food products is solely based on religious morals and not any physiological benefits or reasoned ethics; the consumption of such foods is not dangerous to the body and is widely consumed by billions of other humans. There is limited scope for arguing that this religious moral produces ethical harm but it certainly serves no purpose. An argument could be constructed on consequential grounds if the food in question provides the consumer with pleasure. The religious moral has denied access to a potential positive consequent and is harmful because of it. As a non-religious westerner, bacon definitely fits this profile; banned by both the Islamic and Jewish religion. Interestingly, both religions were born in the Middle East where pigs were often disease ridden pests that if consumed would be both disgusting and physiologically harmful. As food production and animal husbandry techniques have advanced the consumption of meat from a pig is not dangerous or disgusting but the initial, now out-dated, religious moral has remained.

If your religion dictates that all life is sacred and to take it away is wrong then there is scope for much greater harm. Sidestepping a divisive debate on abortion, the use of contraception will be expressed as the cause of much potential and actual ethical harm. The use of contraception receives a positive evaluation from an ethical perspective as engaging in ‘safe sex’ prevents the spread of dangerous diseases and undesired offspring. Yet, many religions have morals that reject the use of contraception in all situations. The Catholic Church believes artificial contraception to be immoral as it prevents the divine’s plan to create new life. This can be ethically detrimental. Not only is this religious moral in conflict with that provided by reason and employed throughout many modern societies it also encourages unsafe sex (Although it should also be noted that the Catholic Church is against pre-marital sex which would greatly reduce, but not eliminate, the potential harm). However there is a much more direct example that expresses the actual harm caused. The Catholic Church’s complete opposition to the use of condoms is ethically dubious when concerned with the prevention of HIV/AIDS. It is widely accepted that the use of a condom is the most reliable method of preventing the spread of AIDS. The Catholic Church rejects this notion due to a religious moral and instead preaches abstinence. Granted that abstaining from sexual activity will also succeed in preventing the spread of the disease, the use of condoms where sexual activity is occurring is the ethically correct approach. Many people have contracted AIDS and live with a horrific disease as a result. In cases where sexual activity is forced there arises immense ethical harm which is amplified further with the church’s position on family planning. A woman could have contracted AIDS that could have been prevented thorough willing or unwilling means and as a result give birth to a child that also carries the disease. All of this is a direct consequence of religious morals.

Concluding Remarks

All ethical harm caused by religious morals could be avoided if religious organisations stop preaching morality. There is absolutely no ground for religious organisations to have any authority on ethics. The morality of religious organisations is not only irrelevant to living an ethical life but it can also cause a substantial amount of real-world ethical harm. Religion once preached about the state of the universe, how the sun revolved around the earth, how the earth is only several thousand years old and so on. Then the scientific revolution took away the rights for religion to have any authority on such matters. No rationally minded individual would seek out a priest to answers a question about the physical state of the universe. Yet the same did not fully happen in terms of ethics. People still seek out religious authority for answers concerning ethics. To remove the ethical harm caused by religious morality, religion must relinquish any and all claim to authority on ethical issues to rationally minded ethicists; when this is done religion can still serve a purpose by providing answers to unanswerable existential questions while not causing ethical harm.

About the author

JohnathanAuthored by Jonathan R.R. Owen
I am a current postgraduate philosophy student based in the UK. I believe that philosophers have a practical role to play in providing conceptual clarity and concrete advice to people facing existential problems. The articles I write are focused on exploring the practical applications of philosophy.

Follow him on twitter @JohnathanRROwen and find more from him at

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