In a recent essay for a religion survey course I wrote that “If there are good teachings or moral ideas in the Bible or in the words of Jesus, they are good independent of their source and to rely on someone else’s teaching for your own morality is to be amoral.” My professor wrote a comment on my essay asking: “…what about when people motivated by religious ethics do really good things like the Civil Rights Movement? …are they amoral even if their cause is good?” By way of responding, I’d like to consider the classic “trolley problem” of ethics. Here’s the Wikipedia summary of this thought experiment:
There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You do not have the ability to operate the lever in a way that would cause the trolley to derail without loss of life (for example, holding the lever in an intermediate position so that the trolley goes between the two sets of tracks, or pulling the lever after the front wheels pass the switch, but before the rear wheels do). You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?
Like many thought experiments in ethics, there is no “right” answer; both are pretty terrible options. The important part of the trolley problem is that the subject is forced to make a moral decision and is subsequently forced to examine the moral reasoning process that led them to that decision. For example, many would say that saving as many lives as possible is the most moral decision, others might say that the active participation in the death of the individual by pulling the lever implicates them in a murder. Both are valid concerns given the situation.
But what if a person (ridiculously) states that they didn’t pull the lever because their religion prohibits pulling levers or tampering with trolleys? Can it really be said that they made a moral decision regarding the situation? My argument is that they have not. Their moral decision took place much earlier when they decided that the anti-lever-pulling religion was good and worth obeying. They have, in essence, prejudged all future situations by accepting the proclamations of their religion. In relation to the situation, this is not morality; this is amoral. The same is true when religious teachings happen to coincide with good moral conduct.
Some will say (as Reza Aslan has been lately) that most religious people don’t really use their religion to prejudge this way, but rather support their personal moral reasoning with their scripture or faith. While I would argue that “most” is a hard modifier to substantiate, I’m certainly willing to agree that some religious people do this. My rebuttal would be that this is outside the scope of my original claim because these people aren’t making their moral decisions on the basis of their religion. Helping others because it’s a morally good thing to do is different than helping others because your religion says it’s a morally good thing to do.
Further, there are negative results of this process. It separates adherents from the consequences of their moral decisions and gives them a culturally sanctioned scapegoat. It continues to place these texts in a place of prominence which validates those who do apply their decrees regardless of the harmful results, if only in their own eyes. It discredits the moral reasoning of religious people, which usually comes from their genuinely compassionate and empathetic nature, by giving the religion all the credit. That’s probably the one that gets to me the most. I’ve often heard Christians claim that if they didn’t have Jesus they would just be the most awful, murderous people you could imagine. I said it myself when I was a Christian. I still haven’t murdered anyone. For what it’s worth, since my deconversion I’ve extended my non-murdering to all animal life by becoming vegan. Turns out Jesus wasn’t repressing any murderous desires; I just don’t have any.
There is no such thing as religious morality; there is only morality.