Does Religion Make People Moral?

Men praying at a mosque in Muscat, Oman, last month. Credit Giuseppe Cacace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Men praying at a mosque in Muscat, Oman, last month. Credit Giuseppe Cacace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Over the past 15 years, my country, Turkey, has gone through a colossal political revolution. The traditional secular elite that identifies with the nation’s modernist founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, has been replaced by religious conservatives who, until recently, were largely powerless and marginalized. The religious conservatives have by now come to dominate virtually all institutions of the state, as well as the media and even much of the business sector. In short, they have become the new ruling elite.

This political revolution has had an inadvertent outcome. It has tested the ostensible virtues of these religious conservatives — and they have failed. They have failed this test so terribly that it raises the question of whether religiosity and morality really go hand in hand, as so many religious people like to claim.

The religious conservatives have morally failed because they ended up doing everything that they once condemned as unjust and cruel. For decades, they criticized the secular elite for nepotism and corruption, for weaponizing the judiciary and for using the news media to demonize and intimidate their opponents. Yet after their initial years in power, they began repeating all of the same behavior they used to condemn, often even more blatantly than their predecessors.

This is a familiar story: The religious conservatives have become corrupted by power. But power corrupts more easily when you have neither principles nor integrity.

Notably, some of the more conscientious voices among Turkey’s religious conservatives criticize this ugly reality. Mustafa Ozturk, a popular theologian and a newspaper columnist, recently declared that religious conservatives are failing the moral test miserably. He wrote: “For the next 40 to 50 years, we Muslims will have no right to say anything to any human being about faith, morals, rights and law. The response, ‘We have seen you as well,’ will be a slap in our face.”

Another prominent theologian, the former mufti of Istanbul, Mustafa Cagrici, also wrote about “the growing gap between religiosity and morality.” In the past, he noted, moral conservatives like him would argue that “there could be no morality without religion.” But now, he wrote, “there should be no religion without morality.”

Such discussions may look specific to contemporary Turkey, but they raise a question that is globally, timelessly relevant: Does religion really make people more moral human beings? Or does the gap between morality and the moralists — a gap evident in Turkey today and in many other societies around the world — reveal an ugly hypocrisy behind all religion?

My humble answer is: It depends. Religion can work in two fundamentally different ways: It can be a source of self-education, or it can be a source of self-glorification. Self-education can make people more moral, while self-glorification can make them considerably less moral.

Religion can be a source of self-education, because religious texts often have moral teachings with which people can question and instruct themselves. The Quran, just like the Bible, has such pearls of wisdom. It tells believers to “uphold justice” “even against yourselves or your parents and relatives.” It praises “those who control their wrath and are forgiving toward mankind.” It counsels: “Repel evil with what is better so your enemy will become a bosom friend.” A person who follows such virtuous teachings will likely develop a moral character, just as a person who follows similar teachings in the Bible will.

But trying to nurture moral virtues is one thing; assuming that you are already moral and virtuous simply because you identify with a particular religion is another. The latter turns religion into a tool for self-glorification. A religion’s adherents assume themselves to be moral by default, and so they never bother to question themselves. At the same time, they look down on other people as misguided souls, if not wicked infidels.

For such people, religion works not as cure for the soul, but as drug for the ego. It makes them not humble, but arrogant.

In legalistic religious traditions, like Judaism and Islam, this problem occurs when religion is reduced to the practice of rituals. Abiding by a legal code makes the believer feel upright in the eyes of God, even if she or he is immoral when dealing with fellow human beings.

An exceptional Jewish rabbi who lived two millenniums ago, Jesus of Nazareth, spotted this problem. Those practicing Pharisees who are “confident of their own righteousness and look down on everybody else,” he declared, are not really righteous. Sinners who regret their failures, he said, are more moral than the pious who boast.

Stripping morality from religion can also occur when a belief system is reduced to a simple group identity. This kind of “us vs. them” mentality can corrupt and radicalize any religious community — Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists alike can become hateful militants when they see themselves as righteous victims. That trend is visible everywhere from the Buddhist monks cheering ethnic cleansing in Myanmar to the Hindu majoritarians who dominate Indian politics to the violent Muslim extremists in the Middle East.

Conscientious believers in every tradition need to stand against the toxic urges that turn religion into a hollow vessel of arrogance, bigotry, hatred and greed. Otherwise, more and more evil will be done in their faith’s name. And more and more people will ask, as many young Turks are asking these days, what religion is really good for.

Mustafa Akyol, a contributing opinion writer, is the author of The Islamic Jesus and a visiting fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College.

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