Towards a moral good?

Several days ago, a Portuguese TV show named Sociedade Civil (Civil Society), where different guests debate different subjects every program, hosted a discussion on “why people believe in God”. Yes,”God”: as is common in today’s western society, it debated divinity from a monotheistic perspective. The panel of guests couldn’t be any clearer on that: a Catholic priest, an Evangelical pastor, the Iman of Lisbon’s Mosque and a member of the Jewish community. An all Abrahamic discussion…

At one point, the hostess of the show posed a question beginning with what she admitted could be a mistake of hers, but which was unsurprisingly left uncorrected: that all religions strive towards the moral good (like loving your fellow man, not killing, etc). If you’re anything like me, you’re tired of generalizations about the very diverse religious universe based on a few, usually Abrahamic examples; and again, if you’re like me, you have the habit of mentally debunking those same generalizations when you hear them, which is exactly what I did after turning off the TV.

Do all religions strive towards a moral good? No! Someday I’ll write several posts on my own personal and polytheistic view on the matter, but suffice to say that in the case of a more or less strictly orthopraxic religion, there is no such thing as “moral commandments” and therefore no instructions to conduct the believers towards a moral good.

Orthopraxic means “correct (ritual) practice”. A similar and better known word is orthodoxy (“correct opinion”, i.e. true) and opposed to heterodoxy (“different opinion”, i.e. false, heresy). A strictly orthopraxic religion will focus on the correct use of gestures, words and objects at the correct time in ritual ceremonies, leaving the matter of opinion and belief to the individual. It doesn’t mean there’s an absence of religious philosophy and speculation on the nature of the divinities or the afterlife, rather that there is no official, orthodox corpus of beliefs. And because there’s no official doctrine, there’s also an absence of moral commandments.

Of course there are instances when an orthopraxic religion dabbles in human behavior. One of them is when it affects sacred space. For instance, in Ancient Greece, a person holding onto an altar could not be harmed and, according to one Icelandic saga, violence was not allowed inside a property consecrated to the God Freyr. But this is not to say that there is a commandment against violence, rather that it is generally not allowed inside sacred space. It’s the difference between saying “thou shall not kill” and thou shall not kill inside my temple: the former is a social norm and the latter a rule of usage of the Gods’ property. In other words, a form of orthopraxis.

Another instance is when religion is called upon to sanction or protect certain social institutions or rules. For instance, in Ancient Rome, the Tribune of Plebes, a political official representing the common citizens of the city and with veto power over the decisions of the Senate, was made sacrosanct, i.e., to hurt him would be the same as hurting the Gods’ property. No doubt to prevent physical harm from falling on a man who exercised a powerful and therefore dangerous political office, but this is not the same as saying that all life is sacrosanct: just that of that particular person and during his term. And just like any of us may call on the Gods to intervene or protect certain aspects of our lives, so too the practitioners of an orthopraxic religion can, as a society, call on Them to grant Their blessing or watchful eyes to communal rules and institutions. But again, as in the case of the Tribune of Plebes, these are social conventions being given divine sanction or protection, not religious doctrine governing human behavior that does not affect sacred space.

So no, not every religion strives towards a moral good: if it’s strictly orthopraxic, its primary goal is the correct ritual worship of the Gods, not moral or religious doctrine. This is not to say that the followers of said religions are amoral, rather that they get their codes of conduct from elsewhere. Moral can be social or philosophical and there’s a good historical example of that in Classical Antiquity, where worshippers of the same Gods would adhere to different schools of thought and ideas on correct human behavior: Epicureanism, Stoicism, Skepticism, Platonism, etc. Modern westerners tend to assume that every religion has a religious and moral doctrine because that’s what most of us are used to after centuries of Christian teaching; and also because Abraamic religions have influenced public and even academic notions to the extent that they’re taken as a defining model of human spirituality.

Finally, there’s also the possibility of getting different ethical hints from different Gods, something which might be interesting to think about if one also takes into consideration the monotheistic case (one God, one code). But I’ll save that for other posts.

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