Yesterday, I wrote a post about not wanting to talk to my friends about why I'm depressed. Obligingly, one of my friends responded with this comment:
So what are your thoughts on religion and ethics? Do they have to go hand in hand or are they seperate?
This is a fun question, and one I've thought about a lot. So I want to take some time to break it down.
My first point would be to say that I don't think religion is intrinsically unethical. I don't think that religion makes you a bad person, and I want to be very clear about that because that's an assumption a lot of people make about my point of view, since I'm critical of religion.
To start with, though, I should explain what I understand morality to be:
Morality starts with values. Values are the presumed end-goals of actions, things that are considered a priori good, for the purposes of individual morality. Most people, for example, see the well-being of thinking or feeling entities as being a priori good.
All morality has to be founded on an arbitrary decision like this, because there's no way to work back to a first principle that demonstrates morality as a natural law. You can't get an ought from an is.
From that point, it's easy to establish moral goals based on one's criteria. Morally good is defined as things that work towards the goal, morally bad is defined as things that work against the goal, and morally neutral is defined as things that have no noticeable effect on progress towards the goal.
The important thing to note here is that the moral value of an act is determined by its actual effect, not just whether one believes it will be effective. One might have the best intentions in reducing animal cruelty, but no matter how sure the person is, adopting dogs and secretly starving them is not a good way to achieve that goal. It's morally wrong, even if the person believes it isn't.
We have a word for that causal dissonance -- we call it superstition. False beliefs about causality seriously hinder a person's ability to make moral choices.
And that's where religion can contribute to immorality. Religion consists, in part, often in large part, of unjustified claims about reality. The addition of bad data to an individual's moral decision-making process often results in morally unjustified, or unjustifiable, conclusions. If, for example, one believes in an afterlife, and one believes that this afterlife can consist either of eternal suffering or eternal happiness, and one believes that a major deciding factor in which afterlife one goes to is whether one has homosexual relationships, one might feel morally obligated to attempt to prevent homosexual relationships from taking root.
That act would be wrong. Because there probably isn't an afterlife, and even if we can't say there certainly isn't, we certainly can't say we have good reasons to make claims about what it's like, or how one gets there. Given the legitimate evidence available, the only morally relevant outcome of those supposedly justified actions would be the emotional and sometimes physical suffering of gay people.
So, to answer the question: Religion is at best morally neutral, but usually at least a little bit morally detrimental.