The Relationships Between Morality, Law & Religion

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  • 0:02 Explanation of Terms
  • 1:25 Which Came First?
  • 2:04 Cultural Example
  • 2:51 The Law
  • 4:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson discusses the interconnectedness of morality, law and religion. It highlights the debate over the origin of morality and religion while also emphasizing the force of the law.

Explanation of Terms

In the last few years, Western culture has touted the mantra, 'You can't legislate morality.' Although popular at rallies and political debates, this new catch phrase isn't completely accurate. Yes, on paper, Western lawmakers aren't supposed to play morality cops, and religion is supposed to be separate from the state. However, as today's lesson on the relationship between morality, law and religion will show, the boundaries between these three terms are often fuzzy at best. Seeking to support this thesis of sorts, let's define our terms.

To begin, morality is explained as beliefs delineating what is right and wrong or what is good and bad behavior. With this definition, it's important to note that moral codes are not written decrees set by the state. On the contrary, laws are the decrees a state requires its people to follow. Obeying a law is not voluntary. It's mandatory. To not do so invites penalty and punishment. Ending our definition of terms, religion is a belief system based on confidence in a higher power.

With our terms laid out on the table, let's move onto the relationship part of our lesson. Keeping time in mind, we'll limit our discussion to how our terms play out in the Western world. Of course, there are many different opinions and ways to handle this topic so we're going to keep things rather basic.

Which Came First?

For starters, morality and religion have pretty much walked hand in hand throughout history. In fact, many Theologians argue that all moral laws have their basis in supernatural commands. To them, man only understands the concept of good because there is a higher power that is good. In the which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg debate, theologians would argue religion birthed morality.

Of course, many secular humanists would tend to disagree. They'd argue morality is the author of religion. Man realized he needed a code of conduct to keep from chaos. Therefore, man devised the eye in the sky concept to keep everyone in line.

Cultural Example

Regardless of where you fall on the which-came-first debate, it's hard to deny that morality and religion are related. They might not be identical twins, but they're at least not-so-distant cousins. To prove this, let's take a look at mainstream Western culture.

Being founded in Judeo-Christian beliefs, most Western faiths peddle modesty. Yes, the definition of modesty has changed over time, but a woman walking down the street without a shirt on is still going to cause a stir. Even the average atheist will probably cover his kid's eyes.

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