Religious Ethics

Religious ethics is a set of rules and principles concerning duties incorporated in religion. It gives the religious perspective on moral issues, such as good and bad, right and wrong, vice and virtue. Religious ethics imposes rigid rules, without recognizing the moral merits of other religious communities. According to many religions only their own adherents can be moral and can lead an ethical life.

Religious ethics does not usually correspond to contemporary morals and outlooks. Therefore, many religions oppose modern phenomena which contradict their ethical standards. These issues include abortion, the use of contraception and same-sex marriage.

Christian ethics is centered around the concepts of grace, mercy and forgiveness. Christian morality recognizes the seven deadly sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. Catholic catechism also enumerates seven holy virtues which comprise of four cardinal virtues: prudence; justice; restraint and courage and three theological virtues: faith; hope and charity.

Protestantism, which split from the Catholic church during the Reformation beginning in the 16th century, has developed its own ethical principles. In his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), German sociologist Max Weber argues that the ascetic postulates of Protestantism enabled the emergence of capitalism. In particular, Weber took into account the Calvinist work ethic, the idea that hard work and success pave the way to salvation. Reformist theologian and pastor John Calvin (1509-1564) also laid a strong emphasis on the doctrine of predestination, which means that the damnation of some people and salvation of others has been predetermined. Another key concept for Calvin's theological construct is the Elect, or the people selected by God for eternal life. Combining the ideas of work ethic and predestination, Calvinists believe that idleness is a sign of damnation, whereas hard work is a sign of being among the Elect.

The ethical principles of Judaism are prescribed in the Torah, or the Five Books of Moses, which outline the Jewish legal and ethical concepts. While Christianity has seven deadly sins, Judaism has 613 mitzvot, or commandments, presented in the Torah. The mitzvot, also known as the laws of Moses, are positive or negative commandments. The positive mitzvot are known as mitzvot aseh, whereas the negative ones are referred to as mitzvot lo taaseh. There are 365 mitzvot lo taaseh, equal to the number of days in the year. There are 248 positive commandments. The negative commandments are centered around three groups of sins: murder, idolatry and deviant sexual relations.

In Islam, the Qur'an and the sunnah prescribe the code of conduct, known as Shari'ah. In some Islamic countries, the judicial system is based on the Shari'ah. Islamic ethics lays a strong emphasis on predetermination, or qadar, and obligation, or taklif. The ethical principles in the Qur'an are based on moral concepts such as justice, truthfulness and honesty.

The major concern in Buddhist teachings is whether one's actions can be harmful. The outcome of the action is referred to as karma. According to Buddha, through awareness one can train one's mind so that it does not cause suffering. This training, known as the Five Precepts, helps people avoid murder, theft, sensual misconduct, lies and intoxication. Violation of the five precepts does not lead to punishment. Instead, the person has to be aware of the breech and make sure that he or she will avoid it in the future. Unlike Judaism and Christianity, Buddhism does not inflict a sense of guilt on its adherents. According to the teachings of Buddhism, the mental states of remorse, anxiety and guilt have to be avoided, as the goal of the mind is peace and harmony.

In Hinduism, gurus as well as Hindu scriptures such as Ramayana are the essential source of ethical teachings. Ethical principles are closely associated with the concept of reincarnation. Hinduism imposes a ban on murder, theft, adultery and consumption of alcohol. On the other hand, it encourages kindness, vegetarianism and respect for all forms of life.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Understanding Religious Ethics
Charles Mathewes.
Wiley-Blackwell, 2010
Ethical Issues in Six Religious Traditions
Peggy Morgan; Clive A. Lawton.
Edinburgh University Press, 2007
Explorations in Global Ethics: Comparative Religious Ethics and Interreligious Dialogue
Sumner B. Twiss; Bruce Grelle.
Westview Press, 1998
Listening for God: Religion and Moral Discernment
Howard Lesnick.
Fordham University Press, 1998
Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics
Robert Merrihew Adams.
Oxford University Press, 1999
On Inoculating Moral Philosophy against God
John M. Rist.
Marquette University Press, 2000
Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics
John Murray.
W.B. Eerdmans, 1991
The Common Good and Christian Ethics
David S. J. Hollenbach.
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Altruism and Christian Ethics
Colin Grant.
Cambridge University Press, 2000
Striking a Balance: A Primer in Traditional Asian Values
Michael Brannigan.
Seven Bridges Press, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Includes Hindu, Buddhist, Zen Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian Ethics
Sex and the Church: Gender, Homosexuality, and the Transformation of Christian Ethics
Kathy Rudy.
Beacon Press, 1997
Religion and Moral Reason: A New Method for Comparative Study
Ronald M. Green.
Oxford University Press, 1988
Democracy and Mediating Structures: A Theological Inquiry
Charles Peguy.
American Enterprise Institute, 1980
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