Evolution of Ethics from Religion

 How Ethics Evolved from Religion

Religion has often been considered to be one of the bases on which society was formed. However, over time, the number of people who do not believe in the existence of a god or worship anything has increased. Therefore, I contend that ethics have now become one of the bases of society, and they have been mainly adapted from earlier religious edicts.

      Laws are generally considered to be the reason that societies do not disintegrate. These laws are decrees that establish certain punishments to be inflicted on those who violate them. But the first examples of laws come from religious texts. In the Book of Genesis, God commands Adam not to eat of the tree of knowledge and establishes death as the punishment for disobeying this order. In Greek mythology, Pandora was told not to open the jar she was gifted. But she did so; and Man, who had lived carefree till then, was subjected to all manner of miseries. Hesiod tells this tale in his Works and Days –

“Before this, the company of men had dwelt on the land

Removed from sorrows and from dire drudgery

And from racking plagues which draw destruction down

Upon mankind (for quickly do mortals wither in hardship).

But with her clutches the woman pried the great lid off the jar

And scattered affliction, bringing woe upon men.” 

Therefore, it seems to be a fair conclusion that laws were in fact derived from religious edicts.

As a separate idea as well, religion has contributed greatly to the creation of societies. In the First Georgic of Virgil, Virgil suggests that the best use of a life is to be a farmer and follow the way of life that the Gods have laid down for humans. These teachings led to the formation of several farming societies in Rome and later on as well. Many large empires were formed on the basis of religion as well, such as the Byzantine Empire (also known as the Eastern Roman Empire) and the Achaemenid Empire (Ancient Persia). The Byzantine Empire was a theocracy ruled by the Roman Orthodox Christian Church and the Achaemenid Empire had Zoroastrianism as the state religion. Hence religion can be said to be one of the bases on which society was formed.

         As more and more discoveries in science took place and various inconsistencies in religious texts with the facts of the world as we know it were pointed out, there was a large increase in the number of atheists in the world. Such inconsistencies included problems like the incompatibility of the story of the creation of the world by God in the Book of Genesis (The Holy Bible, Genesis 1) with the Big Bang Theory. As this change in society continued, there was also a rise in secular democracies across the world. In such countries, religion clearly did not have a large part to play in keeping societies together. Instead, morals and ethics are what new laws were based on in order to create a new form of civilisation. Ethical considerations have also become a major factor in the formation of new Constitutions, with the structure of democracies guaranteeing that any leaders whose methods or views are seen as unethical are removed from power.

               In today’s world, avoiding causing harm to other people is considered to be one of the most important ethical principles. And this can also be seen as a derivation from many religious texts, which advised their followers not to harm other humans. In the Book of Genesis, there are many commandments which ask Christians to be considerate of others, and not to hurt anyone, the most famous of these being ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself.’ (The Holy Bible, Mark 12:31) Similarly, in several religions such as Jainism and Buddhism, non-violence towards all creatures is one of the essential tenets of the religion.

            Another important ethical issue is the idea of justice. This idea includes both social justice and fairness of distribution. Laws are inherently laid down to uphold justice. In cases of theft, murder or discrimination, the correct punishment must be meted out to make sure that justice is served. These ideas can also be seen to come from religion. In the Book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate of the tree of knowledge, God punished them for it by banishing them from Eden and greatly increasing the suffering that they had to bear. (The Holy Bible, Genesis Page 4) In Works and Days, after Prometheus stole fire and gave it to man, Zeus punished mankind by creating women. Hesiod describes the punishment and Zeus’ rage in this paragraph (Hesiod, 83) -

“Then spoke cloud-gathering Zeus:

Brat of Iapetos, sneakiest of all, you exult

That you stole fire and swindled my wits-

A bane to yourself and to men still to come!

As the cost of fire, I will give them a torment

The which all shall relish wholeheartedly, embracing their ruin.

So said the father of mortals and gods, laughing to scorn.”

Thus, justice is an idea that has come from religion.

                       Looking at all this evidence, we can clearly see that religion used to be a major reason for the formation of society and that ethics, which can be considered to have replaced religion as the basis of civilisation, have also been derived from an amalgamation of several religious texts.

I would also like to raise the question that if all our ethics and morals have in fact been derived from religion and religion is what holds together civilisation, then if people are released from the shackles of society, what would our natural instincts be? I will leave you with this thought – Perhaps morals, when looked at this way, are nothing but a set of shackles that society sets on us to get us to behave a certain way, and the lock that prevents us from taking these shackles off is religion.