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Can One Be Moral and Not Believe in God? Essay

The argument set forth is best understood by the first line given by Hamlet in Act 3, Scene 1 in this 1600 play, “Hamlet,” written by William Shakespeare (1600). “To be, or not to be, that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?…”

Believing in a spiritual entity or a supernatural supreme being can play a role in one’s moral beliefs, but it is not necessary. The argument will start with breaking down what it is to be moral with the definition of moral, which is “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior,” (ethically speaking) “conforming to a standard of right behavior.” (Merriam-Webster, 2011) With that in mind now, one can be moral and not believe in GOD, because it is up to the person to choose to be moral, hence “To be, or not to be…” This argument will consist of a brief history in a few religions, church and state, moral education, ethics, and Plato’s and Aristotle’s take on living morally. Again, believing in God is not necessarily needed for one to be moral; all that is needed is good ethics, belief in oneself, and knowledge.

The origin of religion, experts think, arose from the fear and wonder of natural events (i.e. storms, earthquakes, and the how babies were born). Experts believe that the explanations of death were the outcome of supernatural powers greater than one’s self and the world around them. Religious activities, prehistorically, involved the most essential elements of existence, like adequate rainfall and or a successful hunt for food. Prehistoric people were also believed to have performed rituals intended for good fertility of women, for animals, and for succeeding in hunting as well as making sacrifices for all good fortune. The major religions of today may have been originated between 1500 B.C. and A.D. 600. (Fontaine, 2011)

As time progressed, there came a new understanding with religion being involved in one’s life. The justification by faith, the actions of an individual can be justified by their faith as it assists moral goodness and faithfulness to duty. Through Christianity, Christ died for their sins to sit before God’s judgment in their place so that they cannot be found guilty. As an example of justification by faith, believers are led to be more loving towards God, their neighbors and to do good works.

For instance, treat others the way you would like to be treated. The understandings of justification by faith, good acts towards others, are justified by people using their faith as justification for their actions. (Edwards, 2011) Religion also has a code of conduct, a set of moral teachings and values to uphold when conducting the business of living. From these morals and values, one should treat others how one would like to be treated, whom one may marry, what jobs may be held, how to dress, and what foods may be eaten. (Fontaine, 2011)

Now let us look at church and state. The understanding of church and state is that each should not be involved in the others development. In other words, government should operate non-religiously and churches should operate outside the boundaries of the government system. This was disagreed by many, because many believed that religion improves the moral character of citizens and should be actively promoted by government. Many others believed that government should support and fund some religious activities so long as any religion is not favored over another. From these oppositions, arose intense debates in the United States of America for issues involving prayer in public schools, government funding for religious schools, government support for religious charities, and the display of religious symbols on government property. (Ivers, 2011)

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof….” Freedom of religion is still an issue today, for it is interpreted by many court rulings “that the government may not promote or give any special treatment to any religion.”(Morgan, 2011) Plans, which called for government financial aid for religious schools have been denied and courts have ruled it unconstitutional to many programs to teach the Bible and or recite prayers in public schools. Yet, church and state are not totally separate, because (1), many of the nation’s people are Christians, (2), the nation’s motto is “In God We Trust,” (3), sessions of Congress open up in prayer, (4), witnesses in court swear oaths on the Bible, and (5), Christians governed the United States since its existence. (Morgan, 2011)

Moving along, morality in both religion and government is a major concern and work together when and if their moral goals desired are with the same intentions. It, of course, is the exact opposite when both entity’s desires and views of morality are different, like the belief in abortion. Where religiously it is viewed as morally wrong and governmentally allowed in some states. Moral education is focused on what is right and what is wrong to develop the standard values by which people judge what is important, worthwhile, and good. Moral education is received from many angles of sources one may encounter, beginning with their family, church, friends, teachers, and television. Moral education lessons were given in schools either intentionally or unintentionally in the United States in the 1970’s by developing special teaching methods in assistance with dealing with moral questions. These methods if given in a combination approach were called comprehensive moral education.

Inculcation was the effort to teach values which educators believed to lead moral behavior to children. Values in moral behavior such as honesty, compassion, justice, and respect for others were taught by appropriate praise and punishment and reflected in whichever desired value in the teacher’s behavior. Values clarification was designed to assist in developing one’s own values and morals by stress setting goals, choosing thoughtfully from alternatives, and acting on their own convictions. Moral development assisted in the development in the abilities to judge moral questions.

That which is based on the theory that moral reasoning progresses from lower to higher stages in people: (1) self-interest, (2) seeking approval of others, (3) to following rules, (4) respecting the rights of others, and so on to where opposing laws of society if it conflicts with moral principles that are even higher. An example of moral development would be putting one in a moral dilemma with a question like, “Would you steal to feed your starving family?” or allow the principles of fairness and justice up to the students to govern. Lastly, value analysis teaches the application of logical and scientifically investigative techniques to matters involving values, where the importance of exploring, gathering, and evaluating facts and logically made decisions are highly stressed. (Kirschenbaum, 2011)

Opposition to the teaching of moral education in schools believes it is a matter for the family and church to handle. In addition to their argument, it takes necessary time away from what should be taught in class, like reading, writing, and mathematics. In surveys though, parents have indicated that some forms of moral education in schools are needed. Their argument is that families need help in teaching moral behaviors consistent with values such as hard work, honesty, fairness, cooperation, tolerance, and respect. (Kirschenbaum, 2011) All these values are built from character education including responsibility and caring.

The goal, which was set forth here, was to develop a more responsible and caring society by implementing and emphasizing on such programs dealing with ethics and responsibility. The core basis in character education has to be established for it to be integrated into schools and in the community. Character education is introduced in early grades, which emphasizes on behavior skills and in later grades, which involves topics such as reducing prejudice and resolving conflicts. These character education programs have been widespread throughout the United States to nonprofit organizations, universities, and school districts; thus giving all these organizations strategies on how to effectively incorporate character education into their curriculums.

Building character comes with ethical choices. “Ethics is a branch of philosophy that attempts to help us understand which ways of life are worth following and which actions are right or wrong. Ethics addresses questions of right and wrong using reason rather than faith or tradition.” (Hunt, 2011) Upholding high ethical standards can be complicated, because some decisions are difficult to make. For example, Joe has been in-trusted with a secret from a friend, John, that he stole some money from another friend. Thinking about doing the right thing, Joe realizes their friendship can be jeopardized, because Joe and John are closer than the other friend is.

Keeping the secret though, can damage Joe’s integrity and his moral values. Conflicting thoughts can be very difficult to comprehend which direction to take. Ethical theories have been made to direct a person in making the right choice and they also guide us when and where conflicting ideas apply and do not apply. Ancient ethical theorists such as Plato and Aristotle are two influential thinkers who have brought order into thinking about ethical problems. They have defined a sort of life that is worth living and the sort of people who can live such lives. (Hunt, 2011)

Plato believes that wisdom, courage, temperance or self-control, and justice are virtues that one should have. Plato has also acknowledged that wisdom is the most important of these virtues, for it is the knowledge of what is truly good. Having this wisdom will direct one to do what is right and this will bring harmony to them, thus building the virtue of justice. Plato wrote a book, which described the life and death of a man who understood goodness, his teacher Socrates. Both believed that people did not know how to be moral, because they did not have the knowledge of moral ideas to act morally. Plato’s ethical theory is based on the belief that one desires happiness and that moral virtue can bring that happiness within the soul of a person; resulting in a healthy state of the soul. (Soll, 2011)

Aristotle, Plato’s student, had similar beliefs, but added more traits needed to live a moral life. “These traits are friendliness, generosity, gentleness, truthfulness, and wit.” (Soll, 2011) He believed in one trait that brings out all of the virtues discussed, which he called phronesis, meaning prudence or good judgment; the ability to know what one should do by figuring out what choices would direct one to lead a good life.

The study of practical knowledge, knowledge that enables people to act properly and live happily, Aristotle argued that people do this to find their function in life. Function like how one’s eye functions, which is to see; believing that a happy life is governed by reason. Believing also that moral virtue is finding the medium between the extremes, example, “the virtue of generosity is the mean between stinginess and wastefulness.” (Soll, 2011)

From these two ancient theorists, the belief of ethics differs from modern ethical theories. The difference is ancient ethics related a theory of normal life and offered no solutions to the dilemmas facing very critical decisions. Like the example of Joe’s dilemma. There were no rules or guides set in assisting us in making those difficult choices, whereas modern ethics is a theory of life in crisis. Modern ethics is directed towards helping one sort out the conflicting reasons for different choices of action to take. It also assists one’s decision-making in which, one will choose which reasons that hold more value and which ones hold lesser value.

Modern ethics involve considerations of benefits and of obligations. Joe might feel obligated to keep John’s, a close friend, secret and what benefits will arise from him not keeping his considered obligation, like closer ties with the other friend, who is not a thief. Modern theorists have reached the conclusion that giving equal importance to both obligations and benefits is difficult. They have also divided its ethical theory into two chains of thought: (1) deontology, holding what really matters (ethically) and to what obligations one has, (2) teleology, claims to what really matters in which, one’s actions or policies would best benefit the people. (Hunt, 2011)

In conclusion, to live as righteous as one can be, does not need GOD or a supreme supernatural being to do so; even though many of the teachings of how to live morally consists of values of spiritually related beliefs, building character comes with ethical choices. These choices develop or build one’s personal strength in believing in one to do right as to wrong by educating on and building knowledge of moral values to which ethic standards one wants to live by. Again, moral education, ethics, and belief in one’s self to do what is right are all one needs to live morally without GOD. “To be, or not to be, that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them…” (Shakespeare, 1600)

Edwards, M. U. (2011). Luther, Martin. Web: World Book. Retrieved August 23, 2011, from World Book Encyclopedia Ashford University. Fontaine, C. R. (2011). Religion. Web: World Book. Retrieved August 23, 2011, from World Book Encyclopedia Ashford University. Hunt, L. H. (2011). Ethics. Web: World Book. Retrieved August 25, 2011, from World Book Encyclopedia Ashford University. Ivers, G. (2011). Church and State. Web: World Book. Retrieved August 23, 2011, from World Book Encyclopedia Ashford University. Kirschenbaum, H. (2011). Moral education. Web: World Book. Retrieved August 23, 2011, from World Book Encyclopedia Ashford University. Merriam-Webster. (2011). Moral. Retrieved August 23, 2011, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/. Morgan, R. E. (2011). Freedom of religion. Web: World Book. Retrieved August 23, 2011, from World Book Encyclopedia Ashford University.

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