reducing ethics to religion

Over the last, say 2 or 300 years, we have seen many attempts to reduce religion to ethics. From Rousseau and Kant through to Küng (the excoriated catholic universalist of Tübingen). These attempts at “cleansing” religion get it wrong: they only rationalize half of religion.

Instead of reducing religion to ethics, it is much more interesting to view ethics as a (deficient) type of religion. If we view religion as consisting of primarily of two things: a language and a set of practices/institutions, then ethics, in its vast cleaning program has only taken up one of these. Ethics might well be able to claim it is the more reasonable equivalent of religious theologies (the language part of religion) – but it sorely lacks anything equivalent to the various practices and institutions of established religions. Contrary to the preacher and theologian, the ethicist can only tell us what it is good to do, s/he cannot however tell us how do it, cannot say: “go to church”, “pray for your ennemies” or “rest on sundays” because ethics doesn’t have churches, or prayers or sabbaths.

I am not implying that atheist ethicists need to start praying!, but they do need to start working not only on the language of the good, but also on the practical means of attaining it: they need to find non-religious alternatives to prayer, church and the sabbath (well, the latter we can probably just rename Sunday and be done with it). There is an entire swath of ethics that is completely missing, and it is the real, useful half at that.

If ethics is really going to manage to replace religion, or at least provide an acceptable alternative, it will have to come up with ethical practices and institutions that make us better people. Until ethics gets its hands dirty, it will remain “empty words” – a disembodied religion.


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