Does Morality Trump Religion?
God comes to you and tells you to sacrifice your son.
Or maybe that was a dream. But you are pretty sure that you were awake. You think.
The last couple of times God had promised or told you something it generally made sense. Well, there was that one time in Sodom, but at least He was open to talking about it.
Somehow though, this seems different. Killing your own son! Even God can’t convince you that this is the right thing to do!
It is not by accident that this is one of the most read and discussed stories throughout the history of the three Abrahamic religions. The narrative of the Akeida, or the binding of Isaac, in classic biblical austerity is able to perfectly touch on the intersection between theology (what we know about God), morality (what we know about good and bad) and epistemology (how we know what we know).
The philosophic magnitude of this story is predicated on the fact that both the Bible and subsequent Biblical commentators believe that morality exists outside of God. Just as Cain understood that he had committed an immoral act by killing his brother, and Abraham knew that God was being unjust for wanting to wipe out all of Sodom, here too, the power of this story lies in the fact that murdering your son is wrong, regardless of God’s will. In other words, according to the Akeida story, God’s will does not ipso-facto make something moral and just because something is moral does not ipso-facto make it God’s will.
It is for this reason that many classical commentators hint to the fact that the real test was to stand up to God and outright refuse to sacrifice his son. An array of midrashim depict the angels sobbing and begging God to stop this inhumane test. Another midrash shows Abraham in tears as he begins to tie down his son. A third midrash actually attributes Sarah’s death to the fact that she thought that Abraham went through with the act.
Other commentators point out the fact that throughout the rest of the Torah there is no dialogue between Abraham and Isaac. Their relationship has been completely shattered with seemingly no way to fix it. Even Isaac seems to have internalized this traumatic experience; from a close reading of his life story it seems that he has an all-around dearth of social skills, especially when dealing with his wife and children.
However, the true importance of this argument only becomes evident once we take it beyond the pages of the Bible. If we believe that there is an entity called morality or even a way to objectively say that one moral system or action is better than another, then where does religion fit into this picture?
If we answer that morality is simply whatever one’s religion dictates, then we are basically eradicating morality by making it arbitrary. Although the Bible says not to steal, under this line of reasoning, it could just as well as told us that we should steal and kill (as it does at times) and these commandments would have been just as “moral”. In this case, there would be no rhyme or reason to morality and humans would have no way to morally reason themselves, given that it is fundamentally random.
If we argue that morality exists and there is some logical reason that “killing an innocent person is bad”, then we should and can make moral judgments without relying on religion. In this case, God (or one’s conception of God a/k/a religion) can either be moral or immoral, but one of these entities cannot fully collapse into the other.
When followed to its conclusion, this argument indicates that we can make a full separation between religion and morality and think of them as two completely disparate things. Now of course, there will be some overlap between the two spheres, but they are fundamentally different.
Once morality and religion are different, we need to figure out which one should be given primacy in our lives. One could argue, as the New Testament and many subsequent philosophers do, that our faith in God and religion must be so strong that we must be willing to suspend all moral and rational judgment. In this line of reason we must make a Kierkegaardian leap and completely ignore our moral intuition and rationale every time it contradicts something in our religion.
But for those who think that Abraham should have argued with God, you are implicitly disagreeing. Clearly our innate ability to morally reason is something so powerful that it trumps any religious text. In this light I believe that religion should have to answer to morality and not vice-versa. Religion is important for a number of reasons, but in terms of how to act in difficult ethical scenarios - our rationality based moral reasoning must be given preeminence.
However, and this is the important part, religion is the main conduit and teacher of morality. As our collective morality evolves, we must change our religious views accordingly in order to avoid the type of dialectic and cognitive dissonance that arises from the Akeida narrative. We do not want people to constantly be torn between following their moral reasoning or archaic ethical norms simply because they are indebted to Scripture.
The importance of religion, or, more specifically, Judaism is not that it provides us with moral answers. Rather, Judaism arose from a tribe wrestling with the immoralities of a larger society and in turn created a system of philosophy and law that was extremely progressive for its time. In continuing with the essence of Judaism, we need to look past the individual laws and focus on the entire methodology as a whole. Judaism constantly provides us with the call-to-action that we need to continually reflect, refine and act in accordance with our evolving moral conclusions.
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