Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here’s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Moral values and religious doctrines

By Max Atkinson - posted Friday, 28 March 2014

In most social and political disputes religion plays no role - we defend our views by appeal to values which transcend religious differences, such as community well-being, as well as values of honesty, fairness, freedom, justice, compassion and respect for human dignity which constrain this aim. There are exceptions - opinions on same-sex marriage, euthanasia and abortion reflect church doctrines but most of the time, on most matters, religion takes a back seat in our public debates.

This is not surprising if the primary aim of religion is spiritual not political - to tell us how we should live our lives rather than define the social institutions and policies we should adopt. These two realms - which some philosophers distinguish as ethics and morality (in practice usage varies and the terms are largely synonymous) - are connected in important ways, but there remains a lively debate between and within political parties which ignores religious ideas and doctrines.

How does this debate and the ordinary, everyday values it draws on relate to arguments which appeal to religious authority? The choice of words is deliberate; 'ordinary' is better than 'secular' because the latter is widely understood to deny the existence of God, whereas the values in point are, if not universal, at least ubiquitous - they figure in the arguments of believers, agnostics and atheists alike. 'Quotidian' may be a better term, but it is not one familiar in this context.


A simple descriptive account is likely to understate the role of these values; it will highlight the interests, preferences and beliefs of different groups, and the mechanisms for resolving disputes, including the laws and institutions which give them effect. But this sociological approach will capture only the surface of the community's political life; much more important is what goes on in the minds of participants - especially the role of values in judging which interests and whose preferences take precedence, and the ideas and assumptions which influence these judgments.

To understand this one must be a member, with an 'internal' perspective, and a sense of what values mean, since no one begins with a blank slate. This sense of values may be more, or less, informed or mature and may change over time. The evidence suggests that, where the facts are not in dispute, we argue over two matters in particular: we argue over how abstract values apply to concrete cases and we dispute their importance when they argue in different directions. We disagree, that is to say, over their interpretation and their weight.

Political parties distinguish themselves by the importance they give to certain values, and in modern democracies by the prominence given to ideals of fairness and social justice on the one hand and principles of freedom and personal responsibility on the other. While egalitarian ideals largely define the Labor Party they are ignored in Liberal Party charters - perhaps because taking them seriously means constraints on certain freedoms. However that may be, a healthy system will highlight extreme views; but often the debate is ideological - one side says property is theft, the other sees taxation as theft; each highlights the moral cost of the other's commitment.

Religious doctrines may guide the interpretation of values and explain, for example, the role of Quakers in prison reform and the history of the Catholic Church on issues of social justice for workers. But while the authority of the church might be invoked to support humane conditions for prisoners and fair wages for employees one might also act, as the Good Samaritan acted, from a sense of humanity or justice - this is a commitment to values not to authority.

It is possible to suggest, even on such a brief sketch, how ordinary moral argument differs from religious argument on most social and political matters. The latter looks to an authoritative source for an answer - to a sacred text, person or institution, or perhaps all three, whereas the former sees values of fairness, welfare, compassion, honesty, dignity, and justice as important in themselves, not because the church commends them, or because some philosophers (utilitarians) think we will be happier if we take them seriously.

While this difference between institutional morality and a morality of values seems clear - one appeals to authority the other to principles - it is also clear that a good deal of religious reasoning, including most Protestant reasoning, is not institutional in this sense; it treats conscience as an ultimate test of moral duty. There is, however, a plausible argument that acting on conscience is the same as acting on principle, that is, acting on one's own sense of values and this claim, if it is correct, highlights the ubiquity of values noted in the third paragraph above.


The idea that values are important in themselves is difficult to reconcile with institutional morality, including theories whose supporters believe their church speaks with the authority of God. The Jehovah Witnesses' prohibition on blood transfusion rests on ancient biblical texts, but the idea there might be a duty to sacrifice an innocent life is so repugnant to the moral sense of most people that even church members reject it - likewise passages in the Koran cited to justify, in the name of Jihad, the killing of innocent people.

The same distinction between religious doctrines and moral values may throw light on the institutional abuse of children. The primary abuse is shocking but not, when all is said and done, a mystery. By contrast the secondary abuse, the failure by church officials to respond appropriately, was arguably a failure to understand what was clear to ordinary citizens - that the reputational and financial interests of a church, which are not moral values, cannot justify ignoring the law, much less victims. Once this is clear so is the priority of the duty owed to the children.

The question posed by this tragedy is how well-meaning officials - men of some distinction in public affairs and theological scholars, could be blind to this responsibility. Is it a case of becoming habituated to a way of thinking which repressed natural sentiments of justice and humanity? Such a criticism, if merited, draws its force from the fact that abstract values become empty phrases if we cease to care about real-life cases. But we also cite these values to justify a duty to take care.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

193 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Max Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania, with Interests in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. He is an occasional contributor to the Tasmanian Times.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Max Atkinson

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Max Atkinson
Article Tools
Comment 193 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy