“La foi n’a rien à voir avec la morale.” Faith has nothing to do with morality.
We came upon this piece of graffiti three years ago while in Tournon in southern France. It could have been written yesterday in response to the Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 150 people and wounded scores of others.
When crimes like this one occur, it is tempting to demonize religion and believers. The Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – come under particular scrutiny. Some argue that the Hebrew Bible, the foundational text of these religions, encourages violence and immoral acts. They point to passages of scripture that command the stoning of adulteresses or the smiting of one’s enemies, to the practice of slavery and to misogyny.
These passages are clearly problematic from our moral perspective, and I have no intention of defending them. It would be dishonest to pretend that religion has not played a part in man’s inhumanity to man. However, it is quite a leap to claim that religion has nothing to do with morality. Faith can be a strong influence on morality and can govern behavior, for better or for worse. Terrorist attacks committed in the name of religion illustrate the worst of that behavior.
No rational person, especially a deeply religious one, accepts violence as moral. Rational people (and most religious people fall into this category) share a universal understanding of morality. Boiled down to a basic principle, morality might be summed up as “do no harm” to others or yourself. Violence as an exercise of faith is especially odious since love and compassion are inherent qualities of the world’s great religions.
The Judeo-Christian tradition has shaped my understanding of morality, as it has shaped that of much of the western world. Its moral tradition, with which we struggle, precedes and goes beyond the “do no harm” principle. For the prophets, three things were necessary: to love mercy, to act justly, and to walk humbly with God. For Jesus of Nazareth, the great commandment was to love your neighbour as yourself. To love, to be merciful, to be concerned about others, to be humble are some of the ways that a person of faith honors the goodness of God and behaves in a moral way.
We cannot let this latest attack on humanity warp our collective moral sense. Since the Paris attacks, there has been a backlash against Syrian refugees. As I write this, 35,000 Canadians have signed a petition to stop the resettlement of Syrian refugees into Canada. This is irrational; many of the Syrian refugees are not even Muslim, and the terrorists were French citizens. It is also wrong. Fear of those who are different can prevent us from doing the right thing, as much as it can motivate someone (like a terrorist) to do the wrong thing.
No one has a monopoly on morality. A person does not have to be religious to be good. And while one would hope or expect a religious person to be moral, we know this is not always the case.
Faith and morality are like two streams flowing into one river, shaping the river’s ability to sustain or destroy the life along its banks. For better or for worse, religion can shape behavior and influence moral decision-making.