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Should it Matter that Religious Affiliation and Practices are in Decline in the U.S.?

Can Ethics be taught without reference to Religious Beliefs?

Perhaps you have heard that a recent study released by the Pew Research Center found that the U.S. has become significantly less Christian in recent years as the share of American adults who espouse no systematic religious belief increased sharply. For the first time in U.S. history, the number of American Christians has declined. Christianity, however, remains by far the nation’s dominant religious tradition, according to the report.

The erosion in traditional religious ranks seems likely to continue. Among Americans aged 18 to 33, slightly more than half identify as Christian, compared with roughly 8 in 10 in the baby boom generation and older age groups, the new data show.

Moreover, in a reverse of previous patterns, younger Americans do not appear to be adhering more to traditional faiths as they become parents. Just the opposite seems to be happening — members of the millennial generation have grown less religious as they age.

Should we be alarmed about these results? After all, we do have an increasingly diverse culture and the decline in Christianity is to be expected from the perspective of other religions being better represented in the U.S. More troubling is the finding that an increasing amount of Americans -- almost 1 in 5 American adults -- was raised in a religious tradition but is now unaffiliated, the study found. By contrast, only 4% have moved in the other direction.

In my teaching of ethics I always deal with the dilemma of whether I should incorporate discussions of religion and religious beliefs into the study of ethics. I stay clear of advocating any religion or making judgments about religious beliefs and practices. However, I also begin every ethics course by telling students that virtually every religion has some form of The Golden Rule as an underlying tenet of religious doctrine.

What could be a more basic and an eminently understandable concept than to say “We should treat others the way we want to be treated?” What could be more basic than to tell students we should treat others this way because the consequences of our actions do matter? Moreover, individuals have certain (ethical) rights that should never be violated, some of which are in the U.S. Constitution?

I believe there has to be a moral imperative to realize our potential as ethical beings. In the past when I have made presentations on ethics and asked about the role of religion, I always answer by saying that, at least to me, the importance of religion in ethics is that we believe in a higher power, however we define it, and we are accountable for our actions to that higher power. A higher power should guide our actions.

We need to stop and think before we act and consider the moral imperative. If we do not, then the danger is relegating our decisions to a kind of ethical relativism and situational ethic where what the right thing to do is depends on the facts and circumstances in each dilemma we face. In other words, such a perspective means that our actions are ethically acceptable no matter what we do or why because they are relative to whatever we believe in.

If our values are to accumulate wealth, power, and fame, then that is an ethical position for us to pursue. But, how can that be morally justifiable? It implies that the way in which we accumulate wealth or gain power and fame is not important. Moral relativism argues that it’s the end result that is most important and not the means we follow to accomplish that goal. In other words, it’s an ends justifies the means approach to ethical decision-making that ignores the basic point that how we get to our end goal is more important than the path we have followed to get there.

We can examine a relativistic, situational ethic by considering the current scandal in football over 'DeflateGate.' If the ends justify the means than deflating footballs to gain a competitive advantage is ethically acceptable because it moves the Patriots closer to the goal – to be Super Bowl Champions. The means was for Tom Brady to influence the locker room attendants to deflate the footballs because he believes that he throws more accurately when the footballs have less air in them.

This can’t be morally appropriate. The deflating action breaks down the level playing field that should exist in all sports. Every competitor should have an equal opportunity to achieve their goal unaffected by circumstances manipulated by one of the parties to the contest.

In judging the role of ethics in an individual's psyche, the important questions to ask are: Do we want to be an ethical person? How do we define being an ethical person? What do we have to do to live an ethical life? I would add: In what way does religion influence our ethical decision-making?

Our behavior depends on moral intent informed by our belief system. I feel strongly that religion has an important role to play not so much because we go to our churches, or synagogues, or mosques and pray to our higher power. People do that all the time and then turn around and do despicable things.

So, in the end ethics is all about what we do when no one is looking. If we act out of self-interest using a relativistic ethic, then we sacrifice the opportunity to be guided by a tried and true moral imperative that has been around for thousands of years and has stood the test of time.

Ethics is also about how we treat others. After all, I do not want others to lie to me or cheat or steal, so I should not act that way. I do not want people to disrespect me, so I should be respectful of others, and treat them fairly and with caring and compassion. I need to be a trustworthy person to earn that respect.

Most of all, at least in today’s society, I wouldn’t want others to act irresponsibly and not be accountable for their actions, so I should approach everything that I do – every action I take – with the idea that will I accept the consequences of my actions. I will admit my mistakes, move on, and promise to not do it again. While everyone has an equal opportunity to act on these ethical beliefs, I feel someone who is influenced by The Golden Rule at least has the foundation to move closer to moral action than someone who does not.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 19, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

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