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Religious Beliefs Are Socially or Culturally Relative

Religious relativity derives from the fact that there are an unlimited number of alternative ways for people to conceive and account for the nature of the "spiritual." The Encyclopedia Americana, for example, lists over 300 different religious belief systems. These traditional ways of believing adopted by social groups or cultures take on the force of habit and custom. They are handed down from one generation to another. To the individuals in a given group, despite the large number of possibilities, their particular beliefs often seem to be the ONLY way, or the only REASONABLE way, to conceive of the "divine." For most people these religious beliefs influence their behavior from cradle to grave. Religions answer questions like this:

  • What is the origin of all things? Is there a God? Is there more than one God? If there is a God, what is his/her nature? Are there ordained laws that exist to guide our life and behavior? What are these laws? How are they communicated to us? How should we treat transgressions of these laws? What must we do to live in keeping with the will of the divine?

Religious beliefs bear upon many aspects of a person's life—with rules, requirements, taboos, and rituals. Many of these regulations are neither right nor wrong, but simply represent social preferences and subjective choices. However, sometimes, without knowing it, social practices, including religious beliefs or practices, violate basic human rights. Then, they must be criticized. For example, if a society accepts among its social practices any form of slavery, torture, sexism, racism, persecution, murder, assault, rape, fraud, deceit, or intimidation, it should be ethically criticized. For example, in religious warfare ethical atrocities are often committed. The question, then, ceases to be one of social preference and relativity. No religious belief can legitimately be used to justify violations of basic human rights.

Test the Idea
Distinguishing Between Ethics and Religion

Focus on one religious belief system (as commonly held) to identify possible confusions between theological beliefs and ethical principles. See if you can identify any practices within the religion that might be critiqued as unethical. See also if you can identify any practices that the religion considers unethical that are in fact unrelated to ethics. Select any religion about which you are sufficiently knowledgeable to find possible problems of the sort we are considering. As an example remember the case of those religious believers who think that a woman who commits adultery should be stoned to death.

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