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Is being ethical without being religious enough?

While most would assume that ethics and religion overlap and even mirror each other, is it possible to have one without the other? This week's clergy take a closer look at the two concepts.

Rabbi Joel Levinson, Temple Beth El of Patchogue:

As a rabbi, I'd like to believe that in order to be ethical, you need some sort of attachment to religion. But every day, I meet people who are nonreligious who lead ethical, moral lives. We also see and hear in the media of people who lead religious lives but are lacking in ethics and morality to the point of criminality.

People misuse religion. The motivation why a person is ethical -- the basis for the ethics -- is less important than the outcome. It is behavior that determines whether he or she is ethical and moral.

A religious person is one who follows the tenets of a religion. Ethics is how we treat one another. To someone who is nonreligious, if you treat others with the respect you want to be accorded, more often than not it leads to an ethical outcome. You're not going to mistreat yourself. There are atheists and agnostics who lead ethical, moral lives.

There are people who use religion to explain why they do things that aren't ethical or moral and are harmful to society. A moral compass is internal. It is nice to have one, but the actual behavior is what is important. How you act with others is the ultimate guide of whether you are moral and ethical.

Pastor William Shishko, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Franklin Square:

Everyone is religious, meaning that everyone has certain faith commitments. An atheist has a faith commitment that there is no God. And, our ethical systems grow out of our faith commitments. It is what we believe in, right or wrong. Therefore, it is impossible to have an ethical system without being religious. The big question is, what is your religion?

Ethics is what you believe is right or wrong. Even when you say that, it is a religious commitment. Whenever you say you believe something, that is a religious commitment.

If I say, "I determine what is right or wrong," then my faith commitment is myself. Adolf Hitler was an atheist. Cambodian Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot was an atheist. Soviet leader Josef Stalin was a Communist. They all had faith commitments -- to themselves.

I was part of the counterculture in the 1960s, the way so many were in the 1960s. I was Greek Orthodox and had a friend who was Catholic. He would debate me about what was an atheist. I couldn't answer his questions. Every ethical system presupposes a certain commitment. Can an atheist be good or ethical? Yes, but in doing so, he has committed to a "religion."

Father Randolph Geminder, rector, Saint Mary's Anglican Church, Amityville:

As a Christian priest, I can't find guidelines outside the Bible, outside what the Scriptures tell me to do. Belief in Jesus Christ has to be the bottom line.

(John 14: 4-6): And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know. (4)

Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way? (5)

Jesus saith unto him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me."(6)

If we can boil down some of the teachings of Paul, arguably the greatest theologian the faith has seen, he said that those who have not been exposed to Christ will be judged by God on their basic goodness. If you didn't have the opportunity to know Jesus Christ but were loving, kind and generous, God would use that as the criteria in which to judge you. It would seem, however, based on Scripture and tradition, that those who didn't know Christ will have a chance to choose or deny him in the end.

A person who doesn't believe in Christ may not be looking beyond the grave, but I have to. That person could be a good, loving moral soul, better than some Christians. I believe that even a good, ethical person who is an atheist or agnostic will have a chance to confront God and make a decision whether to accept Christ. I can't rewrite Scripture or 5,000 years of Judeo-Christian history. Somehow, some way, all people must confront the reality of God's truth and fullness. As an Orthodox Christian I can't answer that question under a set of rules that doesn't include Christ and the Scriptures, so, being ethical without being religious isn't enough.

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