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Asking the clergy: Can one have a moral compass without religion?

Shalom Ber Cohen

Shalom Ber Cohen Credit: Shalom Ber Cohen

The ability to judge correctly what is right and wrong, and act accordingly, is often called a moral compass — and generally considered a virtue. This week’s clergy discuss whether one can point that compass in a true direction without faith lighting the way.

Rabbi Shalom Ber Cohen

Chabad at Stony Brook

Of course, a person can strive to be a moral and good person, even though he or she may not believe in God or religion, but for a society, that can be truly dangerous. If morality is not objective — and based on human judgment and understanding — then at times, people can be on target and completely noble, but at other times, be totally off. We may wrongfully find ways to justify immoral decisions — or even just bad ones — based on what we feel and decide at a given moment. There are no absolute ethics and values. History, unfortunately, has supported this idea time and again. Consider, for example, the late 1930s in Nazi Germany. On Jan. 24, 1983, in a public address before thousands of people, the Lubavitcher Rebbe — Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory — said, “From that same nation which was the most advanced in science and in ethics came the ultimate acts of inhumanity . . . The cause? Because their intellect was not based on the foundation and base of all things, which is the knowledge that there is a Master to this mansion — the Creator of the world and its Director.” Judaism calls for us to recognize that God created the world, and that God, a divine being, teaches and tells us what is principled, right and good. What is just for all people. Guidelines exist from the Creator himself in the form of the Torah — a blueprint for living a life of strong, unwavering values. There are words, commandments, to turn to for all sorts of questions and issues, and they are based in absolute ethics, applicable to every situation. We just need to use them. Together, let’s follow his guidelines to improve today and create a better tomorrow.

Khalid S. Lateef

Founder, As-Siraatal-Mustaqeen Islamic Center, Wyandanch

Neither God nor the Prophets came to humanity with an appeal to establish a religious theology, a religious school of thought or an organized religion. Our Creator sends us his servants as a reminder of the better nature that has been put inside of us; the voice from within that speaks to us through what we call our conscience. Prophet Muhammad was a human who went up into a cave seeking answers from God and was rewarded with good guidance. The Arabic word “Islam” comes from the root Arabic letters of “Seen,” “Lam”, “Meem” (“S”, “L”, “M”). These letters form the root for the Arabic words that mean peace, to save, to surrender, to submit, to hear. Originally, that is all it meant; all who submitted to the guidance of God were practicing “Islam” and the people who did it were called “Muslim,” which contains the same root. Prophet Muhammad did not come to form a new organized religion; he came to humans who were practicing Christianity, Judaism, paganism, agnosticism, and atheism, etc., with a message of one brotherhood of all the Prophets of God, one human family and one Creator, that we call by different names. However, it eventually turned into another organized religion. So, there is no need to be labeled part of any organized religion or be religious to have a moral compass. The power that created us all instilled within us “a moral compass” at birth.

Bhante Kottawe Nanda

Head monk, Long Island Buddhist Mediation Center, Riverhead

Of the living beings in the world, humans are the most intelligent. Depending on the societies in which they live, they are expected to follow certain norms or cultural traits. In certain societies, religious or cultural traditions, geography of the area or other factors dictate the behavior of individuals. In free societies people are allowed to think for themselves and act according to the dictates of their conscience as long as they do not violate the society-imposed norms. The people who observe religious guidelines act according to the teachings of their religious leaders. Their moral compasses are directed more by their religious values than their own thinking. A freethinker has a moral compass of his/her own directed by that person’s own understanding of rights and wrongs according to the dictates of one’s conscience. As Buddhism is more a philosophy than a religion based on cause and effect, thinking of its followers is not restricted in any way except by one’s own capacity to think and explore. In answer to a question on right and wrong actions, the Buddha expressed the following: “If the results of your actions are harmful to you or to anyone else, then those are not considered to be good actions. If the results of your actions are beneficial to you and also to others, then those are considered to be good actions.”


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