The Value Orientation of Religion in Contemporary Society


Ever since human history came into being, religion has been one of the most universal and complicated social phenomena. Seen historically, it has coexisted with human society at every stage of its development; seen realistically, it accompanies every country, region and nation whatever be their social systems or characteristics. It can produce great cohesive force and solidify people to overcome all kinds of disasters and vices. On the contrary, it can also provoke conflicts among people which cause social disorder and even war. At present, the number of religious believers is increasing with the development of material production. People’s religious consciousness has not been weakened with the high development of science and technology. So religion is one of the fields most worth studying, whether considered from the perspective of social development or from that of academic culture. As far as social development is concerned, what is most important presently is neither creating conditions to encourage or promote religion nor taking measures to constrain or remove religion, but actively to lead it on the road of benign development so that it is in harmony with social developments. What then is the road of benign religious development? This is an important problem to be explored by scholars from different cultures. Here it is suggested that ethicizing religion is the necessary road both to benign religious development and to the value of religion in modern society in a time of great change.


Religion is based upon people’s beliefs, of which moral belief is an important part closely connected to religious belief. Certainly, moral belief can be totally independent of religious belief, for morality does not presuppose religion. However, when moral belief is developed fully, it can develop into religious belief. On the other hand, religious belief can never leave aside moral belief for religion must presuppose morality and take some moral concepts as its own. Morality should become the central content of religion. Without morality, religion would assume crooked ways which would be rejected by human kind. So religious ethicizing is first decided by its own characteristics.

Belief consciousness is a kind of spiritual activity rooted in human practices. Humanity needs not only the direction of reason, but also the support of belief to continue to exist and develop. As a matter of fact, it is impossible for us human beings to be controlled by reason at all times, in every place and about every matter. On the contrary, belief is indispensable to our life. Reason and belief are at the same time two important factors of human spiritual life. Moreover, they are two indispensable spiritual pillars of human existence and development. Without reason, it would be impossible for human society to keep on developing in a healthy and reasonable manner; and without belief, human society would also be held back. If we can say that human beings are rational animals, then it could be said also that human beings are animals with belief. Reason and belief are two components of human nature.

Though religion is a kind of belief, belief does not equal religion. Belief is complicated in its characteristics and varied in its content. As far as its characteristics are concerned, beliefs can be scientific and unscientific; rational, irrational or anti-rational; realistic and ideal; self-conscious and blind; real and unreal; true, false or absurd, etc. As to content, beliefs are ethical, religious and political and regard many subjects from tradition, convention and daily life. The origins of religious belief are various, among which one’s inner consciousness is important. Under certain conditions conscious belief which is universal among all human beings can be provoked and developed into religious belief. This is one of the most important reasons why religious believers are so universal throughout the world. Thus, what is important is how correctly to guide people’s belief consciousness so that it can harmonize with reason and accord with social development.

Religious belief is included in all different types of cultural systems in the world, although its manifestations and degree differ in the various cultural systems. Western culture includes such strong religious belief, of which Christianity is the most important, that Western culture is said to be a Christian culture. Compared with this, the religious belief included in Chinese culture is far weaker. Although Confucianism has developed so strong a religious coloring that some define it as Confucian religion, it has neither formed a set ecclesiastical hierarchy or a strong church like Christianity, nor has it developed to the extent of standing up to the secular sovereign as an equal like the Christian church. As a result, quite a few scholars deny that Confucianism is a kind of religion.

From another perspective, the spirit of scientific reason in Western culture is similarly strong. Compared with this, it is weaker in Chinese culture, in spite of brilliant achievements in science and technology. As far as Confucianism is concerned, what is prominent, however, are creeds of ethics, morality and the ways of settling down and getting on with one’s pursuit. In Western terms this would be a kind of "practical reason". Scientific reason and religion, these two opposite poles, have constituted the basic connotation of every great cultural system of which philosophy is the deep kernel. This is most obvious in Western culture.

Western culture’s inclusion of strong religious belief is closely connected with its mode of thought in pursuing the absolute (the ultimate reason, the end and the highest substance) which has been forming ever since ancient Greek philosophy, the cradle of Western culture. Ancient Greek philosophers devoted themselves to seeking after the arché of all the things in the universe from the very beginning. This pursuit of arché by philosophers from different schools has always concerned the absolute, which is the highest essence, the ultimate reason and the ultimate truth of all things. This pursuit of the arché has led necessarily to the idea of God and finally formed a monotheism. In fact, Western philosophers have insensibly led Western culture on such a road since Socrates. He began the Western tradition of emphasizing reason while at the same time leading reason toward a search for ends. Because he believed that since all things in the universe were well arranged by God according to His will and all correspond to some definite end, the search for reasons should be a search for ends. Thus God is, in effect, the full reason of the universe, that is, a rational God.

Plato and Aristotle succeeded Socrates, and developed his rational God and theological teleology. Plato built a cosmology of creation; Aristotle built a philosophical system in which logic, ontology and theology form a trinity. His first mover is indeed God (Metaphysics XII): the ultimate reason, highest end, absolute truth, eternal reason and highest good. Although the rational God of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle is different from the God in Christianity, the two are consistent. The theological teleology was absorbed and utilized by early and medieval Christianity. Of course, during its course of formation Christianity also absorbed many ethical ideas from post-Aristotle Greek and Roman philosophy, especially the Stoic ideas of asceticism, obedience and fatalism. Thus, Christianity has absorbed from ancient Greek and Roman philosophy thought of at least two types: one is metaphysics, ontology and cosmology; the other ethical and moral thought. After its formation, it soon integrated social, material and spiritual life. It also provided the West with spiritual food of at least two types: one is the idea of the ultimate metaphysical reality and ultimate concern which has become the West’s spiritual pillar; the other is a whole set of ideas of ethics, morality and value which have become the principle means to regulate interpersonal relations and deal with those contradictions in the Western society.

Comparatively speaking, the religious position and role have not attained the same extent in Chinese culture and society. Although Chinese philosophy also carries on an inquiry after the root or base of all, it has not formed the thought mode for pursuing the arché or absolute like the West. This may constitute a reason with regard to thought why there has not been in China so strong a civil religion as Christianity.

Chinese philosophy stresses ethics and morality. Connected with this, it has formed a whole set of Confucian ethical codes and value norms compatible with patriarchal relations based upon the natural economy, which has been realized also with a religious coloring. Whether or not an alien religion or culture could be rooted in Chinese society depends, to a great extent, on whether it could blend with this set of ideas of ethics, morality and value. The reason for Buddhism’s being rooted in China and being accepted by Chinese society and the Chinese people lies just in its harmonizing with Confucian ideas of ethics and morality. Compared with this, the circumstance of Christianity is far worse than that of Buddhism. This could be attributed mainly to its attitude towards Confucian ideas of ethics, morality and value, which has been more of conflict, exclusion and opposition. From the above, we can say that the spread of religion is connected with the ethical and moral ideas in the place and at the time.



Once religion has developed into a social organization, it must be tightly connected with the social economy and social politics. If religion wants to play a role in the human mind, it must do so based upon some material conditions; every religious organization or church must have a good economic background. Under the conditions of natural economy, religious organizations feed themselves on the occupation of such natural resources as land. With the development of a commodity economy, religion must reform correspondingly in order to be rooted in the modern market economy. However, religion should not become commercialized or marketized, and religious organizations should not control those main national economic lines. Religion’s main function is not to develop the economy, so it is not a correct mode either of social or of religious development to utilize religion to make money or develop the economy. On the contrary, that gradually would corrupt and degrade religion, leading it into vice. Certainly, this does not mean that religion is unconnected with socio-economic development or totally independent of the economy; religion can and should care about, participate in, and promote socio-economic developments. But this means mainly that it can overcome those defects in economic development caused by the shortcomings of human nature through educating people and cultivating good morality, fine character and civil behavior.

As a social component, religion cannot get beyond politics. Ever since their formation, all the greater world religions have been bound with politics. In history, religion has sometimes acted as the banner or horn of popular uprisings, insurrections and social revolutions; sometimes it has acted as a tool to rule the people. Religious organizations at times united with the secular power, and at other times stood up to it as an equal, even resulting in bloody accidents. Till now, many bloody conflicts and insurrections in some countries and regions have involved religious factors. These facts remind us that we must deal seriously with the relationship between religion and politics. With the development of our society, more and more people from more and more countries have realized the necessity and importance of a separation between religion and the regime. Many countries have made definite stipulations about this in their laws. Of course, religious organizations should have their own definite political attitudes and standpoints, but they should not interject religious beliefs into politics. What is more, they should not unify the regime and religion so that religious conflicts are politicized. On the other hand, the state also should refrain from getting involved in religious conflicts. In a word, religious politicization should always be avoided.

Religion and science are in essence opposite to each other. In history, many scientists were so cruelly persecuted by religious organizations because of their persistence in scientific truth that quite a few gave their lives for this. But because of the brilliant achievements of science and technology and its great force, all great religious organizations have changed their opposition to science. They not only allow the free development of science, but also make efforts to engage it in proving their own doctrines. However, the truths of science have been a great shock to religion. The essence and particular functions of religion keep it from ever becoming a science. To make religion into science would be to negate it and change its own identity to its opposite. Scientizing religion is not possible.

The relation between religion and art is different from that between religion and science. In the course of their formation and development all the great religions have created many works of art in all forms, including literature, poetry, drawing, music, sculpture, etc. Religious art is an important component of the resources of art and culture, quite a few of which are still brilliant today and exercise great attraction and appeal. This charm is a great help in promoting the spread and development of religion. The reasons for this link of religion and art are that religious yearning for the future world and the religious imagination are compatible with the pursuit of the ideal by art and its imagination. Furthermore, the religious compassion for the sufferings in present society is also communicable by art. However, making religion artistic is after all limited, because art cannot in the end replace religion’s own characteristics and functions. Excessive attention to making religion artistic could also dilute the divinity of religion, and change people’s belief conscious-ness into aesthetic consciousness, thereby concealing the religious connotation and losing religious meaning.

In a word, religion must build upon economic development, but must never become commercialized or marketized; religious engagement in the economy should be controlled and guided. Religion cannot escape politics, but religious politicizing is a most dangerous tendency. Religious scientizing is in effect impossible. Religious engagement in art is possible, but also limited for religion itself can proceed too far by way of art.


Making religion ethical is not a new topic, for ethics and morality are themselves the central content of religion. The doctrines and classics of the three greatest world religions: Christianity, Budd-hism and Islam, have made much of ethical creeds, commandments, principles and norms. Fraternity, justice, equality, benevolence, succor, thrift, honesty, etc., are familiar ethical concepts in religion. One of the reasons for religion’s appealing and confirming power for people lies in the force and role of its ethical and moral concepts. An im-portant function of religion in society is just the ethical means to adjust interpersonal relationships. Through emphasizing such creeds as that all people are equal before God and that people should love and help each other, religion tries to reconcile contradictions, disputes and conflicts between different classes and levels, and between members of society with different status and amounts of property. Why then should we now particularly emphasize religious ethicizing?

Firstly, in many countries and regions, religious organizations are still instruments for seeking economic benefits or means for carrying political struggles to different extents. It has been a universal phenomenon during the course of its modernization to commercialize and marketize religion in order to seek money and material benefit. It is not rare either for religious organizations to utilize political power to control the economy through collaboration with the regime. One of the greatest vortexes in the present world political situation is to utilize religion to instigate conflicts, to incite contradictions between nations, to create divisions and to bring on political insurrection and bloody wars. The amalgamation of religious radicals and terrorist organizations has incited people’s wrath universally. The more the religious organizations engage in the economic and political order, the further they deviate from their own ethical ideas. Then ethics and morality become not only hollow words, but a great irony in those religious organizations which have power and weapons and use them to massacre masses.

Secondly, it has become a common aim of most people all over the world to develop all types of commodity and market economies. The market economy is one of good order, legality and morality. On the one hand, it implies hot competition; on the other hand, it demands that people be trustworthy, honest and thrifty and reasonably utilize and protect all kinds of resources. It has been proven in practice that the basic quality and moral character of the members of society have great influence on the formation and development of the market economy. Facing this situation, religious organizations should exert their ethical and moral functions without hesitation so as to find their place in a time of social development. There is no other way.

Thirdly, with the development of the market economy, democratic freedom and rights will be expanded, independent personalities will emerge and become ever more expressive, and social life and activities will be richer. This will generate in the material and spiritual-cultural dimensions many contradictions and problems which cannot be solved totally by the state or government. In other words, there are some important complex problems such as natural disasters, charities, the promotion of culture and education, and building up public utilities, etc., in the solution of which the political powers need the aid of social forces. There are also other problems in which state power should not and cannot conveniently intervene, such as academic disputes, competition in cultural and physical educational activities and judgement upon some moral actions, etc. These are what scholars speak of as the role of "civil society". Whether we agree with this concept or not, undeniably there are such contradictions and problems which need to be solved by social forces. Religious organizations can play some mitigating and grass roots role in this respect, mainly with regard to ethical and moral aspects.

Fourthly, with the rapid improvement of modern science and technology, people’s adoration of a supernatural Lord, omniscient and omnipotent, gradually has been diluted, the attraction of paradise as a life ideal has fainted step by step, and the overpowering force and absolute authority of God beyond human kind also has been gradually weakened. What members of society need now is harmony and development in real life, and a good moral quality has become the necessary quality of contemporary people. Religion should and must contribute to humankind in this respect.

However, it must be realized that religious ethical and moral functions are limited. Because the religious ethic and morality belong to all kinds of religious doctrines as their proper components, one must firstly submit to the aim and benefits of these religions. Besides, not all religious ethics and moralities are positive and beneficial; indeed many such ideas may be wrong and absurd, still more are out of date, such as the ideas of asceticism, pessimism, negative escapism and submission to destiny. So, to emphasize exerting religious, ethical and moral functions never means accepting all the historical and present religious ethical ideas without exception. On the contrary, we must firstly get a clear understanding of the situation, tendency and needs of present social development and then develop those ethical ideas which fit the needs of social development and improvement. As for those ethical and moral ideas which do not fit the needs of our times and social developments, we must constrain them, get rid of them, or endow them with new connotations. Religious ethical ideas should not be unalterable and ossified; on the contrary, they should develop historically. Secondly, we must admit that religious ethics and morality cannot take the place of nonreligious social ethics and morality.

What is more, we cannot impose our own religious ethic and morality on members of society who do not belong to our religion. Presently, while material wealth is increasing rapidly, spiritual civilization has not developed with the same speed, and the moral crisis is a fairly universal phenomenon. Certainly, the problem of the improvement of the social ethic and morality cannot be solved exclusively by religion. But, religions, especially those with a long history, need to fulfill their own responsibilities in this respect. Our aim in emphasizing the ethical function of religion is to enable religion to realize its own value orientation in this time of radical change. Thereby it can affirm and exercise its own value in a multi-valued social development and a multi-cultural world.