Religion as a Virtue
“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” So says the advertisement placed on over 800 buses in England as part of the atheist bus campaign, featured in this New York Times article. The ad campaign was initiated to respond to advertisements sponsored by this website, quoting John 3:16 and listing the website. The website, I think, is what is often called a Roman Road website, which my esteemed fiancé addresses in this blog post.
My intention is not to talk about atheism or the problems with the Roman Road mentality (which my fiance does a very fine job addressing), but rather to talk more generally about what religion is, which I hope may clear up some misconceptions between atheists and Christians.
Aquinas says that religion is a virtue which is characterized by giving due honor to God. Because religion is about “giving what is due,” Aquinas includes it as a virtue of justice, which is defined as the habit “whereby a man renders to others what is due to them by a constant and perpetual will.” When I repay a loan, I am giving what is due to a person, which is an act of justice. When I punish a misbehaving a child, I am giving what is due, which is an act of justice. When I give God gratitude and worship, I am giving God what is due, which is an act of justice.
Habits are differentiated according to their objects. The theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) have God as their object while the moral virtues have a natural or human good as their object. The object of temperance, for example, is pleasures of touch. The object of fortitude is the arduous good. The object of religion is “reverence to one God under one aspect, namely as the first principle of the creation and government of things” (II-II, Q. 81, art. 3).
The moral virtues are about the moral good according to human, not divine standards. The acts conducive to the development of the moral virtues are in accordance with the dictates of natural human reason. So Aquinas, by listing religion as a moral virtue, is saying that religion is a natural, human virtue, not something supernatural. He says, “the good to which religion is directed is to give due honor to God. Honor is due to someone under the aspect of excellence: and to God a singular excellence is competent, since He infinitely surpasses all things and exceeds them in every way. Wherefore to Him is special honor due: even as in human affairs we see that different honor is due to different personal excellences, one kind of honor to a father, another to the king.” (I-II, Q. 81, art. 4).
What Aquinas is saying here is really quite remarkable–religion is something everybody should practice, not just select people who believe in God. Moreover, religion is not about our human state of mind, but about giving God what is due to him as God. Good, or virtuous religious practice does not give God worship in order to avoid Hell, as this http://www.jesussaid.org/gods-wrath-against-sin.php Roman Road website suggests, and atheists often assume. Virtuous religious practice recognizes God as the giver of all good things and believes he should be given gratitude and honor as a result.
So what about the Atheist Bus Campaign’s claim that all those religious people should “stop worrying and enjoy life?” Or what about the Australian atheists who wanted to advertise for their point of view with the appeal “Atheism: Sleep in on Sunday mornings.” You get the impression that atheists are the happy, carefree ones and religious people are uptight, paranoid, and miserable. Aquinas would disagree. “the direct and principal effect of devotion is the spiritual joy of the mind . . . Caused by a twofold consideration: chiefly by the consideration of God’s goodness, because this consideration belongs to the term, as it were, of the movement of the will in surrendering itself to God, and direct result of this consideration is joy. . . Secondarily, devotion is caused by the consideration of one’s own failings; for this consideration regards the term from which man withdraws by the movement of his devout will, in that he trusts not in himself, but subjects himself to God” (II-II, Q. 82, art. 4).
Good and virtuous religion, whereby God is praised and adore as the supreme principle of all being, and the giver or all good things is not a burdensome act, according to Aquinas, but one which humans are meant to enjoy. This is consistent with his idea that virtue is not just when we do good acts against our inclinations, but when our inclinations align with good acts: “we must allow that sorrow for things pertaining to virtue is incompatible with virtue: since virtue rejoices in its own. On the other hand, virtue sorrows moderately for all that thwarts virtue, no matter how” (I-II, Q. 59, art. 4).
Most of us, however, do not have the virtue of religion. It is hard for us to wake up on Sunday mornings, we do get bored in church, and we almost always have other things to do besides pray. Almost all virtues are difficult to develop at first. It is hard for an alcoholic to be temperate towards alcohol, there is always an excuse to not justly give money and time to different charitable activities as an act of justice, and judging by the divorce rates in this country, lots of oaths are being broken. Yet it takes virtuous acts like keeping promises and giving money to the poor to develop the virtue of justice. It takes virtuous acts of moderation towards food, drink, and sex to develop the virtue of temperance.
My point is that most of us are not virtuous people and so we find it difficult to do virtuous things. But Aquinas’ psychology says that the more we grow in virtue, the easier it is for us to continue to act virtuously. So also is the case with religion. We start off practicing religion because it is our duty, but as we revere and honor him, “our mind is subjected to Him; wherein its perfection consists, since a thing is perfected by being subject to its superior” (II-II Q. 81, art. 7). As we become more religious, we become sanctified, or made holy, whereby we give God not only what He is due in worship, but also as we refer to God “the works of the other virtues.” In like manner, “man by certain good works disposes himself to the worship of God” (II-II, Q. 81, art. 8).
So religion and other good acts are related in Aquinas’ systems because religion itself is a virtue. And virtues dispose their owner towards more and more good acts. So don’t sleep in on Sunday mornings, but look at going to church and worshipping God as just another part of enjoying life, and more importantly, as part of becoming a better person. And above all, remember that in the end, the worship you give isn’t about you and what you are getting out of it, but about what you owe God.