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 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.


13 comments so far

  1. everydaythomist on

    I did not address in this blog post, which is already quite long, what Aquinas thinks about right and wrong religious practices. What I mean is that if Aquinas thinks that religion is simply the act of giving God what is due to him as God, does he think that there are right and wrong ways of doing this? He does, and at some point in the future, I would like to write a blog post on these criteria for judging religious practices. For now, I will just include a few teaser.

    The first is from II-II, Q. 81, art. 5. Aquinas says, “it is possible to have too much in matters pertaining to Divine worship, not as regards the circumstance of quantity [since it is not possible to pay god as much as we owe Him], but as regards other circumstances, as when Divine worship is paid to whom it is not due, or when it is not due, or unduly in respect of some other circumstances.” And from Q. 92, art. 1 “Superstition is a vice contrary to religion by excess, not that it offers more to the divine worship than true religion, but because it offers divine worship either to whom it ought not, or in a manner it out not.”

    The real argument Aquinas has against those who argue that all worship is equally good is in Q. 93, art. 2, “If that which is done be, in itself, not conducive to God’s glory, nor raise man’s mind to God, nor curb inordinate concupiscence, or again, if it be not in accordance with the commandments of God and the Church, or if it be contrary to the general custom, all this must be reckoned excessive and superstitious, because consisting, as it does, of mere externals, it has no connection with the internal worship of God.

    And one more long quote for good measure, this time from II-II, Q. 93, art. 1: “If anything false is signified by outward worship, this worship will be pernicious. This happens in two ways. In the first place, it happens on the part of the thing signified, through the worship signifying something discordant therefrom: and in this way, at the time of the New Law, the mysteries of Christ being already accomplished, it is pernicious to make use of the ceremonies of the Old Law whereby the mysteries of Christ were foreshadowed as things to come. In the second place, falsehood in outward worship occurs on the part of the worshiper, and especially in common worship which is offered by ministers impersonating the whole church.”

  2. chris on
  3. Scott Haile on

    That’s a really interesting article Chris–also very beautiful, even though I have this fear that he’s over-simplifying. I wonder which kinds of Christianity make this difference more than others, and I can’t help thinking of Søren Kierkegaard and wondering whether an existentialist Christian mindset–the insistence that each individual is called to respond to God by faith–has permeated evangelical Christianity.

    Aquinas, as Beth describes, has a great system that describes how each individual can develop the necessary strengths (if I remember right, Beth always says a root meaning of “virtue” is “power”); yet I wonder if only the elite people of his day got access to actually learn the system and implement it in their lives. My impression is that conservative Protestants–at least in settings where they’re successful at converting non-Christians–do a great job of encouraging *everyone* to individually respond to God and take control of their lives, like the article explains. But I might be missing something.

    Or maybe it’s something else: it seems to me there’s inevitably a lot of hypocrisy and apathy in any culture that has long been Christian, but it seems there’s a different flavor to Christianity among converts. So I suppose medieval Europe had to deal with people’s complacency, whereas modern Africa gets the excitement of conversion, which maybe makes Christians stand out more than they would in a place like America.

    I’d be interested especially if someone had a historical perspective on all this in various cultures.

  4. Scott Haile on

    Another thing — so if I understand you Beth, you’re saying that simply attending church and worshipping God helps people grow in the virtue of justice simply by attending and worshipping, discrete from the content they learn about justice at the church?

  5. Mike on

    I read your article. Religion can make people better because it can give people meaning and purpose in life. It gives answers too. But like anything else, it has downsides.

    In Israel, suicide bombers believe that they will get 72 virgins in Heaven. A lot of killing has been done over the years in the name of religion. And I hate to bring this up, but even President Bush believes that God wanted him to be President.

    Religion can be an excuse to push views on others too. Let’s say gay marriage, which may be considered a self sin, not one that harms others. Does a religion have a right to ban a gay atheist from marriage?

    I think that the biggest mistake in religion is when people don’t take timeframe in context. The anti-gay text was in the Torah, my book, before the Bible. But for the same reason that the Torah does not condemn slavery, the views against gays were also influenced by when they were written. I believe that slavery is evil but my book was okay with it. I believe gay marriage is morally right, not just legally right. But that is not based on any scripture.

    I believe religion does more good than bad, but I believe that it is important to question old scripture.


  6. scotthaile on

    Your question: “Does a religion have a right to ban a gay atheist from marriage?”

    The answer is obviously “no,” but only because “a religion” doesn’t get to vote in America. People, however, do get to vote, and they will inevitably choose laws based on what they think is right and wrong–and for most people this is influenced by religion in one way or another. In our society, religion is so closely interwoven with politics, philosophy, and popular opinion that I don’t see how we could separate them–and indeed, in public discourse Jesus is used by both conservatives and liberals to argue for their causes.

    One key point is to acknowledge that almost everyone wants to force their views on other people, even if that includes the ironic demand that everybody be tolerant of different viewpoints. In fact, laws are *precisely* the effort to force one’s views on other people, whether that means that an insurance provider has to cover a man’s gay spouse, or whether it means two men can’t get married. I generally support legalizing gay marriage, but it would be wishful thinking to claim that that’s not me trying to force my views on someone.

    So no, a religion doesn’t have the right to do anything politically. But Americans as citizens, influenced by religion, are the only people that *can* decide, one way or the other, whether gays will be allowed to marry. It’s not a strength or weakness of religion that it influences politics; it’s a blunt fact that it *will* influence politics, and the only question is how effectively we will work within our religious traditions to reach the best conclusions.

  7. everydaythomist on

    Thanks for your comments. You write in reference to Aquinas’ system of virtue: yet I wonder if only the elite people of his day got access to actually learn the system and implement it in their lives.” I actually worked with the Southern African Catholic Bishop’s Conference in their implementation of a program called Education for Life which was specifically an HIV/AIDS prevention and sex education program but more generally a program to help people grow in virtue. The motto for the program was John 10:10: “I have come that you may have life and have it to fulfillment.” The program helped Southern African people, often the poorest of the poor, identify goals for their life including the type of person they wanted to be, and then identify means to achieving their goals. We would then examine their actions like having sex with a teacher and determine whether or not that was consistent with their goals and the person they wanted to become. I haven’t been back in years and I am doubtful if the program is flourishing, largely due to funding (nobody wants to fund a Catholic HIV/AIDS program that isn’t throwing condoms at 16 year olds), but the program had a lot of potential for success. If western aid workers get a little more creative in the type of aid they are giving, we could very well see more character-based aid programs, and I hope we do.

    Regarding the question about going to church and the content of what that church preaches, I would say that first of all, regardless of what the church preaches, it is good to go and worship on Sunday mornings with a mindset that you owe it to God. But some liturgies are better than other at serving God, and it is obviously better to worship at a church that serves God in the best way, so that you can most easily develop the virtue of religion. Some ways of worship are antithetical to the development of the virtue of religion, such as worship that includes homage to an idol or the worship of a false idea of God. Other worship services disconnect the virtue of justice from the virtue of religion, becoming too andro-centric. Other ways of worship disconnect the virtue of religion from love of neighbor.

    As a Roman Catholic, I think that Catholic worship has the most potential to serve God in the right way and thereby develop the virtue of religion in its practitioners. In practice, this isn’t always the reality. But my position is that you try and reform the worship practices from within the church, not by leaving it. So there are some things about Catholic worship and Catholic theology that I am uncomfortable with, but I hope that as I grow in the virtue of religion, I can help influence necessary changes that need to happen in Catholicism to make the way Catholics worship more virtuous.

    However, what I am very opposed to is when people say that they don’t worship because (1) they don’t get anything out of it, (2) they don’t enjoy it or they have better things to do, or (3) there isn’t a church they like. I think it is better to worship at a church you don’t really like than not to worship at all. The reason is that worship is about giving God his due, and God deserves a time set aside to come together with other people to offer him praise and thanksgiving and sacrifice, even if we do this imperfectly.

  8. everydaythomist on

    Your question in general seems to be about the connection between liturgy and ethics. Because religion is a part of justice, it is connected to other parts of justice. So what is inconsistent with justice (like slavery) is inconsistent with religion, and vice versa.

    I don’t think that the Bible really thinks slavery is okay. After all, didn’t Yahweh set his people free from slavery? I think there is an assumption in the worldviews of the people that wrote the Bible that slavery was an evil, but it was the way the world worked. But the Bible was a valuable weapon in the abolitionist movement, and also in the anti-segregation movement, so I don’t think that it is as pro-slavery as you might think. Theology is all about finding God’s will in salvation history, and I think that the Bible is consistent on the point that God does not will his people to be slaves.

    As I said to Scott, some religions are better than others, and some “religious” people are better than others. Because I see such a critical connection between religion and justice, I think that religious people are just people and vice versa. I don’t know how religious Bush is, but I don’t here a lot about him “giving God his due,” but more about what God does for him. Doesn’t seem consistent with the notion of religion that I have put forward here.

    It is true that many, many religions advocate against contemporary cultural practices like gay marriage. Many people see the opposition to gay marriage as antithetical to justice or worse. I was called a bigot at a party once because I raised the question of the legitimacy of gay marriage. I come from a religion however that sees marriage as not just about the love between two people, but also about the openness to life through the procreation of children. I am going through pre-Cana (the Catholic pre-marital program) right now with my fiance and we both had to vow that our union is open to the procreation of children. It was only after we had made this and a few other preliminary vows that we were seen as having the “right” to marry in the Catholic church. My point is that Catholicism and other religions don’t see marriage as a prima facie right, but our culture does. Our culture thinks that two autonomous, consenting people can do what they want as long as nobody gets hurt, but many religious people see a more limited range of possible activity.

    I would say that if you think that the opposition to gay marriage is contrary to justice, then don’t stop worshiping at places that disagree with you, but try and bring the practice of the church closer to what you see to be a practice of justice. This is Martin Luther King Jr. did with the practice of segregation. If gay marriage is a constitutive part of justice, then religions will have to start practicing it if they want to be virtuous. If gay marriage is not a constitutive part of justice, then it may stay a cultural practice, and a secular union, rather than a religious one. And the religious people who think that gay marriage is not a constitutive part of justice will likewise try to change the cultural practices that allow it.

  9. everydaythomist on

    This article is relevant to my blog post. The question regarding the “cussing pastor’s” religiosity is also a question about how just he is.

    More importantly, however, this article raises the question of church marketing. “The “modern evangelical machine” is a product of the 1970s and ’80s, when a new generation of business-savvy pastors developed strategies to reach unbelievers turned off by traditional worship and evangelization. Their approach was “seeker sensitive”: upon learning that many people didn’t go in for stained glass and steeples, these pastors made their churches look like shopping malls. Complex theology intimidated the curious, and talk of damnation alienated potential converts — so they played down doctrine in favor of upbeat, practical teachings on the Christian life.”

    Thomas says that worship should be consistent with cultural practices as long as that worship is not inconsistent with the commandments of God. There is a wide range of acceptable practices when it comes to appropriate worship. What I don’t think is appropriate is when ministers excessively try and tailor their worship practices to what people want. This creates a mindset in the people that the main concern in worship is “what they get out of it,” rather than serving God. I’m not saying a minister should be completely out of touch with the needs and preferences of his given congregation, but that the main concern shouldn’t be creating a popular worship service. If religion is about service to God, the main concern should be about how best to go about that.

  10. Winston Churchill on

    Scanning a few posts raises some thoughts about Christ’s immediate goal and the myriad religious philosophical works referenced herein: What information does he want sewn? If we have a thin window of time with each person, how should we spend this currency?

    Paul mentioned some Greek philosophers in passing as a segue into gospel elements. How ornate and labyrinthine should a gospel container, conductor or catalyst be? Could a captivating blog or an intellectually charismatic man (Aquinas) actually mis-spend units of human attention, even if Christology is liberally sprinkled throughout?

    How many human hours do you think have been mis-spent on philosophy in the guise of pertinent useful spiritual information. How many books do you think Christ would recommend in the Christian self help and religious philosophy sections of a book store or even at the Bibliotheca Apostolica?

    If one is describing a 6 dimensional quantum Schrödinger-Poisson model, it might require a tome. But if we look at the longest message constructs of Christ and the NT writers, they always seem to be amazingly brief. And yet great theologians have written, each single-handedly, enough to fill a small library. Do you think in most cases, Christ would smile and bless the time it took to write these and the never ending resource consumption they continually inspire, even as the reaper silently draws his eternal wages?

    I don’t know what the meaning of this verse is, but I ponder it sometimes:

    Proverbs 18:4 The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters, but the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook.

  11. Winston Churchill on

    On the other hand, from everything I’ve read or heard about you from Scott, there is virtually no one with whom I would rather start a church 🙂 Your voice is potent, unique and engaged in the battle, from where I sit.

    If you, Scott and John P ever want to make a go at a church that will scorch the earth with nothing but the loving truth, I’m all in.

    This is in response to your reprisal to the neutering of the message to accommodate the goat filled crowds pastors so want to please.


  12. everydaythomist on

    Romans 12:3-8. We all have gifts that differ according to the grace given us. If I can win some for Christ through philosophy, by appealing to the deficient reason of the human being who hungers for something but lacks the eyes of faith to see what, then so I will. If I can use a theological rogue like Thomas to do some part in ending the fractious divisions in Christ’s body, so I will. Paul was all things to all people according to the need. Some need the pure, unadulterated Word, proclaimed unapologetically with force and fury; others need a subtler message, like Paul gently prying the mind’s of his listeners at the Areopagus: “You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. . . . I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown god.'” What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.” That more subtle message, the revealing of an unknown God, make take a tome to proclaim, but proclaim it must if it wins over for Christ one lost sheep.

    Moreover, the message of the church is always in need of self-evaluation. Human beings are selfish, misguided, and manipulative, and the pure, unadulterated Word is too often hijacked for a cause that is not of Christ. Some of those tomes you disdain serve the purpose of returning the Good News to the one who brought it. Martin Luther King Jr. was doing theology when he wrote to the complacent well-intentioned white ministers and said that “shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” His namesake Martin Luther was doing theology when he nailed his theses to the door in Wittenburg and proclaimed forcefully to the well-intentioned and wayward Catholic Church “Nein!” And my man Thomas Aquinas was doing theology when he said “We merit glory by an act of grace; We do not merit grace by an act of nature.” Each of these wanted to purify the gospel message, to scorch the earth with nothing but loving truth. And I have faith that Christ smiled on them and their letters, theses, and tomes.

    Your comments are greatly appreciated, your insights keen, your enthusiasm evident. I hope you become a regular reader, working to bring my message back to its source when it becomes wayward. Thomas Aquinas called this fraternal correction. But the writers of Proverbs, which you cite, would not bid me stop my work or yours: “For a fool, to be silent is wisdom, not to open his mouth at the gate. . . If you remain indifferent in time adversity, your strength will depart from you” (Prov. 24:7, 10).

  13. Scott Haile on


    Your “thin window of time” has its place, and I know you make the most of your opportunities. But my life is made up mostly not of thin windows, but of ongoing conversations. Aquinas wrote for people who were going to study theology. The only question was whether they would study it well. Beth and I do the same thing.

    I think your rhetorical questions reflect a problem with humanity and how we have to go about reading the Bible and doing theology, rather than just with the work of people who are very philosophical like Aquinas.

    In particular, the Bible strikes different people with meanings that are both “obvious” and contradictory. You and I often see very different things when we look at Scripture. How do we decide what’s most important? Is it what’s clearest? Is it what’s repeated the most times or takes up the most space? Is it what we hear from Jesus in the Gospels rather than the other books? Is it the places we find specific commands? Is it what seems to apply best to our own context? Is it what seems to have the most enduring implications (e.g., eternal salvation)? Is it something else?

    Philosophy just means thinking carefully about things, which is to say it helps us examine our suppositions. With a text as complicated as the Bible, I don’t see any way around doing some serious and careful thinking apart from just what the Bible says, and the reason philosophy is so complex is that there have been a lot of these ideas over history that people want to consider carefully. Granted we shouldn’t start in with philosophy if someone wants to know who Jesus is. But for people who are able, I think it’s very wise to study other careful thinkers, alongside our own study of Scripture, to help us make prudent use of the airtime we’re given.

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