The Role of Rationalism in Immorality and Sin

Proponents of rational thought often look down their noses at religious thinkers because of the latter’s reliance on tradition and revelation in the realm of moral thought. What they may find interesting is reason’s role in immorality and sin.

“Immorality and sin for Niebuhr are not, of course, the same thing. Sin is the more inclusive concept and immorality is only one aspect of sin. But Niebuhr’s major statements concerning sin apply equally well to his view of immorality. Thus, immorality, like sin, is for Niebuhr fully a spiritual phenomenon. This means that immorality is not necessarily irrational. Reason can be intimately involved in the immoral act. In the last analysis, according to Niebuhr, immorality involves an act of the will that is neither rational nor irrational. This is not to suggest that immorality cannot be explained and does not have certain preconditions. Among these preconditions is the fact of man’s finitude, especially as this takes form in his capacity to die. Man’s mortal nature furnishes the occasion for immorality, as Niebuhr says. But neither mortality nor finitude necessitate immorality. Both sin and immorality are the result of free choice for Niebuhr. In this sense, they are not ‘necessary.’ “

Indeed, many arguments are entertained in the Qur’an regarding idol worship, associating partners, rejecting revelation, and all forms of immoral and indecent behavior.

يَسْأَلُونَكَ عَنِ الْخَمْرِ وَالْمَيْسِرِ ۖ قُلْ فِيهِمَا إِثْمٌ كَبِيرٌ وَمَنَافِعُ لِلنَّاسِ وَإِثْمُهُمَا أَكْبَرُ مِن نَّفْعِهِمَا

“They will ask you about alcoholic drinks and gambling. Say, ‘There is great wrong in both of them and also certain benefits for mankind. But the wrong in them is greater than the benefit.’ ” Qur’an, 2: 219.

For those who claim the Qur’an does not use or address reason, they simply have decided not to look for it. However, their main objection is that Revelation ultimately trumps reason (this can be found in the writings of al-Ghazzali and others). And while Revelation supersedes reason, it does not disallow it from the human decision making experience, moral, religious or otherwise. It simply seeks to put it in its place.

From Ronald M. Green’s Niebuhr’s Critique of Rationalism: A Limited Validation. Read the full article here.

2 Comments The Role of Rationalism in Immorality and Sin

  1. wshahid123@gmail.com'W Shahid

    Have you thought about looking into The Incoherence of the Incoherence by Ibn Rushd (Averroes). It’s a critique of al-Ghazzali’s work against Greek philosophy or the Muʿtazilah of the 8th-10 centuries? There seems to be a legitimate history of rationalism in Islamic theology that was purged post-Ghazzali, no?

  2. Marc

    I am familiar with Ibn Rushd’s work, although I am probably closer to al-Ghazzali than I am to Ibn Rushd, though I am not an ‘Ash’arite. What Ibn Rushd and his ilk object to is the limiting of reason, placing it underneath the canopy of Revelation. Ibn Rushd seems to equate any limiting of reason to nullifying it all together. Rationalists also give the false portrayal that reason can somehow be divorced from human emotions. That we are capable of some sort of “pure rational thought.” I do not see how it’s possible to divorce reason from the rest of the human experience, given that it came out of that same history and experience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *