Morality, Religion, and Natural Law

Nathaniel S. Lehrman, MD
Article Type: 
Summer 1997
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Dear Editor,

Dr. Jane M. Orient’s emphasis on morality’s importance in medicine (Medical Sentinel, Spring 1997) is characteristically on target. Her reminding us that religion created that morality is also vitally important. But she may err in seeing that morality as based on objective “natural law” rather than on something quite different: objective, religiously- and historically-defined Moral Law.

Natural law explains natural phenomena, such as the rotation of the earth around the sun and the mutual attraction of male and female. It has always existed even though humans have often defined it wrongly. We understand natural law through scientific investigation, which constantly refines our understanding of it and our ability to use it for our own benefit.

Human behavior involves a difference and additional dimension: the “should,” which stands above and beyond the “is” of natural law. How we should act is defined by our moral codes and ideals, which come mostly from religion.

A glance at sexual behavior shows how much these codes and ideals can vary. While homosexuality is said to be contrary to natural law, all pre-Christian Near Eastern societies accepted it — except for the Jews — and some Greeks glorified it. Since Christianity and Islam continued the Hebrews’ ban, we see it as wrong, or even as “unnatural.”

What about incest? Egyptian pharaohs married their sisters, and what is more natural than the sexual activity between siblings we see in our dogs and cats? Are the marriages of first cousins incestuous? Medieval Christianity thought so whereas Judaism always favored them. We see siblings and parent-child incest as wrong because the Bible says so — I believe correctly.

Understanding human behavior thus requires comprehension of the ideals — the Moral Laws — we live by, where they come from and how they developed. The three currently conflicting sexual ideals in our society — celibate, marital, and “free” — were first defined in my “Some Religious and Psychological Origins of Contemporary Sexual Codes,” (J Relig. & Health 1962;I:363-386) and recently re-examined in my “God, Science, and Sexual Ideals” (Midstream, January 1997). My “Fallacy of ‘Natural Law’ ” examining the subject in more detail than here, appeared in the March-April 1994 issue of The Human Quest (formerly The Churchman).

Nathaniel S. Lehrman, MD
Roslyn, NY

[Natural law is also considered to be discoverable by human reason and ethics and fundamental to human nature. It’s absolute and unchanging so that a great Roman statesman like Cicero (106-43 B.C.), who did not believe in a Judeo-Christian God, nevertheless understood the need for ethics and morality in a pagan world.—Editor.]

Originally published in the Medical Sentinel 1997;2(3):77.

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