On Religion as an Individual Code of Behavior

Reading a 1956 interview with the writer William Faulkner, I gained an insight into religion that I wish to share with readers. In order to set the context for Faulkner’s remarks, I will reproduce a section of the interview and then focus on the part that triggered the new thought in my mind.

INTERVIEWER: Are there any artistic advantages in casting the novel in the form of an allegory, as the Christian allegory you used in A Fable?

FAULKNER: Same advantage the carpenter finds in building square corners in order to build a square house. In A Fable, the Christian allegory was the right allegory to use in that particular story, like an oblong, square corner is the right corner with which to build an oblong, rectangular house.

INTERVIEWER: Does that mean an artist can use Christianity simply as just another tool, as a carpenter would borrow a hammer?

FAULKNER: The carpenter we are speaking of never lacks that hammer. No one is without Christianity, if we agree on what we mean by the word. It is every individual’s individual code of behavior, by means of which he makes himself a better human being than his nature wants to be, if he followed his nature only. Whatever its symbol—cross or crescent or whatever—that symbol is man’s reminder of his duty inside the human race. Its various allegories are the charts against which he measures himself and learns to know what he is. It cannot teach man to be good as the textbook teaches him mathematics. It shows him how to discover himself, evolve for himself a moral code and standard within his capacities and aspirations, by giving him a matchless example of suffering and sacrifice and the promise of hope. Writers have always drawn, and always will draw, upon the allegories of moral consciousness, for the reason that the allegories are matchless—the three men in Moby Dick, who represent the trinity of conscience: knowing nothing, knowing but not caring, knowing and caring. The same trinity is represented in A Fable by the young Jewish pilot officer, who said, “This is terrible. I refuse to accept it, even if I must refuse life to do so”; the old French Quartermaster General, who said, “This is terrible, but we can weep and bear it”; and the English battalion runner, who said, “This is terrible, I’m going to do something about it.”

Faulkner, in effect, defines religion as “every individual’s code of behavior, by means of which he makes himself a better human being than his nature wants to be, if he followed his nature only.” So, in seeking a religion an individual is actually seeking a moral code by means of which he orders his behavior.

Here is what occurred to me at this point: I have a choice of crafting that code of behavior for myself or I can take one off the shelf from amongst the existing religions. The former is difficult, no doubt, but the latter has a bigger downside. The downside in picking a package off the shelf is that along with what I value, I have to accept things that I am unable or unwilling to support. Take Islam, for example. If I were to call myself a Muslim I would have to stand by practices that I find unconvincing or at least outdated – amputation for theft, stoning to death for adultery, valuing a woman’s evidence as half that of a man’s, etc. I have seen enough Muslims being forced to hem and haw and contrive contorted justifications when discussing such aspects of their religion. They are unable to eliminate them from their code of behavior without being thrown out of the Muslim fold by those more faithful or fundamentalist in their beliefs who are unwilling to allow the evolution of the religious code.

This dilemma is obviously not unique to Islam. Every existing religion has something or the other about which a thinking person today might have reservations but is unable to jettison because of the all-or-nothing nature of the package. Jettisoning them would be tantamount to crafting a customized code of behavior for oneself.

As it is, I am unhappy about the fact that one doesn’t even have a choice among the packages. Rather, one is stuck with the package that one inherits at birth which, without much reflection, one begins to believe is the best in the market. So to me, the prospect of moving to an individual code of behavior comes across as very attractive. I can pick and choose what I admire from all the available codes (which could be theological or non-theological) and drop all what I feel I am unable to support without feeling either guilty or silly.

And this is really what Faulkner suggests when he says: Whatever its symbol—cross or crescent or whatever—that symbol is man’s reminder of his duty inside the human race. Its various allegories are the charts against which he measures himself and learns to know what he is. It cannot teach man to be good as the textbook teaches him mathematics. It shows him how to discover himself, evolve for himself a moral code and standard within his capacities and aspirations, by giving him a matchless example of suffering and sacrifice and the promise of hope.

The key is to focus on our duty inside the human race not to get hung up about the symbol. And, with the duty in mind, to continuously evolve and update a moral code and standard within our capacities and aspirations. In this endeavor, the allegories, the exemplary instances of the application of various moral codes, provide the guidance and the inspiration for our own behavior.

What could be more sensible than to take the best from whatever is available and to employ it to make this world a better place for all?

The complete text of the Faulkner interview is accessible here.


  • Vinod
    Posted at 02:17h, 18 November Reply

    This is indeed wonderful. I wish more people could do this. But the dull reality I see around is that most people are very unsure of themselves. They are too afraid to make choices for themselves and treat unchartered moral terrotory without a community of people to support them. I get a lot of sympathy from traditional people for my customized set of moral values (strangely they are mostly women of the traditional type!). But none of them will come out in the open and take a stand in favour of me. They remain closet supporters.

    I will confess that the need for a community of people who share my moral values weighs on me. It is lonely, very lonely.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 05:48h, 18 November

      Vinod: By definition, it would be rare to find a community that shares a ‘customized’ set of moral values. But we could try and create a community of people who subscribe to having customized moral values. The shared attribute would be the customization while the values themselves could differ. Perhaps we could use the new social networking technologies to set up a group of this type – a community of individuals with customized moral values. It would then be interesting to find out the values that are common to most and those that are idiosyncratic. This would be worth a try.

      I am intrigued by your comment about traditional women and can’t figure out why they would be especially sympathetic to someone with a customized set of moral values. If the set is particularly attractive, it should appeal to everyone except those who frown upon deviating from tradition.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 06:44h, 18 November

      SA, I think one of the reasons that many traditional women are in favour of me is that my moral viewpoint acknowledges their desire to self actualize and confers them with equal respect and dignity as men. They don’t get much of that from their traditions. I think that is one reason they are sympathetic to my “rebellious” approach.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 10:37h, 18 November

      Vinod: That makes sense. But this suggests that the ‘traditional’ women are not blindly accepting of the traditions. They put up with them (for whatever reasons – and we should discuss them) but desire things to be otherwise. They are conscious of the burden that tradition imposes on them. Is this a valid interpretation? If so, it means that the hold of tradition may not be as strong as is generally believed.

      I came across an interesting perspective on tradition attributed to TS Eliot who is considered an arch-conservative:

      In politics and religion alike, Eliot’s conception of tradition is surprisingly dynamic. Our “danger,” he wrote, is “to associate tradition with the immovable; to think of it as something hostile to all change; to aim to return to some previous condition which we imagine as having been capable of preservation in perpetuity.” On the contrary, “tradition without intelligence is not worth having.” We must “use our minds” to discover “what is the best life for us … as a particular people in a particular place; what in the past is worth preserving and what should be rejected; and what conditions, within our power to bring about, would foster the society that we desire.”


      The message is the same as Faulkner’s: We must use our minds to discover what is the best life for us; what in the past is worth preserving and what should be rejected.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 12:51h, 18 November

      Thanks for sharing that, SA. It is indeed comforting to read that and to know that it’s not novel to feel as if one were neither part of the traditoinal group nor part of the west-intoxicated (if I may be permitted some loose terminology) modern group.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 08:56h, 18 November

      But we could try and create a community of people who subscribe to having customized moral values. The shared attribute would be the customization while the values themselves could differ.

      I have to confess that the appeal of the above is not as much as that of having a community that actually shares the moral values. I wonder whether we can never be happy with any state of affairs. When there is a preference for consensus we want voice for dissent. And when there is dissent we want consensus. 🙂

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 10:41h, 18 November

      Vinod: We should be happy in an environment that allows dissent and facilitates consensus.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 12:53h, 18 November

      I will ask what Anil Kala has mentioned – will that be enough to give a sense of community? A sense of community requires a strong predictability of each other’s course of action given a situation and that requires a strong sense of shared morals.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 10:38h, 18 November Reply

    1. Religion is truly bizarre. At its core is concept of God. One can never get the same sense of God from freely chosen code as that which comes from faith of millions over thousands of year.

    2. Some aspects of our behavioral code are flexible. An individual always does risk/benefit analysis weighs it against his code and responds.

    3. On the other hand some aspects of code which have no direct loss to large multitude become inflexible even if it may cause great misery to a minority.

    4. An individual needs a receptacle to dump his guilt. Religion provides him that space and also means to nullify that guilt. Freely chosen code will never be able to replicate that even if it is selectively borrowed from various religions.

    5. Finally a freely chosen code by an Individual will not provide community sense, if it ever begins to provide any community sense it will eventually morph into a rigid code resembling one of the many religions we have now.

    So if there is a popular code of behavior, we end up with yet another religion whose code is warped by collective clash of individual codes.

    Else individual codes will lack feel of religion.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:32h, 18 November

      Anil: The question in my mind is the following: Are we looking for a religion or a moral code of behavior that we can subscribe to without feeling uncomfortable because of all the baggage that comes with religion? If we are seeking a moral code then we need neither conventional religion nor God. The proof of this assertion is the existence of millions of atheists and agnostics, all of whom have individual moral codes.

      As for the sense of community, we have to decide what kind of community we want. There are two models: one can join a holy order and completely share a moral code; or one can be a member of a club of non-conformists and share the non-conformism but not necessarily all the elements of a moral code. Examples of the latter are many of the famous clubs at Oxford and Cambridge and, of course, the celebrated Bloomsbury group of London.

      There is a price to be paid for rejecting the unacceptable parts of conventional religion. One can’t have one’s cake and eat it too.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 14:25h, 18 November

      A little confusing!
      Why are we looking for moral code and contrasting it against religion? A set of mandatory code is always in force installed by the government and the society. This apart, an individual code for other open areas would mean standardized response whereas life is too complex for that. The better way is to provide knowledge and equip individuals to take call on various issues with complete flexibility as and when they are raised.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:56h, 18 November

      Anil: Our starting point was Faulkner’s characterization of religion as an individual’s code of moral behavior and the proposition in the post was that we can craft a customized code of moral behavior instead of taking a pre-packaged one. This is not an outlandish proposal because atheists and agnostics have individual codes of moral behavior that are not tied to any religion. So, it is not a case of contrasting a moral code against religion. Rather, the two are the same thing and the argument is that we can also have a moral code that is not tied completely to any one religion. We can pick and choose the best from all existing codes, religious or otherwise. We may lose a larger community but we are freed from the elements that we don’t like in religion.

      Governments provide civil and criminal codes, not moral ones. I am not sure why an individual code should mean standardized response. The code is comprised of principles, not a detailed do-list and principles are to be applied intelligently. Knowledge is good but it is not a substitute for a moral code.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 03:39h, 19 November

      I visualize serious problem with this theory.
      1. We cannot pick moral code for us (largely). It is already picked for us; a map of moral code is frozen and buried deep in our subconscious picked by, what Hindu’s call our samskar, something like borrowed wisdom or acquired wisdom through interaction with our parents, relatives, teachers, our society and our religion etc. It becomes exceedingly difficult to superimpose anything over it.
      2. Our moral judgment is intuitive in the sense that its process of arriving at a decision is not visible to our conscious mind. The process is complex and unpredictable. We are merely handed down a judgment in split second. A moral issue is judged on the bases of how he it graded and what is its severity. For instance we may not lie if someone asks us what the time was, but if someone we don’t like asks the time so that he can watch is favorite program on TV, we may lie to him just to deprive him that pleasure and not suffer any guilt. But if the same person, who we dislike, asks which hospital his brother is admitted after accident we will tell the truth. In such a complex setting, consciously setting a moral code will not work.
      3. I will be surprised if the atheists and the agnostics you mention are consciously aware of what their moral code is.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 06:21h, 19 November

      Anil: My view is different. I feel you are not leaving anything to human agency and almost turning people into robots. Look at migrants and see how their behavior changes. There are many dimensions that we can decide consciously. Atheists and agnostics have all taken a very conscious decision to reject some elements of a code of behavior and adopt alternatives that they consider more rational.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 06:15h, 19 November

      SA, atheists and agnostics too largely follow the moral code of the cultures they belong to. They may differ with their cultures only on a small subset of moral issues. Atheists and Agnostics do not evaluate their moral stand on every issue from scratch. They evaluate their moral stand only when the issue is up for discussion, onyl when there is a debate on it. Otherwise they pretty much go with the moral values of the society around them.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:42h, 19 November

      Vinod: I am not advocating manufacturing a new code like a comprehensive check list with a position on every possible issue. I am suggesting an attitude where one can objectively evaluate the code of the culture one belongs to and adjust it on the margin, dropping things one feels are anachronistic and adding things that one finds particularly desirable. That for me would be quite enough. At the same time, the conscious individual raises more and more issues for discussion so that the behavioral code of the culture evolves in a direction that is better for society.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 14:42h, 19 November

      Aren’t we robots?
      Else won’t there be fair amount of flux between religions or from theism to atheism or vice versa.

      Yes look at the migrants and how they not only want to retain codes where there is no need for making compromises due altered living conditions or survival related matters but also enforce those code on their children.

      I agree persistent hammering may succeed in altering fossilized moral code for some but great multitude will remain like robots.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 15:08h, 19 November

      SA, Anil does point to a reality I too experience. Great multitudes simply are averse to critically thinking about their views. When challenged to a discussion, I’m usually given excuses like – ‘I like to keep things simple’

      The challenge I face is that given this reality should I succumb to the weight of it or should I continue to push against it?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:20h, 19 November

      Vinod: I have given my response to Anil. The great multitude is not static. It doesn’t think critically, but it follows the trend setters. Therefore, change is possible. Therefore, those who desire change should continue to strive. But, of course, you should do what gives you satisfaction since you are not carrying the responsibility of humanity on your shoulders.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:16h, 19 November

      Anil: Perhaps, but it doesn’t matter. How long ago was the Victorian era? Are today’s behavioral values the same as Victorian values? Did everyone change their values consciously? No. A segment changed and the robots followed.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 04:15h, 20 November

      SA, I have problem with this assertion too. A section of individuals have rarely changed attitude of masses though a single individual may cause such a change but that will be a rarity we cannot rely on. We cannot say with authority that Victorian age passed because a set of individuals dared to change their moral code. A whole set of different things happened during this time; technologies, wars, movement of people in gigantic scale, interaction between cultures etc.

      But I visualized Faulkner’s position as seeing humanity as a collection of individuals having individual moral codes. Assuming such a state existed, it will be extremely unstable. Human’s due to their inherent nature would soon begin to drift in the direction they find affinity with others, form groups and soon we end up with a state which would resemble the world we have today. The individual moral code will give way to collective moral code for the sake of living in cooperative relationship in a society.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 05:41h, 20 November

      Anil: The disconnect is occurring because, I feel, you are taking the argument to an extreme and visualizing every human being sitting down and writing an individual moral code. That is clearly not how it happens and that is not the intention either. The suggestion is that an increasing number of individuals should feel comfortable with thinking consciously about their moral codes and making adjustments to them.

      One of the key points, and an encouraging one, is that moral and behavioral codes are not static. Whatever the reason – technologies, wars, etc. – some individuals start adapting their behavior and then the rest of society follows. So there is no reason to feel fatalistic that moral codes will never change because most people do not think critically about them. Rather, we should be thinking of ways to accelerate the change process, which is possible.

      Also, communities need not only form around moral codes. There can be communities of people who share other attributes – nationality, ethnicity, language, interests, etc. So, the need for community can be satisfied without requiring a uniform collective moral code.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 17:23h, 20 November Reply

    Anil: I was reading The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple and came across a passage in the chapter on Lucknow (page 46) that can give us something to talk about:

    “There was so much that could have been done after Independence, when the abolished the holdings of the zamindars who were strangling the countryside. But all that happened was the rise of these criminal politicians: they filled the vacuum and they are the role models today. Worse still, theirs are the values – if you can call them values – to which people look up: corruption, deception, duplicity and crude, crass materialism. These are seen to be the avenues to success.”

    Whether one agrees with this judgement or not, it does posit a process through which mass values change. Do we agree with the postulate?

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 04:01h, 21 November

      While I agree with the end result but it is slightly different from Faulkner’s proposition. The moral code adopted the new breed occupying space vacated by the zamindars is not a rationally thought out free choice but an impulsive one for the sake of expediency.

      It is not true that people extol these values although they abhor it, they exhibit resigned acceptance else they know they will be subjected to delays. Also they have no patience with non-pragmatic honest individual who in the name of honesty causes delay.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 07:55h, 21 November

      Anil: I found this discussion particularly useful and have carried over my conclusions into a new post for further debate:


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