Morality without Religion?

Morality can have many definitions, but in essence, it is all about not causing intentional harm of any kind to another being. It is about living your life according to a set of rules that allow you to distinguish between right and wrong, “good” and “evil”. Religion can offer those rules. However, do people really need religion to act morally? Or is morality inherently human, thus making religion unnecessary? Let’s have a look at what several experts from various fields (psychology, philosophy, anthropology) have to say.

In 2010, psychologist Paul Bloom was involved in a study concerning “baby morality,” conducted at the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University. The researchers wanted to see whether morality is something human beings are born with, or something they develop over the course of their lifetimes – or in fewer words, whether it was a product of nature or nurture. To summarize the experiment, eight-month-old babies were put in front of two events with two separate outcomes. In the first one, a puppet performed an act of kindness, helping another puppet get out of a box; afterwards, there was a situation in which the helping puppet was rewarded (by another puppet) for its good deed, and another one in which the puppet was being punished for being helpful. The second event had a puppet hindering another puppet from getting out of a box; again, the puppet was rewarded and punished for its action. The babies had to choose in both cases between the puppet rewarder and the puppet punisher. They chose the rewarder for the helper, and the punisher for the hinderer. The conclusion of the study was that babies do have a rudimentary “moral sense.” Morality as we understand it as adults develops as “a synthesis of the biological and the cultural, of the unlearned, the discovered and the invented. Babies possess certain moral foundations — the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness” (Bloom). It would seem that human beings have indeed an innate sense for right and wrong. Nevertheless, one might argue that this where religion can help – to refine this rough, undefined sense, to give it purpose and meaning, to make it all clear. To give structure where there is none.

There is a counterargument to that. Religion does give a set of moral rules to live by – but so does the law. In the beginning of human civilization and culture, the only law was the religious one. But as cultures became more and more secular, the religious prescriptions were gradually replaced by (or turned into) more down-to-earth, pragmatic rules, most legal systems basing their “definition of ‘illegal’ on the principle of ‘immoral’, so that what is immoral often becomes illegal” (Finnis). Today, nobody actually thinks that a person who is not a sociopath or psychopath would go around doing “evil” things on purpose. While it is true that religion has influenced our view on morality throughout time, it is also true that one doesn’t have to be a religious person to act morally. As philosopher Richard Purtill puts it in his article “Ethics”, “we can understand what is wrong with murder without reference to God.”

Furthermore, morality is at the core of any human community. The same Richard Purtill argues in another article, “Religion and Morality”, that “a function of large parts of morality is to make possible human cooperation for mutual benefit. People would have encountered problems of cooperation even in the absence of religious beliefs and practices. Given human ingenuity, therefore, it is plausible to suppose that some form of moral belief and practice would have arisen in the course of human history, even if religion had never existed”. As suggested in the previous paragraph, religious laws regarding moral conduct seem to have appeared out of a need for social order. It stands to reason to think that religion did not create morality per se, but it merely gave it a structure.  Purtill, in “Ethics” observes that “Religion is sometimes thought to play another role, as the guarantor of an incentive to be moral through divine punishment and reward in an afterlife”. In that sense, religion is more like the guardian of moral standards than their originator.

Professor of psychology Steven Pinker discusses another study of the “moral sense”. He posits that “In many arenas of life, two parties are objectively better off if they both act in a nonselfish way than if each of them acts selfishly. … These spreadsheet projections are not quirks of brain wiring, nor are they dictated by a supernatural power; they are in the nature of things” (Pinker). Citing anthropologists Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske’s research of moral concerns around the globe, Pinker recounts that, according to them, “People everywhere, at least in some circumstances and with certain other folks in mind, think it’s bad to harm others and good to help them. They have a sense of fairness: that one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish cheaters. They value loyalty to a group, sharing and solidarity among its members and conformity to its norms. They believe that it is right to defer to legitimate authorities and to respect people with high status. And they exalt purity, cleanliness and sanctity while loathing defilement, contamination and carnality”. These are universal moral beliefs, shared by virtually every human being.

Philosophers Marc Hauser and Peter Singer also identify three problems with the idea that morality has something to do with religion. “One problem is that we cannot … simultaneously say that God is good, and that he gave us our sense of good and bad. For then we are simply saying that God is in accordance with God’s standards. A second problem is that there are no moral principles shared by all religious people (disregarding their specific religious membership) but no agnostics and atheists … atheists and agnostics do not behave less morally than religious believers, even if their virtuous acts are mediated by different principles … The third difficulty … is that despite the sharp doctrinal differences between the world’s major religions, and for that matter cultures like ancient China in which religion has been less significant than philosophical outlooks like Confucianism, some elements of morality seem to be universal” (Hauser & Singer).

In addition to that, philosopher Kai Nielsen argues that “even if God is the perfect good, it does not follow that morality can be based on religion and that we can know what we ought to do simply by knowing what God wishes us to do.” His view is that one cannot base one’s morality on a deity without having some prior notion of what is “good” and what is “evil.” In other words, one could not possibly know if “God” is good and should be worshipped as a perfect being and whether his moral concepts are indeed moral, if one would not know already what is good and bad, and the difference between them.

Building on that, philosopher Mary Warnock makes another similar interesting point. She writes that “Just as … we do not need the idea of God to teach us the origin of the universes around us, so we do not need the idea of God to teach us what is good and what is bad. We can learn this from society itself, not from tablets of stone handed down from Mount Sinai. … Whatever the continuing role of religion today, in philanthropy, in education, in ceremonial, in music, in personal comfort and hope, there is no obligation to believe. We can value things without God to tell us what is valuable. We know, without faith, that love is better than war” (Warnock). Again, the idea that morality is something inherently human, independent of religion, is reinforced.

Morality seems also to be linked to our very identity, regardless of our religious background. Psychologist Nina Strohminger’s studies led her to the conclusion that “when we dig deep, beneath our memory traces and career ambitions and favorite authors and small talk, we find a constellation of moral capacities. This is what we should cultivate and burnish, if we want people to know who we really are.” According to Strohminger, when one thinks of one’s self, what really come into mind are the moral qualities. When one describes another person, most of the times one usually says “he’s a good guy”, or a “she’s a good girl” (or, on the contrary, “he’s not such a good guy”). And this without even thinking of the other person’s religious views. As a matter of fact, religion rarely comes into mind when assessing another person whether he or she is “good” or “bad”. People just watch the other persons’ behavior and conclude accordingly.

Philosopher Mark Rowlands goes even deeper than that. Rowlands’s main argument is that our morality is innate, and it comes from our animal side. “When humans act morally, what is it we are doing? Traditionally, the philosopher’s answer has been an intellectualist one: acting morally requires the ability to think about what we are doing, to evaluate our reasons in the light of moral principles. But there is another tradition, associated with the philosopher David Hume and developed later by Charles Darwin, that understands morality as a far more basic part of our nature — a part of us that is as much animal as it is intellectual. On this ‘sentimentalist’ account of morality, our natural sentiments — the empathy and sympathy we have for those around us — are basic components of our biological nature. Our morality is rooted in our biology rather than our intellect” (Rowlands). He continues, “If this is true, then the reasons for thinking that animals cannot act morally dissolve before our eyes. What is left is a new understanding of what we are doing when we act morally and, to that extent, the sorts of beings we are. Those beings are, perhaps, just a little more biological and a little less intellectual, a little more animal and a little less spiritual, than we once thought” (Rowlands). What we think is the most human part of us, is actually the animal. The next logical step (which Rowlands does not take) would be the idea that what makes us humans different from animals is not our morality (that’s actually what makes us part of the animal kingdom), but our ability to rationalize even the most atrocious things we do, to give reason and meaning to everything, even our evil acts.

Of these rationalizations talks psychologist Tage Rai, discussing people’s moral justifications for violence. In his words, “Moral justifications for violence make so little sense as ruses that we have to assume they’re at least somewhat sincere. That’s an uncomfortable thought. If we accept that dangerous people might be motivated by genuine moral beliefs, we confront a troublingly subjective dimension to morality as such. At the very least, we must face the possibility that one can be sincerely wrong about it. And once you go that far, it’s a short leap to thinking maybe we’re the ones who are wrong, or that there’s nothing to be right about in the first place” (Rai). Religious beliefs are a part of these rationalizations, every terrorist or perpetrator of violence believing that they are in the right, that they have the moral high ground. Thus, not only religion is not really connected to morality in real life, but it appears to be at least partially responsible for some violent actions. Of course, not every religious person is a terrorist. However, it seems that some terrorists, at least, are religious persons. Still, in defense of religion, this kind of people would find any reason to be violent. Religion and morality are seen as a license to act reprehensibly, no matter what the real religious texts teach.

Anthropologist Benjamin Grant Purzycki offers yet another explanation for the emergence of morality in relation to religion. He says, “From an evolutionary perspective, the gods facilitate social bonds required for survival by raising the stakes of misconduct. Having a cosmic Wyatt Earp on the beat aids survival and reproduction by curbing others’ banditry. If you’re tempted to steal from someone, but know that God cares and has the power to do something about it, you might think twice. If God knows your thoughts, perhaps you wouldn’t even think twice. The Abrahamic God appears to be a punitive, paranoia-inducing Big Brother always watching and concerned with our crimes” (Purzycki). According to him (and other studies), “Globally, belief in moralistic gods appears to be more common in complex societies. … It pays to have an all-knowing, morally concerned Big Brother God in places with greater anonymity and less accountability” (Purzycki). Thus, as stated earlier in this essay, religion served initially as a sort of enforcer of morality. Religious commandments served as the basis for what future secular legal systems would become. At the end of his study, Purzycki asks himself whether we, as humans, can live without gods, given their massive influence. He answers, “In one sense, the answer is quite clear: of course we can do without them. We always have. Our challenge in the days ahead is to create a more sustainable and equitable world where more have the luxury of not only admitting that, but also – and more importantly – coming to terms with how to go about living together responsibly and harmoniously with that admission” (Purzycki).

To sum up, in my layman opinion, morality (viewed as a broad concept) appears to be inextricably linked to the human being. Whether it is truly an ancestral, animal, genetic inheritance, or developed by civilization and living in groups (or a combination of the two), that’s a topic for another essay. But to say that a person who is not religious (atheist or agnostic) is not moral is to deny that person’s humanity. It is saying that only people who believe in a deity can be capable of good actions, while the others, who don’t believe, are not and cannot be capable of anything good. And, if one could put aside one’s religious upbringing and teachings, one could realize that statement is utterly absurd. I would also like to believe that people who do a good deed do it not because some god, priest, or holy book told them to, but because they think it’s the right thing to do.

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Works cited:

Bloom, Paul. “The Moral Life of Babies.” The New York Times Magazine, 5 May 2010. Web. 28 March 2016.

Finnis, J. “Intention and side-effects.” R. Frey & C. Morris, eds., Liability and responsibility: Essays in law and morals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Hauser, Marc and Peter Singer. “Chapter 8: Ethics. Morality Without Religion.” An Introduction to Philosophy: An Online Textbook by Dr. Philip A. Pecorino, 2005. Web. 28 March 2016.

Nielsen, Kai. Ethics Without God. Revised edition. Canada: Prometheus Books, 1990.

Pinker, Steven. “The Moral Instinct.” The New York Times Magazine, 13 Jan. 2008. Web. 28 March 2016.

Purtill, Richard. “Ethics.” Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Second edition, vol. 3. USA: Thomson Gale, 2006.

Purtill, Richard. “Religion and Morality.” Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Second edition, vol. 8. USA: Thomson Gale, 2006.

Purzycki, Benjamin Grant. “Inside the mind of God.”, 18 March 2015, Web. 28 March 2016.

Rai, Tage. “How could they?, 18 June 2015. Web. 28 March 2016.

Rowlands, Mark. “The kindness of beasts.”, 24 Oct. 2012. Web. 28 March 2016.

Strohminger, Nina. “The self is moral.”, 17 November, 2014. Web. 28 March 2016.

Warnock, Mary. “We must learn morality from each other, not God.” The Guardian, 5 Sept. 2010. Web. 28 March 2016.


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