Is Religion Necessary for Morality?
In a word, no…though you probably guessed I’d say that. But how can anyone ask this question when the answer is evidenced by secular law in a nation where church and state are separate? Humans crave order. Humans crave a formal definition of Right and Wrong. It’s been evidenced in countless religions as well as secular law for as long as humans have existed. But let’s explore further:
People have long turned to religion for a moral code. Each culture has historically (and even presently) believed that the teachings of their religion came from a higher source and represented the one true morality. Furthermore, many believe(d) that humans are intrinsically amoral and cannot achieve morality without direction from [the god in question]. In truth, most religions have a similar moral code and morals also exists outside religion. The common denominator is humans, not any particular God. This supports the assertion that morals are created by humans, not by a God or gods. Yet, in our culture where 80% of the U.S. considers themselves Christian and former president George H.W. Bush says that atheists shouldn’t be considered citizens, the word “Christian” is used almost interchangably with “moral”, as if Christianity currently has a monopoly on morality. See this quote from the Washington Post referring to Abu Ghraib:
He said that he asked Graner, a Pennsylvania prison guard in civilian life, about the photographs. Graner replied: “The Christian in me says it’s wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, ‘I love to make a grown man piss himself.’ “
In reality, no one religion nor religion as a whole has a monopoly on morality. Even the United States, having separated church from state, keeps a moral code that encompasses several of the commandments (i.e. murder, stealing, and adultery – though we left out the one about prohibiting graven images). In fact, the list of religions that tout the Golden Rule alone is too long to paste in this post -Â to see the list, visit this site. . In the overview, the website states:
“There is near unanimity of opinion among almost all religions, ethical systems and philosophies that each person should treat others in a decent manner. Almost all of these groups have passages in their holy texts, or writings of their leaders, which promote this Ethic of Reciprocity.”
So not only is the establishment of a moral code ubiquitous among ALL religions, but even a complete elimination of religion doesn’t also eliminate morality. Yet many claim that we need religion to prevent ourselves from digressing into chaos. If taking religion out of the equation inevitably leads to moral anarchy, what would motivate a government who has separated themselves from the church to continue enforcing moral behavior? Furthermore, in many cases combining religion and morality has caused amoral activities. Even today, as we know from the terrorist attacks, some feel justified in killing people who don’t conform to the moral code of their God. (And there are verses in the OT that encourage Jihad as well; luckily Jews & Christians ignore large portions of the Bible). Religions may contain moral codes, but morality is much bigger than any one religion.
Research (and simple observation) shows that humans have an inherent longing for order. This is evidenced in innumerable religions, with their moral codes that explicitly define “right” and “wrong”, as well as secular law, as well as the social hierarchies we create. Religion is just one expression of this psychological need.
Moreover, humans are smart enough to figure out that, beyond obeying basic laws, it makes life much more gratifying to treat each other with kindness and respect. Michael Shermer (in his debate “Does God Exist”) claims that social skills are inherent in our evolutionary instinct. In other words, we learned that we needed to get along with each other in order to survive.
In some ways, religious law is less moral than secular law. Religion tends to articulate the laws and then motivate you to obey them by threatening eternal torture or other imposed consequence. You should be kind to (ex. not murder) your fellow man because you value and respect human life, not because you’re afraid of being punished. He who refrains from shady activities out of fear is an entirely different person from he who refrains out of respect and value. Scare tactics are not moral motivators. Rather, they may be motivators, but they are harmful motivators, especially for children, because they do not teach the value of treating others with respect and worth. Does it not benefit one’s character to understand how their actions affect not only others, but also their own self image and respect? Are children not intelligent enough to understand this? Are we?
Our answers to some of these questions may reveal more about US than about the subject matter of the question. Case en pointe:
Do you believe that human nature is basically good or bad?
In a recent podcast, Penn Jillette says:
“If you believe that people are really good, you are a libertarian, you are an atheist/[agnostic], because you don’t think you need God for morality and you don’t believe you need [extensive] government [intervention] to keep people in line. If, however, you believe that most people are evil, then you are a democrat, a republican, or a religious fanatic because you believe that everything has to be reward, punishment, and force for people to do good things.”
Now I’ve pissed off theists, democrats, and republicans…thanks Penn! But don’t let that overshadow the point. The idea that we can’t or won’t understand the reason behind the moral, but will only respond to “reward, punishment, and force”, reduces us to the level of Pavlov’s dogs.
So no, religion doesn’t have a monopoly on morality. The establishment of a moral code is inescapably human, and this is evidenced by numerous human endeavors of which religion is only one.