Sunday Sermon Part Deux

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 - 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.

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  1. Well, I think Penn is wrong about Democrats: I support Democrats because they are the best practical way to keep Republicans out of office. I disagree with several of their positions (most notably a disturbing protectionist streak and some unfortunate paternalism), but philosophical considerations can wait until *after* we stop the fascist/theocratic takeover of this country that is currently in progress. Third parties currently don't have a chance, and the issue is too important to screw around with.

    Aside from that, though, I agree with the overall point: Morality comes from earth, not from heaven. The source of goodness is inside us, not outside. This is not to say that *every* human is good; but most are, most of the time. Until religions or ideologies convince them to hate or kill for a "higher" cause.

  2. I don't disagree with Penn about Democrats. I used to identify as one and now I don't. I don't lay claim to any political party. Democrats have the crazies just as much as the Republicans.

    However, with all things, I'm thankful that Bush says idiotic things on air and I'm glad that the crazy Democrats have signs that read, "Bush is evil." I believe that the stupid should advertise as loud as possible so I can see them coming.

  3. I for one welcome our new free market overlords!

    Yeah, I don't completely follow Penn Jillette on this one. People can be "basically good" (e.g., predisposed to kindness) without having a dook of an idea how to organize themselves and get things accomplished. And when you do build an organization to get something done which single individuals can't, which is better: an organization where only shareholders can have input, or one in which all citizens can vote?

    Moreover, what about the things we all know need to happen but which a free market is bad at providing? As usual, The Onion says it better than I can: "Libertarian Reluctantly Calls Fire Department".

    We should also consider the fact that government doesn't just force people to obey the law. Occasionally, when the moon comes up blue, government makes corporations toe the line. As emergent entities construed as "artificial legal persons", corporations have no fundamental reason to follow human behavioral patterns. (A gas made only of atoms obeys thermodynamic laws which make no sense when applied to individual atoms. Cars move forward, but traffic jams propagate backward.) Plenty of evidence indicates that they don't.

    Let's face it: human nature abhors a power vacuum. Somebody's always gonna come forward and say that guided allocation of resources is the best way to solve all problems, with guess-who doing the allocating. When Big Business (which is almost indistinguishable from Big Government) gets to play with toys like Freon, nicotine and methyl isocyanate, who holds them accountable?

    It would be nice if we could extend the principle of checks and balances to cover the corporate world, instead of having "iron triangles" which bind together power-players with common interests. . . . As long as I'm dreaming, I'd like to do the same for political parties (damn strange beasts not even covered in the Constitution) so that they are no longer avenues to a professional political caste. . . . So many interrelated problems!

  4. I've heard that people outside the US don't see much difference between the two political parties. The Republican Nixon ended the war in Vietnam, no matter how convoluted and complicated the withdrawal was, when the democrats did not.
    And altho we were distracted by the Starr Commission and other issues, Clinton was a centrist who eventually resorted to Prayer Breakfasts. The Republican Eisenhower warned of the "military industrial complex."

    I'm probably leaving a lot out, but it seems to me that there are many skeptics who are not Democrats nor Republicans, Penn Jillette being such an example. I don't completely understand Libertarianism; I think, from what I've heard, that it presumes a more even playing field than what actually exists. There is a place for social welfare programs supported by tax dollars; one never knows when one will require assistance based on unpredictable changes in the economy or the environment.

    It would be nice if nobody's life was affected by chronic illness, changes in technology, lack of access to education, zoning changes — whatever. But the endless horizon full of opportunity that some see is just not a reality for everyone.

    The question will remain for me for a long time whether the few percent of the population who voted for Ralph Nader set in motion the series of events that led to the bombing of Iraq.

  5. Penn is wrong about politics. I am liberal — not because I believe that individuals need to be kept in line by the government, but because I believe that corporations need to be kept in line by the government. I agree with the libertarians when they talk about the government keeping out of the private lives of citizens, but we part company when they start talking about the government allowing business and corporations to run rampant over citizens. Because of the structure of corporations, the goodness of any individuals involved in running the business is cancelled out by the system of profit that is requried by shareholders. Penn has created a false dichotomy and has vastly oversimplified the issues.

  6. I don't always agree with Penn, for sure, but I always find his point of view interesting. He loves to take what he calls the "nut point of view", which is really just an extreme version of his own beliefs (as Donna said, way oversimplified), because it stimulates conversation (i.e. calls on his radio show).

    I'm one of those "it depends on the issue" people, but I do have some basic beliefs that don't fall neatly into one category or another. I tend to agree with keeping government intervention to a minimum with regards to the economy (that doesn't mean none, just the minimum necessary to keep the economy from disaster), which falls in line with traditional republican thought. But republicans tend to think that the government should be able to intervene in our personal/moral affairs, which I think is ridiculous – so I also have some democratic views. I agree with the libertarian view that the rights of individuals should be controlled as little as possible by the government.

    Obviously Penn is anti-big-government. His brand of government would be as hands-off as possible. I do think that there's an element of truth in what he said – that the extent to which you feel intervention is necessary (at least on a preventative basis) is related to how much you trust people to do good things on their own. That's not to say that if actual problems present themselves (be it a present problem or one that we've learned from history) that the government should take no steps to correct it.

  7. Now I can see that Jr. didn't fall to far from the tree. I never heard that about George Sr. Then at the time I probably didn't care because I was….I was…. a christian. There are you happy I said it.

  8. lol…xenu. You're in good company here…many of us skeptics used to be religious.

    Usually politicians are pretty diplomatic when talking about various groups, so at first I was surprised that he was so vehemently anti-atheist. Then I looked at the 1990 Census, which shows that 90% of the U.S. considered themselves Christian. I guess atheists didn't make up enough of the voting population to matter.

  9. I don't want to try and speak for Penn here, but it seems to me some people are misinterpreting what he said – the order of the words in important. He does not say, "If you are a Democrat, Republican or religious fanatic, you believe most people are evil" although, particularly in the latter case, this may well be true. He says "If you believe most people are evil you must be a democrat, republican or religious fanatic" which still allows you to believe most people are good, and still be a republican or democrat (but probably not a religious fanatic.) It comes down partly to Arrow's theorem, which (from memory – I may be quoting this wrong) that political parties with a multi-point manifesto can have genuine majority support, but not have a mandate for any single point in the manifesto. So I think you can support the democrats or republicans and still believe in the innate goodness of people.

    Wendy, on the view of people from outside the USA (I'm from New Zealand) the USA political system definitely seems a lot narrow and harder to distingish between parties with representation. Here in our parliament we have everything from Greens (some of whom were or are card-carrying communists) to free market libertarians and all of the various shades of popularism in between, although to be fair the majority of our representatives come from two main centrist parties. This also seems to be the case in many other western democratic countries around the world, including Australia, the UK, and Europe.

  10. Mmm… Even Aristotle (well before Christianity) was asking whether morality was good because it came from the gods, or whether the gods themselves were bound by some higher standard.

    Also, there were plenty of pagan faiths where not all of the gods were "good" — though generally that was put in terms of "friendly" or "pleasant" instead. For the familiar Greek gods, consider such figures as Hades, or the darker aspects of Dionysius. Even the Olympian gods could get pretty vicious on occasion. And of course, there's the Norse gods, with their perpetual war….

  11. There is one thing religion can do for morality. It gives morality one thing it can't have otherwise and that is certainty. If morality comes in book form or otherwise floats down from on high, you don't have to puzzle over any inconvenient complexities. You can just go looking to the authority for comfort.

    Morality without religion is inconsistent, contentious, and complicated, just like the rest of life is. There is no actual final answer, only a lot of questions. It's not always very comforting, but it fits the world in which we live much better.

  12. I think Penn is confusing two things. Just because people are good, doesn't make them perfect. People can be forgetful, procrastinators, ignorant, lack confidence, disorganized, stupid, self indulgent etc, even very moral seemingly perfect people can have serious foibles.

    If people were perfect, there would be no need for that government intervention. Regardless of one's politics, you have to consider that certain individuals-organizations will be put into lose-lose situations that some intervention will be needed.

    If Penn thinks people are inherently good (and I agree with him) would he consider doing a show without a contract? I don't think so.

  13. Czech, I can't agree that religion gives morality certainty. Take the relatively straightforward issue of homosexuality. The bible is relatively straightforward on the matter, and yet even within organised religions there are a wide range of views on what is moral and what is not in this respect. For instance, within the worldwide Anglican/Episcopal church the belief and teaching on homosexuality ranges from it being OK to ordain homosexual bishops, to basically wanting to stone anyone who has a homosexual thought. How does that reconcile with the church bringing moral certainty to a practicing Anglican? Furthermore, the bible is contradictory in its various books on a number of moral issues, so even if you take a strict biblical interpretation, there is no moral certainty.

    In fact in many cases it think the humanist moral compass is a stronger one, as it is not confused by arbitrary and sometimes contradictory moral rules but is rather guided by principle.

  14. Religion and morality are orthogonal. The fact that I am a Christian does not make me moral, and the fact that my brother-in-law is completely areligious does not make him anything else. Most people who conflate the two are confused or are looking for a rhetorical weapon to use on people who don't think like they do.

    Faith can and does inform moral choices. Religion, which is faith organized into a recognizable creed, is often morally ambiguous because the organization involves making statements about what is or is not part of that religion. And thus we have organized churches taking strong stands against evolution, a stance devoid of Biblical support and one that I see as fundamentally immoral.

    Church history tells us much about how immoral religion can be. The Papal Schism, the machinations of the French Church, and of course the Spanish Inquisition are all episodes from within my own heritage where religion didn't just drift away from morality, it actively opposed it with every fiber of its being.

    And then again, we have Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, with the exact same faith heritage and, drawing on his personal religion, chose to resist the Nazi Holocaust, and was hanged at Flossenburg for so doing.

    Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that this exact question has been debated within the theological and psychological literature for centuries. Indeed, it describes a central dichtomy that is found in every religious writing I have studied. None of those writings came to any fundamental resolution of the question, and I suspect none ever will.

  15. Religion is for sheep. My dear wife thinks that it has a place for controlling the unintelligent sheep for othehrwise they would have no fear of punishment and run rampant. I however think that without the promise of a happy fluffy afterlife, the stupid masses would have to face up to the fact that the only reward is here, on earth, and being "bad" , "evil" or against the common good of society (without necessarily conforming to some suits ideal of what is proper), they would eventually start being useful.

    Cripes, I sound like Stalin. :)

    Atheism is sexy. Atheists moreso.

  16. Sraiche wrote:

    But republicans tend to think that the government should be able to intervene in our personal/moral affairs, …

    I think most people have ideas based on the situation they are in. I'm sure that while they'd like the government to have a say in personal/moral affairs concerning gay marriage and abortion (for example), they wouldn't like the idea of the government intruding in their bedroom and scrutinizing everything they do. Like everyone else, they want to use (exploit even) the government to further their own agenda. When your government is unsupportive of most of the points on your agenda, you disagree with having them in power, and would like them removed.

    So is a government necessary? Sure it is, and it should have some power to intervene in people's lives, and probably have some ways of checking everyone is more or less walking in line and playing fair. But as with any large organisation, a government is not interested in the individual, but in the group as a whole. So that means there will always be individuals who will feel their government doesn't have their best interest at heart, and they're probably right. However, that doesn't mean that by default your government is out to get you either.

  17. " But as with any large organisation, a government is not interested in the individual, but in the group as a whole. So that means there will always be individuals who will feel their government doesn’t have their best interest at heart, and they’re probably right. However, that doesn’t mean that by default your government is out to get you either."

    True, Exarch, but we're not a communist country here. So restricting the rights of the individual to benefit the "whole" is a concept diametrically opposed to our U.S. Constitution.

  18. "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."

    Since the topic is religion, let me point out that the Catholic teaching is that everyone has a sense of morality, regardless of their beliefs, and can act in a moral way. Everyone can choose between good and evil, or choose to act in a moral, or not. Their affiliation doesn't change this.

    In fact, the idea that religion has a monopoly of morality would exempt atheists from moral behavior. Maybe some seek it as a way to be freed of morality altogether. But even so everyone is able to act morally.

    "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."

    Secular law does just that, it imposes a penalty.

    "He who refrains from shady activities out of fear is an entirely different person from he who refrains out of respect and value."

    That's what religion teaches.

  19. Well, let's rephrase it then to "Just because you like to wield guns around for fun doesn't mean everyone should just be able to do so unrestricted."

    I know gun legislation is a powder keg, but this is just an example, so bear with me.

    It's a matter of a minor inconvenience for those who may want to own a gun, in an attempt to make the place safer for everyone. Is this a restriction of rights? Not if it's simply a matter of requiring more effort from people who are determined to own a gun. If you're too lazy to do the paperwork, that's your problem, not an infringement of your constitutional rights.

    Also, some things are just common sense. Depending on where you place the treshold for restriction of rights:

    Is it the right to own a gun?

    The right to carry one?

    The right to buy one at the drop of a hat?

    Or the right to use one if you feel so inclined?

    I think a lot of people feel their rights are being restricted when they're really not. And what if the intention is to restrict the rights of those who deserve to have their rights restricted (like convicted fellons for instance, or those who are simply not mentally or physically capable or mature enough to safely own or use a gun)?

    Regardless of what the constitution says or does not say about carrying and owning guns, it doesn't say a word about any possible exceptions to the rule. So people have no reason to complain about infringements on their rights, unless they're afraid that they themselves are among those who will be considered not suitable to own a gun. In which case they're probably the ones you should worry about the most!

    So suppose ex cons no longer have the right to own any kind of weapon? Where in the constitution does it say that the rights of those who have forsaken their own rights by threading on those of others shall not be infringed? They still have rights, just not as many as those who have behaved themselves. Some rights are earned, and come with obligations.

    Replace "right to carry a gun" with "right to have prayer meetings in public school" to get another example of how some people feel their right of "freedom of religion" is infringed upon even when it's not.

    Anyway, my point is that "restricting the rights of the individual" is something that has to be considered in the right context. And to suggest that having a government that puts the wellfare of its inhabitants above that of the wishes of a few of its citizens makes it a communist nation is oversimplified or just plain ignorant.

  20. "Replace “right to carry a gun” with “right to have prayer meetings in public school”"

    Religion is a weapon now? Children praying equals people carrying guns on the street? Oh mine. ;)

  21. Oh, I totally agree with you exarch. I’m not pro-anarchy or anything! As you pointed out, it’s a matter of where to draw the line, and that line usually falls right around where the freedoms of one person infringe on the rights of another.

    The controversial subjects are like…drugs. I’m personally against drugs (for myself) and I think that if an entire community became drug users it wouldn’t be for the best of the community. But I don’t think the government should be able to go that far. If a person wants to use drugs privately, they should be allowed. Because it doesn’t hurt anyone else. Lots of things, if begun by an entire community, would not be for the best of the community. Why not outlaw excessive video gaming/TV watching? Or just MTV in general! :)

  22. DeLance,

    “Since the topic is religion, let me point out that the Catholic teaching is that everyone has a sense of morality, regardless of their beliefs, and can act in a moral way.”

    I agree that the Bible says that Adam & Eve were originally given free will. But the core-Christian concept of “original sin” says that the rest of us were born bad and need God to be good. Wiki quote:

    According to Christian tradition, Original sin is the condition of sinfulness (lack of holiness) into which human beings are born

    That is the whole reason that Jesus had to come and die for us in the first place. It’s the concept on which Christianity is founded.

    “Secular law does just that, it imposes a penalty.”

    Yes, that’s a good point based on the argument I made. What I should have said is that I disagree with how religion (and Christianity in particular) teach morality. The focus is on humans’ sinful nature and how we need God to tell us what is right and Jesus to save us and how we’re going to burn in hell forever if we don’t comply. Eliminating religion allows you to just focus on the reason behind the moral. I didn’t mean to suggest that all people can be reasoned with to the point that we need no consequence for harmful actions.

  23. Delance wrote:

    Religion is a weapon now? Children praying equals people carrying guns on the street? Oh mine. ;)

    Well, since you brought it up yourself … :P

  24. sraiche,

    The idea that the original sin destroyed free will has nothing to do with the Catholic Church. It's another protestant "inovation" that Luther came up with. Catholic Encyclopedia:

    "The human race, however, began to rise again little by little, for neither intelligence nor free will had been destroyed by original sin and, consequently, there still remained the possibility of material progress, whilst in the spiritual order God did not abandon man, to whom He had promised redemption."

    Of course, Adam represents mankind: "we were all in Adam", says St. Ambrose, cited by St. Augustine.

    "The focus is on humans’ sinful nature and how we need God to tell us what is right and Jesus to save us and how we’re going to burn in hell forever if we don’t comply."

    This focus exists, but it's not the only focus that religions teach moral law. It can also be seen as matter of choice. People who choose to be without God are granted just that, and to be without God is what defines hell. As I mentioned before, the Catholic Church maintains that everybody, even people who have never heard of the Christian God, have some knowledge of what's right and wrong. This concept that people need God to tell them what’s right because they couldn’t act in a moral way without knowledge of religion is not what the Church teaches. It sounds ominous when you say “eliminating religion”.

    Anyway, Jacques Maritain wrote a lot about this subject, which was important in the declaration of human rights.

  25. Libertarians do not think that corporations or other artificial entites should be allowed to run rampant over individuals. Far from it. I am running for Texas State Senate as a Libertarian and ending corporate welfare is my number 1 issue. My efforts will also extend to foiling corporations that use government power to create regulations that extend their monopoly or quasi-monopoly power in the marketplace. My opponent in my race was the biggest corporate welfare grantor in Texas when he was mayor of Austin. He won awards for being so "business friendly", but the truth is that his efforts contributed to a massive run up in Austin's cost of living and the many benefits he touted for his corporate welfare packages never materialized.

    Libertarians and Progressives both want to end the stranglehold of government by the corporation friendly Republicans and Democrats. Progressives traditionally say "make government bigger to stop corporations", but that isn't working. As the government grows bigger and bigger, corporate power keeps getting more and more entrenched. We have to decrease the power of government and increase the power of individuals to protect our liberty as well as the other things that we value most dearly.

    Rock Howard —

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