Do We Need Religion to Make Us Moral?


Throughout history, religion has, to some extent, dominated virtually every culture in the world — including those cultures governed by secular societies. It has long been a universal premise that religion is the ultimate source and arbiter of morality; indeed, this tenet has been presumed to be so self-evident as to be above questioning. Which is a pity — because if people were more wiling to question it, they would find that such a presumption has some major flaws, both logical and factual.

Logical flaw: Why does God make rules?

Religion is a combination of dogma and code of behavior believed to be ordained by God — or whatever label one wishes to apply to the ineffable. For some people, this divinely ordained system is encapsulated in the Bible; for others, it’s the Quran; for others, it might be the ramblings of a sage in a trance induced by ingesting psychedelic vegetation. And even though there is a great deal of variation, if not conflict, among these diverse systems, all are believed to be guidelines dictated by the Creator. But believers would do well to ask just why God would issue such guidelines. There are essentially two possible answers. And neither is very favorable for religionists.

The first possibility is that God establishes rules in order to actually define morality. In other words, an act is either right or wrong simply because God says so. But if that is the case, it means that those same acts were not defined as right or wrong before He made such a proclamation — that up until the time Moses descended from the mountain lugging those stone tablets, it was perfectly acceptable to murder, steal, and lust after your neighbor’s wife and your neighbor’s ass, and your neighbor’s wife’s ass.  This is a problem for anyone who believes that we are punished for misdeeds in the hereafter; it would mean that people who lived before the time of Moses are getting off scot free for doing the same things (or worse) that we would be punished severely for.

Furthermore, if God’s word defines morality, then morality is purely arbitrary. Because He just as easily could have said “Thou shalt kill” and “Thou shalt commit adultery”. In which case religionists now would consider it immoral not to do those things. And if morality is arbitrary, why do we need religion or even God? Can’t we just as easily be arbitrary on our own?

The other possibility is that, rather than defining morality, religion simply reaffirms and clarifies it. Which is to say that, rather than things being right or wrong because God says so, God says things are right or wrong because they already are. But this is problematic too; if right and wrong existed independently of God and religion, then they still can and do. So why do we need God or religion?

Logical flaw: Why obey God?

Whatever specific codification of “God’s will” they might choose to follow, religionists believe that obeying God is the essence of moral behavior. For some, that means feeding the hungry and tending to the sick. For some, it means not eating pork or shellfish. For some, it means living a simple life and not wearing gaudy clothing. For some, it means flying airplanes into buildings. But however one interprets “obeying God”, it would be well to ask exactly why one does so. And again, there are two possible answers.

One possibility is that people obey (what they believe to be) God’s will out of fear. This might mean either the fear of punishment for doing the wrong thing and/or the fear of not being rewarded for doing the right thing. Either way, being “moral” only out of fear is not really being moral at all; it’s merely acting out of self-interest. And we can all do that without religion. Furthermore, we have seen all too well that religious individuals who are motivated by fear can convince themselves that their actions are just and righteous no matter what; and can be readily manipulated by demagogues who use Bible thumping for their own selfish ends.

Gott Mit Uns

The other possibility is that people do “God’s will” because they somehow “know” it is the right thing to do. But being able to make such a determination would require the existence of an innate and independent moral compass. And if one has an innate and independent moral compass, why does one need moral guidance from an external source?

Factual flaws

It appears, then, that there is no logical justification for the belief that morality comes from God or religion. But what about the evidence? Does it lead to the same conclusion? Here we can apply the test of “singular proof”, that we discussed in two previous essays. Because a single exception is sufficient to discredit any absolutism. If you believe, for instance, that all swans are white, then it only takes a single black swan to disprove that belief. Likewise, it only takes the existence of a single moral secularist to disprove the proposition that morality must come from religion.

And there are, in fact, many such cases. You no doubt are personally acquainted with atheists who live perfectly moral lives. If not, there are plenty of examples from history as well as the contemporary world — including Democritus, Epicurus, Clarence Darrow, Sigmund Freud, Johannes Brahms, Warren Buffet, Stephen Hawking, Bertrand Russell, Douglas Adams and Penn & Teller — no doubt there are many others from history who kept their atheism secret in order to avoid persecution. Even today there are many members of the clergy who are secretly atheists , yet they dutifully and selflessly serve the needs of their congregations, their communities, and humanity as a whole. To classify such individuals as immoral (by any but the most narrow and culturally specific standards) would require simply arguing in a circle: “Atheists cannot be moral, because morality requires religion”.

(Interestingly, while conservatives tend to tout religion as the fountainhead of morals, they are quite willing to look the other way on occasion and lionize atheists who somehow help advance their ideology. This notably includes their adulation for author Ayn Rand who was not only an atheist, but led a rather messy personal life that normally would meet the disapproval of bluenoses. And more recently, they have fawned over atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali because she speaks out against the Islamic faith she grew up in.)

We know, then, that religion is not required to be moral. What about the possibility that it is nonetheless advantageous? Although it isn’t true that one must be religious in order to be moral, could it be possible that being religious makes it more likely that you will behave in a moral manner? This is a much  more difficult question to answer, and perhaps even impossible. But there are some good clues.

Some studies indicate that frequent church attendance is associated with lower crime rates. But it doesn’t automatically follow that churchgoers commit less crime because of their religion. On the contrary, some criminals actually use their religious convictions to justify and excuse their behavior. There are other factors involved in church attendance that might make a difference — e.g., a sense of community and connection to other people.

Most prison inmates, like most of the general population, have some sort of religious affiliation. But what’s really interesting is that only about one out of 1000 inmates is an atheist, compared to at least one out of 100 (and perhaps as high as 5 in 100) in the general population — in addition to about the same percentage who are agnostics. Now it’s true that some non-religious individuals become religious while incarcerated. But converting from atheist to religious is much less likely to happen; because atheism isn’t merely the absence of religious conviction. It’s a position arrived at by lengthy examination and reflection. So it isn’t as likely to change just because you end up behind bars. In short, it appears that atheists are far less likely to commit crimes — or at least to get caught!

Predictably irrational

So we know that religion is not required for morality. And we know that there is solid evidence that religion is not likely to make a person more moral — and indeed may be even less likely to. But can it at least make people more moral in some cases? Well, yes, in a way. But it’s not as simple as people so often believe.

Groundbreaking sociologist Dan Ariely, author of the book Predictably Irrational (which I highly recommend) explains in a TED talk:

First, we asked half the people to recall either 10 books they read in high school, or to recall The Ten Commandments, and then we tempted them with cheating. Turns out the people who tried to recall The Ten Commandments — and in our sample nobody could recall all of The Ten Commandments — but those people who tried to recall The Ten Commandments, given the opportunity to cheat, did not cheat at all. It wasn’t that the more religious people — the people who remembered more of the Commandments — cheated less, and the less religious people — the people who couldn’t remember almost any Commandments — cheated more. The moment people thought about trying to recall The Ten Commandments, they stopped cheating. In fact, even when we gave self-declared atheists the task of swearing on the Bible and we give them a chance to cheat, they don’t cheat at all.

It even works on atheists! So it doesn’t make much sense to conclude that it’s the religious associations of the so-called Ten Commandments that make the difference, does it? So what is it then?

We can get a better idea from another of Ariely’s experiments. He had some of his students sign a statement saying “I understand that this short survey falls under the MIT Honor Code”. When they did so, there was no cheating at all. A commitment to a secular code produced results at least as good as commitment to a very well known religious code. That in itself is very illuminating. But here’s the real kicker: there was actually no such thing as the MIT Honor Code. Not only did a secular code produce results comparable to a religious code, but a nonexistent code produced results like one that has been around for millennia. What this suggests is that it is not the content that matters, but the act of commitment itself — that is, commitment to a broad sense of moral obligation rather than to specific actions. (One can be very committed to stoning gays, but that doesn’t mean the stoner is more moral than the stonee.)

The true source of morality

When we examine religious codes like the so-called Ten Commandments, we find that the rules they contain are of two types. One type consists of edicts specific to particular religious cultures — directives about diet, attire, and prayer, for example. The other consists of rules that could be applied to anyone — respect for life and property, do good works, etc. The former are merely religious laws but the latter are genuine moral imperatives. And they all can be boiled down to a single principle.

Many people call it The Golden Rule. Whatever you call it, it crops up in religious and spiritual traditions all over the world — and probably in other galaxies if they’re inhabited. The reason is simple: this “golden rule” is the very backbone of moral and ethical conduct, no matter who or where you are. It really tells you all you need to know about how to live in a decent, forthright fashion — although more detailed codes of behavior can be useful for people who are confused or conflicted about how best to apply the Golden Rule to certain specific situations in a manner that is congruent with their values. But this magical rule did not come from some supernal source in the cosmos; it came from our own inner being, from our innate sense of empathy. Just as The Golden Rule is the backbone of morality, empathy is its heart.

If you have a healthy sense of empathy and compassion, you will exercise The Golden Rule as your default mode, without external compulsion. You will avoid killing other people because you would not want to be killed. You will not cheat or steal from other people, because you would not want to be cheated or stolen from. But you will also do right by other people because you are genuinely concerned about their welfare. Serial killers do not kill because they are not religious — quite often they are — but because, among other things, they lack this trait. So certainly there are individuals in whom this sense is faulty or missing to some degree. That is one reason we need laws established by those of us who are (at least relatively) empathetic. (Another reason is to delineate social mores — such as, for instance, whether all races or genders shall be afforded the same rights and privileges.) But such a system need not be of divine provenance.

While some people are religious because they are moral, nobody is moral just because they are religious. Faith and morality are not intertwined — if they were, religious people would never commit crimes. You don’t receive an instantaneous transfusion of empathy when you get baptized. If indeed regular church attendees commit less crime, it is because church attracts people with a high level of empathy — and/or it helps develop and nurture that faculty with its opportunities for bonding with a community. (The ugly side of this coin, however, is that close identification with a particular religious group also can have the opposite effect, inspiring condemnation and even animosity toward those outside the circle.)

Religion is useful if not crucial for some individuals. It gives them a network, it gives them purpose and direction, it lifts them up in difficult times. But it’s a mistake to believe that religion also provides people with morals. Morality does not come from religion. It does not come from The Bible. It comes from you.


  1. I agree that the existence a divine being cannot be logically proved and that many atheists lead completely moral live,.and also that anyone need not set foot in a Church for want of heaven and fear of Hell, that fundamentalist say both exist. Thus many believers must be full of fears to hold onto many of their most irrational beliefs.

    But I have also encountered many real and compassionate Christians who are not theological “know it alls.” They just endeavor to become more loving and moral being human beings.

    Of course you are right to say that, if morality is already present in the human character, then why would anyone need to become religious to cultivate morality? If that is so,then holding onto one’s religious teachings would render the idea of moral guidance from God, a moot and frivolous concept indeed! However, many people who do believe in some sort of divine being do not attend church or practice any particular faith. And conversely, if one is an atheist,why should that suggest that atheists reject every religiously based concept? I know many atheist who say that the moral teachings of Christ are very good, but are, at the same time, impossible to follow perfectly–the latter of which I also believe, just as many devoutly religious people do.

    The fact that floods, hurricanes, drought and Tsunamis, do happen, in no way nullifies the concept of God nor does it require that we must know why such things happen, or require that we must prove the existence of a higher power before we can have faith. Likewise it doesn’t even depend on rational proof that all physical reality is the only thing that exists. Here I’ll mention three things–black holes, dark matter, and alternate universes. Each one fascinates astrophysics who have proved mathematically to be possible.

    Jesus said the hairs on our heads are numbered and, that we need miracles in order to have faith. My own feeling is that all religions over-stress the importance of rituals–and the “right ways” to be “saved,” But I also believe that religious extremes are created by superstitious or greedy human beings–not by those who want to spread the message of love–which Christ’s teachings are
    fundamentally based on!

    Employing infinite regression will obviously not prove that the universe was created by a divine being. nor can it be used to prove that a divine being does (not) exist–because after each suggestion that God created this,and then that, one must also rationally prove that nobody or no thing created a God that doesn’t even exist! But where then did all our matter and energy come from? Doesn’t that question suggest that, to be true to our logical and scientific ideals, we must also answer the question of where energy and matter came from?

    Cause and effect are pretty much ubiquitous universal principles. Astrophysicist have begun to develop a dubious theory that matter and energy simply arose spontaneously from something. But if that’s true, then where did that something come from? And what made that spontaneous happening happen? It could be that a steady state exists and has always existed, but then what caused it to to always exist? Didn’t Jesus say (Before (Abraham was, I am)? And didn’t Albert Einstein say that he developed his theory of relativity not entirely by using his rational mind, and that God does not play dice? My own belief is that God is the Universe and that the universe will always be the deep mystery that it is.

    And in defense of many religious people–aren’t people volunteering to bring food, shelter, and medicines to suffering parents and children who have been the victims of extreme brutality–which also threatened the freedom riders with violence, just for the compassion they showed–which might also have caused them to be tortured and killed? Aren’t many of the bravest people who work as international relief volunteers also religious? And don’t they frequently claim that God has given them them their courage. What about the freedom riders during the civil rights era, who were beaten by cops, lynched by KKK, and had dogs released o attack them. The mafia like tactics that the Jim Crow south demanded included constant harassment without a violent response in return, even as the Freedom Riders quickly left a bus that had been set on fire!

    People like these who are empowered by their faith may be worshiping a real God or not, but as long as they prevailed who am I to judge?

    • to be true to our logical and scientific ideals, we must also answer the question of where energy and matter came from?

      This question has been answered. Unfortunately the answer is rather complex and involves quantum mechanics, but we do have one. Read Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design for an overview. As Hawking points out early in the book, the old philosophical approaches to problems like why the universe exists are irrelevant because philosophy is still stuck in an outdated approach to reality which ignores modern physics. The old arguments about God and existence are just meaningless word-games not connected with what we now know about reality.

      As Hawking puts it, modern science has not proven there is no God, but it has proven that a God is not necessary to explain the existence of the universe.


        Wikipedia describes the essence of Hawking’s theory as explaining “How universes could have formed out of nothing,” and that “the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.” And from what I gather this explanation depends on the existence of 11 different dimensions (one of them being time) that are too small to see but are expressed in the way fundamental string theory expresses the ultimate and basic construction of the Universe. But that does not take into account of the ways that theories may be constructed to validate preferred outcomes.

        From the Wikipedia article linked to above:

        “The central claim of the book is that the theory of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity together help us understand how universes could have formed out of nothing.[9]”

        However consider the following quote by Peter Woit (physicist and mathematician) which can be found in the Scientific American article below, and which describes the way “bull-shit” physics may be used to justify particular theories. Here is a link to that article and a few quotes from Woit in that article;

        “At its best, physics is the most potent and precise of all scientific fields, and yet it surpasses even psychology in its capacity for bullshit.”

        To keep physics honest, we need watchdogs like Peter Woit. He is renowned for asserting that string theory, which for decades has been the leading candidate for a unified theory of physics, “is so flawed that it is not even wrong.”

        John Horgan (author of the article in Scientific American) “Do you still think string theory is “not even wrong”?

        Woit: “Yes. My book on the subject was written in 2003-4 and I think that its point of view about string theory has been vindicated by what has happened since then. Experimental results from the Large Hadron Collider show no evidence of the extra dimensions or supersymmetry that string theorists had argued for as “predictions” of string theory. The internal problems of the theory are even more serious after another decade of research. These include the complexity, ugliness and lack of explanatory power of models designed to connect string theory with known phenomena, as well as the continuing failure to come up with a consistent formulation of the theory.”

        So the fact that is that “String theory” which is at the foundation of concepts like undetected universes or the existence of different dimensions has encouraged the following quote, which has now been disproved by the use of the Hadron Collider—although (as Hawking maintained):

        “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

        I agree that, when questioning what created “God,” an add infinitum add Absurdum argument only leads to absurd results derived from an infinitely regressing sequence of causes and effects that do not prove anything. But Hawkins also holds that:

        “One can’t prove that God (DOESN’T) exist, but science makes God unnecessary.”[3]

        When pressed on his own (Hawking’s) religious views by the Channel 4 documentary “Genius of Britain,” he clarified that he did not believe in a personal God. But Hawkins was also humble enough to admit that we can’t prove that God (Doesn’t) exist either. Besides all of that, the very structure of the English language that is used to describe how the universe “can and will create itself out of nothing,” ignores the rules of grammar themselves—at least if the rules of grammar are based on a logical continuity that makes it possible to convey specific ideas. i.e. what is the definition of the word “create?” well the most common one is: 1. “To cause to exist; bring into being:” So what does this say about the phrase, “The Universe can and will create itself out of nothing? What does “bring into being” mean? And what is meant by the idea that a God has “created” the universe? Perhaps that a God “caused” it to exist?”

        Also, consider further the sentence, “the Universe can and will, create itself out of nothing.” Here string theory and other ideas taken from theoretical physics fail to explain questions like, (What) exactly is it that creates (itself) out of (nothing)? Remember that, if (something creates itself, out of nothing) that means it (didn’t originally exist) in the first place? Or are we expected to deny the logical structure in languages themselves, which we use to communicate our ideas with?

        Furthermore, these kinds of Illogical assumptions actually (do lend support) to the idea that energy can neither be created or destroyed and can only change in the ways it is expressed. And, that definition is also remarkably consistent with the statement of Jesus, that, “Before Abraham was, I am!” as well as the Buddhist axiom that describes the nature of reality as “one not two,” Or the oft quoted phrase attributed to God—”I am the Alpha and omega.” thus if we accept the existence of time and space, we cannot prove that a god does not exist, based on logic and reason.

        It’s also true that Einstein didn’t believe in a personal God, as many people who are awed by the majesty of the Universe itself also do not; But consider these few quotes about what he did believe;

        ‘Morality is of the highest importance—but for us, not for God.”

        ‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”

        “The truth of a theory is in your mind, not in your eyes.”

        “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”

        “I do not believe in the God of theology who rewards good and punishes evil.”

        “I am convinced that He (God) does not play dice.”

        “True religion is real living; living with all one’s soul, with all one’s goodness and righteousness.”

        Do you believe in immortality? “No, and one life is enough for me”

        “My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.”

        “No, this trick won’t work . . . How on Earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?”

        Obviously Einstein held many unconventional beliefs but also entertained the notion of a God that reveals his existence in the very ways that the universe works. Yet he also did not believe in immortality or in the unlimited power of the human mind to understand anything and everything.

        Richard Dawkins is also a man with great scientific knowledge who discredited the ideas of religious fundamentalists, yet in a Playboy interview I read ways back when, (Sorry, I cannot remember which exact issue) he also stated that even science will probably never understand everything.

        As someone who is not acquainted with the math used by Theoretical physicists, I still believe it’s true that not even our most brilliant minds have all knowing brains or irrefutable intellectual prowess which they can use to assert of deny every aspect of existence. And they also may never have such knowledge. All of which suggest that there are limits to what science can understand, and therefore may validates the use of some theological concepts in discussions—at least if they are not completely off the wall–like the many bogus arguments used by religious fundamentalists.

        I subscribe to the idea that there is some kind of cosmic dance which is directed by a divine pattern and divine structure in the universe, but I don’t believe that the Earth was created in 7 days, or that it is only about 6 to 10 thousand years old. I also believe that doing everything just to avoid Hell or to gain Heaven, is an ego driven proposition, since fundamentalist religions can only perpetuate themselves based on blind acceptance of “Christian, Muslim or Hindu” values—to name some religions that I consider among the worst offenders of reason’

        As for the blog referred to by another commenter, I would also add that one does not have to prove that a God exists to have a connection with “spirituality”—especially pertaining to the various subjective definitions of that word. I believe everyone has some sort of faith based beliefs in a higher power or based on the things they value the most. A scientists holds the scientific process in high regard, Physicists believe they can solve human problems by seeking to understand the nature of the physical world, and climate scientists know better than the rest of us about what causes global warming, than do merely partisan voices in Congress. But how can we expect a rational process to define and confirm the existence of something that by definition, is not entirely physical or rational?

        As far as believing that one cannot prove the existence of a God—I totally agree. However most of us do cherish certain qualities that enable us to express love for others, or we believe in our own conviction that strong ethical values are very important to pass on to our children. So, because values like these are pervasive I find it hard to believe that anyone (needs) to be free of all concepts, concerning “spirituality.” either. And that, the exceedingly ethical philosophies of many atheists reflect a view of human nature that often includes an inherent understandings of morality. But if you think I am wrong I won’t waste time thinking I can change your mind via logical arguments. So, let me end with one more of Einstein’s quotes—”There are only two ways to live your lives. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” I find that statement to be absolutely true.

  2. Nice, thought provoking essay!

    Morality emerges from a social context. Period.

    Social contexts can’t exist without some kind of morality, so it’s a little bit ‘chicken-or-the-egg’. But no divine guidance required.

    The Bible’s ‘superpower’, such as it is, is its ability to provide Biblical language to describe moral values that emerge from a given social context.

    An interesting case study would be slavery. A thousand years ago, slavery was a well-accepted practice in much of the world, including Western Europe, i.e. Christendom. In Western Europe and the America’s, the culmination of this belief can be found in the American antebellum South. Christian apologists defended racially based chattel slavery as supported by the Bible (see Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, etc.).

    Now slavery is considered immoral. What changed? It’s still the same Bible. The people – the social context – changed. And the way the Bible was read changed to reflect that underlying societal change.

    Just as an aside: Some decades ago, I was in an evangelical church adult Sunday school class. One of the church elders opined that there was nothing in the Bible that spoke against the practice of slavery.

    Morality emerging from a social context is expected to evolve. Christians, with their Bible, will do their best to keep up. I no longer consider the Bible a valid source of morality.

    • Parts of the Bible may not prohibit racism, but the words of Jesus do! He said “Do unto others what you would have done unto you”–so, unless we all secretly desire to be slaves who are bought and sold like cattle, and beaten for disobeying the slightest edicts of our Masters–and are content to be gullible people, who believe the words of those who rationalize portions of Christianity–until they are somehow, used to condone racism, means that those pushing such beliefs–definitely have it all wrong!

      I know that even the words of Christ can be spun to support any given political interests, or any morally bankrupt idea. But Christ never condoned slavery or claimed it was OK with God–with the possible exception of using parables which expressed Ideas like devoting oneself to one’s master, and being a faithful servant to a good master,with becoming a good servant of God. But this was probably done to allow his listeners to relate to basic concepts like being faithful servants,with being good servant of God well. Aside from that, He didn’t propose that anyone should lord over other human beings with violence and coercion. However, you are right to imply that the entire Bible, both the old and new testaments include beliefs that can be interpreted to benefit their users.

      We all tend to do things that we use to rationalize our minor immoral actions, and when societies change, their ethical beliefs definitely can cause the world and ourselves to change. However, sometimes those who are the catalysts behind big ethical changes, are the ones who introduce revolutionary ideas that a society may be ready to be guided by–and which many members of their society have never heard before. These human catalysts are sometimes philosophers like Karl Marks, and sometimes they are artists and visionaries, who sometimes are spiritual teachers like Ghandi, Martin Luther King, or Jesus Christ. Or else their ideas resemble quantum leaps in human technology which signal continuing moral changes that human beings have never experienced before. Yes, evolving and changing societies may very well influence ethical beliefs first. However, the actions of beings like Jesus or Ghandi may also plant the seeds of positive social and moral changes.

      To me the biggest bugaboo is in mistaking religious instructions and rituals for genuine human progress. And of course, sometimes differing religious faiths can lead people into continuing wars which motivate us to commit incredible acts of human cruelty. The difference is that, the words issued by Christ provide examples of real faith, and real love, which do not to deny the positive effects that spiritual values can produce. Of course, I cannot prove these beliefs, because correlation is not always the same as causation. However, I think the world will never truly change, unless various forms of ugliness and dogma are transformed by those who have real faith and real courage—even if they are atheists!

  3. Actually, these days atheists are more like 1 in 20 out of the general population in the US (about 1 in 4 are non-religious, but many aren’t ready to embrace the term “atheist”).

    The evidence is very clear on the correlations between religiosity and violence. The least-religious areas of the world, western Europe and Japan, have the lowest levels of violent crime. Highly-religious areas like Latin America, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa are far more violent. The US is intermediate in levels of religious belief and violence.

    Within the US, too, the most religious regions such as the deep South have the highest levels of violence and social pathology, while the least-religious areas such as New England have the lowest.

    As for morality more generally, religious organizations seem to be awash in revelations of child molestation, embezzlement, and scams of all kinds, to an extent unmatched by almost any other subset of society.

    • There’s a great deal of variation in estimates of the percentage of atheists. The survey I cited was probably the most conservative I’ve seen, so I used it to show that even so, it’s still much higher than the percentage in prison. According to other surveys (including Pew), the percentage is 3 to 4, with another 4 to 5 percent identifying as agnostic. So your “1 in 20” seems to be about right.

    • To infidel 753,

      As I said I lack familiarity with the mathematical processes used by theoretical physicists so trying to comprehend Hawking’s book would for me, admittedly be an exercise in futility. However, I do know that Scientific American contains many factual articles about String theory and unified field theory in addition to subjects like alternate Universes. But I have no reason not to believe the quotes I took from Wikipedia or the fact that the Hadron particle accelerator failed to verify much of Hawking’s theory based on experiments which did not yield such evidence. I also know that Scientific American contains many articles about the latest cutting edge technologies and scientific tools that are used to affirm or deny various theories that may not be as deserving of merit as was originally thought.

      Thus, to me it seems pretty reasonable to believe the if Scientific American published an article which stated that the Hadron particle accelerator failed to verify Hawking’s theory, and did not prove that those theories are to be considered a done deal—in addition to the fact that no matter how elaborate Hawking’s theory is, scientists should never give up the idea that it may not be true before prematurely we validate his or anyone’s theories–which I believe was true of Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity! I must also say that the way you described his book failed to convince me that something can “create itself out of nothing”–which at face value seems to violate the laws of physics themselves.

      I did not intend to defend religious fanatics either, and I believe, as the POP affirmed, that there are many fine religious people who have no interest in using their faith to do ugly and ignorant things. I don’t know if you believe that fallacy either, but I often get the impression that atheist in general tend to say many unflattering and insulting things about people of faith. So my point is that none of Hawking theories have been proven beyond a doubt, and that in fact, they seem like another way of justifying the use of dubious metaphysical claims intended to lay to rest the idea of cause and effect in order to claim that matter, and the energy which it consists of, could exist independently of causality in favor of the idea that the primal energy of creation somehow “created itself.” If you were to endorse the existence of a steady state that would make much more sense to me.

      I find many of the views of atheists to be much more moral than those of religious fanatics, but I think we need to avoid lumping people into stereotypical groups in order to imply that everyone in one groups is completely bonkers. I am not saying that Hawking’s is completely wrong, but I find your explanation of his ideas to be lacking. And I hope that whatever kind of cosmology that any of us accepts, we will not include the idea that truth is somehow disliked and avoided by all religious people, many of whom in fact, are every bit as moral as are many ethical atheists. We don’t need to subscribe to any religion to be moral, but neither do we have to accept theories that are not solidly proven or based on verifiable facts. And in that regard, I doubt that a respectable journal like Scientific American would interview any scientist who deliberately lied about established facts, like the failure of the Hadron collider to yield real proof of Hawking’s theories.

  4. Unfortunately in accord with one’s biases, religions can be used to justify or condemn just about anything. I find the words of Christ to be incredibly beautiful, but I don’t think I need to be afraid to mow the lawn on the Sabbath, lest my neighbors (armed with zealous Mosaic laws), punish me by stoning me to death?

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