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.
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?
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!
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.