Is Morality Linked to Religion?

Thomas Ash

Many people believe that morality and religion are fundamentally linked. They may see this as an argument for God's existence (if atheism's true, there can be no moral facts; moral facts exist; therefore God does too), but in this essay I shall evaluate it simply as a factual claim. If you like, you can see me as trying to undermine the first premise of the argument I just gave, claiming that morality can - and in fact must - have a purely secular foundation.

One reason why some theists think that morality presupposes God's existence is that their beliefs seems to give their lives clear purpose, making them wonder what purpose atheists can supply for themselves. According to Christianity, we have been created by God in His image, so as to fulfil the purpose He intended us for. The Catholic Church developed this basic idea into the concept of natural law: we can see how we should behave by working out what our purpose is; often, it will be manifest in the way we have been designed. The Pope's condemnation of homosexuality is an example of this theory at work: the natural result of sex is conception, and any sexual acts not open to this possibility involve an immoral rejection of the purpose for which God intended them. Needless to say, this approach to ethics is controversial; it might be felt to be a poor imitation of morality. Regardless, few now think it will do as a foundation for it: it begs too many questions, and fails to provide a justification for many of our most basic moral principles.

A different explanation of the purported link between God and morality is the idea that we have an obligation to obey His commands because He is our omnipotent creator, to whom we owe our existence. The obvious question is: "Why do we have this obligation?" Might doesn't make right, and though people once believed that children owed obedience to their parents simply because they depended on them, this view has not stood up to reflection. It is rather like the justification given for feudalism: masters protected their serfs, and it was only fair that they receive a share of the crops in return for this. The flaw is of course that the serfs never agreed to this arrangement. Any notion of a 'social contract' was a fiction: feudalism bore a closer resemblance to a protection racket. If, by contrast, you answer the question raised above by saying "Because obedience is the morally right thing!" you will already have assumed that morality exists independently of God, or else committed yourself to circularity, since the 'divine command theory' you are trying to justify is supposed to explain why things are right in the first place. [1]

The divine command theory bears an obvious resemblance to the 'natural law' approach we discussed just before. But it involves a focus on God's orders (the Ten Commandments provide an obvious example) rather than features of His alleged creation. The most common objection to such an approach is that it makes morality seem rather arbitrary, at least insofar as God's commands will be at best contingently connected to the human needs we think anything deserving the name 'morality' must (necessarily, not contingently) take into account. It implies the theoretical possibility of rape being right simply because God commands this (if the Bible is to be believed, He did in fact command it from time to time, but let us not dwell on this). To this, you may respond: "But God would never command rape!" This would have to be true were God benevolent in any non-vacuous sense, because a benevolent being's choices are constrained by external standards of right and wrong. But this is just what the divine command theory does not allow. It thus paints a thoroughly off-putting picture of ethics, far removed from our actual beliefs about it. When you question those who advocate the divine command theory, you sometimes find that they do not believe in any mind-indepent standards of right and wrong which people can guide people, and therefore suppose that such guidance can only come from orders from on high, backed by the threat of punishment.

Of course, such a view is what lies behind many people's claims that atheists cannot be moral. The presumption is that if you do not believe you will be punished for transgressions, there is no reason to obey the dictates of morality. If this were so, then atheists would lack any reason not to cheat or steal when they would suffer no sanction for doing so, whereas theists would always fear the sancton of an all-knowing God. In this life, people who are bad quite often get away with it, or even get ahead because of it, and those who believe the universe must be just find this hard to accept. Traditional religion provides a way to avoid accepting it: God judges everything; if you're good, you go to heaven; if you're bad, you go to hell. Many people find this profoundly satisfying.

This whole line of thought is based on an overly narrow understanding of the reasons one might have for behaving morally, however. It presumes that these reasons would have to be 'prudential' - i.e. based on the belief that acting morally is in one's self-interest. But people sometimes act morally even when they realise that this will not be good for them; they have a concept of 'good' which diverges from that of 'good for me'. Morality is not about self-interest; sometimes, it is about sacrificing your self-interest for the good of others. Atheists defend morality not as a set of arbitrarily (or self-interestedly) chosen social rules, but as a set of principles we cannot help but feel bound by when we consider how our actions affect our fellow creatures.

As it happens, some thinkers have argued that the very existence of such a sense of conscience is evidence for God, Immanuel Kant and John Henry Newman among them. Strictly speaking this is not our concern: the independence of morality and religion is quite compatible with the existence of God. It only becomes our concern when people argue that the existence of conscience (or 'duty', as Kant put it, doubtless helping his point) logically presupposes a being to whom we owe responsibility. If we accept this, God may look like the only candidate: He is, after all, thought of as being the only Person outside the ordinary universe, who sees and judges every crime we commit. Newman, in particular, advanced this line of thought, asking why people would feel guilty if they did not think they were being watched.

I cannot claim that I know where conscience comes from, and the suggestion that it has been implanted by God to keep us on the straight and narrow makes a satisfying just-so story. However, there is no reason to think that it is the only explanation possible. In particular, the claim that if humans developed through (unguided) evolution, they would not have had consciences is false. For one thing, it would be wrong to assume that a conscience is an unmitigated curse from an evolutionary perspective: humans have done rather well by their ability to cooperate. For another, it is extremely likely that a full-fledged conscience, in all its aspects, is not a specific adaptation, but a byproduct of our advantageous cognitive capacities: get one, and you get the other.

What of the claim that a conscience makes no sense unless there is a supreme being for us to be accountable to? There are two ways to defuse it. The first is to grant for the sake of the argument that our sense of conscience presupposes that we are accountable to someone, but points out that the people our actions would affect make a perfectly good candidate for this. The second is to point out that there is no good reason to grant that our sense of conscience does presuppose that we are accountable to someone, once we reject the view that moral obligations are based in self-interest, or analogous to legal obligations.

In this essay, I have tried to show that there is something wrong with every single way of linking morality to religion. I am not, of course, claiming that religion cannot have things to say about morality (we might indeed owe a debt of obedience to God, if he existed - my point was only that this must be based on some logically prior morality), nor that it cannot help people do what is (as an independent matter of fact) right. [2] But I do claim that ethics is better served by a purely secular (meaning religiously neutral, rather than explicitly atheistic/materialist) foundation. Only then will we do justice to its primary concern: our duties to other humans. Piety is all very well, if God exists. But it is not everything, and to claim that it is diminishes morality rather than elevating it.


1. In a concise form, I have just raised the objection to basing morality upon religion raised by Plato in his famous dialogue Euthyphro. Rather than expand on this objection in my essay, I have thought it best to let Plato speak for himself (using Socrates as his mouthpiece) by providing a link to the dialogue.

2. Though the evidence seems to suggest otherwise. A survey by the Barna Research Group in Venture, California has found that atheists have the lowest divorce rate of any religious affiliation, and fundamentalist Baptists the highest. Strikingly, as denominations got more conservative, their behaviour got worse on a variety of indicators. Admittedly atheists may cohabit more often (not in any way a sign of immorality, so far as they are concerned), but there is plenty of other evidence. For example, many of the people who opposed the Nazis and saved Jews while Germany's 95% Christian population mostly did nothing were atheists. This may, however, have something to do with the fact that atheism was then (and to some extent still is) disproportionately common among people who could be described as 'intellectuals'. Were it to become more widespread, I suspect the average atheist would not behave better than the average believer, much as I'd like to think otherwise.


About the author... Thomas Ash is the webmaster of Big Issue Ground and Atheist Ground. He is a graduate student studying philosophy at Merton College in the University of Oxford. He received his BA in the subject from the University of Cambridge, where he was president of the University Atheist and Agnostic Society. As you may have guessed, he is an atheist - a positive one in fact. More information can be found here.

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