Do We Require Religion to be Moral?


I have been conversing with three different bloggers on this very topic lately. One was arguing about Secularism, another was discussing the case of that bake shop that refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple, and the third was discussing freewill and the lack of divine interaction in our lives. Those are all very different topics. But they all had one thing in common: they all made some comment on morality being dependent on religion, and, in particular, on Christianity. 

But how much truth is in that claim? Do we need religion, or faith, or god, to be good? I would say no. I am an atheist. I have been for ten years now. I have donated teddy bears to women’s shelters, I have donated clothes, I have collected cans to donate to the food bank, I have volunteered my time. Would anybody out there say that I am a bad person? I would question the motives of any person who would. But this alone is not enough to prove that one does not need religion to be good.

So what would prove it? Morality is highly subjective. What one person claims to be moral another may say is immoral. Murder is often used to show that morality is objective, but there are different standers as to what constitutes murder in different places. In some cases, such as where the military is concerned, killing another human is seen as acceptable. So what a Christian may consider good, an atheist may not. Does this mean that we need god to be good? No. That Christian may say yes, but not everybody would agree. In fact, I believe that the majority would disagree. 

So can I be good without god? I don’t think that there is a scientific way to prove this one way or the other, but philosophy will offer a method for me to research both. According to Consequentialism, the consequences of my actions determines whether they are morally permissible. When I donated teddy bears, I offered comfort to children who had no home. When I donated clothes, I prevented waste from being added to landfills and ensured that somebody would have good clothes to wear. When I collected cans, I helped ensure that someone would have a meal. When I volunteer, I make sure that some opportunity is available that would not otherwise be available. The consequences of these actions are all a net positive. This does not make me an overall good person: I could do more things that are morally impermissible. But it does suggest that I am capable of doing good things despite being an atheist.

I can also use deontology to determine if one can be good without god. According to deontology, one’s goodness is dependent on their adherence to rules. Do I fit this definition of good? I believe I do. I don’t break the law. In fact I lead a fairly quiet, boring life. I may jay walk on occasion, so I guess in that sense I am not good. But most of the time I fit perfectly well into the deontological definition of good. So in this sense it is also possible to be good without god. 

The final philosophical moral theory that I will go into is Virtue Ethics. This theory focuses on one’s character to determine whether an action is right or wrong. According to this thought, my intentions and the benefit of my group and myself determine the rightness or wrongness of my actions. When I donated, I intended to reduce waste and offer something to somebody who needed it. Since my intentions were good, and there were positive benefits to my action, it was good. Once again, I can be good without being religious.

These different ethical systems appeal to different people, and they are the three main ethical theories, which is why I went into each of them. All three offer different methods of morality, and in all three it is possible to be good without being religious. It doesn’t matter that morality is subjective, and it doesn’t matter whether a god exists or not. As far as I’m concerned, the consequences of my actions are the main deciding factor. 

Which of the three theories do you prefer?

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15 responses to “Do We Require Religion to be Moral?

  • OF TWISTED WORDS => SECULAR | Citizen Tom

    […] that morality existed long before the Bible (and he considers the subject further on his blog, Do We Require Religion to be Moral?). It is true that morality existed before the Bible. God existed long before the Bible. As the […]

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  • Akriti

    nice post.
    Religion is not required to make ppl moral

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  • fictionfitz

    Reblogged this on Writing Out Loud and commented:
    Thanks for this, it has much teeth. Teething teeth?

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  • whitefrozen

    Deontology isn’t so much about adherence to rules, it’s more about developing ethics without regard to their consequences because of the fact of moral obligation. Virtue ethics, while focusing on the character, is more about conforming the character to some higher Good – for Aristotle, conforming to reason, for the classical Christian tradition, Good as such, or God.

    Deontology, or the ethics of obligation, while not forming a good basis for any system of ethics is an inescapable fact of the moral life – we have this feeling that certain things ought to be done, and other things not done. You should give a teddy bear, instead of kicking a puppy. Now the obligation isn’t the specific act itself – you’re not obligated to specifically give a teddy bear. But that that act, as opposed to the latter, is seen as good, or a good, and ought to be the action pursued for the sake of its goodness, is the obligation.

    ‘Ethical codes may vary from culture to culture, but the human need to regard goodness as an absolute end in itself does not.’ -David Bentley Hart

    Having said that, no major theistic tradition claims as a matter of dogma that one need accept a transcendent source of the Good as such to be a good person – actually, that claim is denied by all the major traditions.

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    • hessianwithteeth

      Whether or not the theistic traditions say otherwise is, unfortunately, of little value. Not because I don’t care what they say, but because the people within those traditions interpret them and act on them in their own way. Most Christians, at least that I know of, are perfectly willing to say “no, you don’t need to be religious to be good.” But a growing number of churches tell their members that they must believe everything that their pastor says, as they say it, in order to be “true Christian.” I think that this is a troubling and harmful phenomenon. Which is why I decided to form my own argument about it.

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      • whitefrozen

        What are some of these churches, specifically?

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        • hessianwithteeth

          Many fundamentalist churches. Churches like Westboro Baptist Church and the fundamentalist church featured in Jesus Camp. They teach their congregations that any Christian who doesn’t agree with them isn’t a real Christian.

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          • whitefrozen

            I meant real churches/pastors, not cult leaders. Such cults are so far outside anything even remotely having to do with Christianity that using them as an example is counterproductive to your cause. But I guess if your not interested in what the actual traditions teach and only how it’s twisted by lunatic fringe groups, it’s convincing.

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          • hessianwithteeth

            They tell me they are christians. Who are you or I to tell them what they believe? If they say that they are christians, then I can only believe them. And are you really going to say “they aren’t real christians” after I said that that thought process is part of the problem? Using fallacies doesn’t show me that you are right.

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          • whitefrozen

            I’m not telling them what they believe, I’m telling you what their deeds say. If you can only believe them when they say that they are Christians, then you need to reevaluate your criterion for believing people. And perhaps engage the rest of my comment, 95% of which was not related to what you’ve decided to focus on.

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          • hessianwithteeth

            Which comment is this? Are you talking about your original comment? Why should I respond when I have nothing to say to it? On got my info from Phil professors and I double checked my terms online. If you disagree with the definitions, whatever. There are plenty of philosophers debating the definitions. They aren’t exactly set in stone. If that’s not what you meant, then I really don’t know what comments you’re referring to. This post was about three different bloggers who claimed to be Christian, who I have no reason to believe know each other, and who may very well be in three different denominations who made claims that morality comes from Christian belief. I have no reason to doubt their claims that they are Christian, I have no reason to believe that they are cultists, and yet I have every reason to believe that they sincerely believe that morality only comes from Christianity. And my experiences with other Christians, and my experiences with Christianity on the internet, give me every reason to believe that this is not an isolated mind set.
            I say that I can only judge them based on their words because a) there are as many definitions of what makes someone a Christian as there are Christians and b) I can’t read minds so I have no way of knowing what someone truly believes. For example, with WBC, I can say with some certainty that they do in fact get their claims from the Bible, and I can assume, based on their words and actions, that they do believe in Yahwah, that they believe that Jesus is the son of god and that he was god and that he will raise again, and I can assume that they truly believe that they are doing good in the name of god. But I cannot know for certain that they believe this because I can’t read their minds. Yes, they are a cult, they are a hate group, but they are also a Christian cult and a Christian hate group. Does that mean all Christians agree with them? No. Does that mean all Christians are hateful bigots? No. Does that mean that all Christian groups are cults? Well that really depends on what you take the word “cult” to mean.

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          • whitefrozen

            As a postscript – while I can’t tell them what they believe I’m well within my rights to say that WBC is not a Christian group in any sense of the word.

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  • kat

    of course we don’t need a religion or a religious belief to be moral. we are humans, we have developed frontal lobes. we are capable of deciding what actions are moral and what aren’t. we are capable of choosing how to act at any point. to imply that we are not capable of moral choices and values because we do not subscribe to a mythological being for the answers to life, the universe and everything is to imply that those without religious belief are less than human, less than capable mentally than those who do subscribe to a fairytale story explaining the world. at least those of us without religious beliefs are basing our morals and values on this the present world that we currently live in rather than some story.

    and, the third choice, Virtue Ethics, is i suppose the one i prefer most.

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  • justagrumpyoldman

    I prefer none of these theories or any other. It is all in the mind. “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”.- William Shakespeare

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    • hessianwithteeth

      That’s fine and all, but it makes it difficult to encourage others if you have no foundation to build on. Personally, I have found consequentialism to be the best, but it’s not without it’s problems. I also like the intentions part of virtue ethics. But I find deontology impossible to agree with. Luckily nobody ever says you have to agree with all or nothing.

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