Everyday Ethics

Everyday Ethics

Can There Be Morals Without Religion?

One of our regular
commenters, Steve Allen, recently wrote the following in response to Paddy’s post about buying the gender of your child:

To my way of thinking, we are EITHER
accidental accumulations of atoms, and our actions and experiences are without
moral weight, OR “faith” as you put it, (ie that we were created by
God) has a place, and our actions and experiences do matter.


I cannot see the logic of the person who
asserts both that we evolved from the primordial soup and that we have any
moral obligations to anyone at all.

Personally, I am of the latter view –
that we are ultimately accountable to the god who created us – and that means I
would always let him choose the gender of my children, and that I’m pro-life.
That’s because I believe he knows better than I do.

I just had to respond, as I think this is one of the biggest and best questions this blog can address. First, Steve, I thank
you for your thoughtful and ongoing contributions. Second, I heartily disagree.
I’ll explain my reasoning below, but first I’d like to encourage other readers
of this blog to weigh in, since this is such a central issue in the theory of ethics. I would
really like to hear some other thoughts on the topic.


For myself, I see
ethics as easily separable from religion. Steve argues, if I’m understanding him aright, that we are accountable
ultimately to God, and that that is the only true source of our morality and moral
obligations. Without a supreme being, our actions are meaningless: ‘without moral weight’. If we are accidental, we have no need to concern ourselves with ethics.

I would argue, on the contrary, that our accountability to our fellow humans quite
suffices to encourage our desire to behave in ways that ensure society functions
properly. But more than that, I believe it’s in our nature as humans to want to
do good (as well as bad). 


I’m cynical enough to believe ‘good’ is a human construct, not an absolute, but I’m also hopeful enough about humanity to rest assured we all have something in us that responds to fairness, kindness, and a desire to treat others as we’d like to be treated. I believe right and wrong don’t have to be handed down from on high to have a place in our conduct.


Without bringing thousands of years of philosophy into play (heck, we all know we could start with Plato’s Republic and go on from there), I’ll just say that, for me, I choose to do what’s ‘right’ out of love for my fellow man, not because I fear being judged after death, and not for any particularly spiritual reason. I just respect and cooperate with others with whom I share space on this precious planet from an instinctive and yet carefully cultivated place in my consciousness that responds to my sense of what’s honorable and just. Whether it’s more universal than that – whether an absolute justice exists – doesn’t really matter to me.


How about you? What forms the central font of your moral code?

Comments read comments(18)
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posted December 12, 2009 at 7:58 pm

Wow, tough question! As an atheist and a moral person, I have to work a little to explain why I take morality as a reality and not gods.
First, I don’t believe morals or ethics have a physical existence, nor an existence independent of conscious minds. However, altruism and collective, cooperative goals do have real, utilitarian purposes and effects that benefit living organisms. Herds, packs, schools, and families demonstrate this, and in more aware species, sometimes kindness extends outside one’s normal beneficial group or even outside one’s species (including recorded cases where lions and other predators nursed and adopted the babies of prey they’d killed). Whether that is accidental or not, we as animals and mammals have evolved sentiments and group ethics that help us survive as a species.
Aside from metaphysics, however, let’s look at a simple example. Like many children, I was raised without being taught about religion – I only heard of it from other kids at school. But long before I entered kindergarten, I had basic notions about right and wrong, fair and unfair, like every little kid. Obviously, I did not need to believe in any gods in order to believe that I should be treated the same as my sister, or that it was bad to hurt someone.
Philosophically, one can validly ask, why should anyone believe in such things as morals or ethics? One common answer is to say that a god or gods said so. That doesn’t satisfy me, not only because I want to find my own reasons for things, but also because there are many purported gods, and they often contradict each other and themselves. So if not from a god, why should we follow them?
I tend to agree with Hillary – they are a construct, and they are in our nature. These are deep-seated notions of fairness, and certainly difficult to discern with logic. But besides the obvious utilitarian reasons to be moral, we are happier when we act ethically. It’s how we’re wired – even though we’re flexible enough to rewire ourselves to decide differently about what’s ethical. I will conclude by saying that we should act ethically because it’s the right thing to do… but that’s a little tongue in cheek.

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Mark Townsend

posted December 13, 2009 at 11:52 am

“The source and origin of tyranny,” …has affirmed, “have been the divines. Through the sentences pronounced by these haughty and wayward souls the rulers of the earth have wrought that which ye have heard…. The reins of the heedless masses have been, and are, in the hands of the exponents of idle fancies and vain imaginings. These decree what they please. God, verily, is clear of them, and We, too, are clear of them, as are such as have testified unto that which the Pen of the Most High hath spoken in this glorious Station.”
But on the other hand, Bahá’u’lláh has said: “Know thou for a certainty that whoso disbelieveth in God is neither trustworthy nor truthful. This, indeed, is the truth, the undoubted truth. He that acteth treacherously towards God will, also, act treacherously towards his king. Nothing whatever can deter such a man from evil, nothing can hinder him from betraying his neighbor, nothing can induce him to walk uprightly.”

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John Zaugg

posted December 13, 2009 at 3:07 pm

I believe in God. I know God exists because she sent me a post card.
The message on the card was very concise.
1. Stop worshiping God, blind fainth in anything is evidence of a lack of charcter.
2. Stop listening to those religious gurus who claim to speak for God, it a con-job.
3. Use the brain nature gave you and stop looking for excuses for acting irrationally. Neither blind obedience or stupidity is a virtue.
4. Thank you.
For more information visit

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posted December 14, 2009 at 5:27 pm

I kind of realized that morality and religion do not go necessarily hand in hand when I read “The Book of the Dead” of ancient Egypt and realized that the Christians 10 commandments are nothing but adaptations of a previous tradition, which except for certain Neo-pagands, must people accept it’s mythical. Unless Ra and Osiris and Horus are real and the, oh boy, we are in BIG trouble. :-)
Now, seriously, one of the reason I believe that morality and religion are not dependant one in the other is when one sees that being a Christian (the religion of love and forgivness) for example, has not stopped any Pope, King, General or President from declaring War, allowing the torture of people, persecuting the discident thougth or idea or looking to the other side when witnessing poverty and unjustice. Our daily lives continuosly put us in touch with ethical believers and un-believers and vice versa. The main different I see is that when beleivers do good, more often that not, they do it: a) to please their God; b) to gain their Deity’s favor; c) to obey their Divinity; or D) in the best of cases,to imitate the example of their Spiritual Lider.
When non-beleivers do good, they do it because they are thinking about the benefit of the community, other fellow humans and their selves. So I think un-beleivers are more moved to an ethical life out of love for palpable and living beings (be it people, animals or the environment) whereas believer’s first alliance seems to be with their Deity.

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Steve Allen

posted December 21, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Hi Hillary and others. Sorry I’m late, but I hadn’t noticed I’d sparked this discussion when you first posted. Thanks for raising the issue – I do have something to say in reply.
First, Hillary, thankyou for accurately understanding and reiterating my point of view, although I will say that I wasn’t exactly trying to “argue” so much as offer a view point. Let me clarify something, though. I’m NOT saying that morality requires religion.
I’m saying that for morals to have any objective weight requires the existence of a god – not necessarily the Christian God; that’s a different question. (I happen to believe wholeheartedly in the Christian God, but that’s not what we’re discussing).
I note that you assert “that our accountability to our fellow humans quite suffices to encourage our desire to behave in ways that ensure society functions properly…I’m cynical enough to believe ‘good’ is a human construct, not an absolute, but I’m also hopeful enough about humanity to rest assured we all have something in us that responds to fairness, kindness, and a desire to treat others as we’d like to be treated…I choose to do what’s ‘right’ out of love for my fellow man.”
This is where I run into trouble with logic. I agree with you that if you take god out of the equation, then “good” becomes a human construct, not an absolute. If that’s the case, what makes ANYTHING “good”? What makes fairness, kindess, honesty etc good? Is it because I’d like to be treated that way? So what? I’m a mass of random molecules, aren’t I? Why SHOULD I treat others the way I’d like to be treated?
Or have we construed things to be “good” if they enhance the chances of survival? Is it then “good” if I believe that breaking into your house, and killing you so I can steal all your stuff will enhance my chances of survival? By the same argument, was Hitler right in his beliefs about the Aryan race, so that war and genocide become “good”? What’s “wrong” with it, if we are all accidentally here anyway?
Is something “good” simply because the majority believes it to be? Is it, as you say “our accountability to our fellow humans” that matters? But my question is still WHY am I accountable to them? Is it because we have laws, so our society functions smoothly? Why then do we only obey the laws we like? Are we morally wrong to run a red light if it will save someones life? Without a god, we’re all just matter, aren’t we? Isn’t it up to me to decide what’s right for me, and tolerate what everyone else thinks is right for them?
Can I also say that when you refer to a fear of being judged after death, you are selling me short. For a Christian, at least, treating others well is only to a small degree driven by such a fear. Instead, treating others well flows from an understanding that people have value not because of what they can contribute to me or the world, but because God says they have value. And because I appreciate that he places value even on someone like me, that leads me to place value on others – even the ones who don’t help the gene pool.
There’s more I’d like to say, but that’s long enough for now. Maybe I’ll blog about it myself. :-)

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posted December 21, 2009 at 4:17 pm

Here are my thoughts. I hope you don’t mind some more thoughts from a Christian perspective. By the way, I am not addressing any one person in particular.
What is love? God is love. It’s not only that God loves, but that God IS love. Now, if you don’t believe there is a God, well, fortunately, God’s existence isn’t conditional on your belief. God just IS. The Bible calls Him the “I AM”.
Don’t throw out the message because you see a few hypocritical messengers. Look into the life of Jesus and look at what He said and did and look at the claims that He made. He said things like, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father” and “I AM the Way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”
Here is what Jesus said summarizes the ‘law and the prophets’ (ie: the whole of the Jewish experience of God) “Love God and love your neighbour”. He also said “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”. Therefore, true love is a self-sacrificial love. A love that looses oneself in serving another. The cross is an example of God’s self-sacrificial love for us.
Religion seeks to please God and follow the rules and laws. Faith, (ie: a relationship of trust in the Living God) transforms and conforms the believer into supernaturally living a Holy life. It’s walking with the living God.
It seems to me that ‘ethics’ are ‘mans’ way of boasting that they don’t need God and His laws nor His salvation. It’s a way of justifying that ‘man’ is inheritantly good and of no need of God’s salvation.
Steve (not Steve Allen)

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John Zaugg

posted January 22, 2010 at 12:45 pm

If we are supposed to “love thy neighbor” do we have any right to our own life?
If we drive past a homeless family how much of our weekly pay check are we supposed to give them?
A free and moral society will not survive under the edicts and dogma of religion.
See my web site.
Thank you

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posted February 24, 2010 at 10:20 pm

“Religion seeks to please God.” (Steve)
Which religion pleases God?
– Aleksa

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posted February 24, 2010 at 10:25 pm

“if you take god out of the equation, then “good” becomes a human construct, not an absolute.” (Steve Allen)
Define absolute.
From a carnivore beast’s point of view keeling you or your loved ones for food is good, is it so from your or your loved ones’ point of view? Whose point of view is absolute?
Ethics is a system of principles governing right conduct between individuals, would you not agree?
To be perfectly ethical (or perfectly right) the conduct should not impinge on the best interest of any individual affected by it, would you not agree?
– Aleksa

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posted February 24, 2010 at 10:29 pm

Oops, LOL I meant to type “killing,” not “keeling”!

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dan t

posted May 2, 2010 at 11:36 am

When you refer to the word “obligation”, you are referring to the same sense of duty that theists and atheists alike are capable of feeling. What you perceive to be an “obligation” to God may come to you in various forms. One of these forms may be fear, another may be your personal obligation to be virtuous. The common denominator here of course is that atheists are capable of both knowing and practicing virtue. Man does not require God to be good to his species. One would simply assume otherwise due to the sheer number of rotten apples in the basket.
What you consider “good” or “bad” in people is present in both theists and atheists. Even if you do not believe “good” or “bad” exist as a moral concept, there will be people from all walks of life who do. Ultimately, these morals must come from something other than God, or else atheists would be incapable of morality.
Religious morality is something else entirely. Of course, the question of whether atheists are capable of religious morality seems a silly one, as atheists are necessarily ill-disposed to this particular “brand” of morality by the virtue of already being atheist. To determine the universal morality you are clearly indicating, one must separate the virtues we attribute to the religiously devout alone, from those we value in all.
The problem of this question is only able to be perceived when the question is phrased to implicate a “morality” synonymous only with “religious morality”. Man does not need to be kept in check by fear to do good for himself or others. His empathy alone, which is at the core of our societal morality, sets him apart from lesser beasts.

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posted May 23, 2010 at 6:34 am

We had it all set before us a long time ago, it was ignored then (the Word of God) as in many instances it is today. Man is flesh and is totally focused on his selfish needs….his flesh…only our Creator and His instruction and Word for our life can bring us and make us into what is acceptable in His sight…to go through this life without Him is futile…to grow in His wisdom and under His guidance is Victory. Without Him we stumble along…with Him we soar….He gave us the freedom of choice….and life is all about choice…but without wisdom life can become chaos and confusion…wrong and right (moral and immoral) become very clear to those who choose to lead a life directed by an all knowing God.

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posted November 11, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Im sorry if i sound egocentric or even if i come off as an ahole but in all honesty the reason religion is so widely accepted because people told to believe in a set of morals and rules for them to be seen as good or bad in the world. So when a religious person tries to explain morale to others that is all they know because they fear if such rules of morals are taken away that cias i.e. nothing is garanteed in the world.
Stealing, killing, lying and so forth are seen as bad morals but funny thing even religious men go on to say that it is wrong but if they were put in a situation where they had to kill another person for a loved one then their moral actually changes or is brought to questioning. I am not provoking that religion is wrong but I am stating that moral is a seperate entity of its own that religion took on to make it part of its self. So now when a group of people who oppose such ideas are considered without moral.
Im sorry i dont make sense what so ever i just thought i should just write rather than think it over

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posted December 9, 2010 at 9:12 pm

I believe that morals are partly genetic, intellectualized into ethics perhaps to make them more sensible. But I believe they are part and parcel of our being a social animal and the parent child bond that is needed in mammals. For any society you need ‘morals,’ for example otherwise animals would not hesitate to eat their own species.
For humans, the question can be rephrased into, are atheists capable of shame, guilt and loyalty? Or, are all atheists sociopaths? In fact atheists on average have lower divorce rates, make more money and have more education than believers: they are plenty moral enough to do well in society.
Of course it is better to have a well thought-out system of ethics and the religious also enjoy the comfort of talking to their God in times of anxiety, and they will push that extra mile being moral, believing in punishment or reward from God. As Aleksa said,
“if you take god out of the equation, then “good” becomes a human construct, not an absolute.” but construct can be mighty compelling.

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posted December 8, 2011 at 5:35 am

I believe in a higher power, I think its comforting to know that life does’nt just stop after death or maybe thats how i was wired and just find it difficult to get out of believing that. As far as religion goes, I dont believe any of it and think it’s just a way to control people and make them do things without proof or any justification (just by saying god said u shud do this). Morality in my opinion is partially genetic as well as the enviornment and people you were raised around, also ur own thought process plays a big role in that too. there came a time when i was young, where i was very religious but actually now that I dont believe in religion anymore i see myself as a better person with more understanding and compassion towards others. Morality to me comes from the basic principle that we are all humans with different ideas and thoughts and we all die in the end so i believe everyone has the right to do whatever they want in life as long as it does not harm anyone in the process. my thoughts are all shuffled up and if i was to keep going i might as well write an essay about it, so i hope whatever i wrote down made sense.

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Peter A.

posted April 23, 2012 at 10:24 pm

‘I’m cynical enough to believe ‘good’ is a human construct, not an absolute, but I’m also hopeful enough about humanity to rest assured we all have something in us that responds to fairness, kindness, and a desire to treat others as we’d like to be treated…’

…and this is the essential problem, right here. If, as you claim, ‘good’ is merely a ‘human construct’, then why should we even concern ourselves with it? What’s the point? It changes according to situation, convenience, and fashion. What is ‘right’ one day, is not so the next. It means that no-one has any reason to stand for anything, that (for example) social justice issues can be ignored because, after all, we are just matter, here today gone tomorrow, and so nothing really matters.

You mention ‘fairness’. What exactly is ‘fair’, and why?

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Rhys Griffin

posted July 10, 2012 at 5:50 pm

Religion has historically been linked to morality for a variety of reasons. Setting aside, for present purposes, the question of God’s actual existence, here are three suggestions.

1. Religion invites us to take a global, if not cosmic, perspective, as we consider the impact and implications of our actions. God (among other things) is our name for the Largest Possible Frame of Reference. Like Kant’s Categorical Imperative, we are wise to consider the broadest possible range of our actions, and religion does that very well.

2. Here’s a practical, but not necessarily good, reason. Religion adds serious fuel to the community norms which every society needs in order to survive. Tradition says God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, but it is far more likely that the Hebrew community borrowed and modified the Code from other sources, discovered huge value in the Ten and then decided that G-D would want them to follow the Ten, so they taught that G-D decreed them as eternally valid. That’s how religion often works, adding fuel and divine imprimatur to human values. It’s like the old stereotype of the mother who can’t get the kids to behave, so she says, “Wait until your Father gets home.” Importing God with the Big Stick adds fear to the business of enforcing human morals.

3. Despite the fact that virtually all religions claim a propriety hold on ultimate truth, history shows that religions evolve (or at least change) in their pronouncements of what “God says” is right behavior. “Time makes ancient good uncouth,” says Lowell (I think. Therefore, heavy-handed declarations by religion that “God says This is Right” are often revised within a few generations. We could even say that advancing morals lead religious to revise themselves!!
In sum, religion and morality are so interwoven that it is difficult to untangle them.

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posted September 4, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Hey, thanks for writing this article.
I’d like you to know that the “love” that makes you have compassion for fellow men is a very spiritual concept. Love (as a commitment between people, for BETTER or WORSE) is not something that would come naturally to a being who evolved from non-life. Love is supernatural– whether you want to admit it or not, you have a soul inside of you that wants to do good in this life.

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