A significant problems encountered when discussing religion is the strongly held belief that divine authority is necessary for morality. Not only is morality possible without God, it is independent of and occasionally in conflict with religion. To understand this we must first address why so many people mistakenly link God and morality then we can investigate the implications for living ethical lives.

Morality and God

The primary origin of the divine morality belief is the idea that in order for there to be a moral law there has to be a law giver. Thus there is a moral law because God commands it. If we grant this as the case, what guarantees that these laws are in fact moral? Would it have been moral for Abraham to follow God’s instructions and murder his only son Isaac? Common sense seems to draw a distinction between “sin” regarding religious obligation and “morality” regarding concern and conscience.

Socrates, in conversation with Euthyphro, asks the basic question, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” If the first option is true then good is simply good on its own accord and that is why the gods chose it. If the second option is true then the selection seems arbitrary and the gods could choose anything they wanted, even genocide or torture, to be moral. This dilemma challenges the idea that God is the source for morality because morality would be either preexisting or arbitrary.

Another reason for this belief is the idea that God is watching your behavior and you will be punished for wrongdoing. Therefore, without God why would you not lie, steal, or murder? People argue like Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov that “If there is no God, I am free to rape my neighbor!” To begin with, it is a startling assertion that only belief in God stand between a person and deplorable behavior. Humans seem perfectly capable of enforcing societal norms and laws independent of God.  Irreligious countries like Denmark and Sweden have managed not to plunge into lawlessness. More so, it is a strange form of morality that contends a person could only behave ethically out of fear of damnation or incentive of salvation. As H. Jackson Brown said, “Our character is what we do when we think no one is looking.”

Sources of Morality

If morality is independent of the question of God then what is its source? This is the primary source of angst when believers encounter evolution or secular ethics. It seems to open a moral abyss with no basis for right or wrong. On the flip side, some claim that the science of evolutionary ethics will help us learn the science of right and wrong. Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape argues, ““The more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human values.” Thus, progress in neuroscience is perhaps a promising field for understanding our moral judgments.

Regardless of the developing science, it is clear that our ancestors developed social norms before religion and even animals display many ethical characteristics like empathy, cooperation, and fairness. Our biological intuitions, our human nature, seem to already contain predispositions to moral thinking. Isn’t raping your neighbor destructive to society whether you believe in God or not? Then it shouldn’t be surprising that the great diversity of religions espouse similar moral codes.

As humans, however, our moral intuitions are not always right. Just like our flawed intuitions of physics, we require honest reflection and conversation to develop our moral judgments. Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser and ethicist Peter Singer corroborate this point saying:

“Our evolved intuitions do not necessarily give us the right or consistent answers to moral dilemmas. What was good for our ancestors may not be good for human beings as a whole today, let along for our planet and all the other beings living on it. But insights into the changing moral landscape (e.g. animal rights, abortion, euthanasia, and international aid) have not come from religion, but from careful reflection on humanity and what we consider a life well lived.”

Ultimately, people cannot avoid their moral responsibilities simply by following religious orders. This is how people justify most atrocities enacted in the name of faith. It is also why morality must be decoupled from religious obligation. We must cease isolating ourselves in moral terms by our ancient texts and instead work toward understanding a shared human morality. At the core of this morality must be an empathy or concern for the welfare of conscious creatures.

:: This is Sam Harris’s provocative 2010 TED talk about The Moral Landscape ::


Moral Relativism

So if morality is not rooted in the Ten Commandments or Sharia Law then isn’t it just whatever someone wants? How could we really say that a religious claim about the immorality of homosexuality is wrong? How could we say the compulsory veiling of women is wrong? These questions are at the heart of western liberal values including equal rights, individual autonomy, and freedom of belief. The problem is that people then become noncommittal on moral questions, reluctant to “impose” their values on others.

This moral relativism (and often tolerance of intolerance) is a real issue facing secular democracies interacting with theocratic forces. Instead, Austin Dacey in The Secular Conscience asserts people should engage in “serious conversation about moral questions using objective standards of good reasoning that are open to public examination.” It is through a public conversation about what negative consequences may result from gay marriage that society can make moral judgments. The conversation cannot end with someone saying “that’s what my faith tells me.”

This does not mean that the moral answer is the same every time. Just as an ambulance may violate traffic laws or chess strategy may call for sacrificing your queen, there may be variances in moral rules for human well being. For example, there is a clear distinction between food and poison. The science of nutrition and health rely on this distinction, yet nobody contends that there is only ONE correct food to eat. Likewise, you might love peanuts, but to someone with a peanut allergy it could be deadly. The point is that moral nuance does not justify throwing up our hands in relativistic surrender.

With an increasingly interconnected world and active forces of extremist religion, it is essential that moral relativism be discarded. We must engage in honest discovery of what systems and choices truly result in the best human flourishing. The experiences of human societies and facts about their well-being (mortality rates, life expectancy, income, individual rights, etc.) already tell us about some peaks and valleys on this landscape. Free societies dedicated to humble inquiry can discover new truths with time. As John Stewart Mills argued in On Liberty, “Human beings owe each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former rather than the latter.”

The Personal Conscience

Social institutions, religion in particular, have done tremendous good when advocating for ethical behavior. This should be fully recognized and encouraged in its pure form. However, individuals must ultimately make their own moral choices. The challenge of being a good person exists for everyone regardless of faith or religious affiliation. The Dalai Lama contends, people can grow and develop their moral faculties increasing in compassion, empathy and virtue. If so, we should seek to develop our self-awareness and personal conscience to be more moral beings. It is the personal identity and conscience as a moral being that matters most.

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