On Whether We Require Religion to be Moral

I wasn’t, until rather recently, one to suggest / wonder if religion is the only way to decipher between what is moral and what is immoral. Though upon receiving inquiries as to whether I believed someone could be a moral person without religion my answer had consistently been yes, admittedly what I truly felt was far more complicated.

I was not, however, going to go around preaching such a thing. First of all, I don’t believe nonreligious people really give a damn whether or not I think they can be moral without religion, and I don’t believe they should give a damn. Also, telling someone they can’t understand morality without being religious is an unprecedented and super mean thing to say. And being mean is like, against my religion and stuff. Or something.

It took someone telling me first, in an equally unprecedented and totally serious manner, that religion is inherently a defective tool for justice, for me to write this post–because what the hell.

To begin, I’ve already written a couple of times about Islam’s moral structure and its intrinsic incorporation of two spheres of morality: the first being the most basic, in which all inalienable human rights must be observed, which is a requirement of both the religious and nonreligious*, and the second being the religious sphere, which is characterized by compassion and generosity, and is a requirement only of those who observe Islam.

For example, in a theoretical Islamic society, Muslim citizens must pay zakat: a percentage of their income which is given to the poor. This occupies the religious realm of generosity, which cannot be forced. Those who pay zakat are not receiving any (earthly) return, as is the definition of charity. In order to take something from someone, consent is required from them, and those who do not consent to practice Islam cannot be expected to give charity because of it.

Non-Muslims are thus exempt from zakat or any mandatory charity. Instead they pay jizya, a tax from which they do receive earthly benefits, including the protection of a Muslim army in which they are not obligated to serve, but who are religiously obligated to protect them. The consent to this exchange is derived from a social contract, not a religious one, because the latter (freedom of religion) occupies the realm of inalienable rights.

In more recognizable terms, these spheres are the two different types of rights: inalienable rights and civil rights.

The way the two spheres are distinguished is that the first does not require consent, and the second does. In other words, if you need consent to carry out an action, then that action is not an inalienable right. Whether or not you require the consent of another person is determined by whether you must involve them at all. If you wish to believe or not believe in a particular religion, that is an inalienable right, because it involves no one else. If you wish to practice a particular religion, that is not (always) an inalienable right. It often requires the consent of others whom you may affect with your practices.

Those who insist that they are practicing an inalienable right to religion when they refuse a woman contraceptives, for example, are by definition incorrect. They have the inalienable right to belief, not to practice, which is a civil right.

However, a civil right can never trump an inalienable right. If there were such a society–like in many instances, ours–in which men believe they are entitled to a woman’s autonomy via social (civil) agreement, and then can carry out actions that police women’s autonomy, that cannot possibly be a civil right, because it overturns an inalienable one: the woman’s inalienable right to bodily autonomy. Therefore, a religious practice that infers with a woman’s full control of her body (like denying her contraceptives) in the name of the civil agreement (whether derived from the right to practice religion, or simply derived from cultural consensus that men own women) in order to access that control against her will, is Morally Illegal. It violates the realm of inalienable rights in order to establish the realm of generosity, as the woman is required to generously forfeit her right against her consent so that it may serve the men–or women–who wish to control her.

When the realm of generosity is established by violating the realm of inalienable rights, systems like slavery become excusable: slavery is, after all, only forced generosity.

A nonreligious person can OF COURSE understand all this. In fact, a nonreligious person can understand all this better than a lot of religious people, who constantly violate inalienable rights in order to force-establish a sphere of generosity.

But the question of whether we need religion to be moral stems from this: how does a nonreligious person justify a belief in Inalienable Rights?

Where does the idea, the concept, of inalienable rights come from, if not from theories of a God Who Manifested them? What does a nonreligious person have that will support the argument that a woman cannot be raped because such a thing is a violation of her inalienable rights, or a violation of basic human decency, when there is nothing but the principle of compassion from which to derive that decency, and when that principle of compassion is logically unsupported? Is “don’t cause pain” enough when you cannot define what that really means? How do you logically tell someone that they are not entitled to rape a woman without depending on her Inalienable Right to bodily autonomy? From where can you get those alienable rights?

I am not saying that it is impossible to get them from anywhere but religion. But if it isn’t, if you can come up with something, I would be ecstatic and would love to hear it.

P.S. I know that by writing this post I am privileging my own model of morality as The Only One, so, if there are others, do they really work as well as this one in theory in governing a society? And how do you come to them without religion?

*The primary realm of morality, which all are required to observe, is composed of things like, “Don’t kill” or “Don’t steal” because these involve the consent of another.

43 thoughts on “On Whether We Require Religion to be Moral

  1. TAC

    > Is “don’t cause pain” enough when you cannot define what that really means?

    I am not arguing this is the answer, but I don’t really understand your question. Which part of “don’t cause pain” cannot be defined?


    1. Like, what if their reply to that was, “Why?” How do you answer that without the ghostly presence of something that sounds a lot like faith? Even, “Because it can be done to you and we don’t do things if we wouldn’t like them done to ourselves,” depends on something that really can’t be explained if that thing that they’re doing isn’t going to be done to them (like if they are the one in power) and so there’s no logical reason for it to register.

      I have to run to class, but I’ll be back and write more in this comment space to kind of illustrate what I mean.


      I am back! Okay so I think Julian Morrison below hit the heart of this post, in the ballpark of what I was looking for, but I will answer this question nonetheless of why “don’t cause pain” doesn’t sufficiently substitute inalienable rights as a governing mechanism.

      I spoke to someone months ago who believed abortion to be excusable only in the first trimester of pregnancy; essentially what he had done was draw an arbitrary line between when the fetus is adequately developed for him to call it human and when it is not. By removing the concept of inalienable right to bodily autonomy from the woman, his argument revolved solely around whether any harm was done to the newly “human” fetus, and consequently rendered the generosity the woman providing for the fetus with her bodily resources as an obligation.

      There’s a reason of course that we recognize inalienable rights when it comes to both the woman and the fetus: if the fetus cannot survive by itself outside of the womb, then it needs the consent of someone else to provide for it, which is not covered by its inalienable right to life. The inalienable right to life does not extend to the means to that life. The latter is derived from the sphere of generosity. It is the woman, who can survive independently, whose inalienable right to life is being attacked when a fetus is killing her, and whose inalienable right to bodily autonomy is attacked when she is forced to carry a fetus she does not want.

      This is true independent of whether the fetus is or isn’t considered a human life, but the principle of “don’t cause pain” doesn’t distinguish this, and it doesn’t define the parameters of what should be sacrificed in not causing pain. Women are required to be saints. Questionable–to say the least–lines are drawn on humanness because definitions are so murky, and laws are built on these highly irrelevant beliefs. In “don’t cause pain” the sheer scope of what inalienable rights encompasses simply isn’t covered, and it isn’t sufficient.


      1. TAC

        Thanks for your detailed reply… but really as I said I was not arguing for anything I just wanted to understand what you meant with that sentence :-)

        For whatever it is worth it I too am an atheist, and I fully agree with Julian.

        Strangely enough, even before I became an atheist, I remember thinking that “Because God says so” always felt like a cop out when the real answer to the successive “why?” would be to hard to figure out. Eventually, you get to God, and then by definition you are not allowed to ask more whys after that.


      2. Oh you can always ask “why” ;) I guess, for me at least, with certain things–including the device of inalienable rights–I am too satisfied for that question to need be asked. But there are a lot of religious concepts that still prompt me to ask why.

        I am also satisfied with Julian’s answer (not that it matters whether I am or anything =P ) to the original question posed in the post; I still, however, don’t see the theory as nearly as effective. (I suppose that’s because it’s unfair, because like you said “because God said so” tends to be inarguable so naturally in conjunction with power it’s most effective.) But the reason I don’t see at as nearly as effective is that it suggests relativity, and that renders the application of inalienable rights as nonessential, or as voluntary depending on whether you like the people, for example, with whom you are at war. And because of that component of relativity, it enables you to employ cultural relativism as justification. And when coupled with the idea that some people are more evolved than others, and therefore more human and thus more deserving of relative human rights, the outcome is just disastrous.


      3. TAC

        hehehe of course you can ask why but when you find an answer to that “why” you realize that “Because God says so” was actually an unnecessary obstacle in your way to knowing the truth.

        I can see your point about “cultural relativism ” but isn’t the same with morality based on religion? There are tons of religions with different basic moral systems. And you often end up with ” because their God says so. “. Plus you still have to interpret what God says and your interpretation will be relative to your culture, hence the various schisms in all religious movements…

        Also, anyone who says ” some people are more evolved than others ” has no idea what evolution means :-)


        1. Yeah I know, but people have been saying that ridiculous social Darwinism stuff since like forever, (I mean obviously anyone who understands evolution knows that becoming “more human” isn’t, like, the hierarchal objective here) so saying they don’t know is the same as when I say people who don’t understand inalienable rights have no idea about Islam. xD In a practical sense it kind of doesn’t matter?

          There are tons of religions with different basic moral systems. And you often end up with ” because their God says so. “. Plus you still have to interpret what God says and your interpretation will be relative to your culture, hence the various schisms in all religious movements…

          Yes, but those who derive inalienable rights via religion by definition cannot see those rights as relative, and so it forces them (if they are true to their own ideology) to recognize the inalienable rights of others that they recognize for themselves. Because to them those rights are universal.

          And you often end up with ” because their God says so. “.

          So when I say “cultural relativism” I am saying that if a culture happens to not practice the observance of inalienable rights, then another culture who does observe these rights (and believes these rights to be evolved by humans and not manifested by God) can just declare it acceptable for themselves to violate the rights of those who don’t recognize inalienable rights, because morality is considered relative and these people evolved differently than the concept of inalienable rights (so why should they be observed when interacting with that cultural context?).

          But when these inalienable human rights are attributed to being from God they are characterized by universality, and so cultural relativism becomes an inadequate excuse to violate them.

          Of course, those who believe in them via God are the ones who have also violated them, so like I said, in a practical sense it doesn’t matter, but if that’s true for both perspectives, I’m comparing whether one of them is effective at least in theory, given that it’s consistent.


  2. “Where does the idea, the concept, of inalienable rights come from, if not from theories of a God Who Manifested them?”

    Pragmatism. The world works better, and more people are happy, if we all pretend that inalienable rights exist. Maybe this is a more updated way of saying “natural law”.

    Obviously playing devil’s advocate here, since I do believe rights come from God, but I think this still works.


      1. I suppose, if you mean literal “pretending”, but I was thinking more of a mutually-acknowledged charade. That is, let us say: “Even though we know inalienable rights do not exist, let us all agree to act as though they do because it will result in the greatest happiness for the largest number of people possible.”


  3. Julian Morrison

    In my atheist opinion human values, including what we consider rights, come from justice-feelings that are instincts, which evolution, itself an amoral process, built because they were successful. This includes generosity, it also includes defense of the self (experience of, and aversion to, violation of boundaries) and defense of the other (and the empathy that prompts it is again an evolved thing, modeling of other minds is something we do so well that we do it to ourselves and call it consciousness, but that’s another story), and punishment of perpetrators. Psychologists have discovered with game-based experiments that people will take a personal loss to punish a cheat. Ethics, then, derive from our tribal human, tribal ape and social primate history. They are what a roving band of humans needs, so as to prosper and not behave like a bunch of backstabbing sociopaths.

    What this means to me is that human values aren’t truly universal to an arbitrarily implemented alien or AI. But that’s OK, they are human values, and in human terms we can make moral progress in implementing them – above what our instincts provide, by means of intelligent invention. I consider “inalienable rights” to be one such invention, part of the technology of ethics, if you will. A technology can be about ideas, rather than mechanisms. Science is a technology of ideas. So is morality.


    1. If I understand you correctly Julian you are saying that it’s not the existence of inalienable rights that you have to justify, but why they should be upheld? Because the necessity of them already justifies the existence, as a tool for human evolution?

      Okay that makes sense.


      1. Julian Morrison

        Hmm. What I’m saying is that inalienable rights are a technology we made, to implement human (humane) values that are based on instincts we were born with. And the reason we were born with them was that they led to success in being a social species. (See perhaps the book “the genial gene”). But from our perspective, living in a time scale much faster than evolution, they are basically a given, we can’t make changes in them and we wouldn’t want to.

        What we use rights for, is to systematize and implement those givens. They are built on quite a complex foundation of socially accepted ethics that have been overlaid on top of instincts (things like “the golden rule” and “cruelty is always bad, even to enemies” which are not immediately obvious at the instinct level, they are an example of moral progress). So when I make a pronouncement like “consent is a right”, it’s a high level abstract way to say “if consent is not respected, things I experience as unjust and horrible will happen”. Thus rights always reference back, ultimately, to humane values.


      2. What I’m saying is that inalienable rights are a technology we made, to implement human (humane) values that are based on instincts we were born with.

        I understand the logic behind why we would classify them as made, but I have a hard time grappling with the idea that they are made, or are developed based on what was / is most successful. My problem with this is also a reply to Kokoba’s sentiment that there isn’t a necessity for good being more than functionality-based: people have posed the question to me before (which I found highly insensitive, but whatever) of whether it would be wrong to rape a woman if it saved the world. The same person who posed the question to me concluded that the destruction of the world would be worse, and therefore “rape isn’t always wrong.”

        This conclusion INFURIATED me. My answer to the question would have been that rape is always wrong, that even if it saves the world it is still wrong, because it has violated an inalienable right. Just because something has a consequence of survival does not qualify it as less wrong, or less Evil. And I can’t imagine a situation in which it would ever not be wrong.

        But in an understanding of rights in which good is merely functionality-based, something like that can’t exist. And I have an incredible problem with that. I believe qualifying good as what functions for the survival of humanity is self-destructive. And that when we start doing that anything can be justified.


  4. Relatively recent reader, first-time commenter.

    Two points: first, allow me to humbly point you in the direction of “Euthyphro,” a Socratic dialogue on just this point. (In case you’re already familiar with it, apologies for the redundancy.)


    The core of the argument is: what is good? Is something good because the gods love it (or to apply it to your argument, because it’s based on faith), or do the gods love it (and faiths prescribe it) because it’s good? There’s an important distinction between cause and effect to be made, as you can see. Certainly, merely being prescribed by a faith is not enough to make something good (as you pointed out with limiting women’s access to birth control), so there’s the other option of good things (such as zakat) being prescribed by a faith because of their own inherent goodness. Socrates argues that if things have an inherent goodness or badness, they must be of a realm beyond the power, so to speak, of religion and the gods.

    Secondly, you ask how atheists can justify a sense of morality about inalienable rights without something like faith. I answer thusly: every individual in the world has experienced pain, unhappiness, fear, etc. We understand that these situations are bad and so we wish to reduce their presence in the world. What provides that motive? Evopsychs would say that it’s because evolution has made us a social species, invested in the well-being of our peers for ultimately selfish reasons. You can take that route if you wish, but personally I’m not a fan of evolutionary psychology so that’s not an explanation I strongly advocate. I would say that the motivation and the desire to reduce suffering in the world simply comes from that inherent goodness in people. The faith involved is not in a particular religion, but rather other people: in their ability to communicate their wants and fears, and in the similarity of their experience to my own. (Similarity in only a very broad sense, eg that I dislike being hurt, so they have a similar dislike of it.)


    1. Thank you so much Kokoba!

      I am actually familiar with “Euthyphro” (but no need to apologize) though I never found it fitting based solely on a verbal disagreement:

      The core of the argument is: what is good? Is something good because the gods love it (or to apply it to your argument, because it’s based on faith), or do the gods love it (and faiths prescribe it) because it’s good? There’s an important distinction between cause and effect to be made, as you can see.

      Yes, the cause and effect is an important distinction, but I’d always dismissed this in application because I felt it was important in the system of belief that was prevalent during the time of Socrates, when the gods made very human mistakes. But the nature of religious models have shifted so that an “it wouldn’t be prescribed if it weren’t good” attitude has emerged (and I would agree with you if you believed this were on the surface less enlightened!) but what that means–what I think religious people mean when they say something like that–is that if something isn’t good then it can’t be from God anyway. We have merged Goodness and God together, and not just linguistically but in belief; consequently a distinction between cause and effect isn’t applicable.

      So that–

      We understand that these situations are bad and so we wish to reduce their presence in the world.

      So that when you say that something is bad I can’t fully understand what you mean, as in what kind of bad is it? I’m assuming you mean it is bad for the existence humankind (that it destructively interrupts the process of development), and I’m assuming that this is what Socrates meant, but if that is what you’re saying, and if that’s what he’s saying, then why does he claim that it is “a realm beyond the power, so to speak, of religion and the gods”? If that’s true, the latter, then what is good can’t be merely be defined as functionality-based. So what is it? And where did it come from?

      That is pretty much what perplexes me.


      1. So that when you say that something is bad I can’t fully understand what you mean, as in what kind of bad is it?

        I guess I don’t find it necessary to have different categorizations of “bad”? It’s bad because it makes someone unhappy (or scared, or endangered, etc etc). If you’re asking what justification I have for categorizing “others being unhappy” as a bad thing, morally speaking, I would say I don’t find one necessary. I know from my own experience that it’s unpleasant. At some point the “why?” rejoinders have to end, otherwise you’re getting turtles all the way down.

        If that’s true, the latter, then what is good can’t be merely be defined as functionality-based.

        I don’t know if there is a necessity to good being more than functionality-based.

        So what is it? And where did it come from?

        Hell if I know! =P I will end with what I know is a sloppy argument: I know that it’s possible to find morality without religion because I do so every day, even if I can’t articulate where it comes from. Where it comes from, to me, is unimportant and uninteresting; I think that’s why I’m incapable of providing a good, satisfying answer to your question. To me, what matters is what I do and how I apply it.


  5. Julian Morrison

    Also, separately from my other comment: the idea that rights come from a rights-giver seems to have the flaw, why would the rights be humane? That is, why would the rights thus provided match our values? Why would they not for example match the values of spiders or nematode worms?

    Basically, it would require an integrated creation where rights were made for humans and humans made for rights, and thus the two conveniently match up, suddenly after 3 billion years of busy nonhuman life whose values don’t match up at all.

    I see the fundamental universe as “meaningless”, but that doesn’t mean my values are diminished, quite the opposite, it means I am free to have humane values.


    1. It doesn’t seem to have a flaw to me. The rights are humane because the Rights Giver understands everything about humanity, since the Rights Giver is also the Creator of humanity. Spiders and nematode worms were also given rights according to their species that govern how they live.

      Also, in Islam there is tons of negotiating with God. So it is an interactive process.


      1. Julian Morrison

        Interesting, what are the rights of spiders and nematode worms?

        Although I shall now hush, because there’s too many comments by me.


      2. LOL You don’t need to hush, I don’t mind. Especially since this is an awfully impertinent post of me, and you have been very patient with my prying into things that are none of my business, like how nonreligious people justify their belief in things.

        Alas, if I were a spider or nematode worm I might tell you. =( I haven’t given much thought to it, but I know those exist. I believe Peter Singer (I know he’s SUPER ABLEIST) when he says that any creature that is capable of feeling pain has a right to pain not being inflicted on it. Of course you can say that’s humanly applied, that among animals that right isn’t applied (but then again, it often isn’t applied among us–in fact it may be practiced more among themselves than among ourselves), but I believe they live by laws we haven’t understood and that these are far more complex than we’ve learned to appreciate.


  6. Julian Morrison

    The page won’t let me reply above, so I’ll reply here. “This conclusion INFURIATED me. My answer to the question would have been that rape is always wrong” – I would agree. And I think we’d agree for the same reason: empathetic fury. How dare they! This is what an instinct feels like. Just because it has a name like “instinct” does not make it less immediate, or less personal. So when I say rights are made, they are made by people to turn that fury into theory, to abstract and systematize it, and perhaps improve on the instinct. For example, instinct does not tell you to apply that fury to the protection of someone you despise, but rights do.


      1. Julian Morrison

        They do, it’s your ethics and beliefs they don’t have. (Instincts are very situational, for example, empathy switches off if you don’t consider someone human. See a lot of men, in regard of women. See also, a lot of the more horrid parts of human history.)


  7. I can empathise a bit for both sides since I have been Muslim in my teens, gone through a panicked few years of agnosticism and thankfully would consider myself Muslim once again iA (#convertdrama).

    Right now I feel like “God loves good things because they are good”. Quite interested in the way the Mu’tazilis looked at things. How I see it at the moment is we have God-given instincts towards good (one of the reasons I stopped practising for some years was because the conservative way I was presented with some so called “Islamic” ideas was so fundamentally against my inherent morality. This place helped me reconcile a lot of them actually), and reason to determine that but the frameworks we strive towards “good” in can be quite relative. You can be blinded to the humanity of others by culture, society, privilege etc. Even by religion.

    I actually quite liked the Terry Pratchett clip Ozy posted on the “Why I am a Moral Nihilist” post, about believing in ideals of good to make them become “real”. And yeah I think that takes a kind of faith, but I see that as a good thing. My philosphical / religous / political beliefs are all over the place in general at the moment but I kind of go with Ibn ‘Arabi’s concept of the human mind’s purpose of existence being to contemplate the divine, which to me necesitates the freest and least oppressive conditions to do that in. Hence morality based on alleviating suffering.

    But can there truly be inalienable rights? What about those receiving punishments for transgressing against other people’s rights? Does the person being executed or imprisoned for rape or murder have a right to their own bodily autonomy / freedom or do they forfeit them? In those cases to who? Even if they are being forfeited to God in the case of commanded punishments are they still inalienable?


    1. Well, imprisoning someone isn’t transgressing their right to bodily autonomy (although you can argue that searching them might be) because that limits their physical space, and they are not inalienably entitled to the space around. Space, and property, are a result of civil contracts, so when you violate a civil contract, or break a law, you may forfeit your right to space.

      Even if they are being forfeited to God in the case of commanded punishments are they still inalienable?

      The death sentence is never commanded in the Qur’an except in self-defense–I don’t think it’s commanded even for rape (the stoning of a rapist comes from hadith.) But when someone is killed, I don’t believe the inalienable right to life is forfeited; it still exists–it just ceased to be observed.

      one of the reasons I stopped practising for some years was because the conservative way I was presented with some so called “Islamic” ideas was so fundamentally against my inherent morality

      This is one of the reasons I wrote the post, because I believed that basically people who claim to be religious but don’t seem understand these fundamental things aren’t actually understanding religion, and that nonreligious people who do understand do so because we are inherently religious beings…

      And yeah I think that takes a kind of faith, but I see that as a good thing.

      …and for that reason I keep seeing faith as the inevitable root of morality.

      I think Julian’s answer makes sense.


      1. Fair point, I am still not sure where I stand on that, kinda meant that in a “if we take the position of those who advocate the death penalty in Islam” way, sorry, late at night here, deep philosophical thought probably not the best idea at this time. But yeah, if someone kills someone else, even in self defense, can it be both immoral since they have an inalienable right to life, and at the same time just? Does that mean that justice is an amoral concept?


      2. Yes. It means that the human application of justice will always be imperfect, because humans are not meant to be the ultimate executioners of Justice–that is of course, only God. The act of execution itself will still signify the presence of evil (as the world must function.)

        It’s parallel to the difference between shari’ah and fiqh, with shar’iah being God’s will and figh being the changeable and imperfect human process created to interpret it. Of course, the two are often conflated.


  8. Leo

    I’m having trouble thinking of how to put this because this post has made me deeply unhappy in a lot of difficult-to-articulate ways.

    Basically — morality comes from basic empathy. When I see someone hurting, the circuits of my brain that remember times I have hurt activate and remind me what that feels like. I conceive of myself as a good person; therefore, I do not want other people to suffer. I think one reason I’m having trouble with this is that this seems so inherently obvious to me — I really have trouble comprehending how someone would even question why hurting people is wrong. People may turn off their empathy in certain circumstances when they don’t consider someone human, or believe they have to hurt people to serve a higher morality — but on a basic level, this seems to me to be like asking ‘why should I not break my mother’s arm?’ Because, assuming your relationship is functional and you’re like most people, you care about her, and want her to not be in pain. The basis, in my view, of atheist morality is extending this to other people; caring about everyone, not just your family or friends or significant other(s) or…

    Another argument I’ve heard is the social stability argument; I know this holds water for a lot of people, though I tend to consider it inadequate. Other people have mentioned it, or something like it, above — it’s the ‘if everyone stole, then I would be stolen from; I don’t want this to happen, so I don’t steal’ line of reasoning.

    I also happen to be one of the people who thinks getting morality only from religion is inherently problematic. This is because, in the end, deriving morality from God or Goddess or multiple gods is giving up your own moral authority. From what I can tell, it’s saying that rights are rights because God gave them — and if rights are only rights because of God, what happens if God changes his mind? What happens if it turns out there *isn’t* a God? Does this mean that you suddenly don’t care any more? If not, are you actually getting your morality from religion, or is it a function of that basic human empathic sense that tells you other people in pain is bad?


    1. Sorry to make you unhappy Leo. =-= The post was just meant to address a technicality.

      And I didn’t mean getting it from religion so much as I meant getting it from being intrinsically religious; in other words if you still care it comes from some degree of indestructive religiosity, regardless of whether God’s mind is changed and nothing else. (In Islam there’s this whole deal about how religion has to make sense or God just doesn’t expect you to follow it; that’s a bit where the intrinsic religiosity comes from.)

      Anyway, I’m sorry. I was hoping it wouldn’t have the same effect as that kind of overbearing & oppressive post but I guess it’s inevitable when what I’m asking itself is already overbearing and oppressive.

      I do feel terrible, Leo. (God?! Instincts?!) I would say I’d make it up to you but unfortunately I don’t know you well enough. Here is a monkey hugging a dove.



      1. Leo

        *laughs* Thank you for the apology — and the picture! Don’t worry about it, communication inherently involves people ending up upset sometimes. My problems with ‘how can you have morality if you’re not religious?’ stem from a series of very bad experiences; honest requests for clarification are a little different.

        Hrm. Are you referring to the belief in human rights as a matter of faith, like religion? I could maybe agree with that — I’d tend to call it a general instinct in humanity, as I said above. I find it very telling that every culture has some idea of ways you should treat other people, in that regard; sometimes the conclusions reached by one particular system are a bit mind-breaking to others, and the belief that outsiders aren’t human is pretty common, but there is that reach for morality of some kind, for treating other people well. But now I think I’m just rehashing stuff I’ve said before.

        I think I may not have articulated this well — what I tend to think the issue with morality-as-stemming-from-religion is, is that it means someone else is telling you definitively what your morality is. Basically, instead of ‘this is wrong because it hurts people’ it’s ‘this is wrong because x says so’ which strikes me as… likely to lead to problems. Maybe I’m missing something? I’m an atheist who was raised by atheists, so I fully admit to having limited exposure to religious discourse that doesn’t involve the Religious Right protesting on sidewalks, or being ganged up on as the weirdo atheist kid. The urge to give up your own judgment seems a bit strange to me.


      2. My problems with ‘how can you have morality if you’re not religious?’ stem from a series of very bad experiences

        Yes, that’s what I was afraid of; I don’t know what degree of bad experience you’ve had but I’ve known of people who have been absolutely psychologically destroyed by religion (gay conversion therapy, needless exorcisms, just general harassment etc), and I was concerned I’d triggered some of the same trauma with this post.

        Are you referring to the belief in human rights as a matter of faith, like religion?

        Yes, that was mostly what I meant, that in order to believe in human rights–because they can’t be empirically proven–you have to take a leap of faith that they exist. But I suppose if you explain them with needing to justify human instinct, you don’t necessarily need that leap of faith; I still have problems with this origin for the model regarding how it can be applied (as discussed with TAC above.)

        Basically, instead of ‘this is wrong because it hurts people’ it’s ‘this is wrong because x says so’ which strikes me as… likely to lead to problems.

        That is definitely far too prevalent. It’s not really what I mean, as I wouldn’t say those people are as ‘intrinsically religious’ as someone who recognizes the difference. I guess the title of this post should really be “On Whether We Can Be Moral without Being Religious”–of course that will still sound pretty douchey, because the essence of the post is telling people what they ‘really’ are, and that is always douchey business.


    1. Did you see the study about monkeys and unequal pay? It involved one monkey getting a cucumber for handing a researcher a rock and when another one got a grape instead for doing the exact same thing the first one was very upset!

      From this I can only conclude that monkeys understand unfair pay and equal rights better than most conservative men.


  9. Thijs

    I love this post though i have some problems with it. Already in ancient times this problem arose. In Plato’s ‘Euthyphro’ there’s a disussion That wonders if it’s is …right to define ‘right’ as what the god commands. In Plato’s known style, Socrates counterasks by asking: Is conduct right because the gods command it or do the gods command it because it is right?’ This question is also a classical philosophy exams question as grasping the problem of this question shows the apptitude for philosophy.

    Anyway what this question asks is, does god make the moral truths true or does he merely recognize they are true. both questions have their problems though, if you choose the first option, you make everything a bit mysterious, for instance, say a religious rules exists that tells us we can hit our children in order to decipline the. Now i don’t really know you but i’ll assume you’re against child abuse. How does god commanding it to be true, justify the act and make it the right conduct to do?
    Another problem is that morality becomes arbitrary, we must assume that god tells us to not lie for a good reason and indeed we also can reason as to why it’s bad to lie. However Since god created everything, he also created reasoning, if he wanted he could have let us reason that lying is the moral thing to do. Basically he could make all conduct moraly true. But this goes against our human nature and it’s not how we think of religion.
    Yet another argument against this view is that things are wrong for the wrong reasons.I think we both can think of loads of arguments as to why child abuse is wrong. Like it causes pain to the child, it could cause the child to develop a trauma, it makes the child fearfull of his parents. etc etc. But the thing is, none of these matters. After all what matters is whether or not child abuse runs counter to what god commands.
    Another argument, which i undoubtly think you can relate to, is the fact that not every religious person agrees with how most religious leaders interpret the religious texts.

    You could circumvent all of these arguments and choose the second option, namely that god recognizes it to be true and therefore commands it. This also has problems though.
    For one this means that there’s something outside of god. This option have you assume that even god cannot change what is good, Here we don’t need to ask, why is say hitting woman bad? The question we should as is Why does god command it. This question will provide you with the ultimate moral true, though unfortunately for religion, the most people answer this with something that has nothing to do with religion. This isn’t a direct attack on god though, he can still exist and want us to do good. this argument does however imply that most religious leaders are only telling you what they think is good. The don’t actually tell you what god really wants. After all the reason as tho why it is wrong should be found in yourself. The biggest problem this argument encounters is that it isnt theological and leaves you to be responsible for all your actions.

    I myself think we do good because we want to be treated good as well. Don’t get me wrong i don’t believe we’re all super caring and ready to jump in a fire for everybody. I do however think that there’s atleast a minimum of good all of us do, simply because all of us realise that those actions we call good, generally provides us with benefit and we’re better of doing them than not doing them, if not for other, we atleast do the right thing for ourselves. They just tend to make our lives easier and at the end of the day, don’t we all want that, hence the universal no killing, stealing, raping thing in as good as all societies.


  10. Steve

    Perhaps a slight tangent here but I believe that survival is an ultimate morality that sometimes conflicts with for an lack of a better word “civil morality”. Is stealing wrong? Yes, but what if it was a case of your child starving and if you didn’t steal the food your child would die. Then all “conventional” morality must be set aside and a more basic morality must be practiced (you must steal the food).

    Fortunately most of us aren’t ever forced into a situation where this ultimate morality must be practiced, although our leaders are often placed in this situation on our behalf.

    Yes, a tangent perhaps, but it was just something I thought needed to be said. That is why MY BABY will always be more important than yours. Because life can only be actually lived subjectively, although an objective evaluation of morality does have its place and is applicable in all but the most extreme situations. But it is wrong to expect individuals to adhere to a single set of universal principles when their needs are placed under threat by others. At that point, an understanding of you who are (the situation you find yourself in) is critical to the morality of your actions.

    Love is the first morality. Love for yourself and those who make up your immediate family and kin group, especially your children. And then from there it moves out to like your neighbors and then your country. If we ever lose that, then we have truly lost an important aspect of our humanity.

    That’s the reality of things beyond the ivy walls of academia.


    1. Is stealing wrong? Yes, but what if it was a case of your child starving and if you didn’t steal the food your child would die.

      Then it is still wrong. Did you read the comments above? We have already distinguished between what is right and wrong from functionality. It is extremely important to recognize that even when we must do something, that does not make it moral, because this recognition prevents us from abusing our moral compass at the excuse of convenience.

      Secondly, stealing in nearly all cases involves property, which is of the secondary sphere of civil rights, not universal (inalienable) ones. The specification in the post of “don’t steal” as an observation of the primary sphere is referring to property that is not a result of civil interaction, unlike the property needed by a starving child.


      1. Steve

        It’s an issue of this ultimate morality trumping all others. Would the person be jailed if caught stealing? Yes because a basic rule has been violated. But an even more basic morality would be broken by the individual if the individual did not steal in order to save his or her baby.

        Not exactly the question you were asking I know. Like I said, a tangent.


    2. Steve

      I wasn’t debating this from a perspective of “functionality” (ie. what would be the best outcome). I was debating this from a perspective of what would the “moral” act be in such a circumstance.

      And here it’s a matter of perspective. Society can’t allow personal property to be stolen regardless of the reason. One’s personal property is indeed one’s personal property and the breadmaker has every right to that property.

      But for the individual with the hungry child the only moral act would be to steal the bread. Here is where two different set, two different levels of morality conflicts.

      The breadmaker should protect his property. After all he has children too who he must feed. That would be the moral thing for him to do. And the person with the hungry child should try to steal it. Neither are in the moral wrong in this case, and that is why I mean it’s a matter of perspective, or that it’s “relative” (to who you are in that situation).


      1. Steve

        It would be IMMORAL for the person to not try to steal the bread. And it would be IMMORAL for one who made the bread not to protect it. So, it’s all depends on which one you are (or relate to) in regards to what outcome you would see as the most moral one.


        1. Wrong.

          This is morality of the secondary civil sphere. If there is a starving child in the community, those who have enough bread are doing something wrong. They have infringed on some civil or even inalienable right of those impoverished in their civilization, to have had this civilization reach such a disparity.

          see as evidence: all of history

          The matter becomes one of whether the property is truly stolen or whether it is reclaimed. What is preventing the parents of a starving child (good parents, who would go as far as to steal for their child) from making their bread? The culprit is always an infringement on their civil rights!

          The person who “owns” the land to make the bread likely took it for himself, from those who lived there before or already, in the civilization he “created” when he decided he was the one who made the rules and discounted the democratic input of the “uncivilized.” What follows is a legacy of injustice, in the pretense of protecting property.


      2. Steve

        The breadmaker probably bought the land from someone else, or even worked hard and earned the money to own the place.

        It’s hard to blame the individual who was born into a situation not his making and is just trying to do the best for himself and his love ones. We don’t choose where or when we are born into this world.


  11. Pingback: One last try. | Penny Gets Lucky


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