Is Religion Necessary for Morality?

Therapists hear many opinions from their patients. Such beliefs are not always the focus treatment or what the client came to work on. They simply “appear” in the course of conversation. One of those ideas, quite common, has to do with religion. On numerous occasions my clients mentioned, unprompted, that a religious upbringing was essential to raising “moral” children. Without the guidance of a perfect, all-good, all-powerful being, the successful raising of an upright person was hard for them to imagine.

Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th century German philosopher, disagreed. So did moral theorists like Immanuel Kant.

Schopenhauer thought religion clouds our capacity for rationality. According to him, early religious training creates an intellectual blind spot persisting throughout life. We then become susceptible to accepting ideas “on faith” instead of reason. Our dispassionate, analytic abilities are crippled, in Schopenhauer’s view. Childhood religious indoctrination requires us to “believe” (lest God punish us either now or in the hereafter) rather than search for truth with whatever logical tools and evidence we can muster.

Early acceptance of miracles and supernatural beings were, to Schopenhauer, the beginning of a path to intellectual and behavioral ruin. He feared religious education would hamper our ability to separate truth from falsehood. Bad behavior, excused by our confused thought process, was considered another potential consequence of a religion-created blindness.

Schopenhauer offered ancient Athens, the city-state of Plato and Aristotle, as a counter example: a moral community not produced by religion and one he thought functioned better because of its absence.

Athens was a genuine democracy: all the citizens voted on every important issue (as opposed to representative governments in which individuals are elected to do the actual voting in legislative bodies like the U.S. Congress). Schopenhauer argued that religion did not exist in Athens in the period to which he refers. Yes, there were gods and some people made sacrifices to them; but no organized, regular religious services were observed with a formal priestly hierarchy and a carefully prescribed method of worship. Nor did religious documents exist (like the Bible or Koran) or any “inspired” list of good and bad behavior similar to The Ten Commandments. Yet, Schopenhauer reminds us that laws were respected, justice was important, civility was maintained, and philosophical schools like Plato’s extraordinary Academy flourished. The question of the good life and how best to lead it was discussed among educated citizens.

At this point you might complain about the lack of rights for women in ancient Athens or the slavery prevalent there. Do remember, however, equality of the sexes is a relatively new issue despite over 2000 years of Christianity. Moreover, the Confederacy during the U.S Civil War justified the hideous institution of slavery by reference to its presence in the Bible. Nor is slavery condemned in that book.

Schopenhauer believed compassion, not religion, contributed to moral conduct, and such compassion was in man’s nature (making religion unnecessary). Indeed, the ability to identify with our fellow-man seems in short supply these days, whatever the cause. The more closely we identify with the superiority of our national, racial, or religious group, the more we are at risk of excluding feelings of sympathy for those who don’t share our nationality, skin color, or faith.

Immanuel Kant, an earlier German philosopher, argued for a different (but still secular) foundation for morality: the categorical imperative. Kant recommended we each ask a question when evaluating our behavior: should my personal moral standards be made into a universal law — a requirement and duty for everyone without exception, or, as he called it, a categorical imperative. Additionally, in considering our answer, he would remind us to respect the dignity of our fellow-man simply because he is human. “Using” others is therefore immoral.

For example, if sexual fidelity and honesty are deemed proper, they must be required of everyone in all circumstances. Adultery, by contrast, however much you believe it would be in your self-interest, would be of no moral value; because proper action is not a matter of how much you might profit from it, but rather, a duty to what is good in itself.

Let’s say you are unfaithful, steal, lie, and break promises. Are you prepared to give permission for everyone to act the same way against you and everyone else? If not, he would argue you have exposed the moral failing of your own behavior.

These thinkers make demands on us to consider whether what we do is justifiable by a process of reason: to look in the mirror at who we are, beyond any religious rule we follow.

Clearly, whether religion is essential to implant the seed of a life-long moral rootedness, one can argue it provides many other things, including a sense of comfort, order, and hopefulness in the most fraught moments of life, as well as a supportive and congenial community of fellow-believers.

The question remains, however, whether there is something Schopenhauer and Kant are missing in their quest for moral grounding, beyond these potential benefits of faith. Do you believe religion provides some necessary ethical guidance for our children that these men miss?

I look forward to your thoughts on the subject.

The top image is Man Praying at a Japanese Shinto Shrine. It is the work of Kalandrakas and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Question Mark is sourced from the Monroeville Community Website.

21 thoughts on “Is Religion Necessary for Morality?

  1. The problem is that those old doctors you mentioned don’t understand what The Bible is – It is the Word of God. It’s not about rules. Christianity is about a relationship with God. And He loves us so much!!! They also don’t realize that all people are born with a sin nature. We need forgiveness because we have been seperated from God. Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection beat death. Christianity is the only religion that is not based on anything we can do. It’s all about what God gave us if we just believe. It’s a free gift. And it also takes “faith” to believe in nothing. Everything comes down to “faith.” Being a “good” and “moral” person isn’t possible the way these old doctors say. Because who then decides what’s right and what’s wrong. I think it’s wrong to murder someone. But there are people who don’t agree with me and they murder people. With The Bible, and faith in God, there is a line in the sand saying what morality even is. And God’s love is what helps us care about others. Sometimes I think the smarter that people get (or think they are) the bigger the fool they turn out to be. Not a fool in that they are stupid, but a fool that they can’t see what is right in front of them. Creation points to The Creator! And just wiggle your fingers! It’s amazing we can even do that!! We all start out so small and somehow our bodies grow and our minds grow! You just can’t really explain that with science. We are all so different. God is amazing! God is love and Jesus loves us! I feel sad that old doctor thinks people do not need God. Because basically what he is saying then is that we are God and we can decide what’s right and wrong. Which leads nowhere good. I put my faith in God and trust the Bible. My counselor is also a Christian and he has really allowed me to explore my faith and ask lots of questions. He is helping me to see that God has always been with me even as people hurt me. And we all have Free Will. We can use it to hurt others, or help others. To believe or not believe. I choose to believe. 🙂

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  2. Joan Chandler

    Religion, and no religion hasn’t prevented us from killing each other so I don’t think a case can be made for a direct link between behavior and belief.

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  3. drgeraldstein

    One can’t prove it by the historical record, I agree, Joan. That said, no one has really tried out a state based on the “categorical imperative.” Of course, one couldn’t impose it on people, so it remains what is called a “thought experiment.”

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  4. Every Religion serves a purpose . I don’t necessarily believe that adhering to one ensures morality.
    I do believe in the.importance of rituals and a sense of community
    that many religions offer. Even the tribes in the Amazon practice rituals
    and have rules that are accepted by the community. I am sure there are certain rules that insure the survival of the tribe.
    We get our ethics in many ways.
    Religious leaders,parents teachers
    and society. I do believe that we have certain values that are innate
    We just know when something feels right or wrong.
    I become very concerned when religion becomes extreme. There is a shadow.in everything. As a child.I never understood the crusades. How could so much carnage take place in the name of religion.? Surely God did.not.approve. ? I remember the sense of horror I felt in Catholic school. I learned not.to take certain things in and.developed
    my own spirituality.

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  5. drgeraldstein

    You’ve identified a complaint about religion noted by just about every major critic of it. Namely, that terrible things (as some people see it) have (and still are) done in the name of God. Defenders would argue that this is only a misuse of religion and doesn’t thereby invalidate all religion. Thanks for your thoughts, Mamawoman.

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  6. As someone who was born into Christianity, I believed it was the “right way” until I was 20. To make a long story short, when I threw off the shackles of religion, it felt as though a burden had been lifted from my shoulders. All religion ever did was blind me to those things that COULD be proven (through science), long days and nights of fearing that I wasn’t “good enough” to go to heaven and that I’d burn in hell forever. Religion brought me more shame and pain than anything else in my life. Or rather, it made the shame and pain even more shameful. I wanted to write a response to Lynne’s comment, but
    cognitive dissonance is powerful. To each their own.

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    • drgeraldstein

      I’m glad you are past believing you will burn in hell. Nothing I know about you from reading your remarkably open blog posts suggests anything but that you are a decent person who tries to show consideration for people. Thanks for commenting, Rayne.

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    • I felt the same way, Rayne. When I was around 35, I finally received the help I needed for some traumatic experiences in both childhood and adulthood to understand that I cannot live a life under constant fear that I will never been good enough for heaven, God, His Kingdom, and His people. I felt judged most of my life, and in some cases, ritualistically abused. I’m so sorry you had to experience what you did, because that doesn’t even seem like “moral” behavior at all, though I suppose their definition on morality may differ from others’. I, too, have felt more shame and pain when involved with religion and certain religious people–though I know some people who are religious who are not judgmental and are friendly. Still, religion is a trigger for me, and I have found my peace by separating myself from it. I still struggle on occasion with fear, anxiety, and shame, but I press forward with the freedom I needed to be moral without religion.

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  7. I’ve been hurt spiritually, so I had to go through some spiritual healing in a trauma treatment facility, which taught me the importance of finding my own spirituality–apart from religion. It also taught me to find my own morality, apart from religion and spirituality. Although I believe support through religion helps a lot of people maintain a sense of morality, I also believe that one’s own sense of morality can be achieved without religion–perhaps even without spirituality as well, though some may argue that having a sense of morality is “spiritual” in its own right. I’ve met very kind, nonjudgmental, and moral atheists and some mean and judgmental religious people who had committed some immoral acts. I’ve also met some kind, nonjudgmental, and moral religious people and some mean and judgmental non-religious atheists or agnostics who had committed some immoral acts as well. Without knowing the statistics or empirical research on this topic, all I know is that from my own experience, morality can exist with or without a spiritual or religious base. I choose to be spiritual and not religious, which some would categorize as “agnostic.” I choose to be moral apart from spirituality or religion, because I have a good working superego that tries to cooperate with my id and ego. I choose to be moral because I care not only about myself but also about others–regardless of their spiritual or religious background, regardless of their ethnicity or race, and regardless of their gender, age, appearance, weight, sexuality, disability, etc. There’s a lot of philosophies on the issue of morality and its various etiologies, and there’s a lot of different definitions on what it means to be moral–depending on cultural influences, universalism, altruism, egoism (or egotism–I keep getting the two confused with one another, LOL), happiness, existentialism, etc. There’s a lot of different teachings for our children and adults on what is considered to be prosocial and moral–depending on the differences between collectivism and individualism. To be human is to doubt but explore, fail but persevere, and to hold values that represent a form of morality that aligns with who we are as individuals living within a world of other individuals. I value balance and therefore a continuum between collectivism and individualism–a moderate approach to embracing all sides and resting somewhere in the middle when it comes to my own personal pursuit to being moral. Not one human being is moral all the time, but we can strive to be moral as a lifelong journey. That moral striving can be motivated by religion, spirituality, family upbringing, therapy, social support, social pressure, punishment, reward, past experiences, present experiences, and many other internal and external factors that make up who we are as humans. It’s sad when people harm or threaten others for the sake of dogmatic beliefs and/or their own views of morality, and it’s sad when people view themselves as being labeled as “immoral” or “incapable of morality”–for one reason or another. How is threatening morality moral–with or without the religious connection? There’s got to be some moral value in kindness, freedom, helping, and tolerating differences. The controversies we see today largely stem from cultural differences related to what people consider is moral–religion included, but not necessarily all religious in nature. It’s sad when these disagreements turn into what seems like wars based on the differences of what morality is. Honestly, I’ve read so many different viewpoints in all of my education and 42 years of experience so far to know that I don’t know. But my pursuit of morality for my own personal self is a lifelong journey and process–with or without spirituality or religion.

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    • drgeraldstein

      You’ve touched on many worthwhile points, Gayle. I’ll comment on one only. Morality is indeed seen differently by those on the political right and left, as well as by those in different parts of the world; and not only due to religious differences. For example, in some areas of the planet, family connections, responsibilities, and loyalties cause people to view what is “right” differently from those who live in the West. Even Kant might find that as much as his “categorical imperative” leads to an evenhanded attitude toward other people, some of those individuals might come up with a rather different set of “imperative” behavioral guidelines. Thanks for both your comments.

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  8. My brother and I weren’t brought up in any religion and I think we both turned out fine, mostly due to our parents’ example, guidance, and support and that of our extended family.

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  9. This is a very interesting post and I was interested in the comments of others. I myself believe in a creator and I have continued in my own religion, not that its been easy since alot of my abuse was in the context of my religious upbringing, and even though I logically could realise that religion, the bible and God had all been misapplied by my father and abuser, I still carried an immense amount of rage toward God . Thats the hard thing is that people have, for there own motives misrepresented God and the bible and caused so much damage that many in the end stop believing in a creator. I took a different path and read the bible for myself to see what the teachings and morals were. I compared everything that I have been taught in my religion, and although not perfect, it sticks pretty well to what the bible says. I still read the bible usually 1 chapter every day. I very much have had a love/hate relationship with God and yet have seen how He hasn’t abandoned me. Living by the morals and principles of the bible has literally saved my life and taught me how to reign in my reactions and choose my behavior. It says in Isiaiah 48:17,18 that God is teaching you to benefit yourself. He also wants us to leave peacefully with others, that’s why he has morals and standards, to minimise the damage we cause to ourselves and others by our choices and behaviors. Loving parents set standards and give discipline to children to teach them to consider others and hopefully grow up to be responsible citizens of the world. Thats exactly Gods motives in setting moral guidelines. It hasnt always been easy to understand what the benefits have been particularly when most of society disagree and live a different way. But after years of reflecting and comparing other ways of life I can see the incredible wisdom in the morals of the bible. The bible does say that people have within themselves a conscience so that even if they don’t believe in God they have some ability to create ‘laws’ or morals to live by. If you look at tribal people, within their own communities they create a social structure and morals to guide the group and also punishment for going outside that standard. Every group of people have created laws and morals to maintain the ability to live in communities. We sometimes look at other cultures and judge them as crude or shocking. My own conclusion though is that if it was that there is no creator the it would come down one persons opinion against another and the only thing to determine the difference of whose morals are right would come down to who ever is the strongest, empathy and compassion does come in to it in verying degrees, but even that can be misapplied and cause unforseen damage. Thats basically how most people determine their morals is survival of the fittest or what brings a person pleasure or stops them feeling guilty and anxious without any real thought to the long term consequences on themselves or people around them or future generations, some consequences arent realised either until the damage is done. I find the morals of the the bible incredibly wise, I owe my level of recovery to the foundation of morals that I have lived by and then with therapy to work through my own individual pain and damage I have vastly reduced the collateral fallout from my abusive past. The real success has come though from maintaining a strong relationship with God and living by his standards which has been incredibly difficult but undeniably worthwhile because I have experienced his help in amazing ways by providing for my needs, not taking my problems away, but guiding me through. That’s on top of the benefits from living by bible standards.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Thank you, Claire. It is clear that you have found considerable moral support, not to mention comfort, in the Bible. As with some of the other readers who have commented, I’ll focus only on a couple of points. Years ago I did my own reading about the historical roots of ancient religious texts. I’d never thought about that background much until that time. The New Testament (the Christian portion of the Bible) was written in Greek, not the language of Jesus and his followers (which was Aramaic). It is also thought to have been written many years after the crucifixion. Thus, we have no “eye witness” accounts of the life of Jesus. Nor do we have “originals” of the Bible texts. There were many different, sometimes conflicting religious documents that claimed, in one way or another, to tell the “true” story of Christ. Not until the year 325 (at the Council of Nicea) did a group of men meet to decide on a uniform biblical text. That is, which documents and stories would be included and which would not. Even the four gospel stories they decided on don’t always agree, and one doesn’t even mention the resurrection. Moreover, we still don’t have the originals of the final, agreed-upon book, only copies done by hand by scribes, since most people were illiterate. (Presumably Jesus and all his apostles would have been illiterate). Comparisons of many of the earliest copies we have of the New Testament reveal that the copies don’t match. It is believed there are two reasons for this: 1. unintentional errors were made by the scribes 2. the scribes sometimes added, changed, altered or subtracted words in order to make the meaning clear as they understood it or as they wished it to be. All of this leaves the faithful with a problem, since the text has now been translated into countless languages, further risking the alteration of its meaning, as any translation inevitably does. No wonder there are (to the best of my recollection) at least 40 and perhaps thousands of distinctly different denominations of Christianity! The same textual issues would be true of any other old religious documents, of course, copied and recopied endlessly until the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1440. All that said, faithful Christians believe the Bible is an inspired document and trust it despite the textual and translation issues. Again, I’m glad you receive sustenance from it. You clearly bring a thoughtful and humane approach to all your relationships. Would that everyone be so conscientious about their responsibilities to their fellow man as you.

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  10. of course I understand that this subject is alot more complex. I must say to that my therapist doesn’t believe in God but this in no way has got in our way in fact I owe alot to him for helping me heal some of the damge to my relationship with God. I also believe him to be a good man with strong morals within himself. I know plenty of good people with strong morals that guide them that don’t believe in God. But I do think overall there is a real lack of morals and increased selfishness in the world these days

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  11. Based on my life experiences of close friendships with individuals who were/are atheists, I do not believe that human morality depends upon our religious upbringing. Deeply religious people are also capable of the most inhumane and immoral acts in the name of their religion.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Thanks, Rosaliene. You win the award for limiting your answer to the question asked. Unfortunately, I offered no prize. 😉 The topic, as I expected, provokes much strong feeling. That said, I’m grateful to everyone who read this essay for allowing this site to be a safe place even for difficult subjects. I almost never have to censor any comments.

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