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.

The R.S.V.P Puzzle


In the ancient world (or perhaps I should say, in the 1960s) everyone knew what R.S.V.P. meant. Today, not so much. Oh, people do think they know. But, you can be dead sure and dead wrong.

Consider today’s essay a short lesson in good taste and good manners. It might make people like you more.

An example will illustrate the point. I had the occasion to invite several people to a dinner for an organization with which I am involved. It is a not-for-profit corporation. These particular invitees had been helpful to the enterprise, but we didn’t know all of them well. The invitations requested them to R.S.V.P. It was clear that the dinner would be free to each one, a material way to thank them for their good-will and assistance.

Fourteen of these invitations were sent, but only three responses were received as the date approached. About two weeks before the event emails were sent with a second request to R.S.V.P. This brought additional answers to the question of whether we should expect their attendance or not.

Out of the blue came two emails from people who had not been invited, telling us that they would be coming. Whoa! How did this happen?

It turned out that these were associates of two of the real invitees. The newcomers were individuals whom we had never met and had not been involved with our not-for-profit corporation. They’d been given the invitations and encouraged to attend our event. Indeed, they were temporary employees in those organizations that had been helpful to us.

This put us in the awkward position of having to tell these people that they had not been invited (as they already knew); and, since we are a charity, to inform them that we had a limited capacity to provide complimentary dinners that would diminish the funds available for our philanthropic efforts.

The attempt to pass along our invitation reminded me of a practice that has occurred in wartime. During the Civil War, for example, you could get out of serving as a soldier if you could find someone willing to substitute for you. Still, this was hardly the Civil War, but a simple dinner invitation done in gratitude for the help provided to us. No bullets would be flying.

So what happened? Why did we receive responses from less than 2/3 of those to whom we wished to show some kindness and gratitude? And why did two of those people think it would be appropriate to pass along our invitation to others we did not know without asking us if this was permissible?

First, I don’t think anyone intentionally wanted to be rude. These are all good and decent folks. They do good work at their places of employment. They had no motive to be disrespectful and I’m sure had no intention of being thoughtless.

What other explanation might then account for the failure to respond? I suspect that R.S.V.P has somehow lost a bit of its meaning, the compulsory quality it used to carry. So what exactly does it mean to R.S.V.P. and what did it mean once upon a time?

Let’s start with the literal meaning. It is an abbreviation of a common French phrase whose translation is, “Please respond.”

According to Wikipedia:

The high society of England adopted French etiquette in the late 18th century, and the writings of Emily Post (the authority on etiquette) aim to offer a standard no more stringent than that tradition. Late 20th century editions (of her book), building on her 1920s beginning work, say… that “Anyone receiving an invitation with an RSVP on it is obliged to reply….” and some recent editions describe breaching this standard as “inexcusably rude.”

Emily Post advises (that) anyone receiving an invitation with an R.S.V.P. on it must reply promptly, and should reply within a day or two of receiving the invitation.

OK, so when you receive a written invitation to an event, it is expected that you will quickly inform your host whether or not you plan to attend. That puts some pressure on you: if you are coming you need to so inform the sender; equally, if you are not coming, your anticipated non-attendance must also be reported.


  1. First, because someone has thought of you favorably. He or she wishes the pleasure of your company. It may be your brilliance, your beauty, your fame, your charm, or something else, but the invitation says that you matter. By responding you acknowledge the kindness and compliment being extended to you and take a small step in reciprocating. In effect, you are saying, “Thank you for the invitation. You matter to me, too.”
  2. Invitations generally do not go to everyone. Space is often limited. If the host or hostess is to be able to plan to fill those spaces, he or she needs to know who will be there and who won’t.
  3. Social gatherings generally involve food and refreshments. The party planner must have a reasonable idea of how much to buy, how much to prepare, how much to budget. And, they must have enough advanced notice to do this.
  4. You were invited. Not your understudy, not your next-door-neighbor, not your business associate. Don’t assume that anyone else can substitute for you. That diminishes the importance of the thoughtfulness of the host or hostess in choosing you.

I suspect that many of us don’t think about these things too much; don’t think about the reasons our potential benefactor needs to hear from us, sooner rather than later or not at all. Some assume that they need to respond only with regrets at not being able to come. And, indeed, many invitations come with the message “Regrets only.”

I imagine that when some of us delay responding or don’t respond at all, we are thinking, “Oh, one person more or less isn’t going to matter that much;” or “I’ll get to it later.” No harm is intended by this attitude, yet there can be inconvenience or expense to the person extending the invitation. Remember, that person has to answer the question “Should I buy enough chicken for a dinner of 15 or 115?”

I also have witnessed, as have all of us over 40, that the civilized world has become a more casual place, one with fewer dress codes, social restrictions, and compulsory expectations. A world that is a bit friendlier and more at ease. But, sometimes that ease is purchased at the price of slackness, inconsideration, and unreliability. I can’t tell you what the perfect balance is, but I can tell you that if you are planning an event, you hope that people take your invitations seriously and make your life a little easier by informing you of their plans with respect to it.

Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher, offered us a way to think about situations like this. He wrote about the idea of a “categorical imperative” when it comes to rules for moral behavior. He suggested that each of us should ask ourselves some version of the following question: Would I be content if the rules I use to govern my behavior (like viewing an R.S.V.P as optional) also apply to everyone else in the world? And, would the world be better or worse for it?

Really, it is pretty simple. The Golden Rule is almost always a great way to evaluate our conduct. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Even in response to dinner invitations.