Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Does Morality Depend on Religion?

I was recently asked this question, “Can a person have a morality without a religion?”

It is indeed possible for an atheist or agnostic person to have a moral code that they follow without the guidance of any religion. Atheists can have certain moral principles that they uphold and do so with consistency, believing that there is good to be done and evil to be avoided. Some may not use the terms "good" or "evil," but "human" or "inhumane" or other equivalents. There are in fact many atheists and agnostics who are more morally upright and disciplined than many baptized Christians. So it is possible to have a morality without any kind of religion.

The question though is what is the foundation for an atheist’s morality? From an atheistic point of view the world as we know it and everything in it came into existence by happenstance and all life evolved from lower life forms due to the biological processes of evolution. There is no ultimate purpose, order, or meaning to the universe, it all just happened.  And if there is no ultimate purpose, order, or Orderer that brings forth some kind of spiritual and moral order to these biological processes, doesn't it become a lot harder to ground one’s morality rationally and consistently

Problem 1 Determinism: if there is no spiritual component to human persons, who are only the result of the biological and chemical processes of evolution, this means that every action that is made by a human person is only the result of animal instinct, acting and reacting to certain stimuli without any real moral choice. Moral reasoning is only chemicals acting and reacting to external or internal stimuli in the body that cause it to act. This eliminates choice. If there is no choice, how can actions be good or evil if everyone must do what their own biological make-up decides for them? Or is there an explanation for how human persons developed the ability to make moral choices?

Problem 2 Survival of the Fittest: if we are all the result of an anomaly in nature and we developed due to evolution by means of the survival of the fittest, could this mean then that some humans or groups of humans may be more evolutionarily advanced than others with varying thoughts or worldviews of how we are best to evolve and adapt as a species to our world situation? Would enslaving or getting rid of humans who are less evolutionarily advanced be a way of ensuring the survival of the fittest? Or is there something that makes every human life objectively good that would suggest this kind of behavior is wrong or evil? Is "good," "evil," "human," or "inhumane," just the current majority's position now, but there is no overall basis in reality for what makes these actions really good or really bad?

Problem 3 Rational Animals but still Animals: If humans evolved from animals without anything else besides their rational ability to give them any more dignity or worth than any other animal, why then would it be wrong for a man to kill children of another family?  Male lions kill the cubs of a new pride they join, but we do not have a moral problem with that. Is there a difference in actions qualitatively from other animals or are they essentially the same? Why or why not?

This obviously does not fully show the extent of an atheist's argument for why they believe there is a morality, nor does it give them the chance to respond to these questions, which they may have reasonable responses to. It's just meant to scratch the surface to some of the issues that could stem from having a morality not based in any type of religion.

From a Catholic perspective we would propose that God has written the natural law on every person’s law so that we can know generally what actions are good and what actions are evil. This does not automatically mean that God exists, it just means that our morality is based on something other than simply human thought and so is grounded in something more eternal than current social standards.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states,
1956 The natural law, present in the heart of each man and established by reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties:
For there is a true law: right reason. It is in conformity with nature, is diffused among all men, and is immutable and eternal; its orders summon to duty; its prohibitions turn away from offense . . . . To replace it with a contrary law is a sacrilege; failure to apply even one of its provisions is forbidden; no one can abrogate it entirely.
1959 The natural law, the Creator's very good work, provides the solid foundation on which man can build the structure of moral rules to guide his choices. It also provides the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community. Finally, it provides the necessary basis for the civil law with which it is connected, whether by a reflection that draws conclusions from its principles, or by additions of a positive and juridical nature.
For Catholics, the moral law is rooted in an eternal Lawgiver who made humans in His own image and desires that they fulfill the good for which they were created so that they can share in His happiness.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states,
1954 Man participates in the wisdom and goodness of the Creator who gives him mastery over his acts and the ability to govern himself with a view to the true and the good. The natural law expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie:
The natural law is written and engraved in the soul of each and every man, because it is human reason ordaining him to do good and forbidding him to sin . . . But this command of human reason would not have the force of law if it were not the voice and interpreter of a higher reason to which our spirit and our freedom must be submitted.
1955 The "divine and natural" law shows man the way to follow so as to practice the good and attain his end. The natural law states the first and essential precepts which govern the moral life. It hinges upon the desire for God and submission to him, who is the source and judge of all that is good, as well as upon the sense that the other is one's equal. Its principal precepts are expressed in the Decalogue. This law is called "natural," not in reference to the nature of irrational beings, but because reason which decrees it properly belongs to human nature:
Where then are these rules written, if not in the book of that light we call the truth? In it is written every just law; from it the law passes into the heart of the man who does justice, not that it migrates into it, but that it places its imprint on it, like a seal on a ring that passes onto wax, without leaving the ring. The natural law is nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God; through it we know what we must do and what we must avoid. God has given this light or law at the creation


  1. It is much harder to have a moral code as an atheist than as a believer. One must examine one's life, look to the shared human experience, look to science, look to ethical philosophy, religious teachings and discuss, debate and use reason to lead an ethical life. When I was religious I was told how to act, what is right and what is wrong and told that I must adhere to these teachings if I was a believer.

    Being given a moral code is much easier than having to deal with it personally. Is it a perfect system? No. But it's one that can develop and improve. Fifty years ago in my country, Canada, we took native children away from their families and subjected them to residential schools. Now we realize how wrong that was and are living with the destruction that caused to our native peoples. Being able to question that action is what causes us to grow morally. Not being allowed to disent from a moral code keeps us assenting to actions that in a generation that all people, religious or not will condemn.

    No believers can be moral and are moral and they provide the necessary corrective to entrenched religious mores.

    1. "One must examine one's life, look to the shared human experience, look to science, look to ethical philosophy, religious teachings and discuss, debate and use reason to lead an ethical life."

      Yes, but . . . how does an atheist determine that a thing is moral or not by this process?

      For example, you include "look to science" as part of the process. How can science (and to be clear, by that I'm assuming you mean "the natural sciences", not of, say, the science of theology) inform your moral thinking?

      Are you familiar with David Hume, and his is/ought challenge?

  2. Michael,
    Thank you for your input. Just to clarify. According to the Catholic Church there are things called "intrinsic evils" which means that there are certain actions that are always and everywhere wrong objectively. Other actions "rightness" or "wrongness" depend on the:

    1) intention
    2) circumstances
    3) moral object (end)

    Most actions are not dealing with "intrinsic evils" but things that *can* be evil depending on the intention, circumstance, or moral object (end) that was chosen. This requires that one forms their conscience and it is not always as easy as being told exactly in every case what is right and wrong. The Catholic Church does not have an answer that could tell someone what to do in every circumstance, rather it can only say when intentions are not right and what actions should always be avoided.

    The difference here is that what is the ground for atheists to make any claim that some actions can be always and everywhere wrong? Is there such a thing? Some do not hold that view. Some do. On what basis could someone make that claim as an atheist?

  3. How can an atheist justify an action that is intrinsically evil. Assuming that the individual is a moral agent one can through reason come up with actions that are never justified under any circumstances. Some of these actions were justified in the past but for my reasoning that doesn't remove the unacceptable nature of the (i.e. I am not a temporal moral relativist). Owning another human being or slavery is one such action. Racism is an intrinsic evil. The sexual abuse of children can never be balanced against a greater good, etc. One can come up with more but basically no justification can ever be made for the acceptance of those actions because of the situation.

    Societies have allowed such actions, some still do today.

    What my experience with Catholic intrinsic evils, is that they are all sex related. Note : I exclude abortion because that is not a Catholic intrinsic evil as the principle of double effect can allow an abortion. No principle of double effect could ever justify slavery.

    What secular moral reasoning allows and this is what, in my opinion makes it superior, is that it can change, it can improve, it can learn. All of the intrinsic evils I mention above were justified in the past by many moral systems. They are all unacceptable now. God didn't change, revelation didn't change, holy books didn't change, people changed independent of all of those.