Philosophy of Religion

Chapter  9: Religion, Morality and Ethics

Section 5 Morality as Secular and Utilitarian

Patrick Nowell Smith holds that not only are ethics based upon philosophical reasoning (secular ethics) different from and autonomous from ethics based upon religion but philosophical ethics is superior to religious ethics.

Secular ethics are a more mature and reasonable basis for morality. This is so because it is not so absolutist and considers consequences.

Religious ethics




Secular ethics




Religious ethics is so rule bound, similar to Hebrew morality, and non-reasonable, whereas, philosophical or secular ethics is oriented toward results and consequences. Reason based morality understands that moral rules are intended for rational animals and to serve a purpose. The rules are needed to resolve conflicts. The rules are for convenience. The rules govern by mutual consent. The adult understanding of the rules are as instruments with which a society achieves a purpose. Adult moral realism holds that if the rules are not achieving their purpose they are to be revised or abandoned altogether.

“Morality:  Religious and Secular” by Patrick Nowell-Smith 

Summary by Meghan Ramsay (QCC, 2004)

In his essay on religious and secular morality, Patrick Nowell-Smith argues that in comparison to secular morality, there are “infantile” aspects to religious morality.  Proponents of religious morality often believe that one who basis his ideas relating to morality on things other than some sort of higher authority (God), or one who uses a different (or incorrect) higher authority, lacks validity.  However, Nowell-Smith adamantly disagrees with the idea that morality is based upon following a set of commands given by a god.  In order to illustrate his point that religious morality is infantile, Nowell-Smith uses the study of children’s reactions to rules during a game of marbles performed by Piaget.  At the first stage, children do not abide by rules because they have no concept of what rules are.  However, eventually, they progress in their understanding of the rules of the game.  However, the children see these rules as unbreakable, unchangeable commands given from a superior person.  To the level two children, the rules must be followed simply because they are the rules and rules given by superiors are meant to be followed at all times.  For these children, the game is not the game unless every single one of the rules is followed to the letter.  It is this level two ideology that Nowell-Smith likens to religious morality.  In religious morality, people follow God’s commandments without question.  For persons who subscribe to religious morality, the rules are handed down to them from the supreme being, which makes them unbreakable and unquestionable.   

Furthermore, like children who undoubtedly see their parents as the delivery person of both punishment and praise, those who subscribe to religious morality hold God in a very similar position.  The child is constantly aiming to obey and please his or her parents, no matter how difficult it may be to discern exactly what type of behavior they desire, so as to receive the reward of praise, just as the person with religious morality is always trying to obey and please God, no matter how mysterious “his” commandments are, in order to receive favorable treatment and salvation.   

Nowell-Smith continues by using the older children in Piaget’s study as an analogy for secular morality.  The older children are now thoroughly well versed in the rules.  They grasp the concept that the rules were passed down to them, but now they are willing to question them.  Additionally, the older children in the study were willing to adapt and modify the rules to suit themselves.  While they realized that they were not the authors of the rules, they did come to see their power to ensure that the rules were conducive to their group’s desires.  Similarly, secular moralists realize that rules are a necessity in order to maintain some semblance of order.  However the secular moralist is willing and able to modify moral guidelines so as to ensure their relevance to both the individual and society.  Like the children in the study, the secular moralists have matured beyond mere acceptance of commandments and have moved into active participation in deciding what is most sensible in terms of morality. 

Nowell-Smith, Patrick.  “Morality:  Religious and Secular.”  The Rationalist Annual.  London:  Pemberton Publishing Co., 1961. 

There is a moral sense quiz by the Primate Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Harvard University that provides data in support of claims that religion is not needed for morality.  Take the quiz yourself at

Morality without Religion

On the question of whether it is possible to have morality without religion, see these works:

William K. Frankena, "Is Morality Logically Dependent on Religion?," Religion and Morality: A Collection of Essays, edited by Gene Outka and J. P. Reeder, Jr. (New York: Doubleday, 1973);

E. D. Klemke, "On the Alleged Inseparability of Religion and Morality," Religious Studies, (1975);

Kai Nielsen, Ethics Without God (Pemberton Books, 1973);

Alasdair MacIntyre and Paul Ricoeur, The Religious Significance of Atheism (New York, 1969);

George Mavrodes, "Religion and the Queerness of Morality," Rationality, Religious belief and Moral Commitment: New Essays in the Philosophy of Religion, edited by Robert Audi and W. Wainwright (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1986);

 Patrick Nowell-Smith, "Religion and Morality," Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 150-58;

 Robert Young, "Theism and Morality," Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. VII, No. 2 ( , 1977), pp. 341-351.

For an argument that worshipping God is incompatible with human dignity and autonomy, see

James Rachels, "God and Human Attitudes," Religious Studies, Vol. 7 (1971), pp. 325-337 and the reply by Philip Quinn, "Religious Obedience and Moral Autonomy," Religious Studies, Vol. 11(1975), pp. 265-281.

Marc Hauser and Peter Singer "Morality without religion" by, December, 2005



Mark S. Halfon, (2004, Nassau Community College) 

            That there is a difference between religion and morality is uncontroversial.  How, then, can atheism be interpreted as a moral alternative?  Although religion and morality reflect different values, they are deeply intertwined for most individuals.  In many cases, a person’s moral principles are grounded in religious commitments.  In other cases, people find the source of morality outside of religion, such as the inherent value of all human beings.  My central claim is that atheism rather than a theologically based value system offers the moral high ground.

            The principal problem with a divinely-based moral system is most obvious with respect to religious fundamentalism.  Religious fundamentalists typically claim that there is one universally true religion and only one path to salvation.  Christian, Jews, Muslims and others have taken this exclusivist position.  The underlying difficulty is there is simply no rational justification for preferring one religion to another.  All religions are based on faith, that is, a subjective feeling reflecting a personal preference.  If faith is the basis for one’s religious beliefs, then no one religion has any greater claim to truth than another.  But from the standpoint of the fundamentalist, articles of faith are magically transformed into universal truths. 

            When religious certitude is at the core of one’s world view, it is difficult to consider the possibility that one’s judgments are fallible.  As a result, religious fundamentalism provides a breeding ground for arrogance, hatred, and intolerance. The Muslim fundamentalists who attacked the United States on September 11 believed they were involved in a Jihad, and that God would reward them with eternal life.  Christian fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson spew their hatred by blaming the terror attacks on feminism and the American Civil Liberties Union.  Jewish settlers in Israel claim land in the Gaza Strip belongs to the Jewish people based solely on their biblical interpretations.  History has shown that religious differences have been at the heart of numerous disputes for centuries, and that countless thousands have been killed in the name of the Christian God, or Muslim God, or Jewish God.  

            Religious fundamentalism builds walls between people given the perception that God will reward only a select group.  According to Christian fundamentalists, for example, if Osama Bin Laden “finds Jesus,” then their God will reward Bin Laden with eternal life.  That same God will condemn Mother Theresa, Muhammad Ali, Mahatma Gandhi and other honorable men and women to eternal damnation. Is that the judgment of a loving and compassionate God?  Does a fair and just God place greater value on a few simple religious beliefs as opposed to the value of living a noble life?  If your God is compassionate and just, then the path to salvation will be open to all.  Bigotry and prejudice are moral evils, whether cloaked in racial, ethnic, or religious garb.              

            Atheists, instead, could base their moral ideals in humanism, that is, a philosophy that stresses the inherent value of all human beings.  The humanist perspective commands respect for all individuals regardless of their religious or political preferences.  Secular humanism avoids, if not condemns, the elitist tendency of religious ideologues.   There is no rational basis for asserting that one religion is better than another.  Theologians have attempted to justify their religious preferences based on an appeal to the bible.  Which bible?  Does the Old Testament, or New Testament, or Koran have any greater claim to truth?  Should biblical passages be interpreted literally or figuratively?   From a moral standpoint, atheists and humanists can avoid these complex, if not, unanswerable questions.  All human beings have moral worth regardless on whether or not there is one “true God.”  

            Additionally, atheists are more likely to act from pure motives.  That is, they are more likely to be motivated to do what’s right simply because it’s right, and not because of some ulterior motive.  There is no need to create fictions for the purpose of moral motivation.   There is no need to do what’s right because one wants to avoid punishment, whether the punishment take the form of incarceration or eternal damnation.  There is no need for honorable people to act for the sake of a reward, whether that reward is worldly or otherworldly.  Moreover, a God who will forgive any and all sins does more to promote wrongdoing than any secular philosophy.  Atheists can avoid these pitfalls since they typically embrace the principle that “Virtue is its own reward.”  

            Nonetheless, religion can and does play a meaningful role in many lives. A great number of individuals lead a morally good life precisely because of their religious commitments.  A deeply ingrained personal faith can provide one with the strength to face hardship and overcome adversity.  Hope abounds for those who believe an in an omniscient and omnipotent deity.  But God and religion are from necessary to act virtuously.  Believers and nonbelievers alike can live up to the highest moral standards.      

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