In his essay “Religion and the Queerness of
Morality,” George Mavrodes uses Bertrand Russell’s description of a
Godless world in which men occur as accidental atomic collections and
exist only until the point of physical death as a basis for claiming that
secular morality is an inadequate method for providing reasons for people
to be moral. Mavrodes refers to this world as a “Russellian world” in
which there are, what Mavrodes refers to as “Russellian benefits,” such as
a long, content life, sexual pleasure, a good reputation, etc. These
benefits exist even if the world is not a Russellian world, but unlike the
non-Russellian world, the world as set forth by Russell does not have
spiritual benefits such as life after death or ascension to heaven. Thus,
in a Russellian world, the only benefits and losses are of the Russellian
variety. Mavrodes then points out that it is quite clear that some moral
obligations would result in a Russellian loss, such as paying off a debt.
Considering that there is no higher form of judgment and no afterlife as
an incentive, Mavrodes argues that there is not much reason for citizens
of the Russellian world to be moral.
Mavrodes points out that one might argue
that it is in everyone’s best interest for all persons, including oneself
to be moral, and from that statement one can draw the conclusion that it
is in one’s best interest for everyone to be moral. However, Mavrodes
goes on to point out that in a Russellian world, it is only in one’s best
interest to be moral if everyone else is also being moral. He also points
out that while one might or might not act immorally, others are bound to
do so, independent of one’s actions.
Mavrodes asserts that in a Russellian world,
morality and obligations cannot be deep. Since man ceases to exist beyond
the grave, everything in the Russellian world is superficial when compared
to a world in which there is religion and an afterlife. Thus, goodness,
obligation and morality have no lasting effects in the Russellian world.
Mavrodes concludes by stating that religion (although his focus is on
Christianity) gives a deeper meaning to morality than is possible in the
Russellian world. Rather than the view of Dostoyevsky that “If there is
no God, then everything is permitted,” that would be present in the
Russellian world, the world that embraces religion would have an outlook
that because God exists there are prohibitions, but also because of that
very existence of God, eventually there will be “no cause for
Mavrodes, George I. “Religion and the
Queerness of Morality.” Rationality,
Religious Belief and Moral Commitment: Essays in the Philosophy of
Religion. Ed. Robert Audi and William J. Wainwright.
There are those who think that a morality based on a
negative motivation is inferior to one based on positive motives. To
avoid doing wrong based on fear is far inferior to a morality based on
well reasoned principles and the desire of the autonomous moral agents to
act in a manner that is in accord with some set of basic ethical
principles that resonates with some core values. Religious morality
appears to rest on fear. There is the fear of reprisals from deity
or deities . There is fear of punishments from a deity. There
is fear of a next lifetime being set under conditions that are not
favorable. There is the fear of the loss of salvation and eternal
damnation and punishment. Opposed to such a motive secular ethics is
based on the well reasoned conclusion that certain conditions for social
life that a valued are better achieved by adherence to some set of guiding
principles for decision making.
There is much criticism of the moral foundation of
Western Civilization located in the proselytizing religions of
monotheistic tradition. The morality of the Jewish, Christian and
Islamic traditions have all at one time or another supported many heinous
human actions and organized violence against others, even within the same
tradition. Many atrocities have been committed in the name of
While it is often argued that religion despite whatever
may be its shortcomings or flaws or faults does at least instill a
morality or a community ethos without which social life and civilized life
would not be possible. Against this claim there are a growing number
of people who would argue that a morality resting on a religious faith
that is founded on nothing but faith in the hope of securing a better life
after a life on earth is a morality that fosters within people a sense of
meanness towards others and even a selfishness in a concern for personal
salvation. Such a morality does its worst on humans when it
encourages a faith upon which it rests that is a faith that is held
without or beyond reason and evidence to support it. Such a morality
is inclined to be one that is without a degree of sensitivity for nuance
and for critical and reflective thought. It is a morality of literal
interpretation and simple minded applications. It is a morality of
tradition that finds it very difficult to adapt to changes in the physical
and social environments and to incorporate advances of science and
technology into its moral schema. This morality is one that resists
adaptation to progress. Slavery, the subjugation of women, just and
holy war theory, the inequality of social classes are all supported by
Morality founded upon the hope of
survival of the death of the body and eternal life is a morality that has
at its base a number of difficulties. It is founded on a
reward-punishment approach to morality that is rather simplistic and
childlike. If there is a situation for which there is no punishment
does that make it permissible? If the motive for doing what is
morally good is the hope of eternal life then what happens when a) there
is no proof that there is such a life? b) the idea of an eternal
life becomes less positive and more negative as people realize that an
infinite amount of time is an idea that drains meaning out of the value of
It is sometimes thought that the religions of the East
are more spiritual and contemplative and thus more innocuous and perhaps
more humane than those of the West. The record indicates otherwise.
There are cases too numerous in the East of atrocities and of human
insensitivity to match those in the West. Even within the traditions
of Buddhism there have been tales of physical violence on massive scales
for over two thousand years.
In the light of the horrors perpetrated by or in the
name of religion alternatives are sought for the ethical principles found
in religious traditions. The non-religious or secular alternatives
are sought through the use of human reason, a universal resource. A
view of morality that is founded on reasoning and a naturalistic worldview
is thought to be more dependable and more capable of being universalized
than is any set of principles that are dependent on religious worldviews.
There are people at work on developing or applying such secular ethical
principles to their lives and attempting to develop and maintain a social
life under such principles. Secular humanists are such people along
with those who make their moral decisions based on principles such as
those developed by philosophers like Mill and Kant and Rawls.
Some might argue that for the most part secular ethics have already replaced religious
ethics in everyday practice, It could be concluded that most people
who claim that their ethical principle is one that is rooted in some
religious tradition are actually in practice operating from another
ethical principle altogether. One of the most common such principles
is that of ethical egoism whereby decisions are made based on what is
thought to be in the best interests of the person making the decision and
one that most satisfies the interests of that actor whatever those
interests may be.
This is most true of people in developed nations with
advanced information technologies and communications and entertainment
systems. There has been a "secularization" of daily behavior in such
locations for some time. The operative moral base or ethical
principle employed in such settings by most people is not a religion based
ethic nor does it come from a deity. It is the secular principle of
ethical egoism. Philosophers and moralists such as secular
humanists have been working on the promotion of an alternative ethical
base, such as based on caring for other human beings.
Caring to produce the satisfaction of the interests of
the greatest possible number of humans when making moral choices is at the
base of the ethical tradition known as Utilitarianism
READ about Utilitarianism here >Utilitarianism
Recently there has been the growing movement of
secularists (non-religious peoples) to develop a moral foundation for a
social order that is progressive and life affirming. The
Council for Secular
Humanism has its
The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles
examination and consideration. There are other such groups as
the Ethical Culture
Societies promoting ethical principles that are not based on any religion
as a basis for ordering social life. "Ethical Culture is a humanistic
religious and educational movement inspired by the ideal that the supreme
aim of human life is working to create a more humane society."
For more on Humanists and Atheists and Secularists see
There are therefore examples of societies and cultures
that have moral codes without a belief in a deity and there are efforts to
establish a moral order that is not founded on religion. Their
efficacy as compared to moral traditions stemming from or dependent upon
some religious tradition remains to be determined.
Here is one study that indicates that secular societies
may have less violent crimes.
Less Societal Dysfunction in Secular Societies
Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal
Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous
Democracies: A First Look by
Gregory S. Paul, Baltimore, Maryland
Journal of Religion & Society Volume 7 (2005)
Large-scale surveys show dramatic declines in
religiosity in favor of secularization in the
developed democracies. Popular acceptance of evolutionary
science correlates negatively with
levels of religiosity, and the United States is the only
prosperous nation where the majority
absolutely believes in a creator and evolutionary science
is unpopular. Abundant data is available
on rates of societal dysfunction and health in the first
world. Cross-national comparisons of highly
differing rates of religiosity and societal conditions form
a mass epidemiological experiment that
can be used to test whether high rates of belief in and
worship of a creator are necessary for high
levels of social health. Data correlations show that in
almost all regards the highly secular democracies consistently enjoy low rates of societal
dysfunction, while pro-religious and antievolution
America performs poorly.
Societies worse off "when they have God on their
side" By Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent
The Times, UK September 27,
RELIGIOUS belief can cause damage to a society,
contributing towards high murder rates, abortion,
sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today.
According to the study, belief in and worship of God
are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but
may actually contribute to social problems. The
study counters the view of believers that religion is necessary to
provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy
It compares the social performance of relatively
secular countries, such as Britain, with the US,
where the majority believes in a creator rather than
the theory of evolution. Many conservative evangelicals in the US
consider Darwinism to be a social evil, believing that it
inspires atheism and amorality.
Many liberal Christians and believers of other faiths hold
that religious belief is socially beneficial,
believing that it helps to lower rates of violent crime, murder, suicide,
sexual promiscuity and
abortion. The benefits of religious belief to a society
have been described as its "spiritual capital". But
the study claims that the devotion of many in the US
may actually contribute to its ills.
The paper, published in the Journal of Religion and
Society, a US academic journal, reports: "Many
Americans agree that their churchgoing nation is an exceptional,
God-blessed, shining city on the hill that stands as
an impressive example for an increasingly sceptical world.
"In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a
creator correlate with higher rates of homicide,
juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection
rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the
"The United States is almost always the most
dysfunctional of the developing democracies,
sometimes spectacularly so."
Gregory Paul, the author of the study and a social
scientist, used data from the International Social
Survey Programme, Gallup and other research
bodies to reach his conclusions.
He compared social indicators such as murder rates,
abortion, suicide and teenage pregnancy.
The study concluded that the US was the world's only
prosperous democracy where murder rates were still
high, and that the least devout nations were the
least dysfunctional. Mr Paul said that rates of
gonorrhoea in adolescents in the US were up to 300 times higher than in
less devout democratic countries. The US also suffered
from "uniquely high" adolescent and adult syphilis infection rates, and
adolescent abortion rates, the study suggested.
Mr Paul said: "The study shows that England, despite
the social ills it has, is actually performing a
good deal better than the USA in most indicators,
even though it is now a much less religious nation than America."
He said that the disparity was even greater when the US
was compared with other countries, including
France, Japan and the Scandinavian countries.
These nations had been the most successful in reducing murder rates,
early mortality, sexually transmitted diseases and abortion, he added.
Mr Paul delayed releasing the study until now because
of Hurricane Katrina. He
said that the evidence accumulated by a number of different
studies suggested that religion might actually contribute to social ills.
"I suspect that Europeans are increasingly repelled by the poor societal
performance of the Christian states," he added.
He said that most Western nations would become more
religious only if the theory of evolution could be
overturned and the existence of God scientifically proven. Likewise, the
theory of evolution would not enjoy majority support in the US unless
there was a marked decline in religious belief, Mr
"The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict
the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good
conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in
a moral creator.
"The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must
experience societal disaster is therefore refuted."