Philosophy of Religion

Chapter  9: Religion, Morality and Ethics

Section 4 Religion and Morality as Autonomous

Does a society need to have religion as the basis for morality?

In addition to the mistaken view that morality is inseparable from or impossible without a belief in one or more deities there is also that view which holds that religion and morality are not separable. Contrary to that position is that which holds not only that religion is separable from morality but that they must be separable. There are those who hold that the only real or workable basis for morality is separate from a deity or god or a belief in a god and spiritual realm and separable from religion itself. They go so far as to hold that even the deity or spirits are accountable according to a morality that exists apart from them. Even the deities or the single deity or the "god" are to be held morally accountable. Even the god or gods must follow the moral law.

Three reasons why

  • morality is not of necessity linked to religion
  • religion is not of the essence of morality
  • why morality is separable from religion

1. Factual

There are millions of people who participate in no religion who live moral lives.  This indicates that it is possible to live a moral life without participating in any religion. Thus religion is not absolutely necessary to live a moral life. 

There are billions of people who make moral decisions without reference to any religious code of morality and without thinking of their religious background or training or rules.  There are studies of moral decision making that indicate little or no difference in the moral sensitivity and decision making of religious people as compared to non-religious.

atheists and agnostics do not behave less morally than religious believers, even if their virtuous acts are mediated by different principles. They often have as strong and sound a sense of right and wrong as anyone, including involvement in movements to abolish slavery and contribute to relief efforts associated with human suffering.--Marc Hauser and Peter Singer, "Morality without religion", December, 2005

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

These studies begin to provide empirical support for the idea that like other psychological faculties of the mind, including language and mathematics, we are endowed with a moral faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong, interacting in interesting ways with the local culture. These intuitions reflect the outcome of millions of years in which our ancestors have lived as social mammals, and are part of our common inheritance, as much as our opposable thumbs are.

These facts are incompatible with the story of divine creation. Our evolved intuitions do not necessarily give us the right or consistent answers to moral dilemmas. What was good for our ancestors may not be good for human beings as a whole today, let alone for our planet and all the other beings living on it. But insights into the changing moral landscape [e.g., animal rights, abortion, euthanasia, international aid] have not come from religion, but from careful reflection on humanity and what we consider a life well lived. In this respect, it is important for us to be aware of the universal set of moral intuitions so that we can reflect on them and, if we choose, act contrary to them. We can do this without blasphemy, because it is our own nature, not God, that is the source of our species morality...

2. Psychological motivation

Deciding and Acting based on rewards and punishment is a low level of moral development and motivation incapable of sustaining more complex moral reasoning on complex issues involving moral dilemmas. It is described by psychologists as one of the first if not the first sense of morality that children develop about the time they are 18 months to 2 years of age. Most humans develop more complex and socially responsive moral sensibilities related to concern for others by the time they are in their teens.

People making decisions using the principle that "Goodness is its own reward." would appear to be a firmer foundation than for a society to operate with than the principle that people will only be good if they are rewarded for doing so,  either in this life or the next.  The motivation to act in a morally good manner if rewarded appears to be ineffective in most cases of moral decision making when the rewards for doing the morally correct thing rest on a belief in another life far removed in time and place from the act itself.

3. If a book like the Bible were the only reliable blueprint for human decency that we had, it would be impossible (both practically and logically) to criticize it in moral terms. But it is extraordinarily easy to criticize the morality one finds in the Bible, as most of it is simply odious and incompatible with a civil society.-The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos by Sam Harris  see further Biblical Atrocities  and also  Biblical Vulgarities and   Biblical Inconsistencies .

4. If religion were necessary for morality, there should be some evidence that atheists are less moral than believers. -The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos by Sam Harris  See material both above and below concerning empirical studies supporting the claim that there is little or no difference in moral thinking and moral behavior of religious and non-religious people.  In fact some evidence suggests that a more secularized society may be less violent..

5. If religion really provided the only conceivable objective basis for morality, it should be impossible to posit a nontheistic objective basis for morality. But it is not impossible; it is rather easy. - The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos by Sam Harris  See the material on this wherein the various ethical principles as deciphered or invented by philosophers is presented as basis for a secular ethics and morality.

6.Biological Factors- Empirical Studies The origins of morality before religion found with primates

Research is showing that morality is linked with and dependent upon both physical structures and functioning of the brain and on cultural inheritances.

MORALITY results form both GENES and MEMES !!!

Neuroscience is finding the brain structures and functioning that make for the "ethical brain".  How is this so?  Humans are social animals and as Aristotle put it zoon politikon.  As such they have evolved in part due to a capacity to relate to others and have empathy and sympathy for others that serves as the base for acceptance of basic rules of conduct needed to live with others in relative peace sufficient to support social or group life and then the advantages of social life.  Evolutionary Psychology is finding/hypothesizing the evolution of moral notions as an expression of the hardwiring. The brain appears to have structures evolved and passed on through our genetic makeup  (GENES) that provide for EMPATHY and SYMPATHY and CONCERN for OTHERS.  These each in some way enhanced survival ability for the social species of homo sapiens.  Morality is a result of and expression of those operations.  Particular moral expressions or rules are enunciated and passed on as cultural inheritances and thus MEMES (cf. Richard Dawkins work).

The primatologist, Frans de Waal, was on of many who have argued that the roots of human morality lie in social animals such as the primates, including apes and monkeys. The feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity are necessary for the behaviors needed to make any mammalian group exist as individuals living in the midst of others.  This set of feelings and expectations of reciprocity may be taken as the basis for human morality. Neuroscientists are locating that sense in mirror neurons in the brain.

“Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are. Once thought of as purely spiritual matters, honesty, guilt, and the weighing of ethical dilemmas are traceable to specific areas of the brain. It should not surprise us, therefore, to find animal parallels. The human brain is a product of evolution. Despite its larger volume and greater complexity, it is fundamentally similar to the central nervous system of other mammals.”---Frans de Waal’s Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1996)

Everywhere humans are found and where evidence exists of human culture there is evidence of a sense of morality.  While the particular moral rules may not be the same there is significant similarities and a commonalities in purposes served by moral codes.  Morality is needed for human community and humans demonstrate this world wide.  There is evidence that all societies have morality.  Is this because they could not exist without some sense of how we are to behave? Human beings are social beings -they have language which is a social creation. Humans could not live in groups without some sort of sense of how to behave in ways that enhances the survival of the group- hence sympathy and empathy are needed and they are part of the basis for morality: a moral sense.

VIEW: Morality without religion | Frans de Waal  18 minutes

Other primates have the basic for what humans call morality: 

  • Empathy and Consolation

  • Prosocial Tendencies

  • Reciprocity and Fairness

There is now the study of Evolutionary Ethics and part of that is James Rachels’ Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (1990) and Frans de Waal’s Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1996). Both claim that coming to grips with our moral sense involves looking not toward heaven but rather toward our fellow members of the animal kingdom, particularly the three great apes."--Tim Madigan

“The moral nature of man has reached its present standard, partly through the advancement of his reasoning powers and consequently of a just public opinion, but especially from his sympathies having been rendered more tender and widely diffused through the effects of habit, example, instruction, and reflection. It is not improbable that after long practice virtuous tendencies may be inherited. With the more civilised races, the conviction of the existence of an all-seeing Deity has had a potent influence on the advance of morality. Ultimately man does not accept the praise or blame of his fellows as his sole guide, though few escape this influence, but his habitual convictions, controlled by reason, afford him the safest rule. His conscience then becomes the supreme judge and monitor. Nevertheless the first foundation or origin of the moral sense lies in the social instincts, including sympathy, and these instincts no doubt were primarily gained, as in the case of the lower animals, through natural selection.”--Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, "Conclusion"

Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior

“Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are,” Dr. de Waal wrote in his 1996 book “Good Natured. READ Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior

In The Ethical Brain by Michael Gazzaniga (Dana Press: NY, 2005) the neuroscientist describes experimental evidence to support his claims that the left hemisphere of the brain operates to unify the various systems within the brain and serves as an interpreter to fashion stories that become the personal beliefs of each person.     Humans need beliefs and belief systems to make sense of their sensory inputs.  The human species reacts to events and the brain interprets the reaction.  Out of those interpretations there arise the beliefs by which people guide their actions.  Some of the beliefs lead to rules by which people will live.  And so there emerges a a moral sense upon practical considerations.  The left hemisphere continually functions to interpret events and to create stories to accommodate the sensory and ideational inputs.  Whenever there is information that does not fit the self image created by the interpreter or the conceptual framework or belief system previously held and operative, then the interpreter will create a belief to make sense of it in some manner or hold it in some way relation to previous information and beliefs.  The human species has a core set of reactions to challenges. Humans share similar reactions to situations.  They share the evocation of empathy and sympathy.  Humans have mirror neurons that evoke this reaction.  Other primate also have such mirror neurons.  They appear to make a social life possible. Gazzaniga holds that there exists some deep structure in the brain driving not only a certain common set of values as expressions of the evoked responses but also the need to create cultural edifices or social constructs for moral codes.  Thus religion evolves to satisfy that drive.

Religions may have begun from a instinctual reaction common to humans.  It evolved into a social support system and system of rationalizations (beliefs) that attempt to make sense of the individual responses to one another and to situations faced by all humans.

Gazziniga holds that there are neural correlates of the religious experience in the temporal lobes of the brain.  Temporal lobe epilepsy has as one of its symptoms a hyper religiosity.

Gazziniga holds for the possibility of a universal ethics for all humans based on the most basic of evocations shared by all humans.  Current research utilizing moral sense testing is producing interesting findings in support of the hypothesis of a genetic base for morality in humans.

For Gazzaniga humans want to believe, they want to believe in a natural order and they want a codification of their most basic empathetic responses towards others.  Gazzaniga wants science, as neuroscience to assist the human community to have what it appears to need and based on the best information available.

So humans are hardwired and programmed for morality and religion rides in on that as a context in which the programming results in producing a fuller expression.  This in turn is culturally transmitted and thus the human impulse is most often being routed through religious institutions and practices.

READ On scientific versus religious explanations of ethical behavior The Basis of Morality  by Tim Madigan  in Philosophy Now at  

There is consideration given to the impact of looking at morality as rooted in the evolution of the species and in the neural endowment of human brains.       READ: Is “the new neuromorality” a threat to traditional views of right and wrong? by Cathy Young in reason on line August/September 2005


7. Social Factors- Empirical Studies

Empirical studies indicate that religious societies are NOT more moral than those that are more secular in their cast.  There are 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.  However, the secular basis for morality may be more effective in securing social cohesion and non-violent resolutions to conflicts than a morality based on religious beliefs.  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) ISSN 1522-5658


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, 2005

 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 society.

 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 prosperous democracies.

 "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 Paul said.

 "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."


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

Does morality require a deity or god?  Perhaps not

READ:  Morality Requires God ... or Does It? by  Theodore Schick, Jr Article arguing against the claim that morality requires God. Where he claims that: It is uncertain whether there are such things as moral facts at all. People are guided by their deepest cares and concerns.  The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory.  Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, and any deeper meaning is false.  

See also:

Proceed to the next section by clicking here> next

© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2001. All Rights reserved.

Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.

Return to:   Table of Contents for the Online Textbook