Philosophy of Religion

Chapter  9: Religion, Morality and Ethics

Section 3 Religion and Morality as Identical

(NOTE:  You must read only those linked materials that are preceded by the capitalized word READ.)

Are Religion and Morality identical?  Does morality depend on religion?  Is morality only possible with religion?  Must morality rest on a belief in a deity?

So identified with religion has morality been that one of the most popular views holds that they are inseparable.  Consider that for many the basis for morality are the laws that emanate from some divine or supernatural source; a deity. For many of those that believe in a Supreme Being it is God’s law that is the basis for morality. But consider this question:

Does a society need  a belief in a deity for a sense of what makes an action morally good?

The answer must be, NO! Why? Because morality can be exercised and evidenced in the absence of a belief in a deity.

A. Three reasons why morality does not of necessity rest on a belief in the existence of a deity

1. Factual

There are hundreds of millions of people on planet earth with no belief in a deity and yet living moral lives.  This would include not only atheists but Buddhists and Confucians and Taoists.  So it is possible for people to be moral without a belief in one or more deities.

2. Against common moral sensibility

People do not make moral decisions and each time think about a deity as the source for what they think of as the morally good thing to do.

People do not think that unless there is a deity with a specific command making some act morally good or morally bad then there is no possibility for moral life.

People do not appear to accept the idea that any act at all would be considered as being morally good simply because a deity had commanded it to be done.  According to Divine Command Principle

  • rape can be good
  • child molesting can be good
  • lies can be good
  • theft can be good
  • slaughter of thousands of innocent people can be good

All that matters according to Divine Command Principle is that the "god" commands it.  Most people think that there are just some acts that are morally wrong and that no deity would command that they be done because they are not morally correct.  Thus they deny the fundamental premise of a morality based on a belief in a deity as the source for morality.

3. Against Reason

It stands against reason that an act would be morally correct on one day and then not morally correct on another day under the same circumstances because a deity had issued new commands.

The most popular idea linking a deity to morality is that which provide for the most direct link: the Divine Command Theory.  This theory is not accepted in practice by any of the world's living religions as it is quite flawed.

Why the Divine Command Theory of Morality is flawed and dangerous

a. Who knows what the commands of the deity are?  Can anyone claim to have heard the command and respond to it?

b. The commands may need to be interpreted, but by whom?

c. If there are a few who claim to be designated by the deity or who are designated by some group to be the official recipients of the divine commands are humans prepared to follow the commands of these designated recipients as if they were the commands of the deity?

d. If the deity commands or the designated recipients of the deity's commands do command that every human sacrifice the second born child on its third birthday on an altar would that make human sacrifice a morally GOOD act?

e. If ideas of the "good" rest solely on commands from the deity then there is no standard for what is "good" that humans can use reason with to reach decisions as to what is morally correct unless covered directly by a command.

f. The command of the deity can CHANGE in time as the deity is believed to be eternal and involved with affairs of humans.   When some human declares that the deity has changed the command what authority determines if the command has been changed?

g.  Some humans can claim that the deity has commanded them to take the lives of innocent people in support of some cause.  Who determines if they have received that command?

h. Some humans can claim that the deity has commanded them to take the lives of the leaders of some large religion because the deity no longer favors them or reports that they have lost the "true path" or are unfaithful.  Who determines if they have received that command?

No major religion accepts Divine Command Theory as the basis for moral decision making. 


There are many people brought up to accept the Ten Commandments as guides for a moral life and they think that following those commandments would make them adherents to the Divine Command Theory .  This is NOT the case at all.  In Divine Command Theory the GOOD is whatever the "god" or deity commands. This means whatever and whenever and wherever.   Divine Command Theory does not rest on scriptures. DIVINE COMMAND is DIVINE COMMAND.   DIVINE COMMAND does not stop with the Ten Commandments.  No not at all.  The theory holds that the deity did not go out of existence after issuing those commandments but continues to exist and issues new commandments. The deity can even issue commandments that change the previous commandments and even in contradiction to them.  In fact it is often the case that someone claiming to have received a direct command from the deity or god will do something quite inconsistent with or a violation of one of the ten commandments, for example killing innocent children because the deity told them to do so.

How does anyone know what the "god" or deity commands?  The "god" or deity tells them either directly or through some intermediary or through signs or omens or some experience that those who receive the command claim has been the transmitter of the message or the command.  How exactly do people get the command ? Well again it is either directly or indirectly through some intermediary like a person or a written work. Can the deity continue to issue commands after previous recordings?  Yes, the deity can update and change commands as the deity wishes.

There are many problems with this theory.

The religions of the West have rejected Divine Command Theory and instead hold for Natural Law Theory.  The rejection may be based on the fear of some charismatic person receiving a divine command to change the religion or to kill the leaders of that religion.

Divine Command Theory does not rest on scriptures. DIVINE COMMAND is DIVINE COMMAND.

People claim that GOD has COMMANDED them to do X

Therefore doing X is a morally good act.

X can be ANY ACT AT ALL.

ANY ACT AT ALL can be good if GOD COMMANDS it!!!

In Divine Command Theory there is NO GOOD or BAD by itself at all. There is only what GOD COMMANDS

GOD commands= GOOD

GOD forbids= BAD


No one who accepts Divine Command Theory can question the commands of the deity or make a statement such as "I do not believe God would command the things you stated here at all." because a person who accepts the Divine Command Theory accepts NO ACT as being GOOD or BAD except according to what the deity commands.

According to Divine Command Theory

  • rape can be good
  • child molesting can be good
  • lies can be good
  • theft can be good
  • slaughter of thousands of innocent people can be good

All that matters is that the "god" commands it.

Scriptures can record what some people at some time thought god commanded them to do. Some people can follow what is written in those scriptures. That is not Divine Command Theory.  Why not? Because for those who believe in a deity or a god then GOD lives forever. GOD is alive. GOD keeps issuing COMMANDS.

People hear the DIVINE COMMAND in 1205 and 1776 and 1848 and on May 10, 2003 and on December 23, 2005 and so on and they follow it thinking the command makes the act that is commanded the morally correct thing to do.

Divine Command Theoryhas so many problems that there are very few people on earth that use it and they tend to be fanatics, and mentally unstable people. No organized religion actually supports Divine Command Theory because of all the problems with it and the threat it poses to organized religions. Judaism and Christianity and Islam support Natural Law Theory and not Divine Command Theory.


I.  DIVINE COMMAND THEORY and Criticisms of it

There are ethical theories that make reference to or depend upon the existence of a deity. The first is one that equates the GOOD with whatever the god or deity commands.  Socrates (469-399 BCE) was one of the first to question this theory.  He asked whether we call the GOOD good because the gods have done it or whether they have done it because it is GOOD.  His question implies the possibility of the existence of a standard for the GOOD separate from the divine.

Religions often base their notion of morality on the character of their God claiming that (1) What is 'good' is good because God commands it and (2) people cannot live moral lives unless they follow God's moral teachings. In Christianity (2) is often believed to be impossible until a person has had their sin dealt with by God. Only then will they be in a position to want to do what God wills and be able to do it ('The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so' (Romans 8:7)). However, this raises questions concerning the relationship between morality and God. If what is 'good' is good only because God wills it is it not possible that one day God might say that what was previously known as 'bad' is now 'good'? Some might say that this would not happen because we would know God was making something 'bad' good but this means we have an independent criteria by which we can assess God's morality. If this is the case then we know what is right and wrong without God's intervention - so why bother with God (for more on this see The Euthyphro Dilemma)?- - - Stephen Richards

For different considerations of the Divine Command Theory you may look at this entry in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Plato(,427-347 BCE)  presented this matter in the dialogue titled the Euthyphro.  The Euthyphro Dilemma 

Many people claim that morality is impossible without the belief in a supernatural entity (god),, from which our sense of right and wrong ultimately derives. And yet, Plato put a huge hole in this argument, back in the 4th century BCE. Think about this excerpt from Plato’s Euthyphro (Socrates is speaking):

"Consider this: is what is pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? (Euthyphro, 10a)"

Euthyphro’s dilemma, as it has come to be known, is this:

Horn 1 - If the good is such because God says it is, then morality is arbitrary (e.g., God condoning all sorts of immoral acts in the Old Testament, including: Genesis 34:13-29, Exodus 17:13, 32:27, Leviticus 26:29, Numbers 16:27-33, 21:3, 21:35, 31:17-18,Deuteronomy 2:33-34, 3:6, Joshua 6:21-27, Judges 3:29, etc., etc.).

Horn 2 - If the good is absolute, and God cannot do evil, then we don’t need the middle man to figure out what is good and what is not (e.g., we know that killing innocent children and women, ethnic cleansing, etc. are wrong, period).

Notice that this is not an argument against the existence of God, only about gods’ irrelevance to morality. Yet, if one cannot avoid either horn of the dilemma, it is difficult to see what the point of religion ultimately is... by Massimo Pigliucci, at

Here is another theory that in one of its forms involves belief in the existence of a deity, god.  It is the ethical principle employed by the major religious traditions of the West: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.


With this theory actions in conformity and support of natural laws are morally correct.  A simple summary would be :

What Is Consistent with the Natural Law Is Right and What Is not in keeping with the Natural Law Is Wrong

NOTE: This is NOT what is natural is morally correct and what is unnatural is morally wrong.  The focus is on the natural LAWS and not simply natural acts.

In this view humans have reasoning and the Laws of Nature are discernable by human reason.   Thus, humans are morally obliged to use their reasoning to discern what the laws are and then to act inconformity with them.

Humans have a natural drive to eat, drink, sleep and procreate.  These actions are in accord with a natural law for species to survive and procreate.  Thus activities in conformity with such a law are morally good.  Activities that work against that law are morally wrong.  As an example consider that to eat too much or too little and place life in jeopardy is morally wrong.

This theory has two major variations on it.  For the theists there is a deity that created all of nature and created the laws as well and so obedience to those laws and the supplement to those laws provided by the deity is the morally correct thing to do.   For atheists there is still the belief that humans have reasoning ability and with it the laws of nature are discernable.  For atheists who accept this approach to act in keeping with the laws of nature is the morally correct thing to do. 

What are the laws of nature that provide guidance for human actions?  These would include: the law of survival, the natural action for  living things to maintain themselves and to reproduce, etc..

It is a major problem for this theory to determine what exactly those laws are and how they apply to human circumstances.

The theory also utilizes the Principle of the DOUBLE EFFECT:






Application of the theories to one behavior:  HOMOSEXUALITY

Under the Natural Law Theory two people of the same sex interacting to produce orgasms will be morally good or bad depending on whether or not such actions are in accordance with natural laws or not.

Atheistic Natural Law Theory:

If there are species on earth in which members of the same sex physically interact to produce physical pleasure then homosexual couplings amongst humans would be morally good. The purpose of orgasms would be more than to produce offspring.

PROBLEM: the physical record may not be all that clear and open to interpretation. There is evidence of same sex couplings in species other than human. How many cases or species are needed to conclude that such behavior is natural among mammals and fulfilling a basic physical drive in a non-harmful manner to the species is what is debatable.

Theistic Natural Law Theory:

God made Nature. God made the Natural Laws. God made humans. God gave humans reason by which they are to learn of the natural laws. God also provides revelation concerning god's will and wishes. In the scriptures there are passages dealing with human matters and they are interpreted to have been given as a guide for the moral life. So in addition to the physical universe which is provided for the study of humans there is also the word of god.

There is a passage in the bible where Onan is condemned because he did not go into the tent of his dead brother's wife and have sex with her so as to produce more children. (see two accounts below) . At that time it was the custom in the tribe that when a man died his brother would be responsible for his wife and take her as another wife in order to continue the tribe. Onan went into the tent had sex with the dead brother's wife but pulled out of her and spilled his semen on the ground.

He was condemned for doing so.


A. Was Onan condemned for entering into sex for a purpose other than having children? If so then all sexual acts other than intercourse between a man and a woman who are married and preparing to have children would be immoral. These acts would include: Premarital sex, extra marital sex, masturbation, homosexuality, oral sex, anal sex, use of birth control.

B. Was Onan condemned for not being willing to father children by his dead brother's wife? If so, then sexual acts entered into for a purpose other than procreation would be morally acceptable.

There are many people who take each of these possible interpretations of the passage.

Genesis 38:6-9 -- The sin of Onan:

This passage describes how Tamar's first husband Er was killed by God because he was wicked. Under ancient Jewish tradition, Er's brother Onan was required to marry and engage in sexual intercourse with Tamar. Widows were not asked whether they wanted to remarry. In many cases, the woman would have experienced the sexual activity as a form of rape -- something required by tribal tradition which they had to endure. Similarly, nobody consulted the widow's brother-in-law about his wishes in the matter.

Their first son would be attributed to Er. Because any offspring would not be considered his child, Onan decided to use a common and relatively ineffective contraceptive technique to prevent conception. He employed "coitus interruptus". That is, he disengaged from Tamar just before he ejaculated, and "spilled his semen on the ground." (NIV) God was displeased at this action and killed Onan also -- presumably because he refused to follow Jewish tradition.

This passage was used until recent decades by some Christian groups who maintained that Onan's sin was actually masturbation. The term "Onanism" was coined as a synonym of masturbation. This interpretation is no longer in common use.


Onan was the middle of the three children of Judah, son of Jacob and father of the tribe which eventually produced both Kind David and Jesus. His older brother died without producing an heir. In those days, it was customary for the younger brother to take his deceased brother's wife and provide that brother with an offspring. So, Judah, Onan's father, ordered him to do such.

According to the account, Onan realized that his biological son, produced in this manner, would not be considered his own. If Onan provided his older dead brother with a son, that child would inherit both the seat of chief of the tribe as well as the oldest's portion of the estate. It meant that Onan would be inferior to his own biological child. It also meant that Onan would lose "financially."

The laws of inheritance in those days required that the older brother receive a double portion. This meant that if Onan provided his brother with an heir, Judah's holdings would be divided four ways, with two fourths (or one half) going to this child while Onan would only receive one fourth. However, if Onan retained his status as oldest surviving son, the inheritance would be divided three ways, with Onan receiving two of those thirds or about one and a half times more.

According to the scriptural account, Onan insured his failure by practicing the most ancient form of birth control known, premature withdrawal. For this, God struck him dead.

The account says that Tamar was the name of the wife and her dead husband committed some sin so grave that God killed him, although it doesn't specify the sin. Now, her husband's younger brother commits a sin, with her, and he is struck down by God. This man sent to her to provide her dead husband with an heir, has sexual relations with her. He pulls out before ejaculation, spills his seed on the ground and dies on the spot.


Historical Course of Natural Theory  from Theistic to Atheistic

 by Andrew Sandlin    

Thomas Aquinas on Natural Law


A Christian Reformed Critique  


1. One of the difficulties for natural law theory is that people have interpreted nature differently? Should this be the case if as asserted by natural law theory, the moral law of human nature is knowable by natural human reason?

2.How do we determine the essential or morally praiseworthy traits of human nature? Traditional natural law theory has picked out very positive traits, such as "the desire to know the truth, to choose the good, and to develop as healthy mature human beings”. But some philosophers, such as Hobbes, have found human beings to be essentially selfish. It is questionable that behavior in accordance with human nature is morally right and behavior not in accord with human nature is morally wrong. For instance, if it turns out that human beings (at least the males) are naturally aggressive, should we infer that war and fighting are morally right?

3. Even if we have certain natural propensities, are we justified in claiming that those propensities or tendencies should be developed? On what grounds do we justify, for example, that we ought to choose the good?

4. For Aquinas, the reason why nature had the order it did was because God had put it there. Other thinkers, such as Aristotle, did not believe that this order was divinely inspired. Does this alleged natural moral order require that we believe that there is a God that has produced this natural moral order? Evolutionary theory has challenged much of the basis of thinking that there is a moral natural order, since on evolutionary theory species has developed they way they have out of survival needs.

5  It is doubtful that one can infer moral principles forbidding adultery, rape, homosexuality, and so forth, either from biological facts about human nature or from facts about the inherent nature of Homo sapiens. 

6. Critics of natural law theory say that it is doubtful, however, that the inherent nature of Homo sapiens establishes laws of behavior for human beings in the same way as it may establish laws of behavior for cats, lions, and polar bears. It is especially difficult because so much of human behavior is shaped by the environment, that is, by deliberate and non-deliberate conditioning, training, and education.

7.  Two philosophers (Aquinas and Aristotle) integral to the theory have different views about god’s role in nature, which confuses the issue, especially when trying to decipher if the theory relies on the existence of god.

8. The intrinsic nature of humans as it pertains to establishing laws of behavior may not be the same for animals, which presents difficulties within the theory.

9.. Human behavior may be solely reliant upon the environment that one is exposed to, which includes social classes, education and upbringing, this opposes the theory.


Encylopedia of Philosophy - Natural Law -
Definition and explanation of natural law theory with bibliography.

Natural Law and Natural Rights -
Paper by James Donald about history, theory, and prediction for natural rights and natural law with bibliography.

Elements of Natural Law and Politics -
Full text of a treatise by Thomas Hobbes on natural law.

Jurisdictionary - Search for Natural Law -
Examination of American jurisprudence through natural law theory.

The Natural Law by Heinrich A. Rommen -
The Natural Law, a study in legal and social history and philosophy.


The Case For and Against Natural Law -
Lecture by Russell Kirk for the Heritage Foundation presenting conflicting views of natural law.

Haines: The Revival of Natural Law Concepts -
Study of the establishment and interpretation of the limits on legislatures.

Natural Law: A Reformed Critique -
Examiniation of natural law by Peter J. Leithart found in Premise.

Huig de Groot (Hugo Grotius) -
Hugo Grotius 1583-1645, founder of natural law theory.

Natural Law and Will -
John Kilcullen's examiniation of natural law in Descartes and Ockham.


The Non-Absurdity of Natural Law -
Defense of natural law theory and natural rights against egoist attacks by Wendy McElroy from The Freemason.

Aquinas on Natural Law -
Summary of Thomistic view of natural law.

Natural Law Frigate -
Discussion forum and live chat devoted to natural law.

Natural Born Lawyers -
Article by J. Budziszewski on natural law with links to purchase related books.

Darwin and Natural Law -
Search for a darwinian science of ethics.


Encarta Encyclopedia Article - Natural Law -
Encarta summary on history of natural law.

Those who hold that religion and morality are inseparable link God with the base of morality. God provides the basis for a universal morality. Without God , they hold, anything is possible. Without God as the basis for morality all that is left would be a nihilistic ethics.  History provides ample evidence to refute such claims as there are Buddhists and Taoists and Atheists and Humanists who live moral lives and avoid nihilism as well.

Do Our Values Come from God?  The Evidence Says No  by Victor J. Stenger at 

Philosophers have attempted to locate another source of morality that would fill the void between the absolute, universal morality based upon religion and belief in a deity as the source of moral authority and the nihilism of relativistic ethics and the post modern moral malaise.

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

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