From Within: Sarah Wells

This is one of several honorable mention” essays in FFRF’s 2007 contest for college-bound high school seniors. Sarah received $100 for her essay.

By Sarah Wells

To say that some religions promote morality, and therefore all morality comes from religion, is ludicrous. It is equivalent to the conclusion that one cannot be thin without liposuction, based on the fact that liposuction causes weight loss. Of course, liposuction is just one of the many ways (and one of the most drastic methods) to lose weight. There are countless effective and logical approaches to achieve the same end. Similarly, religion regulates the morality of some people, but it is certainly not the only source of ethics. Such an assumption deals too completely in absolutes, trying to cast in black and white a subject that has many nuances and shades of gray. It is certainly impossible to determine that religion or God is the sole source of morality. I consider myself to be a very ethical person, and yet religion has played no hand in my upbringing. It is clear to me that I do not need religion to be moral.

Neither of my parents professes any religious beliefs; nor did they instill any in my young mind. My mother is an incredibly honest, caring, good-hearted woman. On recent inspection of a receipt from the grocery store, she realized that the soda she left on the bottom of the cart had escaped the cashier’s notice, and had not been paid for. Rather than taking satisfaction in her steal, or blithely dismissing the incident, she returned to the grocery store and paid the cashier for the accidentally-stolen soda. This she did out of no fear of God’s wrath or punishment, but from a simple desire to do what is right.

The same is true with me, as well. I truly love to volunteer, and have donated my time to the Food Bank, a local animal shelter, a children’s hospice, and many community organizations. I do these things because it is rewarding to help others, not because any religion drives me to it. If God were the only source of morality, then I would have no motivation to help others or donate my time and effort to community service. Clearly, this is not the case; morality comes from within.

Several prominent figures throughout history reinforce my point in that they are nonreligious, and yet achieved great good. Benjamin Franklin, a Deist, rejected most religious orthodoxy, and still he worked tirelessly for the human race, helping to create this magnificent country of democracy and freedom for all. A signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, Franklin’s undertaking was not lighthearted. He and the other delegates feared for their lives; as Franklin commented, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” It is remarkable (especially considering the assumption that religion is the sole source of morality) that a man would undergo such dangerous toils for the good of humanity, when he had no belief in any godly rewards or punishments.

Samuel Clemens also held no religious beliefs, and yet he advocated equal rights for all humankind in his novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At this time, it was still unpopular to publicly express such views, yet Mark Twain did so. Another religious skeptic was Abraham Lincoln, who freed enslaved African Americans with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. With no belief in the promise of heavenly rewards, these men still furthered the rights of all people. These are just a few of the many great figures, and everyday people, who have done good without being pushed by the hand of God. Because their ethical actions were not influenced by religion, it is apparent that their morality was their own.

It is also interesting to consider that if religion’s moral tendencies are supposed to make it the source of all morality, do religion’s violent tendencies equate it to the source of all brutality? From the dawn of human existence, religion has played its hand in violent atrocities. In the name of Christendom, crusaders first charged into the Middle East in 1095 to recapture the Holy Land and christianize the Muslims living there. Countless innocent people were slaughtered for this “noble” religious goal. It’s hard to swallow that the cause of such mindless bloodshed could also be considered the source of all morality. This same fight continues in Israel and Palestine today, with innocent lives claimed daily by religious zealots.

Religion can be interpreted in many different ways, and has been twisted by many infamous historical figures. Adolf Hitler advocated “Positive Christianity” and reinvented Jesus as a fighter of the Jewish people. He also used elements of the Catholic Church’s hierarchical organization in his politics. Hitler employed religion for his own appalling means and nearly succeeded in removing an entire ethnic group from the face of the Earth. Ottis Toole, an infamous serial killer and partner of Henry Lee Lucas, described his mother as a religious fanatic and blames her for the destruction of his mind and moral conscience. While all of these cases show the power of religion to commit barbarous acts, I am far from attributing all violence to religion. Such a generalization would be as senseless as assuming that all morality stemmed from religion.

Let’s just say, for a moment, that all morality was religion-induced. There are over six billion people living in the world. Of them, around one billion are nonreligious, meaning that one-sixth, or about 16.67% of the Earth’s population, are not influenced by any religious principle or ideology. Now, according to assumption that religion is the sole source of morality, these people have no reason to abide by ethical laws and restraints. The only thing that should drive them are their wants and desires. Logically, one-sixth of the population, unchecked by moral boundaries, should be criminals.

However, we all know that every sixth person is not a criminal. In fact, it is reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that the average crime rate worldwide is 33.7 crimes per 1,000 people, meaning that only 3.37% of people are actually criminals. Even assuming that every single criminal were a nonreligious person (a gross falsehood), 13.30% of the Earth’s population would be comprised of nonbelievers who have also managed to resist criminal tendencies. What keeps these people from succumbing to a life of crime without the morality of God to guide them? It seems that even the nonreligious must have some degree of morals, and consequently it cannot be determined that all morality is derived from God.

In the complicated world we live in, there could never be any truth in such an assumption as religion being the sole source of morality. Our society cannot be characterized by absolutes, and the notion above is an absolute marred by several impossibilities. As philosopher Julian Baggini states, behaving ethically only because of divine mandate is not truly moral behavior, but merely blind obedience. Nonreligion is actually a superior basis for ethics, then, because a personal basis for morality is necessary in order to judge the very morality of religion itself. The unreligious would know that stealing and killing are morally wrong, even if instructed by religious doctrine. It becomes evident that morality comes from within. Astonishingly clear is the truth that I do not need religion to be moral, any more than I require liposuction to be thin.

Sarah Wells recently graduated from Middletown High School, earning several awards and honors. She is a new student at the University of Delaware, majoring in University Studies (undeclared). She has worked part-time at a movie theater while pursuing a variety of other interests, including active volunteerism. Sarah ran cross-country and track in high school, and continues to run independently. She has been musing over classic novels (all those books she had heard of, but never had time to read) and enjoying it. Sarah spent invaluable time last summer with her family, engaged in card games, bike rides, beach trips, and old movies.

Freedom From Religion Foundation