Morality Without Religion: Zehra Hussain

By Zehra Hussain

Belief in God or some higher power does not make anyone a better person.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a Russian existentialist, once said, If God is dead, everything is permitted.” Many theists today hold this viewpoint, even though it suggests that God is the basis of morality and that without him there would be no public order because people could and would do anything they desired. Nonreligious people all over the world have proven this idea to be false–it is indeed possible to live a perfectly moral life and be a respectable member of society without any religious faith or belief in God.

Theists often argue that God decided what is right and what is wrong when he created the universal moral code. I like to present the Euthyphro dilemma to my theist friends who claim that God is the source of morality. I pose the question that Socrates once posed to Euthyphro: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Relating this to morality, “Does God command something because it is right, or is something right because God commands it?”

If my friend maintains that something is right because God commands it, I ask why God commanded it. It would have made just as much sense for him to command us to be liars as it did for Him to command us to be honest. If virtues such as honesty are not intrinsically right, but rather only right because God commanded them, then God’s commands are completely arbitrary. My friends always say that God would never command us to lie, but I always ask, “Why not?” God wouldn’t be commanding us to do something wrong, because by commanding us to lie, he would be making it right.

I next bring up the point that the doctrine on the goodness of God doesn’t make any sense if God created the moral code. If saying that something is good means that it was commanded by God, saying that God’s commands are good means nothing more than saying God’s commands are commanded by God, which is an empty truism.

Using this line of reasoning, I often convince my theist friends that God is not the source of morality, or at the very least, I make them doubt that he created the universal moral code. Most theists would rather believe that God is extremely sagacious and commanded us to do things because he understands that they are intrinsically right than believe that God acted purely on a whim when deciding what was right and what was wrong. If my theist friends want to hold on to their idea of an infinitely good and infinitely wise God, I force them to acknowledge that, even from a religious viewpoint, there is a realm of morality independent of God.

These theist friends always ask, “If God didn’t decide what is right and what is wrong, then how did moral standards come about?”

“Simple,” I answer.

Society decides what is acceptable and what is unacceptable based on what is most beneficial for itself. Killing, stealing, and lying make society unsafe and chaotic, whereas cooperation, honesty, and respect for others make society peaceful and productive. Early societies that were internally compassionate, altruistic, and considerate had a competitive advantage over societies that were not, and therefore they survived longer. The chaotic societies were weak and disorganized, and they were eliminated by the organized and peaceful societies. Therefore, the values that helped these societies flourish became known as “good” or “moral,” while the values that destroyed the other societies became labeled “bad” or “immoral.”

At this point, my theist friends are usually intrigued, but skeptical, and they always wonder why so many people in the world believe that God decided what was right and what was wrong if these values were really discovered through social evolution.

“How can so many people be wrong?” they wonder.

I answer this the same way: Humans like to sacralize things that they feel are important, because making an idea sacred strengthens its value in the mind of the public. Because maintaining an organized and functional society is vital to a respectable and comfortable human existence, society makes sacred the values that keep it organized and harmonious. By claiming that morals were created by God–a force greater than humans and not one we have the authority to challenge–it is much easier for society to convince people to faithfully adhere to traditional morals without questioning them.

There is no correlation between how religious a person is, or even what religion he or she practices, and the degree of his or her morality. There are many atheists and agnostics who are great people, and there are just as many religious people who are highly immoral. A person who lives a “moral” life–one without lying, stealing, killing, or harming others in any way, is thought to be a good person, but I believe truly being moral is based also on intentions, not just on actions. People can live very righteous lives if they’re afraid of hell or if they want to go to heaven, but they are not moral people if they are only worried about personal salvation. Perhaps they are superficially moral, but being truly moral means being a good person out of pure concern for humanity, not because of a fear of damnation or desire for salvation.

It’s great for society if a person does not steal, lie, or kill, but if he or she needs a religion to tell him or her that these things are wrong, then he or she is not a very moral person. My own morality is rooted in humanism, which is a nonreligious philosophy based on a genuine concern for humanity. Humanists do good because we want to help society and humankind, not because a book or a religious organization tells us what to do and what not to do.

Many theists argue that society is becoming less moral because of its declining religiosity, but I believe that society would benefit more from a clarification of what morality really is than from just more religion. Belief in God or some higher power does not make anyone a better person and does not help society function any more harmoniously than it would otherwise. Society would, however, benefit from people realizing what morality really is and what it is not. Morality does not necessarily accompany religiosity–anybody can follow the Ten Commandments when bribed with heaven and threatened with hell.

However, morality is not simply not stealing, not lying, or not killing; morality is knowing why one should not steal, lie, or kill. A person cannot acquire this knowledge from God or the bible–it requires real wisdom from experience and compassion. As Albert Einstein once said, “A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death.”

Amen to that.

Zehra writes: “This fall I will be a freshman at Swarthmore College. I plan to major in biology and stay on the pre-med track. I have many other interests, including political science, creative writing, and philosophy. I hope to minor in philosophy or peace and conflict studies so I can pursue these interests throughout college and my life.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation