Is a Secular Morality Inherently Superior to a Religious Morality?

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By Stephen Hicks

January 24, 2016



In my judgment, issues of morality are the most difficult in philosophy. They are intellectually challenging, as everything about the human condition is relevant to them, and they are emotionally gripping, as our highest values are always at stake.

So it makes sense that religious philosophies often make morality the center of their appeal, and it makes sense that disagreements about religion can easily become tense and even emotionally overwrought.

Just as eagles, chipmunks, salmon, and other species have a distinctive set of capacities that they should exercise to live according to the kind of beings they are, human beings should live by the guidance of their distinctive cognitive capacities. Aristotelians and Kantians, for example, argue in this broad way.

Our question in this article is whether morality is natural or whether it can only be explained by reference to a supernatural being that issues moral rules and enforces them.

Each of us as individuals decides what our core values are and how we will act to accomplish them. In selecting the content of our value beliefs and deciding our methods of action, we almost always confront at some point this complex question: Should I choose my morality religiously, e.g., by seeking direct communication from the gods or a God, or by accepting an established religious system’s moral code? Or should I choose naturalistically, e.g., by going with my society’s prevailing norms, or by deciding independently what I judge to be good and bad?

Social science data can bear upon that question. We can point to many historical examples of virtuous atheists and depraved theists, and vice versa, and we can work to collect such data points into useful statistics:

  1. Do theists or atheists more often end up in jail?
  2. Are crime rates lower in more secular or in more religious nations?
  3. Are atheists or theists more likely to be psychologically depressed?
  4. Are those who put together happy and flourishing lives more likely to be naturalistic or religious?

Some of the statistics are suggestive but still a work in progress, so let us instead here focus directly on the philosophical debate. Here is how the argument goes:

  1. Humans can make choices.
    2. Reality gives us a standard by which we can distinguish good and bad.
    3. Therefore, morality is a real phenomenon.

Determinists, whether religious or naturalist, will deny the first premise, but in this article our focus is on the second step: Where in reality should we look to find such a standard?

The religious position then argues:

  1. Naturalism cannot account for morality.
    5. Therefore, we must believe in moral supernaturalism.

The fourth premise is the controversial one, as among naturalists there are lively debates and many competing approaches. In my view, many of those non-religious moralities are intellectually weak. But, as weak as the grounding for some of the naturalist moralities is, the grounding for all of the religious moralities is even weaker.

Atheism is not an explanation for one’s morality, as it is only a rejection of one kind of explanation—the theist one. Being an a-theist is like being an a-fairyist or an a-gremlinist or an a-horoscopist: It means only that one does not believe that fairies or gremlins or horoscopes explain anything.

As for what actually does explain morality, many naturalist theories are contenders. What we need, according to the second premise (Reality gives us a standard by which we can distinguish good and bad), is a fact about reality that grounds a distinction between good and bad. With such a standard to appeal to, we can go on to make judgments about everything else involved in human life.

  1. One naturalist approach notes that humans are distinctive in the power of their rationality, and that there is a fundamental distinction between living rationally and living irrationally. Just as eagles, chipmunks, salmon, and other species have a distinctive set of capacities that they should exercise to live according to the kind of beings they are, human beings should live by the guidance of their distinctive cognitive capacities. Aristotelians and Kantians, for example, argue in this broad way.
  2. Another naturalist approach bases itself upon a different fundamental fact: the difference between life and death. That distinction, too, can ground good and bad—the good is the life-promoting and the bad is the death-causing. Nutritious foods, productiveness, and certain political systems are then good because they enhance life, while poisons, chronic laziness, and certain other political systems are bad because they undermine life. Objectivists argue in this broad way.
  3. And there is the distinction between pleasure and pain. Traditional Hedonists and Utilitarians will argue that this fundamental natural difference provides a basic standard for morality: that which maximizes overall pleasure is the good and that which causes overall pain is the bad.

My point is not to advocate but to note that each has explanatory power: Each is based in real, observable phenomena, and each provides a standard that can be used to make decisions in life’s countless matters. Their ultimate adequacy is a matter of ongoing investigation.

Against those three, we need to compare the adequacy of grounding morality in A god says so.

Many points can be made here, but I will make only four.

If one is going to ground morality in religion, one needs to choose among the many religions and their competing moral messages.

The first is that if one is going to ground morality in religion, one needs to choose among the many religions and their competing moral messages. Here, interestingly, religious belief is often autobiographical. That is, all religions have many messages and practices—some peaceful, some violent, and so on—and individuals choose among them to put together a personal religion that reflects the morality they already judge to be more or less good.

That is, in my judgment, more morally healthy than those who accept wholesale a pre-existing religious package of beliefs uncritically. For example, the major Western religions incorporate the Bible, and much in that text is barbaric and written by and for barbaric peoples.

The healthier individuals are those who pick and choose. The deist Thomas Jefferson is famous for literally cutting out only the passages in the Bible he approved of and pasting them into a separate notebook for his personal reference. Most people do the same, only less systematically. One does not need to agree with all of their selections to respect that they are thinking for themselves and rejecting many immoral beliefs and practices required by the religious texts. That is an honorable path to moral development.

The picking and choosing, though, means that morality comes before religion. One has a personal standard of morality first, and one then selects the religion that one independently judges fits best with it.

That, of course, is precisely why orthodox religions condemn the above practice, and this is my second point. Every major institutional religion in the West and most in the East urge—sometimes by means of threats or bribes, e.g., of hell or heaven—that one accept package deals chosen by others. In my view, this is a profound cognitive immorality. Morality is about making choices based upon independent judgment, and any belief system that undermines that core responsibility is immoral.

The key example to reflect upon here is the story of Abraham’s willingness to kill Isaac. All major versions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam uphold Abraham as a moral hero for having passed God’s severe test. Yet what Abraham is being praised for is his willingness to kill an innocent boy, without understanding why, knowing that it would cause him and his wife immense pain, knowing only that he had been ordered to do so, and deferring all responsibility to God. That is obedient faith—and that is profoundly immoral.

Only when an institutional religion explicitly rejects the lesson of Abraham can it be considered to have reformed itself minimally in the direction of human morality. Then we can discuss its credibility on other moral issues.

My third point: Sometimes in response to the above, theists ask a hypothetical question: But what if there really is a God and you find yourself in Abraham’s sandals? In other words: “If God is real, then by definition he is rightfully owed our adoration, gratitude, and love.”

This is to gloss over a deeply problematic point about the foundations of religious morality.

Suppose for the sake of argument that there really is a God. Suppose he reveals himself to you directly and shows that he is immensely powerful and intelligent. You ask him to lift an ocean liner out of the water and put it back, which he does successfully. You ask him some really hard math questions, and he answers correctly and effortlessly. He then says to you, Now that I have demonstrated great power and intelligence, you should do whatever I say.

But why does that follow? It doesn’t follow that what the god is telling you to do is moral. The god could be very powerful and intelligent—and evil. So if you are going to base your morality on the sayings of a god, you first need to assure yourself that the god is moral.

If we are able to judge for ourselves whether the god’s sayings are good or bad, then we must already know the difference between goodness and badness—which means we don’t need the god to tell us what it is.

How are you to accomplish that? Religious moralities tell us that we humans are ignorant of morality until a god tells us what morality is. But if we are ignorant of morality, then we are in no position to judge whether what the god is telling us is good or bad. On the other hand, if we are able to judge for ourselves whether the god’s sayings are good or bad, then we must already know the difference between goodness and badness—which means we don’t need the god to tell us what it is. (For more on this classic problem in religious ethics, see Divine Command Theory.)

My fourth and final point is this: Religious morality is very often, unfortunately, actually based upon deep pessimism and sometimes even deep cynicism about the natural world.

A clear case in point is one religious thinker’s dark view of the natural world: “Here is the paradox of the human condition: man both wants the beauty of moral perfection, and knows he will never find it in this life” (emphasis added). But why not? Is no one ever honest or just or self-responsible or persevering or committed to integrity? Or is it that such goodness is too infrequent and fragile in the face of depravity?

Sigmund Freud, one of history’s major pessimists and an atheist, said in his Civilization and Its Discontents that religion was an infantile illusion that was difficult to take seriously—but that given the irrational beastliness of human nature, some sort of widespread religious belief was essential. Just as some people seem to need to believe in a God to keep themselves in line, Dr Freud wanted most people to believe so that the fear of God would keep them in line.

What this final point suggests is that much of the religion versus naturalism debate about morality turns on an accurate assessment of human nature.


This article has been edited from what first appeared as part of a series, Theist vs. Atheist, at Every, under the title On Natural Morality and Religious Amoralism.


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  • And we must remember the lesson of Euthyphro: “Do we believe it is “good” because the gods favor it, or do the gods favor it because it is “good”? The religious moralities tend to subscribe to the former – witness poor Job – and of course it is not the “god” that is designating something as “good” but the priests, who have some motives that “public choice economic theory” helps us to understand.

  • advancedatheist

    A naturalistic account of morality would have to acknowledge the possibility that many people need religious beliefs to keep them in line. Religious beliefs can work pragmatically even if they make untestable or unobservable claims. BTW, we should treat with caution claims about the allegedly successful secularism in many European countries, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. These countries’ de-emphasis of religious belief has happened in only the past couple of generations, and we don’t have enough of a baseline yet to show if this trend can sustain itself.

  • Walter Donway

    As a lifelong Objectivist in my adulthood, I always have been a committed, philosophical atheist. Being brought up in early years as a Congregationalist in New England, I have been intrigued by the issue: Is there any real difference among religions? In the religion I know best, at least one thing stands out. As far as I know, Christianity is the only religion that bases it claims on the reports of men claimed to know “God”–Jesus–in his lifetime on earth and spent most of their lives with him. They were men known to many others and reported consistently that they had observed Jesus performing miracles and that they had seen him alive after he had been killed on the cross and entombed and rise to heaven. At this time, as I understand it, “faith” meant acceptance of testimony or reports considered reliable, eyewitness testimony not what later philosophers meant–belief for the sake of belief. In effect, the New Testament reports alleged history as ultimately all history is reported: by eye witnesses who make their claims. I am aware, of course, that what the disciples of Jesus claim presents us with blatant contradictions of all we know about the natural world and the laws of nature–a “problem” to say the least. If Jesus was God, of course, such things would have occurred–revealing an aspect of the world and its laws of which we as yet have no inking. And we must decide, if there is a way to decide, if the reports of the men who knew him are veracious and throw doubt thereby on the belief that the laws of nature as we know them never can be “trumped”–a way of saying that God is impossible. At this time, we have to say that all that we know and have discovered, except for the testimony of the apostles, is 100 percent against belief in the supernatural and so God.