17 June 2009

Morality, Ethics, and Religion

One of the common arguments in favor of religion is that people need religion to be moral; without it, "anything goes." Of course, this is rubbish. There have been studies that show that there is little correlation between religious belief and ethical behavior. And there is some research that shows that ethical behavior has an evolutionary origin, with "reciprocal altruism" being a survival characteristic.

It's pretty clear that what society judges to be ethical behavior evolves over time. There are some basic principles that have been around for a long time, like the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. Other rules come and go. For instance, even Biblical fundamentalists don't follow the Old Testament laws that call for stoning disobedient children or, if their daughters are raped, selling them to the rapists for 50 shekels. Even within the last couple of centuries, slavery (at least in Western societies) has gone from being morally justified and perfectly aligned with religious teachings (at least by some), to an outrage practiced only by the immoral. As society evolves, so do our perceptions of what is right and wrong.

Still, many people still believe that non-religious people are fundamentally amoral. When I tell a friend that I am non-religious, I often hear "oh, but you're so nice!" I usually chuckle when I hear that, happy to have busted the "amoral atheist" myth once again. Mrs. A.S. also hears that a lot, and we often discuss how ingrained that myth is in our culture, and how important it is to continue busting that myth if those of us who are free of religion are to become more accepted in society.

I guess that's why we found our recent experience with a local group of atheists so frustrating. The most vocal members of that group were so convinced of their own righteousness that they suspended any critical thinking about their actions.

  • One of the members was building a sign that he was going to tow around town. The sign was going to read, "Not smart enough for science? Try religion!" Besides being utterly inane (since there are plenty of smart scientists out there that also happen to be religious), this was just downright insulting. This same young man, ironically, also wanted to stage events where he would lecture local clergymen on how one can be moral without religion.
  • Two of the members were "offended" by the presence of a menorah on public property downtown during the holiday season — a display put up by a local Jewish group as part of festivities sponsored by a local business association. While one might be able to argue the legality of such a display with the local government on church/state separation grounds, these women instead set about harassing the Jewish group who put up the display, with a petition and e-mail exchanges with the rabbi.

Now, neither of these cases are evil on the scale of slavery or genocide. These were (I suppose) well-intentioned people who felt strongly about their atheism. What was so frustrating was that none of them stopped to think about how these actions would affect other people, or whether they were really the right things to do. Nor would these people listen to rational arguments; when challenged, they clung to their righteousness and questioned the ethics of their challengers.

So no, religion does not automatically lead to moral or ethical behavior. Neither does lack of religion. Reason, empathy, and critical thinking — particularly about one's own behavior and motivations — are essential. I don't care whether you're a theist or an atheist, if you don't stop to question whether what you're doing is ethical because you're already convinced that you are a good person, you've started crossing over to the dark side.


  1. The common link among atheists is that they do not believe in god, after that it is a crap shoot. Sadly "atheist" does not equal "skeptic".

    Good post AS.

  2. @wheelst: Exactly.

    Not all atheists are skeptics... and ot all skeptics are atheists.

    Which makes life fun.