VIEWPOINTS: Is belief in God essential to morality?

According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, many people around the world think it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person (see chart below).

In 22 of the 40 countries surveyed, majorities said it is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values. However, that view is more common in poorer countries than in wealthier ones.

In North America and Europe, more people say it is possible to be nonreligious and still be a moral, upright person. That’s the opinion of nearly eight in 10 people polled in Franc, Spain, Britain and the Czech Republic. But in the United States, 53% said belief in God is necessary to be moral.

What do you think about the interaction of belief in God with morality? Is it necessary to believe in a higher power to be a moral citizen, citizen, or can atheists and agnostics have good morals and values?

Is belief in God essential to morality?

14 Responses to “VIEWPOINTS: Is belief in God essential to morality?”

  1. Mark Elliott

    Without God how does one decide upon what is “moral” and what is not? Only God is unchanging. If morals are decided upon by a majority, then those will change along with the majority’s opinion. Superior knowledge is required to know what is best for everybody. The giver of morals has to be know everything and be perfectly moral. Otherwise the “morals” will be flawed and tainted.

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  2. Jim Downard

    The issue of morality and God necessarily carries with it a host of unspoken assumptions, which Plato poked around in one of his dialogues 2500 years ago: wouldn’t an absolute morality need to be independent of any God in order not to be merely good or bad by divine fiat (though shalt not eat asparagus)? Theologians can connect the moral circle by presuming that God naturally chooses only the good, which might be true but is nonetheless an assumption. Atheists can embrace an absolute moral framework as well (though certainly as many do not) by agreeing with Plato on the first stage of his argument without needing the logically secondary assumptions of the existence of God and attendance inherent goodness.

    The problem with any divine command morality is that it has to square itself with the historical traditions of what the god has recommended (or punished) over the years. This isn’t the exclusive problem of the Judeo-Christian tradition, of course, but is “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to life” any less scary than Mesoamericans offering human heart sacrifices under the equally sincere conviction that this was necessary to propitiate the gods in order to keep the sun rising on schedule?

    Christian cultures have pretty much given up the witch killing thing (and nipped the Aztec practices by obliterating them and forcing their conversion to one brand of Christianity), though not because the Bible text got erased, but only because civil governments gradually disconnected religious proscription from civil law and the society caught the Enlightment meme of giving up belief that bad things happened because the little old lady down the lane had consorted with demons (though Scotland’s last witch killing was in the early 18th century). Such beliefs are still alive in some religion-based societies today, by the way, such as in India, which you may notice in the chart above plots in at 70% yes on the morality needs God issue.

    Likewise abuses can occur in ostensibly atheist frames (such as China plopping on the 75% no side). Clearly there is more to deciding morality and ethical behavior than whether or not divine mandates are assumed. As an atheist who does embrace an absolute morality (go Plato!), I can say fie on both the China and India houses–and recommend both cleave more to the principle that all sound moral frameworks must respect the sanctity of individual consciences and that no government can ever be rightly permitted the power to enforce any undecidable orthodoxy on pain of imprisonment or death. Morality and ethics are things people come to believe to be true (whether by religious or atheist motivation) and which affects their behavior. Decidable propositions like the mass of the electron seldom impact action in such a way.

    The genuine dilemma facing all moral reasoning, though, is that it ultimately rests on undecidable assumptions, not deductions that can be proven in the way decidable propositions can, like the earth revolving around the sun or even the existence (though not necessarily all the events associated with them) of historical personages from Caesar, Hatshepsut, Manco Capac and Tamerlane to Jesus, the Buddha, or Joseph Smith. While morality can be laid at a god’s door by assumption and faith, it doesn’t resolve the inherently undecidable character of the problem (which is why religions that stay relevant to human concerns undergo an evolution of their positions, falling away from enforcing the silly bits like witch killing even when they don’t overtly delete them from the supposedly immutable and perfects revealed truths).

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    • Mark Elliott

      Plato is probably in fire now now, and forever, and quite conscious of it, in a place made for satan and his followers. Since God is eternal, to say that morals must be independent of the God who created everything is illogical. God precedes everything that is created including morals. The concept of good and evil is simple, God is good. Everybody who rejects God is evil. As usual you have brought up the supposed inconsistencies in the bible. The change in the covenant between God and the subset of mankind that desires to obey God, at the death of his son, Jesus, is all that has changed. The 631 laws of the Old Covenant are eternal. How those are applied has been simplified to two commandments: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Everybody who says he or she is a “Christian” is not. Going to church does not make a person a Christian any more than going to a gas station makes a person an automobile. Religions change all the time. God never changes. God’s covenant, through Jesus, the Christ, never changes. Satan’s job is to populate hell by tricking as many people as possible into thinking that the God of the bible is a myth.

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      • Paul Susac

        Every word regurgitated from some sermon he heard somewhere.

        Truly Mark, YOU are what’s wrong with this country.

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        • Paul Susac

          You know, I’ve been perseverating about sending the above post. I know insults are disrespectful.

          But then I think: Here is a guy who actually believes that people who don’t believe what HE believes properly deserve to burn in hell for all eternity. Here is a guy who believes that obedience to authority makes torture and pain OK, if you obey the RIGHT authority.

          What, exactly am I supposed to respect about all this?

          Seriously Mark, your God is WORSE than Hitler. He only burned jews for a few years. Your God burns everyone who doesn’t believe in YOUR magic story FOREVER.

          And if your God is worse than Hitler, what does that make you?

          This is how religious beliefs distort human morality. ANYTHING is justified if my God says it’s OK.

          I am revolted.

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        • Mark Elliott

          Time will tell. When you arrive at the Judgment, be sure to explain to God how you thought he was so unjust.

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          • Paul Susac

            Now that’s just creepy.

            What a grotesque parody of morality to think that some deity is going to punish me for my thought crimes.

            Did you ever notice that when people are kind and gentle and loving they believe in a kind, gentle and loving god, but when people are authoritarian, judgmental and cruel they believe in an authoritarian, judgmental and cruel god?

            You believe in an authoritarian, judgmental and cruel god, don’t you Mark?

  3. Dennis

    Dostoevsky said, “if there is no God, everything is permitted.”

    Morals are determined either by God or men, it’s just that if there is no God there’s no reason to follow them. If we are evolved slime, going nowhere but back to the dirt then what’s to say anything is “good” or not? Good for who? If I am to survive and you are in my way then why is it not “good” for me to eliminate you? What’s the price I will pay if I do?

    Our consciences tell us the answer to those questions, but where did they come from? Chaos, chance and time?

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  4. Paul Susac

    Why is this question even asked? Why do we equate belief in a God with morality in the first place?

    I think that the question says something about how morality works.

    Human morality is both socially learned (as we can see by the wide variety of responses that different cultures gave to this question), AND an innate part of human psychology. Most of us have a conscience – that is, a more-or-less unconscious set of rules that we follow that cause us to cooperate and cohere together as a society.

    So what is the role of God in those rules?

    In the mythology of most of the Abrahamic religions, God is a divine moral authority. That is to say, he both makes the rules and punishes those who break them. He is a parental figure.

    So one of the places “God as moral authority” comes from is from our childhood – a “good” child is an obedient child, and a “bad” child is a disobedient child. This is EXACTLY the social role that belief in God serves in many religious societies – he’s the all-surveiling parent who keeps you in line.

    This (among other things) is what God is FOR. God is the psychological conditioning that we use to socially control each-other.

    Look at the list of countries again. Notice how the more liberal the country the less need for God as a moral force? Notice how the Islamic countries (who are most conservative, theocratic, and authoritarian) have the highest rate of belief in the need for God as an external control on human behavior?

    This is what religion does to people – it makes you think that your humanity is so abhorrent that you have to have a dictator imposing his will from the outside to keep you in line. This is exactly what Christopher Hitchens meant when he referred to God as “the celestial dictator.”

    The reality is that by most measures, we atheists are more inclined toward pro-social behavior and less prone to commit crimes than are people of faith. So clearly this strategy of imposing an external check on human behavior doesn’t work very well.

    On the other hand I have met people who claim that without belief in God they would get on a clock-tower and start shooting. So, I guess some people have such a poor view of their own moral integrity that only this external authority keeps them in check. Still I can’t help but think that it was their Abrahamic faith that taught them that they were immoral sinners in the first place.

    There is much to fear and hate about religion. Fortunately I have better things to do with my time.

    Instead, I prefer to teach my children that morality is a natural birthright. Our morality emerges from our evolved nature as a species of apes, and while it is NOT foolproof, it is one of the evolutionary resources that our ancestors passed on to us. If we work to cultivate it, and cultivate just and loving relationships, we can live long, safe, productive and prosperous lives. The only belief that this view requires is the belief that reason and self-discipline will shape us into the best people we can be.

    I’ll take that over belief in God any day. Thanks.

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    • Dennis

      You call 100 years long? and 40 or 50 of those are years of aches, pains, disease and finally death. And that doesn’t count for all those early deaths. I’ve been watching my 2yr. Old grandson grow up in our home and no-one had to teach him how to lie and deceive, it came naturally. You are deceiving yourself if you think religion is the cause of our world’s problems. Most of the government murders, more than 75 million of them over the years have been at the hands of atheist regimes. God is no dictator, He loves us and took on our humanity to pay our way out of this self-inflicted mess. Whoever misses out on this grace has only themselves to blame, don’t try to put it on a loving God.

      Btw, most of the ape stories I’ve read show that they have no problem biting your hand off, or eating your face for lunch. Can’t see wanting that as a heritage.

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      • Mark Elliott

        Actually, I was just reading this morning that governments murdered about 262 million people in the 20th century alone. The University of Hawaii coined a term for it: democide. Only a fool trusts the government to look out for his interests.

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  5. Paul Susac

    @ Dennis “You call 100 years long?”

    Yes, compared to the 30-40 years that humans used to live before the advances of modern society. We have more than doubled our lifespans.

    “I’ve been watching my 2yr. Old grandson grow up in our home and no-one had to teach him how to lie and deceive, it came naturally.”

    That’s right. The capacity for deception (including self-deception) is a feature of our evolved consciousness. It comes with the ability to imagine one thing and say another. You present the human capacity for deception as a flaw with humanity, it’s not. We humans have an ability to imagine the minds of other humans, and to express ideas about the world that manipulate our fellow humans into behaving in ways we want them to behave. . It’s one of our greatest survival traits. Indeed, our self-awareness would probably not exist without it.

    But right along-side this capacity for deception we also have a capacity for shame. We evolved this capacity precisely because we need our fellow humans to trust us and to accept us as we are. Our relationships with each-other are our primary strategy for survival and reproduction, and the best way to show that we are trustworthy is to BE trustworthy. So in other words, human morality is a complicated set of social and emotional response systems that we use to negotiate our relationships with each-other.

    “You are deceiving yourself if you think religion is the cause of our world’s problems.”

    Don’t put words in my mouth. I view religion as a form of social technology that we use to form groups and socialize our young. It is sometimes a source of conflict and sometimes a source of community. But here’s the thing: IDEAS DON’T NEED TO BE TRUE TO BE EFFECTIVE. Religions have a horrible track record for understanding the way reality works. This horrible track record is responsible for, MUCH (but probably not most) of the suffering in the world. What religions are good at is forming social groups. Religion is a very powerful tool in negotiating our relationships with each-other.

    “God is no dictator”
    Well YOUR God might not be a dictator, but there are LOTS and LOTS of other people in the world who have very different understandings of God than you do. For many of them, “divine dictator” sums up their understanding of God quite well.

    “He loves us and took on our humanity to pay our way out of this self-inflicted mess. Whoever misses out on this grace has only themselves to blame, don’t try to put it on a loving God.”
    Yeah, I’ve always found this story pretty disturbing. The idea that you can torture and murder one person to “pay” for the moral failings of another is a grotesque and primitive understanding of morality. It amazes me that you Christians can believe this and still (on the whole) be such nice people. It really does.

    “Btw, most of the ape stories I’ve read show that they have no problem biting your hand off, or eating your face for lunch. Can’t see wanting that as a heritage.”

    There is nothing any other ape will do that is more violent or disturbing than the violence of humans. Humans are a species of ape. It’s a simple biological fact. This is more of an insult to apes than it is to us.
    For example, apes don’t napalm children. But humans do.
    Christian humans.
    So apparently your religion is not the effective source of moral fortitude that you would like to believe it is.

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  6. Jim Downard

    A historical caveat should be put in regarding the remark Dennis made about the tens of millions murdered by the officially atheist regimes of the 20th century (which is a running trope in conservative Christian creationist apologetics, I should note, so is not unfamiliar to me). None could be described as freethinker societies. What Hitler and Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot all exemplified is totalitarian tyranny, which respected no belief other than their own, and happy to murder those who disagreed with their goals.

    It is that last aspect that puts those societies much closer to the dynamics of medieval religious tyrannies than it does Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. No society can avoid trouble the moment it accepts the idea that a person can be punished or killed based on belief rather than wrong action. But part of the success of modern tyrannies was technological. Railroads and careful record keeping facilitated the monstrous goals of Himmler serving the Nazi myths of racial purity. But we simply don’t know how many more people would have been killed during the Spanish Inquisition if only they had such instruments at their disposal. In looking through records of the Spanish Inquiisition, Henry Kamen found enormous lapses in efficiency, where thousands of Jews were scheduled for heresy trial but their own small staff and lack of funding meant their intended victims slipped out of town before anyone had a chance to torture and kill them. So be careful in trying to measure comparative social insanity without taking accoount such historical contingencies.

    I hope Dennis and I would agree that Hitler and Stalin and company ran regimes as reprehensible as any that of shadowed the earth, and that all people of conscience and ethics should stand opposed to them. But would he also agree that what all too many Christians have done when they wielded the instruments of power could be just as terrifying and worthy of condemnation? Perhaps one of the weirdest episodes Kamen found in his study, which would be funny (in a “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” sort of way) if it weren’t so creepy and hadn’t actually happened, concerned the Christian belief at that time that heretics had to be burned (not hung or otherwise dispatched). In one case, the heretic hunters accused and convicted the mother of one man, but since she had already inconsiderately died of natural causes they fulfilled the regulations retroactively by digging up her body and burning the bones.

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    • Mark Elliott

      That’s why our own government is equipping towns with Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles, buying millions or rounds of hollow-point ammunition for the likes of the Postal Service and the IRS, and routinely running over people’s rights, right? Because this isn’t a totalitarian regime. People who survived Hitler’s Germany and Pol Pot’s regime will testify that what’s happening here today is what happened in those countries shortly before the atrocities began. The German people were no more evil or violent than Americans are. Yet their constitutionally-elected government snuffed over six million people. If the US is a Christian nation, then Babylon is heaven.

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