Religion isn’t necessary for morals

Every now and then, I come across someone wondering in honest confusion, “How can a person have any morals without believing in God?” I’ve asked several of them to expand on why they think without God a person would conclude that murder’s an okay thing to do, and it seems to boil down to a couple of ideas, depending which flavor of religion they’ve gotten. First, that morals are rules God made up so where else would we get them; and second, that without fear of God’s vengeance, why would one do the right thing?

Here’s the answer: morality is practical. Even in religions, the vast majority of rules and regulations are amazingly pragmatic in societies where people feel “If you can do A to me, then I can do A back to you or someone you love.” And that’s pretty much every human society ever, because that seems to be how we’re designed to think.

  • If I murder your brother, you’ll feel entitled to murder me or someone I love. Oops – now killing him doesn’t sound so good.
  • If I steal from you, you’ll steal from me.
  • If it’s okay for me to lie to you, you’re entitled to lie to me, and how will I ever know what to believe?
  • If I bring dishonor to my family, they won’t be able to provide so well for me, so it’s in my own best interest not to bring shame on them.
  • In ancient times, homosexuality must have seemed deeply impractical, as there weren’t so many of us and a tribe’s strength was based largely on numbers.
  • Several non-kosher animals (pigs, shellfish, etc.) are animals from which humans frequently get food poisoning unless you really clean and cook them well. Interestingly, as our understanding of how to clean and cook food well enough to prevent poisoning has improved, the number of people who follow the kosher dietary laws has decreased.
  • In times when there was no protection against pregnancy or STDs (I’m assuming STDs have always been around?), picking one mate and sticking to them was a sensible idea compared to sleeping around willy nilly. In fact, sleeping around in a completely thoughtless way is still impractical for the same reasons: it’s only different if you make responsible choices about how you do it.

And so on. You can believe murder’s wrong because you were taught so, or because you’ve considered the long-range consequences – the escalation in violence could even lead to a war – and realized it’s just not worth it. Granted, every old religion contains some rules that sound pretty esoteric now – even to followers. But there are some pretty weird laws on the government books, too, and yet we manage somehow.

Interestingly, I think practicality is why no old religion I know of really had a problem with men raping women and children. Because women and children were property rather than people, they gained no entitlement to revenge upon being wronged. Therefore, whatever was done to them remained invisible and unimportant. Oh, if you raped another man’s property (woman or child) and thereby reduced its trade value, that man was entitled to compensation in the form of money or replacement humans or camels or whatnot. And sadly, long before women and children began to be thought of as human in their own right, we had switched over to law and order. Now revenge is illegal, and we have to rely on the state for justice. The state realizes how wrong murder is because the consequences – up to and including full-scale war – have been seen over and over. But the state doesn’t get what’s so bad about rape because the consequences have always fallen on the victims and never the perpetrators.

It is for this reason I actually think morals arrived at from practical considerations tend to be better than morals inherited from a religion. The pragmatic moralist realizes, say, that overpopulation is a bad ideas, even if God never mentioned it (the very idea was inconceivable in ancient times). The pragmatic moralist doesn’t shrug and assume God would’ve left instructions for dealing with overpopulation if we were supposed to do anything about it. She looks forward and sees when our numbers will become unsustainable. She looks for solutions instead of assuming God will take care of it. She recognizes that religious anti-birth control morals came into being in a time when there weren’t that many of us, and in no way does that apply to today, so birth control must be considered as a moral solution to us destroying ourselves through overpopulation.

And if you believe He gave us our brains, you should consider that maybe thinking is exactly what He wanted us to do with them.


  1. DragonLord says

    Another useful point to remember is that all of the holy books, and rules that “came down from god” were written/spoken by men, and as such must be taken as having being inspired by whatever god (i.e. IMO smart man says look guys we should really stop eating pigs cos they keep making us sick and everyone ignores him. Smart man that “talks to god” says “God has said that he will kill you if you eat pigs”, and everyone ignores him until someone gets sick from eating pig, and then it’s how can we appease him so that he doesn’t kill us for breaking his rules)

    I guess that what I’m saying is that I agree that rules made from practicality are better than rules handed down by god x000 years ago. But equally we shouldn’t forget that those rules came from some very smart men x000 years ago using god as the stick, and so we shouldn’t just dismiss them.

    Oh and if you accept the old thing of a man can’t rape his wife, then rape was actually outlawed in many of the old religions – as adultery was a capital punishment, and they took it seriously. Which was also backed up by requiring proof of virginity on the wedding night.

    • Jennifer Kesler says

      I’m confused by your last paragraph. Which old religions outlawed marital rape? We’re still trying to get quite a few US states to recognize it as a crime (many consider it a misdemeanor, and then only if a weapon is used, and other such nonsense).

      • DragonLord says

        I was trying to specifically exclude marital rape from the paragraph in a way that made it clear that I didn’t agree with the idea that it can’t happen, but that also indicated that in the past they behaved as though it couldn’t.

      • says

        I think DL means that if you accept that marital rape is impossible, then old religions outlawed rape. Of course, outlawing rape might mean in this case that the rapist is forced to marry his victim (intentionally formulated this way, not the other way round), which, sadly, also still occurs today.

        • Jennifer Kesler says

          Okay, I think I got what DL means now, and here’s my response. No, they did not really have anti-rape laws: they had laws against damaging other people’s property so that its value in the marketplace got reduced, and they recognized women as property that lost its value once someone inserted his penis in her without paying first. I believe one way the rapist could make it up to the woman’s owner was to pay him off in camels. Rape then – until the 20th century, really – was something that men did to other men’s property. I don’t think laws against that qualify as anti-rape laws as we understand them now.

    • marie says

      I like your reasoning but what about feelings? If someone wrongs me – and they have – then yes i feel aggrieved and want justice which leads to a problem. If I do a wrong to someone, then i usually know that i have and feel even more horrible.

      Honesty is the best policy because lying, hurting others etc means we have to use defences to cover them up and hide them from ourselves even sometimes haunting us so we work harder and harder to keep up the lie to ourselves more than anyone else. Even white lies make us feel some guilt. Therefore, honesty is not only practical but we naturally feel good when we have adhered to that, our natural standard. If we can be honest with ourselves, we can be honest with the whole world

      • Jennifer Kesler says

        Morals are the intellectual equivalent of a conscience. You’re talking about empathy/conscience, which is something else entirely. It’s common for people to have empathy without even being exposed to the idea of religion. I was highlighting that it’s also possible to arrive through intellectual considerations at a code of conduct (morals) without the influence of religion.

  2. says

    (Yes, so I finally starting reading here, too, now you have to read me on two sites ;))

    I never thought about treating religious arguments in terms of privilege, even though many such arguments do rely on a privileged position in society. Eye-Opener!

    What gets me about people who say without the fear of God’s punishment, why would people not commit murder, is that by implication, these people would really, really like to murder and are only kept from doing so by their fear. Of course, most people are not held off from murdering by this fear, but strangely enough their “Menschenbild” (the way they think of humans) sees humans as savage and brutal beasts if let unchecked.

    I have a problem with religious morals because not only do they posit obedience as one of the greatest values – after all, you are supposed to obey God’s laws –, but because at heart, they’re deontological arguments, i.e. the goodness or badness of actions is isolated from their consequences. And I am, more or less, a consequentialist. That can pose a very difficult gap to bridge, especially with people who have never or rarely examined their ethical judgements.

    What’s sometimes interesting is that despite the deontological ethics they espouse, the discourse is often not framed that way; you can see dozens of right-wing religious people come up with (often silly) arguments why homosexual marriage (for example) is wrong, when in fact it is wrong because God says so.

    Anyway, religion is one reason why I’m pretty glad not to live in the US. German churches are used to having privileges, certainly – religious kindergartens, religious hospitals et al –, but non-religious are sizable enough that it’s not as crazy as over the pond. Still, I have had similar arguments to yours, as well, even with people I had considered pretty liberal.

    It’s probably, too, a case of being allowed to run unchecked most of the time. There was a pretty harsh emancipation movement in the 1700s, but in modern times it’s mostly the case that even the nonreligious let the religious say what they want in order to “keep the peace”. In fact, all the backlash against Richard Dawkins shows, to me, how privileged religion has been for quite some time, when this fairly stuffy and, if you read the book, not terribly polemic guy gets showered with so much anger and hate. Even slight criticism is so out of the blue as to be regarded as affront.

    • DragonLord says

      The problem as I see it is that the rules and regulations surrounding a religion are based on the social, physical, and “spiritual” conditions at the time said rules were created (as an example read the 10 commandments in the bible, they appear twice and are slightly different the second time). This is fine when things aren’t written down and so there isn’t a solid record of what “god” said. However once things are written down and the less intelligent people get to join in, the rules that were there to ensure the stability and continued growth of the tribe become dogmatic and rigid.

      And IMO the reason for the rules governing things that have no real consequences for the person committing the act is that there are very real consequences for the society they live in, whether (ok mainly because) it is eroding trust, stirring resentment, or fuelling feuds. This is why a famously mistranslated commandment (not one of the 10) exists “Thou shalt not suffer a poisoner to live”.

      The other reason for those rules and customs is to give those groups ways to recognise an allied group by the way that they act.


      Side note about homosexual marriage – According to the christian faith, the new testament takes precedence over the old testament, and IIRC in one of Pauls letters to some people, he says that the old rules are no longer applicable, as jesus gave them 2 new commandments that override everything else.

      • says

        But then Paul goes on to say in another letter that homosexuality is bad evil and wrong, so even though Jesus never said a word about it, it’s still in the New Testament.

  3. Jeff says

    “Is the good loved by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods?”

    I think the vast majority of people, when forced to actually think about it don’t really think morality comes from god, they just think it’s revealed by god.

  4. Scarlett says

    Jenn, STDs have been around since at least Henry VIII’s time; one of the theories into his death is that it was tertiary syphillus. And I’d hazzard a guess it and other STDs were around for a long time before him. It’s kind of scary how indiscriminantly people slept around back then – well, no worse than today, but at least today we have condoms and penicillin :p

    Other Patrick, religion isn’t big in Australia. I assume it stems from convict times when they saw mandatory church as part of their punishment. (Execpt, ironically, the Irish seditionists who were fanatical in their faith; I suspect it’s the same reason the Catholic church is far and away the most powerful one in Australia). And I woudln’t say that makes us any less faithful or moral than Americans, or any other country that practices its religion much more obviously.

  5. sbg says

    Some time back, I was visiting my sister and her family. I had gone out with a friend, when apparently one of my nieces was looking, specifically, for my advice. My sister was curious and asked why me. My niece’s reply, “Because Aunt SBG doesn’t have morals and this is a morals question.”

    Her reasoning: Aunt SBG doesn’t go to church, therefore has no morals and is bound for hell.

    I was, naturally, pretty horrified and the whole thing rather summed up why I stopped going to that particular institution.

    Her question, btw, was whether or not to fake illness to get out of work. She wanted me to tell her it was okay to lie to her employer. I wouldn’t have, for the record. I would have told her the decision was hers. Her conscience, her decision, her consequences.

  6. Patrick McGraw says

    Many religious systems of morals come down to an ethic of reciprocity (treat others how you want them to treat you), which is very practical, and there is no religious component needed for it.

    Gene Outka’s fantastic Agape: An Ethical Analysis looks at different interpretations of the Christian concept of agape (love, often translated into English as “charity”) through a practical lens: What would happen if everyone acted in the manner that this interpretation prescribes?

    One of the most disturbing views of religion-as-essential-for-morality that I’ve seen in America is found in some Evangelical sects, especially Pre-Millennial Dispensationalists (think the Left Behind books): That morality comes from having the Holy Spirit dwelling in you, and that Only “Real, True Christians” have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them. Everybody else thus not only doesn’t have a reason to be moral, they aren’t actually capable of being moral because they lack the Holy Spirit.

    (As a Quaker, I find this horrifying on a theological basis as well, but that’s off-topic.)

  7. Anne says

    Would someone please send this to Ben Stein? And my grandfather? The latter just sent me a forwarded message scribed by Ben Stein which blames all problems in America on atheists taking God out of schools and says things like “I don’t know where the idea came from, that America is an explicitly atheist country.” I think someone needs to remind Ben Stein of the constitution and the fact that the 10 commandments don’t magically make people more or less moral.


    I had to come read this again to soothe my anger. I think the FWD is old–i know I’ve gotten it a few times before, each time making me more and more isolated-feeling. My siblings and I are the only atheists in our very large family, most of whom have no idea, because they’d be disappointed and angry and I think they’d love me more if I were gay than an atheist…and they shove their God beliefs down our throats every time we interact. And now they think I’m less able to be moral. Thanks, fam.

    But a sincere thanks to What Privilege for this. :)

  8. Wolf says


    Recently, I read Jared Diamond’s latest book, “The World Before Yesterday,” (I think–I may have forgotten the title already) and he mentions that traditional societies had far more focus on soothing feelings than on making things “right” by punishing offenders. People had to live together–there was no moving away from each other or avoiding each other after a conflict. So your comment about feelings–those are strongly functional responses in a close-knit human tribal situation. Most morality is based on that; new additions to morality have come about as we’ve learned to be global, and consider even the most foreign people as having the same feelings and values as ourselves. (If “we” in fact manage to do that. Many don’t.)

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