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Do we need religion for morality to exist?

Now let us take a look at a second challenge.

We need religion for there to even be morality.

The argument goes that without some external standard of right and wrong, morality becomes arbitrary and relative: it becomes nothing more than a matter of personal taste. What is ‘wrong’ for me might be ‘right’ for you and there is simply no way of arguing about it. The proponents of this claim state that we therefore need something outside us to set the standard of morality, to instruct us what is objectively right and wrong. For some of those who believe in a deity, that standard is god. This is known as Divine Command Theory.

The response to this challenge dates back to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. He asked whether…

  1. Certain acts are therefore morally good because god tells us they are good,

    or…

  2. God tells us certain acts are good because he knows that they are good.

One of these two options must be the case, and yet either option appears to be fatal for the Divine Command Theory.

If (1) is true, that things are good because god says that they are good, then morality would still appear to be arbitrary. If god had commanded something different, such as murdering the innocent, then murdering the innocent would be good. This does not appear satisfactory. There is surely something wrong about murdering the innocent, regardless of whether god says we should do so or not.

If (2) is true, that god commands certain things because they are good, then we appear to have accepted that there are standards or right and wrong which are independent of god’s will. God is just following these standards when he commands us what to do. We therefore have an independent moral yardstick that means morality can exist without the need for a god.

In response to option (1) the defender of Divine Command Theory might respond that god would never command us to act in a way that was not good. However, that again appears to imply an independent standard of goodness. Of course, taking the Judeo-Christian god as an example, one can find many examples in scripture of god behaving in a way we would today consider morally reprehensible.

A final defence is to say that god does not just command what is good and what is not, but simply ‘is good’. God is the moral yardstick himself. If one is here defining ‘god’ as ‘the good’, as some objective moral standard, then, if we accept there is such a standard, we are obliged to admit this ‘god’ exists. However, there is little here to persuade the atheist that this ‘god’ is anything other than an alternative word for what he or she might simply call ‘good’ (and certainly little to persuade them that this ‘god’ has any of the other features often attributed to it by religious believers).

None of the above solves the puzzle about what, if anything, does set the standard of morality. However, for many, it demonstrates that the Divine Command Theory does not provide us with a solution to the puzzle.

Is religion the foundation of our morals, or are our morals the basis of religion?

‘Human decency is not derived from religion, it precedes it.’

Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great

Why do so many people believe religion is necessary for morality? Perhaps because the two have been so long intertwined in our education system. A humanist view instead suggests that our moral sensibilities came first. We have seen that our moral capacities are rooted deep in our nature as human beings and evolved as we learned to live together in groups. Religion is not the foundation of our morals. Instead, morality precedes religion. Religion (partly) represents our moral inclinations rather than informs them.

Religion is increasingly interpreted according to our moral standards (although it can often take time to catch up with the prevailing moral sentiment). Many religious people today simply ignore any morally dubious lessons from scripture. Problematic passages about punishment, discrimination, sacrifice, and genocide are often left to one side. Rather than letting scripture govern their lives, many religious believers go with their gut feeling, follow the generally accepted morality of their time, or, like humanists, use their ability to reason and learn from experience to help them decide which moral principles are worthwhile. They will then select from scripture according to their moral needs. An evolving morality is then able to tame some of the historical excesses of religion.

Question: Which came first: religion or morality?

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK

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