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Do we need religion to keep people moral?

Before we go on to explore how humanists believe we might be able to build morality, it is worth exploring some of the criticisms of a humanist approach to ethics.

Without religion, people will cease to have any concern for right and wrong.

The argument goes thus: without a god to lay down laws and hand out rewards and punishments, we have no reason to behave morally. As Ivan Karamazov states in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, ‘If god does not exist, then everything is permitted’. Without religious belief, we are free to do whatever we want. The consequences of a weakening religious influence on society will therefore be catastrophic. Even if there is no god, it might still be better that people believe in one.

‘If god did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.’

Voltaire, Letter to the author of the Book of the Three Impostors

Firstly, this claim is an empirical claim. That means it is a claim that can be tested. We can look at the evidence to judge whether it is true.

One might begin by saying that although some non-religious people may choose to behave badly, clearly not all do. Secondly, it is also clear that religious belief does not always succeed in motivating people to do the right thing. Statistical research might reveal more about the relationship between, say, the religiosity of a nation and the level of crime, and it does not appear to be the case that the two are correlated. However, even if the evidence showed that as a society tends to become less religious, it does see an increase in immoral behaviour, this would not necessarily mean that the two events were linked. There is no guarantee that the first change was the cause of the second.

Some claim that the only reason we have not seen a decline into moral chaos is due to the ‘moral capital’ that centuries of religion have given us: we still behave decently towards each other thanks only to the influence religion has had on our social norms. This ‘moral capital’ will, however, one day run out. Again, looking at evidence from more and less religious countries around the globe and measuring the data over time can help us to assess whether there is any truth to this claim.

Even if there were some truth to the claim, there are perhaps reasons we may still not live in fear of a decline of the influence of religion over people’s lives. We can establish our own rules and laws. Even without divine reward or punishment, we may be punished or rewarded by our family, our friends, our colleagues, or the state. These can still provide a strong motivating force on people’s behaviour.

It is also worth considering that the fact that something does have an influence on our behaviour does not necessarily provide a conclusive justification for promoting it. Brainwashing and torture might also motivate people to be good, but few would argue that we should encourage their use.

Finally, even if effective, is behaviour motivated by rewards and punishments praiseworthy? The same can be asked of actions carried out in accordance with unbreakable commandments or rules. Are they truly moral motivations? One could argue that instead of behaving morally, the person motivated by commandments is merely servile. He or she is simply doing what he or she has been told. While the person motivated by rewards and punishments, one might claim, is merely selfish.

Alternative moral motivation

For Richard Norman the answer to the problem of moral motivation lies perhaps not in religious belief, but in the power of stories.

‘If people are not sufficiently motivated by good moral reasons, then the only way to fill that motivational gap is for them to become more deeply aware of the reasons themselves. In the case of other-regarding values such as compassion, justice or honesty, that means becoming more aware of what it is like to be the victim of cruelty or injustice, what it is like to be cheated or betrayed, exploited or enslaved. This greater awareness is generated most powerfully by stories – accounts, whether historical or fictional, of particular individuals, which bring to life the felt experience of suffering and the experience of having that suffering met by good actions.’

Richard Norman, Religion and Atheism: Beyond the Divide

Of course, some such stories may have a religious origin, but they may also be any of the many non-religious stories from our wider shared culture.

Question: Do you think the world would be a more or less moral place without religion? If religious belief did make people more moral, would that be a reason to promote it even if it is not true?

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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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