Whence morality? Does God give us our sense of good and bad, or did it come from somewhere else?

by Pitt Griffin on October 23, 2012 · 0 comments

in Religion


Morality is debated by priests and philosophers  To the religious it is obvious that it is a God-given gift and codified in the great texts – such as the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran. But that presumes that in the absence of religion there can be no morality; that before man discovered God, there was no idea of ethical conduct.

It may be an agreeable presumption, but it is a bad one. Not only did morality precede religion, it isn’t even a human invention.You can see the seeds of moral conduct in chimpanzees and even elephants. From bacteria through insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles to birds and most mammals, there is no reason to believe that life is anything but instinct. But some mammals came to live in “families” a far more complex social structure than a herd. A herd is as instinctual as a flock of birds, but families developed rules, a modus vivendi, a moral code.

Further evidence that morality predates the Divine is illustrated by the variety of religious practices, but the consistency of moral codes. Some believers are monotheists, some polytheists, some even pantheists. Some believe in predestination, others free well. Some believe that the road to heaven is through faith, others that it is through deeds. But morality has far less variety. Every culture cleaves to some form of the “golden rule”; murder and theft are universally condemned. (I will grant you that the moral code dealing with women does have variety – but all that proves is that sex messes things up)

A better explanation than the divine genesis of morality, is that it conferred an evolutionary advantage to early man. Morality provided the glue that held family, clan and tribe together, it allowed for the group to behave cooperatively which, in turn, benefited all the members of the group.

With the rise of man morality became more complex. The concept of property and propriety emerged. Society’s rules took three forms. First, civil law, which meted out temporal punishments; second, moral codes, which enumerated divine retributions; and third, manners, which were largely enforced by shame. And there is no better way to cement these rules in place and give authority to the king and the priest than cast these rules as the instructions of a – preferably wrathful – God.

In early societies civil law and moral code were often indistinguishable. This dual strand of civil and religious law predominated in Europe until the Age of Enlightenment – when social philosophers promoted reason over superstition – and laws became rooted in civil good rather than religious theory. In America, it was this idea of civil law that inspired the Constitution – hence the First Amendment, with its ban on the establishment of a state religion.

Let’s do a thought experiment. If you are religious ask yourself a simple question – do you need God to do the right thing? If you answered no, then you agree that morality comes from somewhere other than God. Ask yourself another question – do you believe that atheists are all immoral? Again if you answered no, then you have to admit that there is a moral code that is not divinely inspired.

Let’s look at the reality of religion and behavior in the US. If morality is God-given, it would be reasonable to assume that the more religious a state, the more moral and less criminal it would be. But the statistics do not bear it out, the relatively religion-free Northeast has lower rates of crime and divorce than the more religiously inclined South.

The scandals of the Roman Catholic church are well known. The history of Evangelicalism is littered with hypocrisy. Morality is revealed in action not words. And I cannot uncover any evidence that – despite the rhetoric – religious folk behave any more morally than atheists.

Religion has been a force for good, it provides comfort for many, and plenty of good people have entered the ministry. But it has also led to the Crusades and Islamofascism, the Inquisition and witch-hunts. It has been used to justify slavery and the suppression of women. Religion has been both at peace with science and its fiercest opponent.

Religion is like ever other massive human endeavor – on the one hand majestic and magnificent, on the other petty and flawed. What it is not – is the source of morality.

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