Morality without Religion?

I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in a single session of a class held at our congregation (The Free Congregation of Sauk County) where this question was asked by Nick Schweitzer, cheapest the class’ facilitator:

18. When someone asks you how an atheist can be moral, prescription what do you think the underlying question is? (E.g., is he/she asking how you can know what morality is if you don’t believe in God’s rules, or how people can be trusted to behave decently if they’re not afraid of damnation, or how people can be motivated to behave decently if they don’t believe in an eternal reward, etc.?)

What is your answer to the question?

Below is my answer as far as I can articulate in a short time (a partial day’s worth of work). It is bit disjointed and not as well research or worded as my other writings, but this is all I could manage for now:

The Real Question

So, they ask you “How can an Atheist be moral?”. What do you think the underlying question is?  Well, the underlying question they are asking from their limited context really is:

“How can a person who does not believe in:

  • the authority of the Christian God as the sole source of good, and ethics, and morality
  • their interpretation of their version of their sacred text
  • heaven and hell (and, by extension, damnation and salvation)

..still  have a moral system, especially when, in their world view, where the source of morality and good emanates from a reward and punishment system that is a visceral part of their world-view and  moral system, and this “atheist” has the temerity to reject it?”

Unfortunately, it is natural for someone with this limited world-view to ask such a question, and it is seriously asked by those of  conservative denominations, for obvious reasons. Hopefully, some will find my thoughts and considerations below interesting or enlightening.

Evaluating Conservative Psychology and Religion

Now, there are a lot of problems with this question especially when a lot of the impetus for the question is founded in the limited conservative religious world view, and there is a lot to consider and the take into account when trying to understand it. Keep in mind, that all of this below is just my opinion, and it is based on only that which I know, which is not everything, unfortunately. =(

Conservative Psychology

First we will want to take a look at the psychology that underlies conservatives that will help us understand the impetus and phrasing of the question from their mindset. For that we will travel to Moral Psychology land as well as visit Negativity Bias and Other Psychological Factor‘s land:

Moral Psychology

To understand where this question comes from and what they are really asking we really need to delve, at least a little bit, into moral psychology, which can be quite enlightening in subjects such as this. Jonathan Haidt, a famous moral psychologist, and those in his field have distilled the basic moral components that we all have as the basis for morality, and this is even shown in other animals to some extent, as the following:

  • Harm/Care
  • Fairness/Reciprocity
  • In group Loyalty (Tribalism)
  • Authority/Respect
  • Purity/Sanctity

Liberals score high on:

  • Harm/Care
  • Fairness and Reciprocity

Conservatives score high on the other three:

  • In group Loyalty (Tribalism)
  • Authority/Respect
  • Purity/Sanctity

Now, this can already show why and how conservatives see things and approach morality differently than liberals, at least according to moral psychology. Essentially, conservatives respond to authority (religion and authority figures), tribalism (groups like themselves), Purity/Sanctity (religion) regardless of how it affects others, whereas liberals respond to fairness and taking care of others regardless of the affect on the established institutions. This alone is pretty telling especially when you compare this to liberal and conservative religious and political rhetoric and ideologies.

If we apply the above moral psychology principles to our “question” it may look like this:

“You are not apart of our group, and you do not respect the authority of our group and its institutions and beliefs, then how can you be a good person, since we obviously are good?”

Negativity Bias and Other Conservative Psychological Factors

A recent study has come out that shows that conservatives have a “negativity bias,” meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments, even to the point of seeking it out or “seeing” threats in places and people, especially when differ from themselves.

Other studies suggest that conservatives are characterized by traits such as a need for certainty and an intolerance of ambiguity, of which conservative organizations are more than happy to help with. They provide a clear and clean “this is right and this is wrong, and these are our enemies”.

With this being said, this research sort of shows a conservative person as being prone to seeing threats from that which is different than themselves and their beliefs, and even likes to hear those that espouse that there are threats even if there aren’t any, and is bound to see that which is different as a potential “threat”, especially since they do not believe the same, which in some ways feeds into conservative talk radio, and racism, and other forms of rallying against those who are not like themselves regardless of the consequences to those who are different than them.

Conservative Religion as it Caters to Conservative Psychology

So if we combine the psychological factors discussed above into one thing we get a person who:

  • Prefers their group (tribalism)
  • Respects authority, especially within their group
  • Seeks out and prefers to hear those say what the threats are against them, especially when it includes those who are different than them (not a part of their tribal group)
  • Requires certainty and has an intolerance toward ambiguity

Once we have this picture and we add in the influence of, or as a byproduct, resulting in the creation of conservative religion things come into focus very clearly. Conservative religion provides a clear membership identification and is more than happy to tell you who is good and who is bad which caters to adding certainty and removing intolerance to ambiguity, as well as providing authority, a tribal group, and an authority that they can respect. A massive confluence of all of the things that conservative psychology enjoys and thrives under.

Another benefit of conservative religion is that they will have no one to hold them accountable for their interpretation of their sacred texts and their resultant actions when they can say that their interpretation of their religious scripture says they are correct. When they all get together and say ‘yes’ we believe this (even though they may be wrong), their divine entity will not come down and  slap them silly for being stoopid in the head. They get the benefit of defining their version of their religion and their version of their divine entity that caters to their psychological needs and no one can say, in any certainty, that they are right or wrong, even thought they are obviously from a moral and ethical standpoint. It becomes an battle of “our interpretation” vs “your interpretation” which would never sway a conservative since they have a strong respect for their tribal authority (their own) no matter what the consequence to others is. They feel a they have the righteous belief and will not brook any question of the truth of their interpretation or actions since it will bring about dissonance and ambiguity, and jeopardize their belief in their authority figure.

A part of the conservative religious world view is inherently laden with fear, temptation, damnation and sin, original sin, and demons all of which cater to their negativity bias, and, of course, which can also have adverse psychological affects on those who partake of this way of thinking for a long period of time resulting in a life filled with fear, anxiety, and feelings of less-worth. The resultant negative and fearful view towards the world, humanity, and, unfortunately, themselves too inherent in the conservative religious world view is a natural part of their view when around all corners is temptation and demons, fear and anxiety are a natural thing to have.  Now, the convenient part of this is that they invest their trust in the authority of ‘their church’ which propagates these negative emotions and beliefs and it, therefore, becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. When the church says people are bad and inherently sinful and then they seek the church for guidance due to their bias towards their own tribal authority, and their negativity bias which results their own self-inflicted reduction in self-worth, then all good becomes because of their tribe membership and all bad comes from outside of the tribe, since that is what is bad because it is different. To believe otherwise is to invite dissonance and ambiguity which is not allowed in their minds, or by their authoritarian structures. Conservative psychology, by extension, has a self-vested interest in maintaining tribal exceptionalism and the convenience of inerrant scriptural interpretation of their sacred text, since it all feeds into creating certainty (even thought it may not be correct) which provides the benefit of removing ambiguity and promoting their belief in their tribe and its authority, without which will come uncertainty and dissonance.

Revisiting the “Real Question”

From above we said the following:

“How can a person who does not believe in:

  •  the authority of the Christian God as the sole source of good, and ethics, and morality
  • their interpretation of their version of their sacred text
  • heaven and hell (and, by extension, damnation and salvation)

..still  have a moral system, especially when, in their world view, where the source of morality and good emanates from a reward and punishment system that is a visceral part of their world-view and  moral system, and this “atheist” has the temerity to reject it?”

… and that a summary of conservative psychology is:

  • Prefers their group (tribalism)
  • Respects authority, especially within their group
  • Seeks out and prefers to hear those say what the threats are against them, especially when it includes those who are different than them (not a part of their tribal group)
  • do not like certainty and an intolerance of ambiguity

Let us apply the conservative psychological factors to the question so we can understand where they are coming from. This questions calls into question the non-believer’s nontribal membership, caters to their negativity bias and their bias towards authority. Their authority structure has already branded this person as bad and therefore uncertainty has been removed as well, and therefore the unbeliever is bad, so this question really is formed and is reinforced by their psychological world view as described above.

The Liberal Answer

In some ways I have covered a lot of my answer in my previous blog posts from a few years ago, but I will reform my ideas briefly here within context of this question. Of course, most of what I have to say will not convince a conservative since it does not key on their conservative psychological factors and keys on factors outside of their world view, a lot of which challenges their belief structures which is much of why they deny science since it is a considerable threat to what their authoritarian structure teaches, and also imposes external authority structures which invites dissonance and ambiguity, which they do not like.

Limiting one’s perception of the world and decision making to that which their religious tribe says is OK results in a severely limited world view, especially if they are willing to eschew other other authority structures which conflict with their primary and self-assured source of eternal authority. This view lacks an open and informed context of the world (eschewing science, history, empathy and sympathy), especially when their religious world view is limited to a 2000 year old text (at least as far as the New testament is concerned, if we are being generous, or over 5000 years old text if we take into account the Old Testament) that was founded in a culture, history, and context of which we do not share, especially when homosapien is at least 100,000 thousand years old, therefore the most powerful religious denomination in the west has only been around for 5% of human history. An incredible amount has changed in our society due to science and social sciences in the last 100 years, let alone the last 1000 years, and unfortunately conservative religion does not move at the speed of social or scientific progress. The thought of a changing conservative religion is abhorrent to conservatives for many reasons as you could see from up above, although they eventually do change when they are not able to fight against it anymore, or to do so would threaten their existence. This lack of change is due to a threat to the perceived stable and eternal authorith of their belifs which they do not like so they fight it tooth and nail to maintain their beliefs and authority regardless of who is hurt in the process. Sure there is wisdom to be had in their sacred texts, but it must be measured with contemporary social and scientific advances and not be anchored in an ancient world that no longer exists, especially when the beliefs result in harms to other people, the environement, or other creatures.

Singular Mythological or Religious Authority or Something Else?

Let us take a look at the fact that there are over 5000 religions that humanity has utilized over the its short lifespan, and most have many things in common – their laws and ideals at their base teach us good from bad, which is a powerful underpinning found in every religion and society through the history of humanity’s short existence . This alone is a powerful concept which points to something even larger going on that is not limited to one any one religion. A keen example of this is the Golden Rule. The following of the existence of the Golden Rule in many religions is overkill, but it will really help to strongly reinforce this idea that no one religion has corners the market of moral truths:

Bahá’í Faith:

  • “Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee, and say not that which thou doest not.” “Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself.” Baha’u’llah
  • “And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbour that which thou choosest for thyself.” Epistle to the Son of the Wolf. 1


  • “This is the sum of Dharma [duty]: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you”. Mahabharata, 5:1517 “


  • “…a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?” Samyutta NIkaya v. 353
  • “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” Udana-Varga 5:18


  • “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12, King James Version.
  • “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” Luke 6:31, King James Version.
  • “…and don’t do what you hate…”, Gospel of Thomas 6. The Gospel of Thomas is one of about 40 gospels that circulated among the early Christian movement, but which never made it into the Christian Scriptures (New Testament).


  • “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you” Analects 15:23
  • “Tse-kung asked, ‘Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?’ Confucius replied, ‘It is the word ‘shu’ — reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.'” Doctrine of the Mean 13.3
  • “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.” Mencius VII.A.4

Ancient Egyptian:

  • “Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do.” The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, 109 – 110 Translated by R.B. Parkinson. The original dates to circa 1800 BCE and may be the earliest version of the Epic of Reciprocity ever written. 2


  • This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you. Mahabharata 5:1517


  • “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” Number 13 of Imam “Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths.” 3


  • “Therefore, neither does he [a sage] cause violence to others nor does he make others do so.” Acarangasutra 5.101-2.
  • “In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self.” Lord Mahavira, 24th Tirthankara
  • “A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated. “Sutrakritanga 1.11.33


  • “…thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”, Leviticus 19:18
  • “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary.” Talmud, Shabbat 31a.
  • “And what you hate, do not do to any one.” Tobit 4:15 4


  • ““Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien
  • “To those who are good to me, I am good; to those who are not good to me, I am also good. Thus all get to be good.”


  • “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another        whatsoever is not good for itself.” Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5
  • “Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others.” Shayast-na-Shayast 13:29 5

Perhaps you may might state “Well, God has existed before all time and that is where humans get good and evil and motality, so what you are saying is not true. How ’bout them apples, Mr Smartypants? “.

Well, that could easily be claimed by every single religion ever created, therefore such answers are NOT valid. This becomes especially poignant since almost all religions have a creation mythology, and Christianity is no different. You will also find that the mythological stories in the Christian narrative have parallels in the other religions that have come before it and from which its stories draw. The Christian narrative is merely the byproduct of the religions that have come before it as pulled together by the cultural, religious, and political needs and context of the people who created it, as all religion that have ever existed have. Christianity is, in no way, more special than any other religion that has ever existed. It is merely just one of the many religious views that humanity will have throughout its existence, hopefully long existence, assuming our planet does not destroy us first for our hubris.  =)

Evolutionary and Moral Pscychology as Human’s Source For Morality

Naturally evolutionary psychology and moral psychology tends to show us that morality is an integral part of who we are as humans, independent of any particular religion, since we evolved as social creatures as an evolutionary survival adaptation. Those who work together tend to survive longer, but not only that, those who treat others well, tend to survive longer since it breeds greater tribal loyalty, cooperation, and cohesion. Morality is not a thing powered by the gods, it is powered by our evolutionary instincts for survival, without which humans would never have survived long enough to have a need to create its mulitifarious religions, especially in its contemporary forms . I have written that the fundamental essence of all religions is humanism draped in cultural, social, political, and theological trappings of their time. It is a means of passing on moral and human values in a form that is more acceptable to their specific historical and cultural audience. I also venture to say that religions will only survive in the far future if they embrace a humanism as its core, especially as humanity becomes more and more advanced and liberal by extension. Erasmus of Rotterdam was a Catholic priest from the 1500’s who saw a great need within the church and promoted Christian Humanism, and is the contemporary father of this movement.

I may even venture to say that it is easier for liberals to live moral lives without religion since the things that trigger them as identified by moral psychology:

  • Harm/Care
  • Fairness and Reciprocity

… inherently bring about higher chances of devloping a morally good person or society, whereas it may be more difficult for conservatives to do so since they have a strong negativity bias, dislike for ambiguity, and repond to authoritarian structures regardless of how it affects others.

Read More

My Related Personal Blog Posts

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply