Imagine No Religion: Sustaining Morality Without God

What if God disappeared? Would a world without religion be the peaceful brotherhood of man of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” or would it be a nihilistic nightmare?

Last month, RD published a thought-provoking piece by Frank Schaeffer, in which he argued that morality cannot exist outside a transcendent frame of reference. Secular ethicists, Schaeffer suggested, either have to rely on religious moral and aesthetic traditions or face moral chaos where human life is no longer held sacred and ethics become arbitrary. From this perspective, religion provides a kind of “sacred canopy,” to borrow a metaphor from the sociologist Peter Berger, that protects society from moral anomy and imbues social interactions with a sense of ultimate significance.

Is Schaeffer correct that a rejection of religion inevitably leads to a collapse of ethics, or can morality thrive in a society without God?

The Evolutionary Roots of Morality

The answer to this question depends largely on one’s assumptions about the origins of morality: Does morality come from a divine source above, or is it constructed by individuals and societies from below? If moral traditions originate from a divinely-inspired source, as Schaeffer believes they do, then rejecting God also means undermining the very foundation of ethics. “Morality from above” cannot survive in the absence of a divine lawgiver who devises moral laws, communicates them to humanity, and guarantees retribution. If, on other hand, moral traditions are socially constructed in a long process of cultural evolution (the prevalent view in social science), God becomes a reflection of moral thinking rather than its source, and morality can continue to evolve in the absence of a divine lawgiver, just as it had done all along. The latter alternative seems more likely.

From an evolutionary perspective, morality runs deep in our genes. Homo sapiens, like other social animals, has developed traits that restrict selfish behavior and encourage cooperation for the benefit of the group. A moral sense has helped humans and their ancestors to thrive and reproduce in a hostile and scarce environment: to hunt more effectively, to provide protection against predators, to care for the offspring, etc. As a result, most humans by their very nature experience a sense of empathy and an altruistic urge to cooperate, reciprocate, and help the other.

These are the building blocks of morality that allow some form of moral consensus to emerge. Such a consensus would not necessarily resemble a Judeo-Christian ethic or any other moral system familiar to us, but it would nevertheless represent some rudimentary form of a moral order.

If evolutionary psychologists are correct, morality did not emerge in response to divine revelation or even philosophical reflection. Instead, it emerged to meet the practical needs of individuals and societies. Humans are moral animals who naturally construct ethical systems without regard for their ultimate significance. From humble beginnings, these systems develop into elaborate moral traditions that often become taken for granted, assume sacred status, and appear to exist independently of their original creators.

Schaeffer accepts the evolutionary account of the origins of morality. “I’m guessing that morality predates religion,” he writes. “We evolved ideas that make life easier and less chaotic.” Why, then, is it so difficult to imagine a morality without God?

Modern Societies Without God

What would the world look like if morality required religion? One would expect the least religious nations to be home to injustice, hopelessness, and disorder. But sociological evidence points in the opposite direction. When Gallup compared the world’s most devout nations to the most irreverent ones, countries with a less religious population fared markedly better. The list of the ten least religious nations included some of the most affluent, egalitarian, peaceful and happy countries—such as Denmark, France, Hong Kong, Japan, Norway and Sweden. By contrast, the most religious countries were poorer, largely agrarian societies that lacked many of the political freedoms and economic benefits of their more secular counterparts.

When the sociologist Phil Zuckerman conducted a study of Denmark and Sweden, two of the most secular nations on Earth, he found that the lack of religious belief did not prevent them from abiding by laws, caring for their young and old, and protecting the environment. In Society without God, Zuckerman concludes, “The existence of this relatively irreligious society suggests that religious faith—while admittedly widespread—is not natural or innate to the human condition. Nor is religion a necessary ingredient for a healthy, peaceful, prosperous, and (have I already said?) deeply good society.”

The point is not that religion necessarily impedes social progress (although fundamentalist forms of religion certainly do not help). Rather, what seems to happen is that when a society reaches a certain level of development, the role of belief typically begins to wane. Societies with high levels of human development and economic equality just don’t seem to need God.

But what about the godless Communist regimes? Don’t they prove the danger of rejecting the religious foundation for ethics? There is no question that the Soviet leaders, for instance, committed unspeakable atrocities; many of them in the name of atheism. The difference between successful secular nations and the Communist states, however, lies not in their rejection of religion, but in how they approach freedom of conscience and religious liberty. Whenever the state tries to enforce ideological or religious conformity, such policies will always result in tragedy. This was the case in Stalinist Soviet Union and Maoist China, but the same was true of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Puritan Massachusetts, Catholic Spain, or Christian Rome.

In reality, despite all the tragedies that occurred in the Soviet Union, it was a deeply moralistic society where each individual was expected to contribute to the common good and endure sacrifices for the benefit of future generations. The arts, the media, the education system, and the youth leagues all served to communicate a clear moral message that promoted altruism, social responsibility, and a strong work ethic.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, religion thrived; but so did organized crime, corruption, ethno-political conflict, poverty, homelessness, disease, substance abuse, prostitution, pornography, and human trafficking. The religious revival in post-Soviet Russia has not fostered public morality. If anything, it has contributed to ethnic and religious tension both in Russia and in other former Soviet republics.

The Advantages of a Secular Ethic

One of the arguments often used by opponents of secularism is that, having lost much of their religious belief, Western secular societies still enjoy the benefits of their Christian past. Once these societies move further away from the Judeo-Christian ethic, the argument goes, they will undermine their well-being because secularism cannot offer an adequate alternative to Christianity.

To illustrate the apparent danger of a secular morality, Schaeffer discusses the thought of the controversial Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer. Schaeffer omits Singer’s pioneering work on animal liberation, global poverty, and refugee resettlement, focusing instead on the most troubling of Singer’s ideas: his approach to the rights of severely disabled infants. (What if one were to single out St. Augustine’s intolerant writings against the Donatists or Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic treatise, On the Jews and their Lies, as indicative of the Christian ethic?)

“He has said that some defective children should be destroyed,” Schaeffer asserts, comparing Singer’s views to those of the Nazis. Many people, including many nonbelievers, will object to Singer’s approach, but is it fair to compare it to the atrocities committed by the Third Reich? In fact, Singer never advocated the destruction of disabled infants; he did, however, argue that taking the life of a newborn is not equal to killing a rational, autonomous, and self-conscious human being, and that the interests of parents should be taken into consideration in this tragic circumstance. In Practical Ethics, Singer emphasizes: “The position taken here does not imply that it would be better that no people born with severe disabilities should survive; it implies only that the parents of such infants should be able to make this decision.”

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Singer’s utilitarian ethics, Singer represents just one of many nonreligious alternatives. Secular ethics include a wide spectrum of approaches that range from Nietzsche to Rawls, from ethical egoism to secular humanism. What unites all of them, however, is that they base moral thinking on reason, logic, and moral intuition rather than on religious dogma.

The one advantage of religiously-based morality—the fact that it claims to promote “absolute” or “objective” values—is also its greatest weakness. For one, religious ethics require belief in certain theological doctrines or sacred texts, limiting moral discourse to one religious tradition and excluding the majority of humanity. In an increasingly pluralistic and globalized society, religiously-based ethics cannot produce any sort of moral consensus, and instead only leads to a dangerous clash of inflexible, theologically-based “absolutes.” Secular ethics, on the other hand, are accessible to all individuals, regardless of one’s religion or lack of belief, allowing for a dynamic cultural exchange and holding out hope that a consensus can be reached through continuous dialogue and debate.

But a deeper problem is that the notion of religiously-based “objective values” is intellectually untenable. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the history of religions will quickly recognize that religious morality evolves along with culture, constantly redefining what once seemed absolute. Much of what appeared moral to ancient Israelites or Christian Church Fathers is unacceptable to modern Christians and Jews. It is very difficult for a modern person to read accounts of divinely-sanctioned genocidal warfare in the Hebrew Bible or Tertullian’s chauvinistic perspective on women and not take offense. This means that whether or not objective values exist, religion is not a reliable way to determine what they are. Isn’t it intellectually honest to admit that we are always struggling toward the truth rather than claim that we have already reached that knowledge?

Our rapidly changing world calls for a flexible, forward-looking ethic that allows for pluralism and moral progress. Religion can play a role in the future evolution of morality, but only if it gives up the pretension of holding the monopoly on truth. Responding to a question about the sources of his inspiration, the Dalai Lama described “human values” that unite us: “I call these secular ethics, secular beliefs. There’s no relationship with any particular religion. Even without religion, even as nonbelievers, we have the capacity to promote these things.”

If only other religious leaders would follow his example.