Is religion the source of morality?

Martin Luther KingMany people believe the activities of some of the great fighters for freedom and justice are evidence that religion is moral. Some even argue that these show one cannot be moral without religion.

People like Dr Martin Luther King and Bishop Tutu have certainly been inspiring leaders in their struggles for freedom and against racism in the USA (King) and South Africa (Tutu). Both are recognised as great moral leaders of their time. Both are also recognised as religious leaders. And, I agree, we can find many other religious believers who are positive moral examples.

But do we have to conclude from this that religious belief is a precondition for morality? No, of course not! Dr King and Bishop Tutu were involved in great moral struggles, but the struggle was not against atheism. In fact, they were allied with many atheists in these struggles.

Bishop Tutu

No, Dr King and Bishop Tutu were struggling against other people of religious belief, predominantly Christians! That is why they so often resorted to religious rhetoric – their racist opponents were religious

It has been the same with other great moral struggles. Religious leaders did play an important role (together with secular leaders) in the struggle against slavery. But let’s not forget that religion was also used to justify slavery.

It’s not surprising that religion should be centrally involved in such moral issues. After all religion developed as an important mechanism for codifying moral values, ethics and legality in the social evolution of humanity. So religious teachings became an important way justifying different moral positions, both good and bad.

It’s only natural, therefore that today religious believers will participate in moral debates (on both sides). Religious teachings are used to justify the different positions in most debates. Surely this shows that religion is not a source of humanity’s morals and ethics.

The fact is that religion gets its morals and ethics from mankind, not the other way around. There is no justification for religion to claim any special role in, or knowledge about, morality.

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5 responses to “Is religion the source of morality?

  1. It’s a mistake to construe the religious claim along the lines of “people get morality from religion.” That’s not the claim. The claim is that morality is evidence for some sort of religious truth (i.e. the so-called “moral argument” for theism). That’s a different one altogether.


  2. “It’s a mistake to construe the religious claim along the lines of “people get morality from religion.” That’s not the claim.”
    Well, actually, that is the claim made by many opponents of atheism.
    “The claim is that morality is evidence for some sort of religious truth.” I have come across this as a theological argument. From what I’ve seen its very unconvincing – “because humanity is moral there must be a god.” Correct me if I am wrong.

    However, the interesting question is not “is there a god?” but why are we moral? I think there is a lot of good evidence coming out of evolutionary psychology, etc., to help us answer that question now.


  3. Well, the argument that (I think) this thread alludes to isn’t so much about how we got moral, but rather about whether our moral beliefs could actually be true. We can certainly hold those beliefs and act on them if all positive theological claims are false, but where it gets interesting is when we start asking if we could be correct in those moral outlooks if all positive theological claims are correct. It’s not just religious believers who answer in the negative.


  4. But I think the interesting question is how we have, and do, develop our morality and ethics. This area is where good scientific research can, and does, produce answers. I don’t think theology has anything to offer here as it doesn’t use reality as its starting point.

    Not starting with reality can produce convoluted argument, but no much enlightenment. It seems to me that asking if moral beliefs are true is a bit like asking when you are going to stop beating your wife – it presupposes a situation. Why should we ask “is the colour yellow true?”; “is left-handedness true?”; “is honesty true?” or “is incest true?” Surely it’s more fruitful to ask “why we have incest taboos?” “how these developed?” “do other societies have them?” “do other animals have them?” Theology has nothing to offer to these questions. But of course, one’s religious beliefs neither qualify or disqualify one from making these investigations.


  5. “It’s a mistake to construe the religious claim along the lines of “people get morality from religion.” That’s not the claim.”
    If it isn’t, why do so many self-appointed ‘religious leaders’ claim that “without religion there can be no morality” and that, therefore, all atheists are immoral?


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