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What is the relationship between religion and morality?

Updated on March 6, 2015
Thomas Swan profile image

Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen's University Belfast. He specializes in the cognitive science of religion.

All major religions claim we are immoral creatures without the instruction of gods.
All major religions claim we are immoral creatures without the instruction of gods. | Source

The ubiquity of religious morals

Many people regard morality as evidence for supernatural intervention in human development. In every major religion, a divine influence is proposed as inspiration for texts that dictate our moral principles. Whether it is the Ten Commandments, the Five Pillars of Islam, the Eight Fold Path, or the Hindu Purusarthas, each decree guarantees a pleasant afterlife because each is endorsed by the god(s).

Adherents of these faiths are unwilling or unable to theorize how right and wrong could have arisen without divine prescription. Nevertheless, it is of paramount importance that we understand the origins of our moral leanings. The justice system is derived from our conclusions on morality, and the actions of those who deviate from moral norms can only be understood once the root of our acceptable behavior is delineated. The dismissive quality of religious thought has prevented this understanding by attributing our good nature to supernatural beings.

This article will investigate why morality is embedded within religious thought and practice, and why the evolution of morality is incomplete without our cognitive predilection for gods. We begin with the main reasons for the close relationship between religion and morality.

Gods and morality share a place in the unknown.
Gods and morality share a place in the unknown. | Source

1. Conceptual similarity between morals and deities

The gods that determine our fate beyond death are typically mystical, benign entities with a penchant for influencing the will of humankind. At the dawn of civilization, morality must have appeared in a similar light; a formless force for how to live in peace. In the present, children lack the wisdom to learn morals other than through instruction, leading to a level of reverence for these mystical and highly beneficial laws.

The equally benevolent yet intangible qualities of morality will lead one to ascribe it to that which shares the same character (gods). This conceptual similarity can even prompt the irreligious to associate morality with other forms of direct infusion, whether terrestrial, alien, or supernatural; such is the pervasiveness of religious thought when our minds attempt to comprehend the unknown.

Our theory of mind extends to supernatural entities

2. Religious morality improves social cohesion

The more a group shares and follows a common moral code, the more they will cooperate with each other. This cooperation brings success in conflicts with competitors, meaning that moral dispositions have become naturally selected facets of the human condition. However, we all cheat from time to time, and often the only thing that stops us from cheating is supervision by our peers. If one believes a god, spirit, or dead ancestor is watching over us, we will act as if under a permanent degree of supervision. This enhances our moral rectitude, giving religious groups an advantage over non-religious rivals.

This advantage has left an enduring footprint on the human brain. We have evolved a superstitious trigger for moral behavior, which works for atheists and theists alike. An experiment by Shariff and Norenzayan showed that when people were unconsciously primed about concepts related to gods, spirits, and prophets during a task to unscramble sentences containing those words, they were more likely to be generous in an economic game. Another experiment by Jesse Bering showed that participants were less likely to cheat when they were told a ghost was in the room with them.

Thus, humans have evolved to increase their pro-social behavior by increasing their susceptibility for belief in judgmental deities and spirits. Religious belief is inextricably linked with our sense of morality on an unconscious level. Religious belief intensifies our willingness to display moral behavior, and the need to follow a moral code reduces the scrutiny that we apply to supernatural propositions.

Religion uses morality to justify the claim that animals are excluded from divine rewards.
Religion uses morality to justify the claim that animals are excluded from divine rewards. | Source

3. Religious morality grants us dominion over life

Our evolutionary struggle for superiority over the beasts of the Earth has left us with a disposition for identifying and exaggerating our traits and abilities. Morality and love are seen as that which makes us special and distinct from an inferior animal kingdom. Religion finds itself in similar territory when claiming we have a unique purpose, a soul, and an afterlife that is off-limits to non-humans. To justify these claims, morality is co-opted by religion.

Morality is seen as a gift from the gods; a piece of their ultimate perfection that can be assimilated. In so doing, we become more like a god, and less like the animals beneath us. We become special, superior, and closer to our archetypal image of perfection. All other life becomes inferior, immoral, imperfect, and immaterial. Through religion we display our propensity for attributing the most perfect aspects of our lives to something that is perfect in origin. Morality and love are deemed to be sent from the gods because we want these human traits to be perfect. It is our way of enhancing ourselves; a form of self-apotheosis.

This may appear to be a selfish and disrespectful belief to hold, but it is one that satisfies our evolved desire for superiority over the species that compete with us for survival. Furthermore, it is a position that supposedly fits with the evidence. Animals will often kill indiscriminately for food, kill their own young, and leave their weaker offspring to die. However, it would be imprudent to say that animals are bereft of moral behavior. Primates, lions, and other pack animals co-operate in groups, look after their own, and appear to feel pain and anguish at the loss of a family member or ally. The fact that our morality surpasses that of other species makes it easier to assume it has supernatural origins.

Religious displays show the individual adheres to the morals of that religion.
Religious displays show the individual adheres to the morals of that religion. | Source

4. Religious morality increases prestige

To be thought of as a good person is to have an advantage in matters of trade and friendship. It matters not where you believe your morality comes from; only that people recognize and approve of your moral code. Many people identify with religions to `free-ride'. They enjoy the advantages of other people believing they are moral individuals, even if they fail to demonstrate it. Belonging to a religion establishes that one follows the associated moral code, leading to increased respect and prestige.

If I saw a farmer or a businessman not belonging to any church at all, I wouldn't trust him with fifty cents. Why pay me, if he doesn't believe in anything?

— Max Weber
The coronation of monarchs often requires the divine blessing of clergymen.
The coronation of monarchs often requires the divine blessing of clergymen. | Source

5. Religious morality generates power

Thousands of years ago, an individual demonstrating knowledge of divine rules and punishments would have been recognized as a wise prophet deserving of attention and respect. Those espousing rules without supernatural backing are less important because the consequences of not following them are less severe. The respect that comes from being knowledgeable in these matters has brought wealth and power to the clergy, primarily because their blessing is sought by monarchs.

Hell can convince people to follow the rules.
Hell can convince people to follow the rules. | Source

6. Religious morality establishes control

Belief in a supernatural being that passes judgement and wrath upon immoral humans will prompt individuals to unreservedly comply with the moral code endorsed by that being. Indeed, fear of damnation is an effective way of enforcing rules. Other origins for morality leave room for questions, whereas a divine origin favors unquestioning obedience. Thus, there has always been a desire to promote divine morality because it allows for a greater level of control over the populace, and a greater chance of success in inter-group conflicts.

What came first, religion or morality?

Organized religion requires a civilization in order to exist, so it could not have been the architect of moral behavior. Humans lived in groups for hundreds of thousands of years prior to the first religion. Is one to conclude that before religion we were co-operating within tribes, yet still killing each other without reservation? Primates have avoided such barbarism without a couple of engraved stone tablets. Religion may have provided the first written account of a moral code, but it is certainly not the origin of morality.

Rape is an example of the fallacy of divine morality. The Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments prohibit adultery, a potentially innocuous crime, yet rape doesn't receive a mention. Only in recent centuries has the rape of women become a crime without conditions. However, the rape of another man’s wife (adultery) was always seen as wrong because reproduction and child-rearing would typically follow marriage. Adultery was seen as theft for this reason. One can only conclude that the commandments were a mundane product of human society. We had not advanced enough to consider the rape of an unmarried woman to be a crime, and it therefore had no reason to be part of a two thousand year old moral code.

What came first, religion or morality?

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Summary

There are many reasons why the relationship between religion and morality is a close one. Like an appendix, religious morality once served a purpose, and it even left a lasting footprint on our psychological makeup. Nowadays the pro-social advantages are required less, and the lack of understanding regarding how and why our moral code exists is causing our society to stagnate.

Despite religious opposition to Darwin's theory, it is evolutionary psychology that will ultimately unlock the origins of both religion and morality. Indeed, if a religious man sacrifices his life to serve the divine, it is because of the belief that he will go to heaven and live forever in paradise. Although this belief leads to his death, it derives from the survival instinct because he has convinced himself of a continued existence in heaven. Our biological foundation is inescapable, even when exploring the religious mind.

Theists are all too aware of the antiquated morals that appear in their holy books. To many it suggests a two thousand year-old human moral code rather than a set of infallible divine principles. To counter this criticism, theists are resorting to increasingly desperate interpretations of sacred texts in order to evade the sexist, racist, homophobic principles of dead or dying cultures.

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      bullshugga 10 months ago

      Morality is legislated by law, by society and by media. Parents admonish kids about appropriate behavior. If not, they become monsters. Criminal law changes over time as society changes and adopts ideas. So, while feminism has produced essentially marriage fraud among women, as in supporting the idea that they can sabotage their relationships intentionally to get out with all the goodies, money and kids. The rich can afford to pay lawyers to go to trial, the poor cannot. That's why the poor are in jail for a few joints and the rich are selling pounds of marijuana and perhaps even using the US Military and war as a cover to get heroin from Afghanistan. The talk on this subject is absurd. Morality arguments are for academics who think they are smarter than everyone else, but then once and a while are reminded how the rich got rich and run the world. And don't forget, when the academics want socialism, they have to ask permission from the rich 1% who say, sure, we'll still run things...

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      CYNTHIE MTSUNGIE 19 months ago

      I support the view that morality and religion are inseparable .for humanity strives for moral perfect but it can not do so unless helped by the divinity . being moral need help ,u can not be moral at your own . phillipians 3

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      Thomas Swan 2 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks Hannah. I think deciding what we believe may be half the problem; meaning there's a little too much believing, and not enough skepticism. I think it's quite easy to go from a mere belief to the black and white of right and wrong. We'd probably do better as a society if we questioned the source of our beliefs, asked if we're motivated in some way to hold them, and used that as a source of skepticism. This can extend to judging others, as I think this sometimes stems from a motivation to enhance one's reputation while damaging someone else's. The basic morals are like scientific facts in a way: so well supported that questioning them would require an incredible amount of evidence. Understanding their formation and development in evolution wouldn't hurt though. I think anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and neuroscience could do a lot to help us refine our moral code.

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      Hannah David Cini 2 years ago from Nottingham

      An interesting article. I agree that there are a lot of people who sadly use morality and religion for negative motives but I hope that there are exceptions. In the end everyone has to decide what they believe and I don't think it can help but affect what they decide is right and wrong. Hopefully part of that conclusion will include realising that they can't decide for other people and not judge or be haughty. Without agreement on basic morals however (don't murder, steal etc) we would have anarchy.

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      Thomas Swan 4 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks skeltop, I suppose the best example of why the law is nothing more than a written version of the local moral code would be how laws differ across cultures. Do some people think the law is more than this though? It's an interesting point for you to pick up on, I only added it towards the end because I wanted an example of how this kind of discussion has practical application.

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      Thomas Swan 4 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks for the comment someonewhoknows. I agree, it's important to preach tolerance for all beliefs, including religious ones. However, those believers who preach a single path to righteousness are typically intolerant of other beliefs and cultures. It is a stretch to ask me or anyone else to tolerate their beliefs when they do not reciprocate. These intolerant people are typically religious believers. Nevertheless, I do still tolerate their beliefs because I would become like them if I didn't. However, I make an effort to voice my disagreement with religious morality as often as I can, even if I tolerate it in others.

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      skeltop 4 years ago

      Countering the oft repeated statement that "you cannot legislate morality," I am pleased to see the brief acknowledgement at the beginning of your article that, indeed, the law is nothing but a legislation of morality. This is so, as you suggest, whether or not religiosity is the basis for our mores.

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      someonewhoknows 4 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      Religious morality may or may not be the same as secular Social morality due to the differences between differing Religious and non religious groups perception of morality. Meaning that many religions have there own peculiar positions on morality because of their respective religious leaders and the origins of their particular religion and those who see themselves as moral even to the extent of being seen as immoral by either religious and other non religious social groups which includes other races and nationalities as well as those groups seen as social as well as religious outcasts such as gays as well homophobes . Because there are those of us who feel that just because we see other cultural and religious practices as obscene and immoral we also feel that they also have the right to their beliefs as we have a right to our beliefs as long as we don't try to force those beliefs on others. Problems occur because close interaction between these groups exists and that can cause friction on all sides due to a lack of tolerance by some individuals who simply can't stand someone with different beliefs influencing their children or their social structure within their chosen belief system.

      We all have God given right to life, liberty and happiness as long as they don't depend on the destruction of the rights any one else has to their's. Why do you suppose we in the United States had so much friction between different cultural groups immigrating here from so many different cultural groups worldwide religious as well as secular?

      They each came here and more or less lived together in small communities at first because of the cultural differences they all had as well as the cultural they all shared already with each other from birth.

      This includes religious culture as well.