Religion as a Moral Center

Is religion necessary to a good moral center?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Religion

Skeptoid #02
October 11, 2006
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Today we pull open the drawer in the motel bureau and face the need to have a Moral Center, that core set of behaviors and ethics that governs the way we conduct ourselves and live our lives.

It may shock you to learn this, but I am non-religious. I do not believe that supernatural deities exist. There's nothing evil or wrong about that. I view the Christian God in the same way that the average Christian views Shiva, Athena, or Thetans. There's nothing evil or wrong about doubting the actual divinity of those characters either. Yet a common generalization made by some religious people is that the non-religious lack a moral center. More than once, in late night bull sessions with religious friends, I've been told that faith is a necessary component for developing a sound moral center. The implication is that religious beliefs play an important role in the development of a normal, healthy system of ethics and personal conduct. Without religious faith, one is less likely to become a "moral" person. Thus, one of many reasons that people of faith want to reach out to the non-religious is to help them to find a Moral Center, so we don't have a bunch of naked godless pagans running around wreaking havoc and mayhem.

My response to the religious people — after thanking them for the assumption that I am an unethical person — is to compare our Moral Centers and see where these supposed differences lie. If you knew me personally, you would probably find me to be a generally upstanding person, like yourself, who stays out of trouble, brushes his teeth, walks his kids to school, and tries not to shout too much in the library.

Like you, I am generally an honest person. I don't cheat people in business. I don't steal or commit crimes any worse than speeding on the freeway. I lie all the time, but only when the lie is a helpful one: "Yes, you look great in those parachute pants."

Like you, I play fair in sports, even against unfair opponents. I try to be a gracious loser, and occasionally even a gracious winner.

Like you, my family is the most important thing in my life. Preserving the love, trust, and happiness in my family absolutely outweighs all other priorities in my life.

Like you, I have a clear sense of right and wrong. Generally, behavior that injures someone else is wrong, and most of us avoid doing that whenever possible.

Like you, if I see a complete stranger drop their wallet — even if they're a different race and speak a different language — I'll spring into action like Batman to return it to them. It would never occur to either you or I to keep it or expect a reward for returning it.

If I see an elderly woman, I don't run over, punch her in the face and steal her purse; and neither does a religious person. But note that no religious person ever says "I would love to punch out that old woman, but I can't because God told me not to." Nobody is going to do something like that, because it's so obviously wrong. Rarely or never does a basically good person — and that's most of us — need religious commandments to stop them from doing something wrong.

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In summary, my Moral Center is essentially the same as yours. It comes from the basic goodness of human nature, and my own sense of right and wrong that is universally shared among all people. It does not stem from having read any particular set of religious commandments, or from fear of punishment from a deity. Since I formed this ethical system in the lack of a religious context, how could my Moral Center be so similar to that of the average Christian or Buddhist? I argue that everyone's basic Moral Center comes from human nature, the nurture of societal interaction, and the sense of right and wrong. Since everyone already has these things, the need to credit religion as an additional source is redundant and thus wholly unnecessary.

A common retort from religious people is that God gave me those things: common sense, and the ability to tell right from wrong. If that's so, and everyone (atheists included) has been gifted with all the fundamentals needed to develop a Moral Center, then we're still left at the same place. A religious upbringing is still superfluous.

Religion is an important and favored part of life for most people. Its practice brings them satisfaction in many ways. But religion is absolutely not necessary to become a good person, or to have a sound Moral Center. Philanthropists, educators, doctors, emergency workers, and Nobel laureates have the same general breakdown of religious affiliation (including no religion) as the population at large, because they are the population at large.

Brian Dunning

© 2006 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Clear, T. R. Clear, Stout, B.D. "Does Involvement in Religion Help Prisoners Adjust to Prison?" National Criminal Justice Reference Service. U.S. Department of Justice, 1 Nov. 1992. Web. 1 Sep. 2006. <>

Curlin, Farr A, Lantos, John D et al. "Religious Characteristics of U.S. Physicians." J Gen Intern Med. 1 Jul. 2005, Volume 20, Number 7: 629–634.

de Waal, Frans. Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Nielsen, Kai. Ethics Without God. New York: Prometheus Books, 1990.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Religion as a Moral Center." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 11 Oct 2006. Web. 5 Sep 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 854 comments

"our cultural value system has pervasive roots in judeo-christian values".
Are you sure it isn't the other way round, Keith? Or did humanity live in a complete moral vacuum before the advent of ''judeo-christian values''?

Darren, Liverpool, UK
March 30, 2013 4:45pm

no, our "moral" (no nouns) system is based on the values our Judaeo/christian/islamic values are drawn upon. Yes we could say many correspondent "moral values" are Buddhism and Persian...

2500 years of philosophy is ok to bring an ethic of a sort.

But lets face it, unless science as an underlying quality system for ethic is anything to go by, then ethic just becomes moral nouns.

Even calculator toting engineers understand that one!

Mud, Pho\\\'s Slave palace, Gerringong the Brave, NSW
April 1, 2013 1:02am

Religions have adapted, transcribed and repackaged morals which existed many eons before any known religion. I give religion credit for branding and formalizing these morals, but not for inventing them. Tribes of primitive humans could never have held together and carried on for generations without morality. Religion came later.

Bill Kowalski, St. Louis
April 8, 2013 12:24pm

Bingo Bill.. but tribes could have invented BS in part of their survival explanations..

Further etherics for today.. my freshly brewed red ale and my (suffering) son's biochem text book..

My goodness, they pack some pretty pictures into biochem texts compared to 40 years ago..

I didnt try etherics on the page.. I didnt get instructions for those..

Mud, Sin City
May 2, 2013 9:21am

It is fascinating to hear how divisive such statements as skepticism regarding religion can become. I am still fascinated by the idea of so many acts of hate stemming from religion. I believe that a specific look at terminology is important.

Religion generally refers to a set of organized rituals carried on outwardly to illustrate one's affiliation with a particular set of belief systems. Spirituality is the inner reflection of one's own life and existence.

It is true that many use religion as a means to ensure a balance between the inward understanding and the outer expression of that understanding. Yet, like the skeptics generally express, the ritual provides a specific comfort for many that is not necessary for every individual. Is there such thing as a "right" or "wrong" religion? Absolutely! It's whatever is right or wrong for the individual. For a skeptic who would rather ponder the possibilities without the constraints of a specific religious ritual, being in a church, mosque, synagogue, Hindu or Buddhist temple would be stifling.

The outward practice, in other words, holds no bearing on the inner journey of morality and maintaining an inter-connectedness with other human beings.

Indeed, those who maintain a spiritual life that is in alignment with their religious--or non-religious--expressions exude their own high standard of ethics and morals, and are not as swayed by corruption. Those who compromise that balance tend to generate corruption.

AP, Albuquerque, New Mexico
May 26, 2013 9:58am

AP, a good cherrypick of the comments would lead you to your first statement.

But yes, I have no problem with a secular society either except when things like religion get in the way of human rights and health issues.

Maybe there is a state of the USA where a smoothie approach works perfectly.

It doesnt in work perfectly in Oz. Its fairly minimal risk at the moment and there is definitely a fair bit of inter religio-cultural bigotry. Yes, religions are suspicious of each other.

Religion is fascinating to study. I recommend everyone study religions. There'd be a lot less attendance if they did.

Moral Dolphin, Greenacres by the sea Oz
May 26, 2013 5:28pm

I personally am seriously insulted when I get, regularly, accused of being a moraless morals are VERY well developed thank-you very 'book' required.....'morals'....or more correctly, 'Rules of Human Social Interaction', is no doubt an Evolutionary thing.....morals pre-date ANY and ALL religious texts.

Vincent Najger, Lazing on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia
September 11, 2013 12:44pm

Vincent, this used to upset one of the mods endlessly.. But I am convinced I have no morals at all.

No, none, yet my behaviour is acceptable to modern society and alien to societies not 30 years ago.

The longer we go on the better we behave to each other and those left behind are dragged kicking and screaming into a comparative acceptability.

You'd only need to see the strife other societies suffer and the lengths they go to destabilise ours.

Pearl Harbour vs Imperialism and 9/11 being prime examples.

Coonspiracism only indicates that there are a dubious number of committed dinosaurs left.

You should see the latest doozies in the comments under Brian's Aquatic Ape skeptoid..

Education is a wonderful leveller.. brings a sense of uplift..

David Brin claimed the "practice effect" ..

Mung Dean, Gerringong The IL. USO
September 20, 2013 2:15am

I absolutely love they way you put your views on this topic very straight to the point with no "fluffy" stuff. Thanks

Michelle O, Ogden, UT
January 23, 2014 7:34am

Atheists do not need to be bribed with the promise of paradise in the afterlife in order to leed moral, civil lives. We recognize that this life is the only one we will ever have and it is in our best interest to lead lives of mutual respect and good will towards each other.Atheism is a natural state of being; were religion not forced upon impressionable children it would cease to exist.

Captain Bee Fart, Powell River, B.C.
February 25, 2014 8:36am

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