Religion as a Moral Center
Religion is not necessary for a good moral center.
by Brian Dunning
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.
Whatever your beliefs may be, I happen to be non-religious. I do not believe that supernatural deities exist. There's nothing evil or wrong about that. I view the God of Abraham in the same way that the average Christian, Muslim, or Jew views Shiva, Athena, or Odin. 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; both for their own good so that they can be saved, and for the good of society so they're not running around being immoral and unethical.
My response to the religious people — after thanking them for the assumption that I am an immoral 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, e.g.: "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 (religious or not) avoid doing that whenever possible.
Like you, if I see a complete stranger drop their wallet, 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 the restrictions of my religion forbid it." Nobody is going to do something like that, because it's so obviously wrong. Rarely or never does any basically good person — and that's most of us — need religious commandments to stop them from doing something wrong.
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 their particular 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, and emergency workers have the same general breakdown of religious affiliation (including no religion) as the population at large, because they are the population at large. Embrace this species you belong to, its strengths, its accomplishments, its knowledge, and seek not to divide it by qualities that don't matter; because it is the only group you will ever irrevocably be a part of.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Religion as a Moral Center." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
11 Oct 2006. Web.
17 Jan 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4001>
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. <http://www.ncjrs.gov/app/Search/Abstracts.aspx?id=151513>
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.
Shermer, M. How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God. New York: H. Holt, 2003.
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