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Posted by on Apr 13, 2007 in god, morality depends on religion?, religion | 9 comments

The dependence of morality on religion

Is religious belief indispensable to a healthy and prosperous society? That morality cannot survive without religion is a perennial worry. Even the Enlightenment thinker Voltaire (1694-1778) would not allow his friends to discuss atheism in front of his servants, saying,

I want my lawyer, tailor, valets, even my wife to believe in God. I think that if they do I shall be robbed less and cheated less.

Here, too, is Democrat senator Joseph Lieberman echoing George Washington:

As a people we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God’s purpose… George Washington warned us never to ‘indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.

Even Adolf Hitler insisted that “[s]ecular schools can never be tolerated” because a morality that is not founded on religion is built “on thin air”.

But of course the claim that morality is causally dependent on religious belief – that it will not (or at least is unlikely to) survive without it – is an empirical hypothesis. It’s not enough just to make this claim. We are owed some grounds for believing that it is true. What’s the evidence?

It’s at this point, of course, that reference is typically made to the moral malaise: “Look,” say the defenders of the view that religion is socially necessary, “at how religious belief has dwindled since the Enlightenment, and particularly since the Sixties. And look at how, over the same period, amorality and crime have dramatically increased, to the point where the fabric of society is beginning to unravel. Isn’t it clear that there is a causal relationship between the two? Isn’t it becoming more and more obvious that morality can’t be sustained without religion?

It’s not obvious at all. Let’s begin by reminding ourselves that while there has been a rise in, say, crime and teenage pregnancy, particularly since the Fifties, there have also been some huge moral improvements, including the development of women’s rights, the combating of racism, and a growing respect and concern for the environment and the other species with which we share this planet. It’s easy to focus on the bad and overlook the good. Conservatives tend to misrepresent any change in morality as a loss of morality.

But having said that, it’s undeniable that, say, crime has increased. Can’t this be put down to the loss of religious belief?

Establishing a strong causal connection between the loss of religious belief and the rise in crime is not easy. Yes, religious belief may have reduced across the West. But there have been many other changes too.

Here’s just one example. People are far more mobile, are far less tied to and rooted in a particular local community, than they used to be. Many homes now stand empty during the day. As a result, there’s far less awareness of who is up to what down my street. My father tells me that when he was a kid, if he misbehaved a few streets away from his home, the news would travel back to his mother across the rear garden fences before he got back for tea. Tightly knit local communities are effective at suppressing delinquency and crime. Their loss is clearly as much due to economic factors as it is any decline in religious belief and practice.

And yet it’s confidently asserted by neoconservatives that it’s loss of religious belief and practice that is primarily to blame for the rise in crime and delinquency. How do they know that?

In any case, in the U.S. religious belief hasn’t dwindled that much. 96% of Americans still claim to believe in God. 43% of them say they attend church weekly. In many cases the brand of religion they sign up to is fundamentalist.

And yet, compared to far less religious places like Japan, Canada and Western Europe, the U.S is in many respects suffering far worse problems in terms of crime and delinquency. It’s certainly not that obvious that America’s problem is fundamentally one of a lack of religion. Nor is it that obvious that what it needs above all is even more religion. Perhaps what it needs is more of what Western Europe has got: a decent welfare system and less endemic inequality.

I don’t claim that is the solution, by the way. I’m merely pointing out that the obviousness of the suggestion that the cure for the West’s moral malaise is more religion is debatable, to say the least.

What’s also potentially embarrassing for the view that morality can’t be sustained without religion is the fact that a great many atheists seem at least as well-behaved and morally concerned as is the typical religious believer. I know it’s anecdotal evidence, but I am an atheist, most of my friends are atheists, and none of us seem remotely disposed to dodge our taxes, vandalize phone boxes or steal from the local supermarket. And our kids seem fairly well-adjusted too. In fact, many atheist philosophers (such as Peter Singer) are very passionate ethicists, often at least as passionate in their ethical commitments as their religious counterparts.

Doesn’t all this rather nail-down the coffin lid on the suggestion that morality can’t be sustained without religion?

Arguably not. Neoconservatives typically make one of two moves at this point. The first I call the “moral capital” move; the second, the “lower orders” move.

The “moral capital” move

Daniel P. Maloney, the editor of First Things, admits in an article in American Prospect that atheists are often well-behaved. But he insists this is only because they are living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion. When the moral capital of the old religious culture is finally exhausted, morality itself will collapse.

Religious people are the first to admit that many religious people sin often and boldly, and that atheists often act justly. They explain these ethical atheists by noting that when atheists reject the religion in which they have been raised, they tend to keep the morality while discarding its theological foundation. Their ethical behaviour is then derivative and parasitic, borrowing its conscience from a culture permeated by religion; it cannot survive if the surrounding religious culture is not sustained. In short, morality as we know it cannot be maintained without Judeo-Christian religion.

Irving Kristol agrees:

For well over 150 years now, social critics have been warning us that bourgeoise society was living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy.

Gertrude Himmelfarb (who, incidentally, is married to Kristol) also favours the view that we are

…living off the religious capital of a previous generation and that that capital is being perilously depleted.

So too does Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert K. Bork:

We all know persons without religious belief who nevertheless display all the virtues we associate with religious teaching…such people are living on the moral capital of prior religious generations… that moral capital will be used up eventually, having nothing to replenish it, and we will see a culture such as the one we are entering.

[postscript 30-12-07, Bishop Richard Harries appeals to “moral capital” in todays’ Observer: “...many of those in the forefront of progressive political change, who have abandoned religion, have been driven by a humanism that has essentially been built up by our Christian heritage… How far are we living on moral capital?” (p.25)]

This is certainly a convenient explanation for the legions of well-behaved, ethically-committed atheists you’ll find living contentedly in places like Canada and Western Europe. The only reason they aren’t all amoral degenerates yet, and that their societies haven’t finally slid into moral oblivion yet, is that they’re living off the inherited religious capital built up by previous generations. The move is convenient because it renders the claim the morality is dependent upon religion unfalsifiable, at least in the short to medium term. No matter how civilized and well-behaved these swathes of ethical atheists might happen to be, they can be sweepingly dismissed with “Ah, but that’s only because the religious capital hasn’t run out yet.”

But perhaps the most serious difficulty with this move is that it’s simply unjustified. Why suppose all these ethically committed atheists are living off the religious capital built up by previous generations, and that this capital must inevitably run out, with disastrous consequences? What’s the evidence for this claim? We are offered none. Except of course for some vague hand-waving in the direction of the moral malaise. But as it’s precisely the moral malaise argument that morality can’t be sustained without religion that this “religious capital” claim is supposed to salvage, the moral malaise argument can’t then be used to support the religious capital claim. That’s would be circular reasoning.

The “lower orders” move

Another popular move is to suggest that these “ethical atheists” tend to be middleclass, intelligent and well-educated. Perhaps they can get by, morally speaking, without religion. But that’s not to say that religion isn’t necessary to keep the lower orders in check. The thought that, “If only we could get those working-class yobs from the council estate down the road to believe in God, perhaps they would stop vandalizing our phone boxes and stealing our cars,” has an enduring appeal.

This is a pretty elitist point of view, of course: we can get by without religion; the common rabble can’t. Many liberals would no doubt prefer it not to be true. But the truth is not always what we would like it to be. It’s not enough to deal with this suggestion simply to condemn it on “politically correct” grounds or to mount an ad hominem attack on those putting it forward – “You’re a bunch of arrogant elitists!” Those making the claim may indeed be a bunch of arrogant elitists. They may still be right.

A better response is to ask, again, why we should think the “lower orders” move is true. What’s the evidence?

True, there’s evidence that religious belief can have a positive impact on social behaviour. Statistics suggest that U.S. cities with high church membership rates have lower rates of crime, drug and alcohol abuse than those with low membership rates. But that’s not yet to say religion is necessary if morality is to survive. It’s not to suggest, as Kristol and Strauss do, that without religion, society will, or will probably, fall apart. That’s a much stronger claim.

Nor is it to say that, while religion can have a positive effect, other things might not be even more effective at combating social disorder. When philosophy-in-schools programmes have been tested in schools – including, crucially, schools with a high proportion of their intake from the economically disadvantaged – the improvements in terms of self-esteem and social behaviour have been dramatic. So it may be that philosophy is actually far more potent than religion in this respect.

In short, the positive evidence that even the common rabble can’t get by, or even are unlikely to get by, without religion is weak.

(for a longer version of this post that tackles many more awful neo-con arguments, see final chapter of my book The War For Children’s Minds.)


  1. First, Lieberman misquotes Washington; the exact quotation is:And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.It is not at all clear that Washington meant “religion” in the strictly theistic sense. Washington never disclosed much about his own theistic belief, or lack thereof—it is widely supposed he was a Deist, as were many of the other Founders. The Farewell Address never in its text mentions God or a creator; it mentions “Providence” (a Deist trope). “Religion” is thrice used in direct conjunction with “morality”, and is specifically described only in relation to oaths: “Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths…?”Washington could very well mean “religion” in the narrowest sense of moral duty to specific abstract principles, overriding temporary advantage, for the pragmatic purpose of long term advantage. Indeed, he says as much, “It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt, that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages, which might be lost by a steady adherence to it?”

  2. Second, I’m not at all convinced that crime, in the long term, is actually rising, especially compared to pre-Enlightenment times the early Industrial age.In any event, I feel far safer walking the streets of San Francisco at 2:00 AM than I did walking the streets of Lahore, Pakistan—certainly a religious nation—at 3:00 PM.In any event, it is simply impossible for philosophers to examine the causal connection between crime and religious belief. There are so many social, economic, political, and intellectual factors at play that it requires enormous scientific effort to glean even the most superficial correlation in the sociological sciences.It is, however, interesting to note that crime has been steadily decreasing in the United States since O’Hair successfully removed prayer from schools.

  3. Third, the notion of “immorality” rising due to diminishing religious belief is often circular, as “morality” is defined as obeying arbitrary commandments of scripture. The right-wing denunciation of “immorality” is all too often a dog-whistle for sexual freedomThe most obvious instance of such a circular definition is the denunciation of divorce. Although it can have bad side-effects, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with divorce. I divorced my first wife, to our mutual benefit.Likewise teenage sexuality, which can certainly have unfortunate effects (which could be considerably alleviated by free access to birth control, condoms for disease prevention and abortion), but—lacking any adherence to scripture or religious authority—I do not consider immoral per se.

  4. The right-wing denunciation of “immorality” is all too often a dog-whistle for the denunciation of sexual freedom.

  5. “For well over 150 years now, social critics have been warning us that bourgeoise society was living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy.”What moral capital do they think the Judeo-Christian tradition has been living off of for the last 2000 yrs, if not that of Plato, and later Aristotle?Stephen Law said…“So it may be that philosophy is actually far more potent than religion in this respect.”Given how much religion borrows from philosophy, it certainly can’t be less potent, IMHO. The challenge is shaking off the stuffiness associated with traditional philosophy and making it more mainstream (“The Philosophy of StarWars” might be dumbed down, but it’s a start). On Duties is great to read in your 20s, but it isn’t the kind of thing you can lay on a ten yr old. If there’s one thing theism can be commended for in terms of education, it is its use of allegory to communicate basic moral values. Even if they did pilfer most of those values from a bunch of bombastic Pagans.

  6. A very simple counterexample would be Japan, which is certainly one of the most secular nations on earth. If you lose your wallet, you are ten times more likely to get it back in Japan than in Alabama. Overall crime rates are lower in the more secular societies than they are in the most fundamentalist.

  7. Part of the reason that people may perceive crime has risen may actually be due to the news coverage becoming better at exploiting criminal cases. Since the media seeks sales and ratings it is easier to sensationalize stories of robbery, murder, gun violence, etc…. If crime were increasing it would probably be in proportion with population growth. For individuals that assert that morality decreases because of a lack of religion and thus increasing crime, well it is an opinion that is not well supported.

  8. The position that religious belief is indispensable to a healthy and prosperous society seems like a very consequentialist argument. Has anyone bothered to point out the peculiar inconsistency when divine-law adherents justify their views using such consequentialist arguments?

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