Should morality be based solely on religion?

Religion has long been an integral part of human civilization.  Religion effectively started when humans realized the power of nature and their subordination to this power.  And being the most intelligent species on earth, human beings conceived the notion of ‘appeasing’ the Gods in return for favorable natural events.  For example, offering animal and human sacrifices would comprise of such acts of appeasing the Gods.  It these early days of religion, Gods were sought after as a matter of survival of the tribe or clan; and religious beliefs as they existed had little to do with morality.  Irrespective of whether there was a cause-effect relationship between religious rituals and natural events, it is fair to say that primitive religious practices were done as a matter of survival and morality found no consideration. (Taliaferro, 2006)

In wasn’t until the rise of organized religion around two thousand years ago that the importance of morality to human lives got more attention.  Seen from a theoretical viewpoint, all the major monotheistic religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism – seem to fall under the non-consequentialist framework.  The primary tenets of these religions ordain  followers to act, think and behave in certain ways, not on the basis of rationality and logic but for the sake of virtues inherent in them.  The immutability of religious commandments have made them controversial throughout history.  Given that there is never any unanimous agreement about the validity and applicability of a certain principle under all contexts, it then follows that the non-consequentialist basis of most religions make them inadequate in dealing with social, interpersonal and individual problems.  A good example of this point is the raging debate going on about stem-cell research in the United States.  While statistics clearly show that scientific advancement in this area would generally benefit humankind, these projects have been thwarted or hampered by fundamentalist Christian believers who take the word of the bible rather too literally.  The same contingency is vehemently opposing the practice of abortion, irrespective of the consequences to baby and mother in the future.

In contemporary times, fervent atheist intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennet and Christopher Hitchens have all argued that human beings can live moral lives without resorting to religion.  Indeed, the Humanist philosophy of the last century presented a similar view.  Humanism, Atheism and other allied concepts hold that morality in human beings preceded the birth of organized religion.  They point out that the Old Testament is full of vitriol and revenge between tribal groups; and what little moral preaching it contains has to be gleaned out by a scrupulous reader (Harvey, 2003).  They also argue that some of the major wars in human history have had a religious basis.  The most blatant example of this is the Second World War, where Adolf Hitler continued to receive the blessing of the Roman Catholic Church, right through his worst atrocities against European Jews.  Today, the War on Terrorism has effectively become a War on Islam.  With no cessation to the threat of terrorism in the near future, the polarization of the globe based on religious adherences can only make matters worse.  Recognizing the importance of liberal/secular values in contemporary America, author Norman L. Friedman makes the following observation:

“Americans–who have long been concerned with the deterioration of private and public morality, the decline of the family, high crime rates, and the swelling of   corruption in government–can now act without fear. We can act without fear that attempts to shore up our values, responsibilities, institutions, and communities will cause us to charge into a dark tunnel of moralism and authoritarianism that leads to a church-dominated state or a right-wing world.” (Friedman, 1995)

It is in recognition of the fact that societies can function smoothly without divine intervention that the Founding Fathers of the U.S.A clearly separated the Church from the affairs of the State.  Furthermore, scientific studies have shown that altruistic and compassionate behavior comes naturally for many mammal species too, especially the primates.  Hence, we can easily acquire the sense of right and wrong through application of rationality and we also seem to possess innately the ability to instinctively display love and care. It then makes redundant the moral guidance offered by religion.


Friedman, N. L. (1995). The Developing “middle-position Consensus” about Contemporary American Morality and Religion. Journal of American Culture, 18(3), 27+.

Harvey, C. D. (2003). Biblical Morality: Moral Perspectives in Old Testament Narratives. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 65(2), 261+.

Taliaferro, C. (2006). Johnson, Wayne G. Morality: Does “God” Make a Difference?. The Review of Metaphysics, 59(3), 650+.