In this paper I will discuss the relationship between religion and morality. I will first address the question asked by those with religion, how are atheists moral? Then I will examine morality and its relativity to culture. Next I will explore whether those without a religion are actually more moral than those with a religion. And finally, I will discuss any possible objections to my claims. This argument is in no way saying that those that believe in God are unmoral but that those who don’t believe in God, are just as capable of being moral.
Being atheist means that you choose to believe that God, or a god, does not exist. You have no faith or religion, you don’t go to church every Sunday morning, or pray every night before you go to bed. Therefore the belief is that you’re condemned to spend the rest of eternity in hell. So just because a person doesn’t believe in a God, does that make them a bad person? A common question of those with religion is, where do atheists get their moral compass from? Atheists aren’t taught by any type of ultimate superior that they can’t lie, cheat, steal, rape, or murder. So how do they know not to do it?
The underlying message I interpret from this is: religion is what keeps everybody in the world moral. That the only thing stopping you from murdering someone is reading a Bible (Marcotti, 2011). Just because you don’t have a bible does it mean that you want to go around blowing up buildings and terrorizing grocery stores. It’s safe to assume that most people want to do good in the world. There is the occasional serial killer every once in a while but, the bulk of the world’s population is promoting good that exists in all forms because everybody has a different idea of whats right from wrong.
Some people make incredible scientific discoveries to better mankind, that’s considered good. Others might go to countries and help those less fortunate, also good. One might reply that these are just acts of morality. And that they still don’t define a moral person. But if you think about it, nobody’s born with a perfect moral compass. Nobody is born with morals. Not even those that are born into a religion. In our society, when we’re young and we tell a white lie, we learn the consequences. Some are told by their parents, who are told by the Bible, that it is wrong.
Others learn that when you deceive people, it can have many effects. Through experience and questioning, do children acquire their sense of right and wrong. Which accompanies them throughout the rest of their lives. In Louise M. Antony’s Philosophers Without Gods, she says that, “All that is lost, if there is no God, is a divine enforcer. In a world without God, there is no guarantee that the virtuous will ever be rewarded, nor that the vicious will ever be punished. We must do what is right simply because it is right,” (Antony, 2007, pg. 51). Let’s look at morality and religion from a cultural standpoint.
“When used in a descriptive sense [morality] refers to codes of conduct that are actually put forward and accepted by some society, group, or individual,” (Gert, 2012). If you think about it, there are over seven billion people spread out over seven continents in our world. The majority of those people have a religion and believe in a God. But, what about the people that aren’t even exposed to the idea of a God? Let’s say a rural, very secluded tribe in the habitable regions of northeast Asia. Just because they don’t have a religion, would that make them bad people?
If they lead a simple life and didn’t steal, lie, commit adultery, or murder, why should they be branded as unmoral for something they have no control over. An excellent insight into Chinese culture and religion is portrayed in the book, The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. Even though this example is a fictional story, it’s based off of a real culture and the religious views of that culture in the late nineteenth century. The protagonist Wang Lung practices a religion with the Earth. When his crop is well and thriving he pays homage to the Earth God and when his crop is poor he resents the Earth God.
At a point in the book, Wang Lung kills his newborn daughter because of her sex. During a time of famine, he steals gold coins from a wealthy family. And after he encounters money and prosperity, he spends his time in a tea house with a concubine instead of with his dying wife (Sparknotes Editors, 2012). But, in this story the main character does feel guilt for the things that he did. Knowing that it wasn’t right, and that it didn’t feel right to kill his newborn child, Wang Lung still did it and the act was perfectly acceptable according to their culture.
When he stole the gold from the wealthy, he knew morally that it was wrong but, his family needed the money therefore his motivation was to provide for them. And when he purchased a concubine, Wang Lung was complying with the cultural norm of wealthy Chinese men. Whereas in our culture, and its predominant religion, the idea of adultery and lust is considered unmoral. It is even arguable that those without a religion are more genuinely moral. For example, the Christian religion. The whole belief is that you don’t sin and therefore are rewarded with eternal bliss. If you do sin then you will be forever damned.
The motivation for all the good that they are guided to do is to have a better afterlife, selfish isn’t it? Well one who has no religion, has no belief in the afterlife. All the actions and choices that they make in this physical life are all they have. They live for today instead of living for tomorrow, metaphorically. When you do the right thing, like not lie, cheat, steal, then your life will reflect upon that. If you rape someone then our judicial system will lock you up in a concrete cell for a few decades and then you just wasted half of the only life you have.
From this you could say that an Atheist has more to lose by not being moral. For this argument, well known atheists, Ricky Gervais said, “Forgiveness is probably the greatest virtue there is. But that’s exactly what it is - a virtue. Not just a Christian virtue. No one owns being good. I’m good. I just don’t believe I’ll be rewarded for it in heaven. My reward is here and now. It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life,” (Gervais, 2010). A possible objection brought upon by these claims would be simply that God made morality and it’s not something we acquire.
And for those that have faith in God, in all honesty why should they believe any differently? Their faith is what allows them to believe without having any need for reason, and that is extremely commendable. Many people aren’t capable of providing that much trust in the existence of a supernatural being. In this case, there are two sides to the story and it really does come down to which side you are on. Those that have a religion would say that their morality has come from the teachings of that religion. But, they wouldn’t know any otherwise.
Even if they came to religion later in life, the bible provides written, physical guidance. An atheist would have a clean palette, not influenced by any ideas or direction. So the question of their morality is perfectly understandable. Its like saying if I had a candy bar, how could somebody else conjure that candy bar and experience the same sensation of it. In this paper, I explored a few concepts that argue the relationship between religion and morality. First by arguing where morality comes from, I said that it is something that we acquire through society. Next I said that morality is related to the religions amidst a culture.
Last, I put forward that those without a religion are actually more moral than those with a religion. I Finished by providing objections and a point of view for those with a religion. The examples from literature that were used supported the claims made in the paragraphs. With these arguments, I believe that the relationship between religion and morality was effectively exposed. That it is not necessary for one to have a religion and be moral. References Antony, L. (2007). Philosophers Without Gods’ . Oxford University Press Gert, Bernard, “The Definition of Morality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N.
Zalta (ed. ), URL = . Gervais, Ricky (2010) “Ricky Gervais: Why I’m an Atheist” The Wall Street Journal [Online] Available at: http://blogs. wsj. com/speakeasy/2010/12/19/a-holiday-message-from-ricky-gervais-why-im-an-atheist/ Marcotte, Amanda (2011) “10 Myths Many Religious People Hold About Atheists, Debunked” AlterNet [Online] Available at: http://www. alternet. org/story/152395/10_myths_many_religious_people_hold_about_atheists,_debunked SparkNotes Editors. (2003). SparkNote on The Good Earth. Retrieved October 25, 2012, from http://www. sparknotes. com/lit/goodearth/ю
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