Morals Without Religion

Moral Compass

Morals; the things we consider good or bad and right or wrong are typically determined by a person's religion or at least by their culture which is usually impacted by religious heritage. Even in virtual atheistic countries, where morals might more aptly be called social ethics the determination is based on long held traditions that are at least partly based in the country's religious past. For example, the ethics and virtues of China draw greatly from Confucianism, Daoism and other pre-Communist religions. While no one would specifically cite that they are following the moral teachings of Confucius, the path leads directly back to these religious roots. But what if a person purposely set out to live a life not determined by the moral underpinnings of the society's main religious traditions? What if for example a person in America decided to figure out what is moral without referencing America's Christian traditions? Would such a person become an immoral bane on civilization? In fact. many people in America do not consciously consider Christianity in determining their morals even though most of human cultures around the world tend to hold to at least 6 of the 10 Commandments:

  • Honor your father and your mother.
  • You shall not murder.
  • You shall not commit adultery.
  • You shall not steal.
  • You shall not lie about your neighbor.
  • You shall not desire your neighbor's things.

These 6 commands or virtues are invariably necessary for a civilization to exist. Once people within a society stop honoring their parents or murdering each other or not maintaining a cohesion with their procreation partner(s), or stealing from others, or lying against each or even becoming jealous of each other then society will break down. So among almost all religions you will find a form of these 6 commandments. For example, as we look at non-Judeo-Christian religions we can see Hinduism has Yamas and Niyamas (the dont's and do's) which contain many of the same 6 commands (source). We must be careful with later revisions of various cultures' ethics. One such case is the attempt to project Native Americans (or Indians) as having a unified set of morals. Each tribe or nation held differing views. Further, revision happens when people attempt to impose our syncretism back into religions. Almost no religion has claimed we should "respect other people's beliefs". The world's religions are very exclusive and even hostile toward other religions. The attempt to cause religions to co-exist is fatally flawed in that whatever becomes of these tolerant religions; they are no longer the original religion.

Even though these main 6 principles can be found in many religions, does it make them universal morals? I mean, if someone really believed that there are no deities and we are all just advanced hairless apes, then who says you can't or shouldn't break all 6 of these morals if it allowed you to gain something for yourself. It would seem the only reason a person should keep these 6 commandments is so that they can reasonably function within a civilization. But what if they not only didn't care about functioning in a civilization, instead they wanted to manipulate the civilization for their own purposes. What if they figured out how to steal without ramifications? It seems the only reason for keeping these commands is the negative consequences that would come from other people not trusting you; not trusting you not to murder them or steal from them and the like. If a person knew immediately that you were going to kill them or steal from them the moment you approached, they might very well preemptively attack you. For no other reason, you might fake holding to these 6 morals; at least until you can transgress them without getting caught. Further, most civilizations have come up with secular laws that will impose punishments on anyone caught breaking these 6 commandments.

So, while a person can claim to be a "good" person even though they hold to no verifiable religious or moral code, ultimately such a person cannot be trusted. All we have on which to base their fluid morals is their past behavior and there is nothing that says those patterns must remain consistent. Many a person has maintained a moral reputation for a period of time only to violate that reputation and make excuse for it. While morals need not be religious based, they certainly need some kind of codified basis. There needs to be something that is fairly constant and not susceptible to the fluctuations of generational norms. Some sort of bottom line morals that no matter who it is or when it is; it is wrong or right. Again, the closest I've found in human history are the 6 commandments.